Hello fans of golden-era Hollywood and Turner Classic Movies! Last month I revealed the title, cover art, and for my upcoming novel, You Must Remember This, which is book 3 in my Hollywood Home Front trilogy.
That novel is due to be released in April 2023. Meanwhile, I’m ready to share with you the first chapter which, I hope, will leave you wanting more.
The radio room of the USS Lanternfish reeked of sweat and grease. Dozens of instruments glowed and ticked. And Ensign Luke Valenti could still taste the canned corn chowder he had wolfed down for lunch three hours before. Or four? It was hard to keep track when a guy was trapped in a space that had been built for one but was now housing him as well as the radio operator.
They sat back pressed against back, the heat of Sparky’s spine seeping through his rumpled chambray shirt.
Luke pushed the headset halfway off his ears. “Got the time?”
“What did you do, Warner Boy? Lose your watch overboard?”
Like it or not, almost every enlisted man in the Navy got branded with a nickname. All radio operators were called Sparky. No exceptions. And when Luke had let on that he’d worked at Warner Brothers, the crew had pounced on it.
“It fell off my bunk,” he replied. “Sugar was asleep, so I wasn’t about to risk my life.”
One of the cardinal rules aboard a sub was to never wake a sleeping man. But with only eight inches of space separating one bunk from another, it wasn’t always possible. If roused prematurely, the Lanternfish’s cranky Chief of the Boat transformed into an ogre who devoured sailors for breakfast.
“Wondering what your girl’s doing right now?” Sparky asked.
It would soon be three years since Luke had kissed Nell Davenport goodbye. Usually, it felt like hardly any time had passed since he’d felt her tear-stained cheek against his. On tough days, though, it felt like a dozen lifetimes. It probably wouldn’t if he’d heard from her, but he had received no letters, no cards, no V-mails. Nothing. Ever. Probably just bad dumb luck; most likely, they had gone astray in the vast military postal service. After all, he’d frequently moved around. It would’ve been hard to keep track of him.
But what about the three months he’d spent learning Japanese at the Navy Language School in Colorado? Hadn’t that been enough time for the mail to catch up with him? If it hadn’t been for that Hollywood Canteen broadcast, he might have dropped into a pit of despair. Hearing Nell sing a song she had written using their special secret code had flooded Luke with relief. Her V-mails hadn’t reached him, but at least she’d been getting his.
“Might she be at that fancy nightspot you told me about?” Sparky asked. “What’s it called again? Simon’s?”
“Simon’s is a drive-in hamburger joint. You’re thinking of Ciro’s.”
“She could be puttin’ on the Ritz with Clark Gable or Ronald Colman.”
“They’re not Warner stars. If she’s out with anyone, I’d hope it was Bogie.”
Sparky squirmed in his seat. “I blow a gasket every time I think about how I know someone who’s pals with Humphrey Bogart.”
“He’s a regular guy,” Luke said. “Likes to play chess, likes his whiskey, likes to read, and he especially likes to sit in the steam room at Finlandia Baths on Sunset Boulevard and shoot the breeze with Peter Lorre.”
A crewman appeared in the doorway of the radio room’s newly installed watertight door. “Lookouts on the platform have sighted a mast. Jap merchant ship. Five miles, give or take. Doesn’t appear to be moving.”
Luke patted his earphones. “We need to get in much closer before this prototype I’m testing will kick in.” He needn’t have said anything. Combat procedure was straightforward: all enemy vessels must be fired on. At least Japanese merchant ships had no torpedoes.
“We’re submerging to the deckline to lower our profile, but your antennas should be okay.”
The dense air in the radio room congealed even thicker. The Lanternfish had approached the enemy before, but most recently as part of a pack. This time, however, it was alone.
“Anyhow,” Luke said, as he continued to monitor his set, “when you come visit, I’ll take you to Finlandia Baths. We can relax until we’re puddles of sweat. Deal?”
Sparky studied a photo of the Brooklyn Bridge he’d taped to the only empty square foot of wall space. On their first day out from Pearl Harbor, he’d mentioned to Luke that he’d prefer the Marine Parkway Bridge to remind him of Rockaway Park, where he was from, “but Brooklyn Bridge gets all the attention, so I’m making do.” The two men had discovered they’d grown up ten miles from each other. Back home, it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, but five thousand miles away in the middle of the Pacific, it meant a great deal.
“I’ll see if Bogie can join us at Finlandia,” Luke said. There was no reply. He turned to see Sparky staring at the Brooklyn Bridge, barely moving. “Christopher?”
Sparky jumped. Nobody used real names, which, he had confessed during a long night watch, bothered him. “It makes me feel like nothing more than a number. Once in a while, I’d like to hear someone call me by my actual name.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sparky muttered now. “Norwegian Baths. Bogie. Count me in.”
Luke had noticed the haunted look in Sparky’s eyes the last time a Jap ship had pinged the Lanternfish’s radar. “It’s my job to send out continuous maydays,” he had told Luke that night, “until the end.”
Luke raised a finger at the photograph on the wall. “Thinking of home?”
Sparky ran a hand over his sandy-blond crew cut. “I used to bike from Ninety-Seventh Street to Rockaway Beach Boulevard, ducking in and out of traffic, old ladies shaking their walking sticks at me, dogs barking. I’d pedal all the way to Breezy Point Tip.”
“Must have taken you all day.”
“That’s what summers are for, right?”
“What kind of bike did you have?”
“Schwinn. Red with chrome trim. And you?”
Luke pictured himself coasting along Argyle Road, his feet off the pedals, en route to Aunt Wilda’s, where there’d be rich cream cakes, a new record album to play, and a wild story involving a Levantine diplomat or a contortionist from Saskatchewan. “Sun Racer. Dark green. Black trim.”
“If we knew each other back then, we could’ve ridden from Brighton Beach to Greenpoint.”
“From Bay Ridge to Jamaica Bay!”
Static cracked and popped in Luke’s headset for a full minute before subsiding to a dull hum. Chatter, low and indistinct, rose in its place. As the Lanternfish glided closer to the enemy, inarticulate murmuring grew crisper and clearer. Luke upped the volume. Oh, yes. Definitely Japanese.
A voice, older and deeper, spat out instructions. Do this. Do that. Check this. Double-check that. The other voice, younger and efficient, responded. Yes, sir. Copy that. Confirmed. Understood.
Then Luke heard a command he wasn’t expecting: Flood tubes one and two.
Flooding the tubes was the first step before a submarine fired torpedoes. How was that possible? Merchant ships were armed with only machine guns on the decks. Maybe he’d misheard?
There it was again: gyorai.
The Japanese word for ‘torpedo’ sounded nothing like their word for machine gun.
Luke ripped off his earphones and threw himself through the hatch and into the command chamber, his heart thudding against his ribs. “Captain, I’ve picked up chatter on my prototype. They’re flooding torpedo tubes one and two.”
Captain Polk, a rational man with flinty blue eyes that rarely blinked, pulled his face from the periscope. “Are you sure?”
The captain reached for his phone to address the entire crew over the boat’s loudspeaker. “All hands. Battle stations. Secure all watertight doors except the com. Clear the bridge. Dive! Dive! Dive! Periscope depth. The enemy has torpedoes, probably in a sub hiding on the far side of that decoy maru. They’ve readied their fish, which means they’ll be coming out from cover real soon.” He swiveled to his right. “Jigs, see anything yet?”
The Lanternfish’s chief radarman stared at his circular screen. “The ship hasn’t moved this whole time.”
“Estimated distance from target?”
“Twenty-one hundred yards and closing.”
Torpedoes had at least a five-thousand-yard range, but the best shots were within one thousand, and could take a minute or more to swim that distance. It wouldn’t be long until the Lanternfish reached that point. Luke tried to swallow, but his spit had turned to concrete.
“BRIDGE!” Every crewman froze in place as Jigs roared his warning. “Confirming a second craft.”
Tense seconds crawled by until Jigs could be sure. “Jap sub, aye.”
“The enemy has detected us,” Polk yelled through the speakers. “They have the advantage of surprise and will be launching their fish before we can launch ours.”
Luke took his seat as the Lanternfish leveled off.
Sparky gawked at Luke, eyes fogged with apprehension. “Remember our pact. If one of us doesn’t make it out alive—”
“No defeatist talk,” Luke fired back. The voices in his earphones fell silent.
Jigs called out their distance. “Nineteen hundred yards . . . fourteen hundred. . . eleven hundred . . . reaching a thousand in four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . .”
A high-pitched voice split the air. It was Dipper, the sonar guy. “Confirming two inbound fish.”
“All hands,” Polk boomed into the intercom, “brace for impact.”
Luke gripped the edge of his tiny desk and braced his feet against the deck. As the Lanternfish cruised through the water, the only sound was Dipper’s voice piercing the dank air.
“One hundred yards . . . fifty . . . twenty. . .”
Luke held his breath and closed his eyes. Nell’s face appeared in front of him. It’ll be okay, her tentative smile assured him. A breeze blew a lock of hair across her left eye and—
A deafening clang tolled the length of the Lanternfish. Metallic ripping sounds followed. The boat shuddered a moment or two before righting itself.
“A dud!” Sparky let out his breath. “It hit us, though.”
“Forward torpedo room,” Polk called out. “Report your damage.”
A voice Luke couldn’t identify shot out over the intercom. “Bow plane gone. Torn a hole in the hull. Forward torpedo evacuating now.”
“Blow ballast,” Polk ordered. “Take ’er up.”
The forward torpedo room held fourteen men trained to clear out in under fifteen seconds. The Lanternfish could still fire on the enemy with aft torpedoes, but without a functioning bow plane, they were now stuck on the surface.
The captain gave his next order. “Swing ninety to starboard for a tail shot. Flood stern tubes. Open outer doors.”
Their torpedoes were fitted with gyros that could guide them through ninety degrees, toward the enemy, which saved the Lanternfish needing to rotate a full one-eighty. Not an ideal situation, but far from hopeless.
As the deck beneath Luke’s shoes swayed, the earphone voices started up again.
The merchant ship captain was now talking about how his cargo was packed shoulder to shoulder. What were they transporting? Cows? Luke leapt from his desk when he heard the word horyo and approached the captain again. “Sir, the enemy is carrying POWs.”
Polk winced. “It’s a hellship.” The Japs had been freighting POWs as they pulled back to the home islands. “Did they say where?”
“Amidships, sir. There must be lots of them packed into the main hold because they’re, quote, shoulder to shoulder.”
The captain dropped his chin to his chest. “Those sons of bitches know they’re screwed, but determined to take as many of us as they can.”
“Also, sir.” Luke hated the wobble he heard in his voice. “Their skipper stated that he’s prepared to scuttle his maru if he has to.”
Polk alerted the boat. “The enemy is holding POWs. Our objective is to cripple, not sink. With the forward torpedoes gone, I know this is a tall order, but I want you to remember that many Allied lives hang in the balance.”
Sending Luke back to his station, he asked for their current position from the boat’s navigator, who confirmed they had completed the ninety-degree turn.
Dipper called out, “The enemy has fired a second pair of fish.”
“Fire seven!” Polk boomed. “Fire eight! Fire nine! Reload seven. Reload eight. Reload nine.”
Luke felt the vibration through the soles of his black shoes as the Lanternfish thrust three torpedoes into the Pacific.
“All hands brace for impact.”
Luke found Sparky staring at him, eyes round as marbles. Don’t say it, Luke wanted to tell him. We know your job is to send out a mayday while the crew hotfoots it topside.
A deafening explosion reverberated the length of the boat. The Lanternfish lurched, almost jolting Luke and Sparky from their seats. The Japanese fish had struck the aft torpedo room, gashing it with a massive hole.
A fatal blow.
Water would be pouring in now, the room littered with bodies, any surviving crew entombed behind sealed doors.
A shrill alarm rang out. Every man on board knew its meaning. The Lanternfish was dead. Time to abandon ship.
Sparky hunched over his telegraph set—three dots, three dashes, three dots—followed by their coordinates. Luke pressed a hand to Sparky’s shoulder, but he shrugged it away. “Save yourself.” He turned back to his microphone. “Mayday! Mayday!” he said. “Lanternfish disabled. Will report ongoing status.”
Another explosion rattled the sub. Luke hurled himself toward the scrum of crewmen heading for the ladders to the deck. The screeching alarm drilled deep into his skull as his arms and legs flailed for purchase on the ladder’s slick rungs.
The cool sea air whipped Luke’s face as he scrambled onto one of the gun decks.
A bullet whistled past his right ear.
The maru lay silhouetted against the reddish-orange disk of the setting sun. It was closer than Luke had imagined, not much longer than a football field. Close enough that he could see Japs manning machine guns on their deck. Close enough to shoot or be shot. He grabbed the machine gun he’d been allotted to play with during drills.
He lost track of how many bursts he fired. Four? Seven? Ten? He was going to hammer away until he ran out of ammo.
A thunderous blast exploded in his ears as rounds splattered above his head. Shrapnel rained down, sharp and searing, singeing his hair, scorching his shirt and skin. Bullets zipped and zinged, whistling past him. He kept firing as the last strands of daylight dissolved in the west.
Dizzy and disoriented, he felt his knees buckling. He hit the deck hard, aching, burning, as he crawled to starboard. Rubber rafts and chunks of debris bobbed on the ocean’s surface. As he struggled to stand, a second boom, louder than the first, felt like it came from the conning tower behind him. Luke’s breath whooshed from his lungs as he lost his footing and tumbled.
Dropping from the cigarette deck, he hit his head against something rigid, metallic, and unforgiving.
Sharp, agonizing pain filled his skull.
I hope that sneak peek has whetted your appetite for You Must Remember This. And thanks so much for your interest in my work. I do appreciate it so very much.
All the best,
ALSO BY MARTIN TURNBULL:
The Hollywood’s Garden of Allah novels
Book 1 – The Garden on Sunset
Book 2 – The Trouble with Scarlett
Book 3 – Citizen Hollywood
Book 4 – Searchlights and Shadows
Book 5 – Reds in the Beds
Book 6 – Twisted Boulevard
Book 7 – Tinseltown Confidential
Book 8 – City of Myths
Book 9 – Closing Credits
Chasing Salomé: a novel of 1920s Hollywood
The Heart of the Lion: a novel of Irving Thalberg’s Hollywood
The Hollywood Home Front trilogy:
Book 1 – All the Gin Joints
Book 2 – Thank Your Lucky Stars
Book 3 – You Must Remember This
Connect with Martin Turnbull: