VATERLAND, 1917

Book IV of the World War One Series
Fiction: war/adventure/historical romance


 

Adel works as a steward on Germany's SS Vaterland, the largest liner in the world. But when war breaks out in Europe the ship is held at its Hoboken pier, its crew without work and soon unpaid.

Wade, an American navy cadet, at first admires German ships and their crews, but when he witnesses several U-boat sinkings off Cape Cod he vows revenge.

As the war progresses and the president struggles to stay neutral, Adel is forced to take more and more dubious assignments to stay alive. Wade trains as a gunner, and when America finally joins the fight he is assigned to her newest troopship—the Vaterland, now taken over and renamed Leviathan.

But Adel has been tasked with stopping her before she can deliver her 9000 men to war.

 

1917 Great War Facts

From 1914 to 1917, the United States stayed out of the European War. President Wilson considered his country neutral, and even tried to arrange peace talks with the countries fighting each other so bitterly in the trenches of France to help end the conflict. But Germany, in trying to ensure the U.S. remained out of the picture, perversely drew it in. Bombings of munitions factories, merchant ships, and the indiscriminate torpedoing of neutral ships by U-boats, all made it hard for Wilson to continue his separatist stand. Public opinion, evenly divided between support of the Central Powers and the Allies at the beginning of the war, had by 1917 swung determinedly and irreversibly against Germany.

 

Sample chapter: © David Andrew Westwood 2018, all rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced without written permission from the author.

Part III: 1916
Fire in the Hold

ADEL

Adel takes the last night streetcar along Clinton Street and into Jersey City, his suitcase in his lap clasped by gloved hands. He wishes he knew more about dynamite, wishes he had quizzed that Mox man more about it, but he had been too nervous. How sensitive was it? To heat, cold, vibration? At least if it ignited now he would know nothing about it, having been mercifully vaporized in an instant.

He looks around the car at the handful of other passengers — night shift workers and maids mostly. Surely they must know what he’s carrying, that he’s a saboteur. Though the night is cold, he is sweating.

If only he had gone back to Germany with the other half of the crew. He could be home now, not performing dubious stunts on his country’s behalf in America. If it hadn’t been for his lack of money, he could have stayed true to his morals. This awful bombing idea would not solve anything. This will just anger the Americans.

But there is no turning back now. Brinker would find and kill him if he backed out.

At Clearmont, Adel steps off the streetcar and surveys the area. It is a warm night. The streets here in the industrial part of the city are deserted. In the distance a mass of railroad tracks crosses the road and forms a causeway out to the black island, the rails glinting dully in the reflected lights of Manhattan.

Adel turns up his collar and hurries, head down to make sure he doesn’t stumble over one of the ties, along one of the sets of tracks. The gravel ballast beneath his feet seems to crunch deafeningly. If caught, it would be considered treason, wouldn’t it? He would be convicted as a spy, and the punishment for spying is always death.

He looks up, briefly. There is the Statue of Liberty, and he feels guilt wash over him. She had welcomed him, had she not? Now he was about to betray her. But she was a gift from France, and France is the enemy, so why should he care?

A cold wind off the Hudson brings with it the smell of the marshes, and the skunky smell of steam locomotives, but something else too. Explosives. He reminds himself that these same explosives are destined to be used against his country, his people, and it stiffens his resolve.

As he reaches the promontory the mosquitoes, with their high-pitched keening, find him. At first he tries to wave them away, but it is hopeless. He holds his collar closed in front of his face, but it hardly helps at all.

Now that he is on the island proper the shape of a hut appears, and he takes a wide detour to avoid it. He passes railcars, presumably loaded with shells, or whatever shells are filled with. At the sound of voices, he freezes, terrified, but they are distant, just carried on the wind, and after a pause he continues.

Here the smell of the river at low tide — salt, seaweed, and dying shellfish — is stronger, and he can dimly make out the barges. They are like long, low trays piled high with crates, with a small cabin at one end. None is illuminated, but he can see dim numbers painted on their bows.

Number 17 is the largest. He can see why it was chosen: it must hold fifty tons of cargo, and it is fully loaded. He stops, listens. Nothing except the lap of water against the barges’ sides.

He climbs carefully aboard. The barge creaks. There is no shortage of places to hide his sticks of dynamite. He opens the case and takes out the first stick, with its long fuse. He wedges it between crates and lights a match, applying its flame to the end of the cord. Then, his heart hammering so hard that he can feel his pulse in his throat, he quickly places and lights the others.

There are eight sticks, and as soon as he has lit the last he hurries off, conscious of the minutes ticking away. What should he do with the case? Mox didn’t mention that. He stows it beneath a pallet and hurries on.

Between the railcars and stacks of crates he slinks. At a noise from his right he stops still, listening. A man’s voice, and then another; but there is no alarm in their tone. Soon, the smell of burning tobacco reaches him. Fools — smoking on a munitions dump. Perhaps they will be blamed.

Soon he is back at the road on the mainland, and he stuffs his hands into his pockets and tries to walk casually. What would he say if he’s stopped? That he’s out for a walk at 2:00 a.m.?

There are no streetcars now, and he will have to walk all the way back. He turns up a side street to put some distance between himself and the river. Still the only sound is his own footsteps echoing from the brick walls. His bites itch, but at least he has left the mosquitoes behind.

Then a distant pop and a flash that bounces off the low cloud like sheet lightning. Adel hurries to the next intersection so he can look out toward Black Tom, despite having been warned not to watch.

The island is patched with little fires, and then one big flash, with what look from this distance like sparks. The sound follows a moment later, a deep bass boom accompanied by treble crackles.

Then the fires spread and join, becoming a conflagration. Sharp reports ring out, separate at first, and then so many they blend into a staccato drumroll of explosions. Shells burst up into the air now, and the scene flickers like a stroboscope, illuminating the factories around him as well as Ellis Island’s buildings.

Now he can feel the concussions in his chest; through his feet. Even from this distance they hurt his ears. Entire railcars are being tossed about, spewing flame, like toys flung by a petulant child. The barges are like burning beads around the perimeter of the island, periodically exploding in bright, scintillating blossoms of orange fire.

The sound now is continuous, a cacophony varying in tone and pitch. The high cracks of ammunition, the low crumps of heavy artillery rounds, over a growing, intimidating rumble like an earthquake. And the smell reaches him — the reek of burning chemicals. It is like a battlefield, he thinks. A battlefield in a country that’s supposed to be at peace.

He hurries back to his room, to lie awake staring at the cracked ceiling as the explosions continue. The windowpanes rattle in their frames.

What has he done? Nothing good will come of this.

WADE

Wade’s friend Henry is waiting for him when he shows up for work at the docks.

“Hey — feel like a trip to New York?” he asks.

Henry is rarely excited, and his expression immediately makes Wade suspicious. “What did you volunteer for?”

“Cleanup at that munitions island that blew up.”

Wade frowns. “But the railroad owns that, surely. Lehigh Valley or somethin’. That’s not the Navy’s job.”

“Ah, but the river around it is. We have to keep the waterways clear, an’ it’s all cluttered with burned barges. They’re lookin’ for volunteers.”

Everyone knows not to volunteer, ever, for anything. On the other hand, Eunice has been a pain lately about getting married. “Any extra pay involved?”

“Time an’ a half.”

“You goin’?”

“Damn right. Change o’ scenery. B’sides, Carol is gettin’ on my nerves.”

Wade looks around. Today he is supposed to be scraping the paint off a ferry. “All right. Count me in.”

From the deck of the dredger the devastated landscape looks to Wade like an engraving of the end of the world out of a Sunday school primer. On the island itself, burned-out shells of buildings remind him of the photographs of devastated Belgium appearing in the papers. The charred hulks of ammunition barges litter the edge of the island, sunken until just their rims show above the greasy and debris-laden waves. A huffing steam-powered crane lifts a hulk from the mud with a loud and obscene sucking sound and dumps it on land. The smell of sulfur, phosphorus, cordite and charred wood taints his sandwich until everything tastes like rotten eggs.

“Didn’t know it was so big.”

Henry scratches his head. “Well, yeah. Busted windows all the way across the river.”

“This’ll take months,” Wade says. “I’m not stayin’ here forever.”

“Thirty days we can go back.” Henry pulls on his waders. “Let’s get started.”

“How many people killed?”

“Six, I think. Papers said fifty at first, but they was gettin’ carried away.”

Wade eases himself gingerly into the murky water. “Surprised it wasn’t more.”

At the end of their first week, Henry and Wade regard each other’s grimy faces over their Thermos flasks of coffee. There is no discernible reduction in the debris around them — every high tide brings in more — and they have yet to become used to its chemical reek.

“‘Change of scenery,’” Wade sneers. “Damn mudhole.”

Henry nods. “OK, so it wasn’t such a great idea. Still… we’re makin’ some money.”

“I’d rather be poor.”

Henry’s attention refocuses beyond Wade’s shoulder to their part of the Hudson River. “What’s that?”

Wade turns, then slides into the water up to his knees to investigate. He stoops to poke a floating shape with his gaff hook. “Ah, Jeez.”

“What?”

“It’s a man. Was a man.”