Circle William: A Novel

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9780743508681: Circle William: A Novel
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A retired Navy captain pens a fast-paced military thriller about two brothers who have made their share of political faux pas and yet are chosen to lead a delicate, high-level operation to thwart a chemical weapons attack. A first novel. Simultaneous.

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About the Author:

Captain Bill Harlow retired from the U.S. Navy in 1997, after twenty-five years of service, to become the chief of public affairs for the Central Intelligence Agency. He has served as the Navy's deputy spokesman in Europe, as special assistant to the secretary of the Navy, and as assistant White House press secretary for national security and foreign affairs. He lives in northern Virginia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

The captain prepared to jump overboard.

The destroyer USS Winston Churchill drifted slowly south on the warm Mediterranean Sea. Her captain, Commander Bill Schmidt, had ordered the engines stopped an hour earlier and announced a swim call, a very rare occurrence on most ships, but a regular event on Churchill. During swim call, a ship would drift lazily and routine work would come to a halt. It was an impromptu beach party, minus the beach.

As Schmidt turned to head back to the fantail, he saw his second-in-command, Churchill's Executive Officer, coming onto the bridge. Lieutenant Commander Thomas Oliver Ellsworth III looked preoccupied and slightly nervous, as usual. "XO, I'm going to go back aft and jump in. Everything taken care of for the swim call?"

Schmidt saw his XO grimace for a moment. "Yes sir, we've got the shafts locked, a boat in the water, cargo nets up on the sides, and a rifleman standing by in case of sharks. I've also got the Master at Arms bringing up some blankets for the steel beach..." He looked balefully at his commanding officer.

Bill Schmidt was, in every respect, a typical naval officer. He was of average height, and average weight. He bore no unusual scars under his mop of sandy hair. Schmidt had an easy smile which often bordered on a smirk, and rock-solid self-confidence, which sometimes got him in trouble.

"What about the DJ, Tom? Did you set up the big speaker system?"

The XO shuddered slightly. "Sir, do you really want to get into the music today? We can't just drift all afternoon if we're going to make Toulon on time tomorrow morning."

"We can if we go real fast, XO. Get the DJ up. And throw out a couple of cases of that nonalcoholic beer and the sodas we picked up in Rota."

Another darn picnic, thought the XO. Ellsworth was the kind of officer who never swore, even to himself.

What a dipshit, thought Schmidt. "Relax, XO. It'll be fine," said the Churchill's captain as he walked away, shaking his head. He said those precise words to his XO at least a dozen times each day. Schmidt was beginning to doubt if Ellsworth, the son of a retired three-star Admiral and a card-carrying member of America's informal naval aristocracy, had the makings of a destroyer captain. Or at least the kind of destroyer captain Bill Schmidt wanted to sail with. During his career, Schmidt had run across dozens of similar flag officer progeny. With rare exception, the navy juniors displayed an expectation of privilege and promotion. Their attitude, he thought, would have been more appropriate for the Royal Navy at the end of the nineteenth century than the U.S. Navy at the beginning of the twenty-first.

Schmidt's trip aft was interrupted by the blare of the ship's announcing system, known as the "1 MC." "Commanding Officer, please dial one-zero-zero-two."

Schmidt's call to the bridge was answered by Ensign Marshall Madison, a newly commissioned and very inexperienced Junior Officer of the Deck. "Captain, there's an unidentified submarine on the surface heading straight toward us at over twenty knots. We've tried calling her on bridge-to-bridge but she doesn't answer." Unless they were emitting some sort of electronic signals, the identity of approaching submarines at sea was nearly impossible to discern.

"Unidentified? What's her CPA?"

"CPA?" There was a long pause. Schmidt guessed that Madison was trying to figure out why his commanding officer wanted to know the name of the submarine's accountant.

"Marshall, please put the Officer of the Deck on the phone." Schmidt heard the crisp voice of Lieutenant Debbie Smith, Churchill's Antisubmarine Warfare Officer and one of his best bridge watch standers. "Officer of the Deck, sir."

"What is the CPA, Debbie?" Schmidt quickly asked again.

"The submarine's closest point of approach is...let me recheck on the radar...CBDR."

Constant Bearing Decreasing Range. Collision course. Christ, thought Schmidt, here I am with both shafts locked, about half the crew in the water, an XO trying to set up a disco on the fantail and a submarine bearing down on me.

Perfect.

At six feet tall, Debbie Smith was a full two inches taller than her commanding officer. She moved about the bridge briskly, with an athleticism that had served her well in her days as a volleyball player in college.

"Looks like the submarine is picking up speed, sir. CPA is dead on the bow. I'm trying to get the crew back aboard."

"Break out some flares, and have the signalmen flash her continuously. We need to know a nationality. I'm on my way up."

When Schmidt stepped into the pilot house, the Boatswain's Mate gave the traditional call, "Captain's on the bridge." Schmidt got a quick update from the OOD and walked straight to the radio.

"Surfaced submarine, this is United States naval destroyer Winston Churchill, channel sixteen, over."

Silence. The submarine's sail was clearly visible cutting through the water, perhaps four miles away. There was a big wake behind them. Man, they are clipping, thought Schmidt, and coming right for me.

"Submarine, submarine, dead ahead on my bow, this is U.S. naval destroyer Winston Churchill, channel sixteen. Request you alter course immediately. I am dead in the water and cannot maneuver. Request you alter course."

Nothing. Schmidt tried channels sixteen, thirteen, and twelve. The sub was closing fast. Inside of three miles. The more alert members of Churchill's crew were starting to climb the cargo nets to get up the side of the destroyer. Eric Clapton's "Layla" was blasting out of the fantail speakers.

Ellsworth, who had been standing and fidgeting next to the captain throughout the radio calls, began imagining how a collision with a submarine would end his career. I can't believe I'm steaming around the Med with this idiot cowboy CO, he thought. If my dad knew how many swim calls we've had in the last month, he'd roll over in his crypt at the Naval Academy cemetery.

Schmidt was getting slightly nervous. Who is this bozo? he wondered. The Russians hadn't been deploying to the Med much in recent years. The Syrians and the Israelis didn't venture this far east. Maybe the Libyans had finally figured out how to operate those Kilo-class subs they bought from the Soviets a decade ago.

Schmidt turned to the quartermaster. "Sound six blasts on the ship's whistle."

The few crew members who heard the horn blasts over the music began scrambling on board in earnest. The Master at Arms, Chief Petty Officer John Browner, tried to get the attention of the rest of the crew with a whistle he always carried around his neck like a badge of office. Unfortunately, he was largely drowned out by Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer."

Back on the bridge, a crackle on the radio...static...a burst of white noise, then "Churchill, this is American submarine. Is your Charlie Oscar available?"

No shit I'm available, thought Schmidt as he grabbed the radio. In the phonetic alphabet Charlie Oscar, the letters C and O indicated commanding officer. U.S. submarines rarely identified themselves on open circuits, even when everyone knew who they were. Secrecy carried to idiotic lengths, thought Schmidt. But he had to play the sub's game.

"Submarine on my bow, this is Churchill, Charlie Oscar. I am conducting hydrographic investigation in this area and have my shafts locked and divers in the water. Request you maintain at least a two-mile clearance from me, over."

The bridge team exchanged glances and smiles. Several didn't know exactly what "hydrographic investigation" was, but they knew Churchill wasn't doing it.

Static. A buzzing sound. The submarine slowed perceptibly, her range about four thousand yards. Her bow slowly swept away from Churchill and pointed west. Someone on the submarine's sail was waving his ball cap.

"Churchill, this is American submarine Charlie Oscar. Bill, this is Chet Hollomaker, and trust me, I don't need a periscope to see you're doing swim call. Hydro-graphic investigation. Right. You haven't changed since Annapolis."

At the sound of his Naval Academy classmate's voice, Bill Schmidt grinned. He'd heard that Hollomaker had recently taken command of the Los Angeles-class submarine Hartford. He looked around the bridge. Everyone was now smiling except Ellsworth.

Hollomaker and Schmidt had been in the same company when they were midshipmen at the Naval Academy. As a result, they'd spent a lot of time together during those trying four years. They had become friends, as close friends as two young men with completely different interests and personalities could be.

Hollomaker could have been pegged as a future submariner from his first day as a plebe. A physics major, he spent most of his very limited free time in his room poring over textbooks. The Lucky Bag, the academy's yearbook, listed the chess club, computer club, and the cross-country team as his only extracurricular activities. Schmidt, on the other hand, was rarely seen with his nose in a textbook. A liberal arts major at Annapolis, he told classmates that he saw studying as a sign of weakness. The arts and sciences are based on common sense, he said, and if you have a knack for them, you shouldn't need to study. The Lucky Bag listed a dozen organizations of which he was a member, including, in his senior year, the "Irish Cultural Society." Despite the fact that he had no Irish blood, Schmidt thought joining the group was a good idea, if for no other reason than to enjoy their parties.

Hydrographic investigation, thought the XO. The man has no shame.

"Hart...err American submarine, this is Churchill, roger, Chet. Slow down a little, will you? You looked like Victory at Sea powering down on me like that, and you scared the hell out of my crew, over."

"Churchill, this is American submarine, they don't look too scared to me. I can hear the music from here. Just thought we'd do a slow flyby and motor on. We're headed to Marseilles for some French Navy Day thing. Have a safe day, classmate. I think we're in an exercise together in the eastern Med in July, over."

"American submarine, this is Churchill. Roger, Chet, looking forward to it. You can come down my port side at a couple of thousand yards if you want. We'll be in Toulon while you're in Marseilles -- maybe we could meet in Saint-Raphael at the Excelsior Hotel. Send me a P4. Either way, we'll see you off Syria in a couple of months, over." Schmidt made the Excelsior his unofficial headquarters whenever his destroyer was in the Riviera port, and he hoped he could see Hollomaker. The P4 was Navy shorthand for a "Personal For" message, sometimes used as an informal communication between commanding officers.

"Churchill, this is American submarine. Roger, Bill, I'll see how the schedules look. We'll see you around the pond. American submarine standing by channel sixteen, out."

"Churchill standing by channel sixteen, out."

Schmidt ruminated as he walked back to the fantail for his slightly delayed swim. He could never serve on a submarine, he thought, although the extra sub pay would be nice. The seventy-day deterrent patrols of the ballistic missile submarines would have driven the sociable Schmidt to distraction. He wouldn't have been able to handle the isolation. Bill needed to be able to get away from his work from time to time and blow off steam. That wasn't possible as a bubble head. And he couldn't have endured life aboard a fast-attack submarine like the Hartford either. Although they get into port more often than the ballistic missile boats, when they are under way, those onboard see the same one hundred shipmates in very close proximity for days on end. The gregarious Schmidt needed more variety in his life.

He knew that the careful checklists and constant vigilance of submarine duty were beyond him.

Flying wasn't his thing either. The naval aviators Bill knew spent countless hours doing maintenance, preparation, and paperwork for every hour they spent in the air. It was a good thing he loved destroyers.

Destroyers are for stable extroverts, Schmidt thought. His classmates with excessive amounts of hubris chose aviation. You have to think you are invincible to try to land a jet aboard an aircraft carrier. The brainy introverts in his class tended to end up in submarines. They didn't mind the isolation and enjoyed memorizing countless tech manuals and checklists. But destroyer drivers were team players. They enjoyed taking their swift and agile ships on all manner of missions. They sprinted ahead of and around aircraft carriers, protecting the behemoths from harm. They hunted submarines and scanned the skies to keep unwanted and unknown aircraft away from the capital ships. They made solo visits to obscure ports to project U.S. power and interest. Destroyers gave Schmidt the freedom and opportunities he craved.

Not a brilliant student at Annapolis, Schmidt had survived by his gift for gab, a keen eye for "the gouge," information one needed to slide by, and above all the ability to come through in the clutch. There was a wildness about him that intrigued women and either appealed to or angered men, depending on their own level of self-confidence.

The fact that Schmidt had achieved command of Churchill just seventeen years out of Annapolis was a surprise to many of his classmates. Some considered it a miracle. Still single, captain of one of the best-equipped, most powerful destroyers in the world at age thirty-eight, and headed for a swim in the Med. Not bad, he thought, for a guy whose highest aspirations at Annapolis were making the lacrosse team and drinking a lot of Heineken.

As he crossed the after missile deck, Schmidt glanced at the sixty-four vertical launch cells, each containing a Tomahawk land-attack missile, a Standard antiair missile, or a rocket-propelled torpedo. He reflected about the strike power of the ship's cruise missiles that could fly over a thousand miles, the two heavily armed helicopters, the big five-inch gun up forward, the huge phased array radar and all the electronics known to man. All the best toys. Inwardly, he sighed. Still, a ship is a ship, but the crew is the heart, he thought. Bill Schmidt wasn't big on formally articulating his command philosophy, but that was basically it. And it worked pretty well for him. This was only the second deployment for the Churchill since she was commissioned in 2001. She was still state-of-the-art.

A crowd of Churchill crew members still concerned about the mystery submarine gathered around their captain as he emerged on to the fantail. "Nothing to worry about, folks. Just an old classmate of mine from Boat School playing 'Chicken of the Sea.'"

Schmidt looked around at the relieved smiling faces of his crew and momentarily felt the weight of his responsibility for keeping them safe. Over three hundred people on board who think I'm their daddy. Schmidt felt the need to break the mood. Although it w...

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