Episode 118: Baffled on Guadalcanal
Aola, administrative center of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate,
stood on the north shore of Guadalcanal at the head of a broad indentation
in the coastline named -- logically enough -- Aola Bay. It was obvious,
even from a distance, that the settlement was English. A trim row of
whitewashed houses looked out on the harbor, where a new R-class destroyer
lay at anchor. As an outpost, however small, of His Majesty’s Government,
the place boasted two mooring masts: one for commercial and one for
military traffic, located on opposite sides of the harbor. This division
suited Captain Everett’s purposes.
By now the Japanese packet had docked at the commercial mast and was
disembarking her passengers. Everett studied the vessel through binoculars
and imagined he saw a glimmer of light reflecting back from a pair of
lenses. "Mister Iverson," he announced. "We will take this opportunity to
further your training. You will handle this approach without employing
"Sir?" asked the lieutenant. Their reversible propellers -- one of several
unusual legacies they’d inherited from their vessel’s unknown builders --
would have made the evolution considerably easier.
"It will be good for your education," said Everett cryptically.
"Yes, sir," said Iverson. "Helm, engines to idle. Ballast, be ready to
weigh off when our speed drops below 10 knots..."
"What did you think of our lieutenant's performance, sir?" asked Jenkins as
he handed Everett his mail. The captain was sitting at the desk in his
stateroom, where he'd been reviewing some paperwork after the mooring
operation was complete.
"He could have been a bit more decisive during that initial turn downwind,
but otherwise he handled it well. I believe he has the makings of a capable
officer. What do you have for me there?"
"The Administrator extends his hospitality, and would be pleased if we could
attend a reception to be held in our honor this Saturday. We’ve also
received what I imagine is an invitation from the Japanese vessel."
"Let’s see what our colleagues have to say," said Everett. He opened an
envelope addressed ‘To the Commanding Officer, His Majesty’s Airship
R-505’, withdrew a neatly folded sheet of paper, examined it, and nodded.
"The Master of the Shiratori Maru sends his regards and asks if I
and members of my staff might wish to visit his command. I believe we
should take him up on this offer. Please call Abercrombie and Mister
Iverson and ask them to accompany us while I see if Iwamoto wishes to pay a
visit to his countrymen.
Everett found Iwamoto in the Number Three engine car, gazing out the window.
The engineer's expression was as inscrutable as ever, but Everett imagined
that he looked vaguely troubled. Iwamoto turned as Everett entered and
offered his captain a bow -- a difficult feat in this cramped compartment.
"Engines secure," he announced. "No problem with machinery."
"Very good," said Everett. "You’ve done an excellent job. We have received
an invitation to visit the Japanese vessel. I wonder if you might wish to
accompany us." He gestured out the port, where the other airship could be
seen riding at her mooring.
Iwamoto nodded politely. "Thank you, Captain-sama, but need check left
cylinder head. Seems running slightly hot. Maybe injectors sticking, fuel
mixture too much lean."
Is that so? thought Everett. Didn’t you just assure me
there was no problem with the machinery? "Very well," he replied
lightly. "Carry on."
From a distance, the Shiratori Maru’s resemblance to one of
Germany’s Graf class was uncanny. This was not surprising. As
newcomers to the world of aviation, the Japanese drew heavily from existing
designs. But as Everett's party approached the ship, they began to notice
differences. The fins seemed better streamlined. The control and engine
cars were sleeker and conformed to a different aesthetic. The effect was
one of refinement and attention to detail rather than slavish duplication of
someone else’s plan.
They were met at the accommodation ladder by the vessel’s interpreter: a
young radioman named Kuroda. Accustomed to Iwamoto’s novel grammar, Everett
was pleasantly surprised. The interpreter's English was excellent, with
none of the difficulty with lateral and rhotic consonants or terminal
vowels that plagued some of his countrymen.
"Welcome aboard, sirs," he said politely. "It is an honor to receive
visitors from His Majesty’s Navy. If you would like to accompany me,
Captain Saikaku and his officers are waiting in the dining hall."
The radioman pointed out various sights as they made their way down the keel
passage. The Shiratori Maru was large as packets went -- with
approximately 3.7 million cubic feet of enclosed volume, she was almost as
big as a small liner. Like her exterior shape, her interior layout drew
heavily from the German design, often down to the placement of individual
fixtures such as control cable pulleys and ballast valves. But there were
some noteworthy differences. Everett noticed Abercrombie glancing at some
of the frame junctions they passed.
"You see it too?" asked the Scotsman, speaking quietly so their host
"Yes," replied Everett. "We will not speak of this now."
The dining hall was well-lit, impeccably furnished, and obviously intended
to cater to a superior class of passenger. The effect was strange to
Western eyes -- an unfamiliar mixture of elegance and simplicity that
reflected centuries of tradition. In the flurry of introductions that
followed their arrival. Everett gathered that many of the ship's officers
held reserve commissions in the Imperial Japanese Navy. He quickly gave up
any hope of remembering most of the unfamiliar names, but the most important
seemed to be the captain and the ship’s navigator: a senior lieutenant named
"Welcome, Captain Everetu," said Captain Saikaku. "It is honor to have you
aboard our vessel. Will you take some tea?"
Everett accepted a cup from a young woman wearing a formal kimono. It was a
green variety, different from the teas popular in England, but quite
palatable. This was something the two cultures had in common, he thought.
He wondered if his hosts also shared the English penchant for
"It's a pleasure to be aboard," he replied. "Our two nations have a long
history of friendship. I hope they can continue to prosper together."
"We were glad to fight with your King against the Kaiser," said Captain
Saikaku, with obvious sincerity. "Speaking as private individual, I hope
this alliance continues."
No fools, the Japanese had sided with England in the one-sided Pacific
campaign. They’d used this opportunity to snap up several German
territories, which they’d had to return after the Peace.
"I understand your government has resumed normal relations with Germany,"
Everett observed, gesturing at the vessel around them.
His host sighed. "They sell us plans and try to buy friendship. Some
members of Diet say to accept. But most say England better friend during
"We did our best," said Everett modestly. "Were you involved in the
"No, I miss this opportunity," said Captain Saikaku, as if this was cause
for regret. "But Lieutenant Ashikawa was at siege of Tsing Tao."
The navigator offered a bow. "That fine ship you have, Everetu-sama. Is
"She’s a sister ship, from a different yard," said Everett, not entirely
"Ah," said the navigator. "I wonder her engines." His voice was so formal
that it was difficult to tell whether the question was casual or not.
"Beardmore makes excellent diesels," Everett replied. "They might not be as
powerful as the latest German designs, but they also don't use as much fuel.
His hosts nodded -- efficiency was important for long-range operations in
the Pacific. Meanwhile, Everett gave himself a mental pat on the back for
his skill at evading the question.
"What do you think, sir?" asked Iverson as the made their way back to the
"I believe we can accept Captain Saikaku and most of his people at face
value," mused Everett, "They could be dissembling, but I can’t imagine
anyone could be that skillful. But I wonder about that Navigator. He
asked some rather pointed questions about our vessel, as if he had
suspicions about her origin."
"That’s why you wouldn't let us show off her performance or capabilities,"
said Iverson as understanding dawned.
Everett smiled. "Very good , Mister Iverson. I trust you've found this
Next week: A Florida Vacation...
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