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Argentia Bay

By Emily Wells,2014-10-24 01:05
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Argentia Bay

    Argentia Bay

    Herman Wouk

    1. Argemtia Bay

    Gray peace pervaded the wilderness-ringed Argentia Bay in Newfoundland, where the American ships anchored to await the arrival of Winston Churchill. Haze and mist blended all into gray: gray water, gray sky, gray air, gray hills with a tint of green. Sailors and officers went about their chores as usual on these ships, amid pipings and loud-speaker squawks. But a primeval hush lay heavy in Argentia Bay, just outside the range of the normal ships’ noises.

     At nine o'clock, three gray destroyers steamed into view, ahead of a battleship camouflaged in swirls of color like snakeskin. This was H. M. S. Prince of Wales, bigger than any other ship in sight, bearing the guns that had hit the Bismarck. As it steamed past the Augusta, a brass band on its decks shattered the hush with "The Star-Spangled Banner ” Quiet fell. The band on the quarter -deck of the Augusta

    struck up "God Save the King. "

     Pug Henry stood near the President, under the awning rigged at number-one turret, with admirals, generals, and august civilians like Averell Harriman and Sumner Welles Churchill was plain to see not five hundred yards away, ? an odd blue costume, gesturing with a big cigar. The president towered over everybody, stiff on braced legs, in a big brown suit, one hand holding his hat on his heart, the other clutching the arm of his son, an Air Corps Officer who strongly resembled him. Roosevelt's large pink face was self-consciously grave.

     "God Save the King" ended. The President's face relaxed. "Well! I' ve never heard 'My Country' Tis of Thee' played better." The men

    around him laughed politely at the presidential joke, and Roosevelt laughed too. The squeal of boatswains' pipes broke up the dress parade on the cruiser's deck.

    2. Harry Hopkins

     Admiral King beckoned to Pug. "Take my barge over to

    the Prince of Wales, and put yourself at Mr. Harry Hopkins's service. The President desires to talk with him before Churchill comes to

    call, so expedite."

     "Aye aye, sir."

     Passing from the Augusta to the Prince of Wales in King's barge, over a few hundred yards of still water, Victor Henry went from America to England and from peace to war was a shocking jump. King's spick-and-span flagship belonged to a different world than the storm-whipped British vessel, where the accomodation ladder was salt-crustedthe camouflage paint was peeling, and even the main battery guns looked pitted and rusty. Pug was aghast to see cigarette butts and wastepaper in the scuppers, though droves of blue jackets were doing an animated scrub-down. on the superstructure raw steel patches were welded here there -- sticking plaster for wounds from the Bismarck's salvos.

     "Ah, yes, Captain Henry," said the officer of the deck, smartly returning the salute in the different British palm-out style. "Mr. Hopkins has received the signal and is waiting

     for you in his cabin. The quartermaster will escort you." Victor Henry followed the quartermaster through passage-ways quite like those in American battleships, yet different in countless details: the signs, the fittings, the fire extinguishers, the shape of the watertight doors.

     "Hello there, Pug," Hopkins spoke as though he had not seen the Navy captain for a day or two, though their last counter had been early in March, and meantime Hopkins had travelled to London and Moscow in a blaze of worldwide newspaper attention. "Am I riding over with you?"

     "Yes, sir ."

     "How's the President feeling?" Hopkins had two bags open on his bunk in a small cabin oft the wardroom. In one he carefully placed paper s, folders, and books; in the other he threw clothes, medicine bottles, and shoes as they carne to Hopkins looked thinner than before, a bent figure with a gray double-breasted suit flapping loosely on him.

     "He's having the time of his life, sir."

     "I can imagine. So's Churchill. Churchill’s like a boy going on his first date. Well, it's quite a historic moment, at that." Hopkins pulled dirty shirts from a drawer crammed them in the suitcase. "Almost forgot these. I left a few in the Kremlin and had to scrounge more in London."

     "Mr. Hopkins, what about the Russians? Will they hold?"

     Hopkins paused, a stack of papers in his hand, and pursed his mouth before speaking decisively. "The Russian will hold. But it'll be a near thing. They'll need help." He resumed his hurried packing. "When you fly from Archangel to Moscow, Pug, it takes hours and hours, over solid green forests and brown swamps. Often you don't see a village from horizon to horizon. Hitler's bitten oft a big bite this time." He was struggling with the clasps on his suitcase, and Pug gave him a hand. "Ah, thanks. What do you sup-pose Stalin wants from us most of all, Pug?"

     "Airplanes," Victor Henry said promptly. "'Clouds of airplanes. '

Same as the French were yelling for last year."

     "Aluminum," said Harry Hopkins. "Aluminum to build air-planes with. Well, let me correct that -- his number one item was

     anti-aircraft guns. Next comes aluminum. Wants a lot of Army trucks, too. Stalin isn't planning to get beaten in three weeks, or six weeks, or three years." Hopkins tidiest the paper s in the smaller case, and closed it. "Let's go

     As Hopkins shakily stepped aboard King's barge from the accomodation ladder, the stern rose high on a swell then dropped away from under him. He lost his balance and toppled into the arms of the coxswain, who said, "Oops-a-daisy,sir."

     "Pug, I'll never be a sailor," Hopkins staggered inside, setting with a sigh on the cushions. "I flopped on my face

     boarding the seaplane that flew me to the Soviet Union. That nearly ended my mission right there." He glanced

     around at the flawlessly appointed barge. "Well, well. America! Peacetime! So -- you're still in War Plans. You'll attend the staff meetings, then. "

     ."Some of them, yes, sir. "

     "You might bear in mind what our friends will be after. lt's fairly clear to me, after five days at sea with the Prime Minister." Hopkins held out one wasted hand and ticked off points on skeletal fingers. "First they'll press for an immediate declaration of war on Germany. They know they won't get that. But it softens the ground for the second demand, the real reason Winston Churchill has crossed the ocean. They want a warning by the United States to Japan that any move against the British in Asia means war with us. Their empire is mighty rickety at this point. They such a warning will shore it up. And they'll press for big war supplies to their people in Egypt and the

    MiddleEast. Because if Hitler pokes down there and closes the canal, the Empire strangles. They'll also try, subtly but hard--and I would too, in their place -- for an understanding that in getting American aid they come ahead of Russia. Now is the time to bomb the hell out of Germany from the West, they'll say, and build up for the final assault. Stuff We give Russia, it will be hinted, may be turned around and pointed against us in a few weeks."

     Victor Henry said, "The President isn't thinking that way."

     "I hope not. If Hitler wins in Russia, he wins the world. If he loses in Russia he's finished, even if the Japanese, move. The fight over there is of inconceivable magnitude There must be seven million men shooting at each other, Pug. Seven million, or more.” Hopkins spoke the figures slowly, stretching out the wasted fingers of both hands. "The Russians have taken a shellacking so far, but they're unafraid. They want to throw the Germans out. That's the war now. That's where the stuff should go now."

     "Then this conference is almost pointless," said Pug The barge was slowing and clanging as it drew near the Augusta. "No, it's a triumph," Hopkins said. "The President of the United States and the British Prime Minister are meeting face to face to discuss beating the Germans. That's achievement enough for now.” Hopkins gave Victor Henry a sad smile, and a brlliant light came into his large eyes. He pulled himself to his feet in the rocking boat. "Also, Pug, this is the changing of the guard."

    3. Churchill calls

     Winston Churchill came to the Augusta at eleven o'clock, which saw the dramatic handshake of Roosevelt and Churchill at the gangway. They prolonged the clasp for the photographer s,

exchanging smiling words.

     In an odd way the two leaders diminished each other They were both Number One Men. But that was impossible. who, then, was Number One? Roosevelt stood a full head taller ,but he was pathetically braced on lifeless leg frames, clinging to his son's arm, his full trousers drooped and flapping. Churchill, a bent Pickwick in blue uniform, looked up at him with majestic good humor, much older, more dignified, more assured. Yet there was a trace of deference about the Prime Minister. By a shade of a shade, Roosevelt looked like Number One. Maybe that was what Hopkins had meant by "the changing of the guard. "

     The picture-taking stopped at an unseen signal, the handshake ended, and a wheelchair appear ed. The erect front page President became the cripple more familiar to Pug, hobbling a step or two and sinking with relief into the Chair. The great men and their military chiefs lett the quarterdeck.

     The staffs got right to business and conferred all day. Victor Henry worked with the planners, on the level below the chiefs of staff and their deputies where Burne-Wilke operated, and of course far below the summit of the President, the Prime Minister, and their advisers. Familiar problems came up at once: excessive and contradictory requests from the British services, unreal plans, unfilled contacts, jumbled priorities, fouled communications. One cardinal point the planners hammer ed out fast. Building new ships to replace U-boat sinkings came first. No war materiel could be used against Hitler until it had crossed the ocean. This plain truth, so simple once agreed on, ran a red line across every request, every program, every projection. Steel, aluminum, rubber, valves, motors, machine tools copper wire, all the thousand things of war, would go first to ships.

    This simple yardstick rapidly disclosed the poverty of the "arsenal of democracy," and dictated -- as a matter of frightening urgency -- a gigantic job of building new steel mills, and plants to turn the steel into combat machines and tools.

     Through all the talk of grand hypothetical plans -- hundreds of ships, tens of thousands of airplanes and tanks, millions of men -- one pathetic item kept recurring: an immediate need for a hundred fifty thousand rifles. If Russia collapsed, Hitler might try to wrap up the war with a Crete-like invasion of England from the air. Rifles for defending British airfields were lacking. The stupendous materiel figures for future joint invasions of North Africa or the French coast contrasted sadly with this plea for a hundred fifty thousand r if les now.

    4. Roosevelt hobbles across

     Next morning, boats from all over the sparkling bay came clustering to the Prince of Wales for church services On the surrounding hills, in sunlight that seemed almost blinding after days of gray mist, the forests of larch and fir glowed a rich green.

     An American destroyer slowly nosed its bridge along-side the battleship, exactly level with the main deck, and a gang-plank was thrown across. Leaning on his son's arm and on a cane, Franklin Roosevelt, in a blue suit and gray hat, lurched out on the gangplank, laboriously hitching one leg forward from the hip, then the other. The bay was calm, but both ships were moving on long swells. With each step, the tall President tottered and swayed. Victor Henry, like all the Americans crowding the destroyer bridge, hardly breathed as Roosevelt painfully hobbled across the narrow unsteady planks. Photographers waiting on the Prince of Wales quarter deck were staring at the President, but Pug observed that not one of them was

shooting this crippled walk.

     His foot touched the deck of the Prince of Wales. Churchill saluted him and offered his hand. The brass band burst forth with "The Star Spangled Banner. " Roosevelt stood at attention, his chest heaving, his face stiff with strain. Then, escorted by Churchill, the President hitched and hobbled all the way across the deck, and sat.

     The British chaplain, his white and crimson vestments flapping in the wind, his thick gray hair blowing wildly, read the closing Royal Navy prayer: "?- Preserve us from the dangers of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy, that we may be a security for such as pass upon the sea upon their lawful occasions"- and that we may return in safety to enjoy the blessings of the land, with the fruits of our labors…and to praise and glorify Thy Holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord…" A few British sailors cautiously moved out of ranks.

    One then another, sneaked cameras from their blouses. When nobody stopped them and the two leaders smiled and waved, a rush began. Cameras appeared by the dozens. The sailors swarmed into a laughing, cheering ring around the two men. Pug Henry, watching this unwonted disorder on a warship with mixed feelings of amusement and outrage, felt a touch on his elbow. It was Lord Burne Willie. "Hello there, my dear fellow. A word with you?"

    5. A request from the British

     Burne-Wilke's cabin had the dark, warm, comfortable look of a library den. "I say, Henry, what is your position on shipboard drinking? I have a fair bottle of sherry here."

     "I'm for it."

     "Good. You're dry as a bone in your service, aren't you? Yet last night the President server us an excellent wine."

     "The President is the source of all Navy regulations, sir, and can tailor them to his desires."

     "Ah? Jolly convenient." Burne-Wilke lit a cigar, and they both sipped wine. "I suppose you know that this ship crossed the ocean without escort," the air commodore resumed. "Our first night out of England, we ran into a whole gale. Our destroyer s couldn't maintain speed, so we zigzagged on alone."

     "Sir, I was appalled to hear about it."

     "Really? Rather sporting of the British Prime Minister, don’ t you

    think, to give the Hun a fair shot at him on the open sea. Three thousand miles without air cover or surface escort, straight through the entire submarine fleet. "

     "You had your good angels escorting you. That's all I can say.”

     "Oh, well, at any r ate her e we are. But it might be prudent not to overwork those good angels, what? Don't you agree? On our way back, every U-boat in the Atlantic will certainly be on battle alert. We shall have to run the gamut." Burne-Wilke paused, studying the ash on his cigar. "We're stretched thin for escorts, you know. We've rounded up four destroyers. Admiral Pound would be happier with six."

     Victor Henry quickly said, "I'll talk to Admiral King.”

     "You understand that this cannot be a request from us. The Prime Minister would be downright annoyed. He's hoping we'll meet the Tirpitz and get into a running gun fight."

     "Let me star t on this now, sir ." Pug drank up his sherry, and rose to his feet.

     "Oh? Would you?" Burne-Wilke opened the cabin door. "Thanks awfully."

     On the after deck, the photographing was still going on. Officers

    with cameras were now shouldering sailors aside, as the two politicians cheerfully chatted. Behind them stood their glum chiefs of staff and civilian advisers. Hopkins, squinting out at the sunny water, wore a pained expression. The military men were talking together, except for Admiral King, who stood woodenly apart. Pug walked up to him, saluted, and in the fewest possible words recount-ed his talk with Burne-Wilke. The lines along King's lean Jaws deepened. He nodded twice and strolled away, without a word. He did not go anywhere. It was just a gesture of dismissal, and a convincing one.

     Amid much wining and dining, the conference went on for two more days. One night Churchill took the floor in the Augusta wardroom after dinner, and delivered a rolling, rich word picture of how the war would go. Blockade, ever growing air bombardment, and subversion would in time weaken the grip of Nazi claws on Europe. Russia and England would "close a ring" and slowly, inexorably tighten it, If the United States became a full-fledged ally, it would all go much faster, of course. No big invasion or long land campaign would be needed in the West. Landing of a few armored columns in the occupied countries would bring mass uprisings. Hitler's black empire would suddenly collapse in rubble, blood, and flame. Franklin Roosevelt listened with bright-eyed smiling attention, saying nothing, and applauding heartily with the rest.

     On the last day of the conference, just before lunch, Admiral King sent for Pug. He found the admiral in under-shirt and trousers in his cabin, drying face and ears with a towel. "Task Unit 26 point 3 point 1, consisting of two destroyers, the Mayrant and the Rhind, has bee formed," King said without a greeting. "It will escort the Prince of Wales to Iceland. You will embark in the Prince of Wales as liaison officer, disembark in Iceland, and return with our task unit."

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