The Life & Times of John Wheater(Farnborough, Wokingham, Bristol, Toronto, Farnham) .

John Wheater 16Jun24 (this page updated 25Oct06)


Excerpt, page 321, from Stevenson, N. (1999) Cryptonomicon, London, Heinemann.

The American bombers must be in some kind of distress. He speculates that they are low on fuel, or desperately lost, or have been chased down below the cloud cover by Zeros. Whatever the reason, he knows they have not come here to attack the convoy because American bombers attack by flying overhead at a great altitude, raining down bombs. The bombs always miss because the Americans' bombsights are so poor and the crews so inept. No, the arrival of American planes here is just one of those bizarre accidents of war; the convoy has been shielded under heavy clouds since early yesterday.

The troops all around Goto Dengo are cheering. What good fortune that these lost Americans have blundered straight into the gunsights of their destroyer escort! And it is a good omen for the village of Kulu too, because half of the town's young men just happen to be abovedecks to enjoy the spectacle. They grew up together, went to school together, at the age of twenty took the military physical together, joined the army together and trained together. Now they are on their way to New Guinea together. Together they were mustered up onto the deck of the transport only five minutes ago. Together they will enjoy the sight of the American planes softening into cartwheels of flame. ...

Fresh delight ripples across their faces. He turns to look. One of the bombers has apparently decided to lighten its load by dropping a bomb straight into the ocean. The boys of Kulu break into a jeering chant. The American plane, having shed half a ton of useless explosives, peels sharply upward, self- neutered, good for nothing but target practice. The Kulu boys howl at its pilot in contempt. A Nipponese pilot would have crashed his plane into that destroyer at the very least!

Goto Dengo, for some reason, watches the bomb instead of the airplane. It does not tumble from the plane's belly but traces a smooth flat parabola above the waves, like an aerial torpedo. He catches his breath for a moment, afraid that it will never drop into the ocean, that it will skim across the water until it hits the destroyer that stands directly across its path. But once again the fortunes of war smile upon the emperor's forces; the bomb loses its struggle with gravity and splashes into the water. Goto Dengo looks away.

Then he looks back again, chasing a phantom that haunts the edge of his vision. The wings of foam that were thrown up by the bomb are still collapsing into the water, but beyond them, a black mote is speeding away—perhaps it was a second bomb dropped by the same airplane. This time Goto Dengo watches it carefully. It seems to be rising, rather than falling— a mirage perhaps. No, no, he's wrong, it is losing altitude slowly now, and it plows into the water and throws up another pair of wings all right.

And then the bomb rises up out of the water again. Goto Dengo, a student of engineering, implores the laws of physics to take hold of this thing and make it fall and sink, which is what big dumb pieces of metal are supposed to do. Eventually it does fall again - but then it rises up again.

It is skipping across the water like the flat rocks that the boys of Kulu used to throw across the fish pond near the village. Goto Dengo watches it skip several more times, utterly fascinated. Once again, the fortunes of war have provided a bizarre spectacle, seemingly for no other reason than to entertain him. He savors it as if it were a cigarette discovered in the bottom of a packet. Skip, skip, skip.

Right into the flank of one of the escorting destroyers. A gun turret flies straight up into the air, tumbling over and over. Just as it slows to its apogee, it is completely enveloped in a geyser of flame spurting out of the ship's engine room.

The Kulu boys are still chanting, refusing to accept the evidence of their own eyes. Something flashes in Goto Dengo's peripheral vision; he turns to watch another destroyer being snapped in half like a dry twig as its magazines detonate. Tiny black things are skip, skip, skipping all over the ocean now, like fleas across the rumpled bedsheets of a Shanghai whorehouse. The chant falters. Everyone watches silently.

The Americans have invented a totally new bombing tactic in the middle of a war and implemented it flawlessly. His mind staggers like a drunk in the aisle of a careening train. They saw that they were wrong, they admitted their mistake, they came up with a new idea. The new idea was accepted and embraced all the way up the chain of command. Now they are using it to kill their enemies.

No warrior with any concept of honor would have been so craven. So flexible. What a loss of face it must have been for the officers who had trained their men to bomb from high altitudes. What has become of those men? They must have all killed themselves, or perhaps been thrown into prison.

Thanks to Daniel Jordi Halfstrong.

John Wheater - John.Wheater@gmail.com

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