By Kevin P. Smith
“Fly low, fly fast, get paid.”
Pops’ words rang through my head, in tune with the sound of my left wing clipping the radar off the top of a Chinese fishing vessel. We were so low I could see the fishermen’s faces yelling at us a few choice words in Mandarin.
Better than taking an Exocet up the gut, I thought. On cue, a white streak crossed on my starboard, the low-flying missile flying past, barely missing my right wing. Thankfully, they’re designed to hit ships moving through the water, not planes flying just above the surface.
Plane is a generous word for the vessel I currently piloted. A wing-in-ground effect, or ground effect vehicle, or just GEV, stays just above the water, airfoils still touching H2O, using the forces of physics to move faster than any other vessel not fully airborne. Being a ground-effect vehicle, the Flying Fish isn’t much different from the sea-skimmer missile. They even share the same name, just different languages.
My girl bucked as its airfoil reconnected with the water. GEVs are designed to skirt over shallows, mines, and torpedoes. What they are not designed to do is fly, and landings are a no-no. I’d prefer not to, except I had to lift off to jump the blockade of Chinese fishing boats surrounding the lagoon.
In mid-air, just above the island canopy surrounding the lagoon, I sighted a white hull on the horizon. Five racing stripes, four small blue and one large orange, meant Coast Guard. Specifically, Chinese People’s Armed Police Force Coast Guard Corps.
What a mouthful. We just called them by their pinjin name, Haijing. Legal arguments that CG shouldn’t be out this far from their Economic Exclusion Zone fell apart with that persuasive ballistic counterargument. A warhead coming at you near Mach One merits a pretty strong objection.
Reconnecting with the surface, the bump coincided with two shouts – Din, our mechanic, from down below in the engines, Pops above manning the fifty calibers. Guns along the fuselage are not the most aerodynamic, but necessary since the South China Sea became an armed lake.
Bangs reverberating against the metal combined in my head with potshots from our top gunner, confirming its value. Din yelled from below at Pops in his native language, though I didn’t need translating to understand the universal language of ‘GET DOWN.’
We didn’t know our jack-of-all trades’ mechanic’s actual name, so Pops just called him Gunga Din. Yes, like the movie. When I pointed out how politically incorrect that was, Pops had a few choice things to say. So I changed the subject, and we just agreed to call him Din.
Once over the blockade, the crystal-clear waters of the lagoon lapping onto the beach invited us in. Nice place to visit and get lost with a special someone. But I knew if we didn’t get out of there quickly, we’d probably never leave.
Right on cue, our rendezvous came out of the jungle to meet us. He sauntered down to the water, looking like a man on a leisure trip. Except for the full BDU’s, rifle across his chest, and the covering team pointing man portable AShM’s at the blockade, it was a day at the beach.
I grabbed the comms mike and flipped over to ALL.
“This is your captain speaking. We have reached our cruising altitude of no turning back now. Please fasten your seatbelts and hold on to your butts.”
Too bad we didn’t have a drink cart. Although I probably could stand to cut some bad habits out. Especially considering the reason I sat here was the result of one of our brilliant ideas we came up with over too many drinks.
Like all great enterprises, ours started in a bar. Our usual spot, called the Scuttlebutt, was the one Pops had found me in years ago when I pulled chocks and split from the mainland.
Pops had hustled for a long time. Now he worked in the only industry left that made money – selling luxury goods to rich people with bad taste. His latest scheme? Wing-In-Ground effect planes.
“I’m telling you, Garcia,” he said one night, pushing his cons harder than usual. “It’s no different from a SOC-R. Except you can carry cargo at high speeds across large bodies of water, at a fraction of the cost of fuel!”
We were the usual ex-pat crowd: burnouts, dropouts, ex-military, retirees, all brought together by our lack of ability to adapt to a modern society. The place we hung out claimed to have been founded in World War II by a Marine that left home as a kid and never came back, in more ways than one.
The bar even claimed it served its own classic recipe, called the Brunei Breeze. I thought they were just knockoff Singapore Slings with jacked up prices for the tourists.
Pops didn’t mind. He wore a bucket hat and Hawaiian shirts as loud as the drinks he ordered.
“I’m not going to run illegal stuff for the criminals,” I said, taking another sip of my beer. I preferred things simple, drinks with few additions, and clothes that didn’t catch the eye. And I wanted to at least preserve the last shred of morality I had left.
“Find me a legit job, and maybe we’ll talk,” I said, thinking the conversation done.
Pop’s eyes lit up. I didn’t like it when he did that. Meant he had something up his sleeve. He left the room.
I tried to call over the bartender. She gave me a look from over the slammed bar. Meant it was probably going to take a while. I decided to amuse myself by watching the news.
The main story covered the only story worth covering these days – the war.
The war started as all blow-ups do – somewhere else. A confrontation in Africa over mineral rights became a shouting match between the American and Chinese halls of power. A bit of saber-rattling for good measure, except this time, cooler heads didn’t prevail.
Before anyone knew it, China declared their seas closed to all except unarmed merchants, which would be subject to search, especially those of certain nations ‘disruptive to the peace.’ By their seas, they of course meant everything within the nine-dash line, whether or not they legally owned it. The courts lost their minds.
But I’m a student of history. Paraphrasing, as a belligerent man once said, “he has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”
The US balked. Declaring Freedom of Navigation, the Navy sent the fleet forward. War drums beat, ships moved towards the Far East. The Chinese, in retaliation, made good on their threat to invade Taiwan. Said it was time to claim their historical destiny.
Then, a funny thing happened. As any student of history knows, destiny loves chaos. And she doesn’t pick sides.
First, OPTEMPO finally caught up with Navy. Half the fleet got caught in dry-dock, Iran picked the same moment to start a dustup with Saudi Arabia, and the only ships available were already two years into a ten-month deployment.
Then, on the eve of the grand invasion of Taiwan, a massive freak storm blew into the strait. No fool would take the risk. But rather than having to explain to their superiors why they were delayed, the fleet went anyway.
Like the Mongols at Tsushima, half the invasion fleet swamped ashore, and the world got to see what would have happened at Normandy if Rommel received orders to send forward the Panzer divisions.
The higher-ups in Beijing made a big stink, claiming the US weaponized the weather. Go figure. Climatologists put the blame on rising temperatures from CO2. Biggest contributor? China.
What’s the Chinese word for irony? Don’t bother looking it up – it’s right next to gullible. Whatever floats your armada, or doesn’t.
By that point, like the best quagmires, both sides had gone too far and acquired too many sunken costs, literally in this case. They refused to pull out while saving face, but wouldn’t go far enough to justify further escalation.
Not that hostilities ended. The US Navy, for lack of available force, chose not to enter within range of Chinese ballistic missiles. In return, they set up a blockade at the Straits of Malacca and the Philippine Sea, with the Quad watching the flanks.
The war plan became simple, for both sides: No one in. No one out.
But the commercial needs of one billion people don’t shut off just because the shipping lanes become contested. And the grey area of the embargo attracted a certain brand of entrepreneur.
Everyone who had a vessel that could carry, launch, or dump was either enlisted by one side, or could make a pretty penny working both. It became a boat war. Not between destroyers and aircraft carriers, but fishing vessels, skiffs, anything that could move fast and keep a low profile.
Because of that, the Scuttle became the hive for all westerners looking to get in on the action. Our sleepy tavern filled with NGOs, spooks, soldiers of fortune, and actual gosh-darn privateers. Hence why it was so hard to get a drink.
Real Casablanca stuff. All we needed was Ingrid Bergman.
So of course, she walked in.
Pops introduced her. No ID. No calling cards. No handshake. And an unmarked suitcase with a wireless computer inside, showcasing enough untraceable crypto in any Asian market to buy up the bar. Really live my Humphrey Bogart dreams.
Of course, I was in love.
“This the guy?” she said, disapprovingly.
Pops patted me on the shoulders.
“If you need something moved under the radar, I’m telling you, we’re your guys.”
I gave Pops a look that said, We?
She appeared to stare right through me, though she never took off her sunglasses. She finally spoke.
“Which side do you support? China or US?”
“All money’s good,” I responded. “But I prefer green Benjamin to red Mao. You?”
She side-eyed me for a second. The waitress brought over my drink. Before I could react, my guest grabbed the bottle, taking a sip.
I looked at Pops. He shrugged. Reaching into my pocket, with a sigh, I placed some bills on the now empty tray.
Leaning in, she started to talk.
As she explained, a unique Marine Raider unit was moving up the island chain and needed a resupply. They were called a ‘light artillery mobile interdiction force.’ Whatever that word salad means.
Basically, rather than having an entire amphibious corps take one island at a time, multiple divisions swarmed over as many islands as possible.
The light artillery mobile interdiction mission was simple. Move quick, launch mines and loitering ordinance, leave behind autonomous launchers and other nastiness, and get the heck out of dodge before the island got schwacked. Real fire and maneuver doctrine. WWII island hopping on steroids.
There were two areas where the Marines were most vulnerable. On open sea, and having to stop for resupply, all while playing cat and mouse with a posse of small boats.
On this one particular harbor, the grey navy of Chinese fishing vessels caught up to them, blocking the entrance to the lagoon midway through the island with the most likely area of ingress for replenishment. No boats in. No room for aircraft.
But, perhaps, something that skimmed between them?
Pop’s smile shows me he had planned this one out. I thought through the logistics in my head.
“We need a flight engineer, a gunner, and a mechanic. You think you can find three guys crazy enough to go on the most dangerous beer run ever?”
“I got one. He’s all you need.”
Back in the cockpit, Din moved in a flurry of activity. I watched him wound down the engines. Hustling into the back, he worked the rear controls, lowering the rear cargo door onto the beach. I thought about the bravado to actually undertake a crazy task like this. Didn’t seem to bother Din in the slightest.
The guys back at the Scuttle had affectionately christened us Puddle Jumpers. We considered ourselves adventurers, fortune-seekers, thrill seekers. But those who actually had to fight the war called us something different.
“How’s it going, pond scum?” said the Marine Corporal meeting us on the beach. I noticed he couldn’t have been older than my son’s age. Got me thinking about the home I’d left behind. Wonder if he’d get the innate family urge to serve. Wonder if I’d see him out here.
I lowered the cargo off the back and onto the treaded cargo hauler. Without a word, the rugged drone scurried off the beach and into the jungle.
“One load of ammo, water, fuel, as ordered.”
I held out my phone. The corporal flashed the QR code. With a few bits of data, I had it made. My elation was not met by the Marine. I tried levity.
“Easiest government transaction I ever made.”
“In a war zone, the FAR is just a suggestion,” he quipped.
“Hey, Garcia?” came a familiar gruff voice from behind.
Pops stumbled out of the GEV. Din carried him out. Pops held his side, a wet red liquid appearing in his hand. He gave me a weak smile.
I looked around the lagoon, trying to figure out the fastest egress. I shook my head.
“We can’t make it back in time, not with that patrol out there.”
The Marine stepped forward, taking Pops under his other arm.
“We’ve got a corpsman at the north of the island,” he said. “But he’d have to come with us.”
I didn’t want to leave Pops behind. But I had to make the command decision. To my surprise, it came from an unexpected source.
“Put him with you,” Din said to the Corporal. He motioned back and forth with me. “We fly out.”
“You speak English?” I said.
He shot me a look like I asked a dumb question. Which, sure, but I didn’t exactly have time for cultural sensitivity at the moment. I let Pops limp into the bush on the Marine’s shoulder. He would go with the raiders to the next rendezvous point.
Entering the jungle, Pops’ looked back at me. Not for the last time, I hoped.
“We’ll find you,” I said. “You better hang on, old man.”
Back in the cockpit, I weighed our options as the engines spun up. Nothing left but choosing the best of the bad ones.
Going over the island would put us out of range of the Exocet and straight into a SAM. Back over the boats would risk running into the Haijing.
As I looked to the east, the blockade ended around a group of shifting shoals. Extremely dangerous to cross. One wrong rock formation and we’d be in the drink. But a fog bank lay just beyond, and no boat would dare go in there.
We’d fight the shoals.
Din took the co-pilot seat. He nudged forward the engines. We’d start back at the beach, then get up to speed. As we left the safety of the lagoon, commotion stirred up in the grey navy, coinciding with a speeding bullet off our port side. We bared down on the shoals.
“You better be right, Pops,” I grunted.
Entering the rocks, I tried to maneuver, but the ever-changing tide and terrain made it no more than a hail mary.
Another Exocet went by. I gave it all she had.
We cleared the shoals.
“We did it!” I cheered, punching Din’s shoulder.
The loud crack and airfoil buckling argued otherwise. I pulled up, pressing on the pedals to keep the left side elevated. Pulling too hard, the vehicle lifted off. I leveled off, then pushed down to increase speed.
“Go for the fog! Go for the fog!” I said, mostly to myself.
The terrain disappeared into a cloud of gray. The GEV bucked forwarded. First, I saw the white of the sky. Just as quickly, blue came up to meet us.
Hours later, the overturned Flying Fish had somehow managed to stay above water. Din and I sat back to back on the wing. Every hour we floated, the two of us pushed closer, the amount of space available disappearing.
I tried to think of something to say. I realized this was the first time we’d actually had a real conversation.
“You never told me you speak English,” I said, breaking the silence.
“You never asked,” he said.
I asked the only thing I could think to ask.
“So…what’s your name?”
I had to laugh.
“Patron saint of sailors. So, what happens now?”
Nicolos didn’t take his eye off the fog bank.
“Fishermen find us, probably shoot us. Chinese, hang us as Yankee pirates.”
“Yankee pirates. I like that. Yarr…”
We both heard movement through the water. A boat appeared in the fog. A trimaran.
A grey hull pushed towards us. On the top, colors stuck out. As well as a familiar voice.
“Look what I found, chuckleheads!”
The LCS came alongside us, with Pops on board, all bandaged up.
The crew let down a ladder over the side. I came onboard, shaking the hand of the Lieutenant in charge.
“Us unwanted stepchildren need to stick together,” he said.
Later, the three of us stood on the forecastle, amazed at our fortune.
“So, what now Garcia?” asked Pops.
“Thinking of investing in a business,” I said. “Know where I can find a GEV broker?”
Kevin Smith is a former naval aviator. He has pent the last decade living and working at NAS Patuxent River, MD. He is currently working on a historical fiction adventure novel about the New Orleans pirate King Jean Lafitte.
Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.