Herman Wouk’s World War II epics The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War are probably two of my all time favorite historicals. Wouk’s strengths lie in his ability to create a believable world. When you read The Caine Mutiny, you find yourself on the Caine. But in a larger sense, both books are romances – I’m of the opinion that all novels have a romance at their heart. Willie Keith’s quest for Mae Wynn is, in many ways, ultimately as important as the mutiny itself.
In brief, the story follows the adventures of Willie Keith, a budding pianist and scion of a wealthy New York family. While his parents would prefer that Willie study literature, he wants only to play the piano in bars. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, he meets a beautiful singer, Mae Wynn, and as their affair heats up, Willie is forced to join the Navy for officer training rather than be drafted as an enlisted man.
Willie is assigned to an antiquated minesweeper/destroyer, the USS Caine, a rust bucket of a ship and one that sees mostly menial duties in the Pacific, almost never sees combat. Until they encounter a typhoon one night, while the ship is commanded by Captain Philip Queeg, a deeply-flawed man. Fearful that the captain’s actions will cause the ship to founder and sink, the officers essentially mutiny and relieve the captain of his command.
I loved this book when I first read it, and it is one of those that I can re-read time and time again. But it was brought home to me again in the fall of 2002. I took a job through the Navy College to teach courses onboard one of our amphibious ships during its Atlantic crossing and Med cruise. But what should have been a pleasure cruise turned into a cruise into war.
Wouk’s strengths lie in creating atmosphere, the tedium of life onboard ship, the tension of those rare and fleeting moments of combat, the petty tyrannies of an overbearing captain. And while I felt all of those emotions when I first read Wouk, it was only on that cruise that I understood how truly accurate and skillful Herman Wouk really was.
There was the Atlantic crossing where rough seas sent dozens of sailors to their bunks. Standing the bridge during our Gibraltar transit when a small fishing boat came at us from the Moroccan coast, refusing to divert or even acknowledge our hails. The fear and suspense when we were ordered through the Suez Canal and into a war zone. The uncertainty when al-Qaeda was reported to be planning attacks on US ships with small aircraft. The palpable tension when we were ordered near the Yemen coast to participate in a search and rescue mission, that could have been a ploy to get us close enough to launch a USS Cole type attack.
And there were the captains, neither really Queeg-like, but each with his own idiosyncrasies. The captain who stormed across the bridge, cursing and demanding that a machine gun be brought to the bridge so he could fire the first shot. It was a coed ship – something that neither Willie Keith nor Captain Queeg had to face – and one captain would not allow men and women to sit within three feet of each other. And when we had “steel beach picnics” – cookouts on the flight deck – he would not allow men and women to dance together.
Although I had already placed The Caine Mutiny on my favorite book list, after that cruise, it moved to that even shorter list of books of a lifetime.
Tony Hays it the author of an Arthurian Mystery series featuring The Killing Way, The Divine Sacrifice, and the recently released The Beloved Dead.