(This column was first published in the March 22, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
I realize that not many readers of this column are or have been associated with the navy. Despite this, I address the following comments to my fellow seamen. Others who insist on persevering will have to read over their shoulders.
The first of the two books I consider here deserves its reputation as the finest novel about our navy ever written -- Marcus Goodrich's Delilah. It was originally published in 1941 and has now been republished by Lyons Press with an added introduction by James Michener. It is about a destroyer serving in the Philippines just before World War I. The second is Edward P. Stafford's Sub-Chaser (Warner Books, 1988), the true story of one of those fragile little World War II wooden boats that played minor roles in that war, this one in the Atlantic and Mediterranean at the time of our invasion of Sicily and the Italian mainland.
Before I read Delilah, I would have named The Caine Mutiny as the best novel about our navy. No longer. Both books are remarkable but this one provides far deeper insights into what it is like to serve at sea. And some of its incidents come so close to my own experience that the book seemed to be about the ship on which I served.
Although I joined the navy on my 17th birthday in early 1944, I did not join my ship until mid-1946 after (thank goodness) the war was over. So my experience was in the peacetime navy as is that of Delilah's crew. There is no "action" here but the small incidents of a few months are magnified in this leisurely recounted tale. By the time you finish reading this book, you know every officer, every crew member intimately. And you know how and why they act the way they do. I promise you that this book has every nuance down perfectly.
Consider what Goodrich has to say about command:
"Sleep, for him, at anchor or under way, day or night, became a matter of occasional naps dozed into semi-consciously while he stood on the bridge, a steadying hand on the gray-painted, canvas wind-breaker, or as he was stretched out on his bunk, fully dressed except for his shoes and cap, or as he sat in a chair on the quarter-deck, the backs of his joined hands over his eyes.... His presence in the ship was so relentlessly supervisory, so powerfully at the back of its life, that his contact was almost exclusively an indirect one, devoid of the savor and satisfaction of doing or finding out things for himself. He even did not dare to stand and watch the men working on the engines. They would get nervous, drop their tools or something of the sort.
"A woman had asked him once, while he and Ensign Woodbridge had been dining ashore with some civilians: "Just what do you do on the ship, Captain?"
"For a second he had tried to think of something he actually did do. Finally, he had had to answer truthfully: 'Not much of anything, I guess.'
"Ensign Woodbridge, seeing he was going to let it rest at that, had said sardonically: 'Oh, he just takes the responsibility. If I run the ship on the rocks, or the man in the engine-room fails to stop her and she piles up on the dock, they court-martial him.'
"'But suppose he's not to blame; suppose he's in bed or something like that when it happens?'
"'No matter; he's to blame just the same; even if it happens while he's ashore.'
"...The Captain never can be just a man from Illinois who sleeps in rumpled pajamas, makes mistakes about history and uses his finger, when he thinks no one is looking, to push food onto his fork. Familiarity, when it is permitted to prevail, if it does not breed the proverbial contempt, certainly breeds between the giver and receiver of an order, an order that may lead to death or frightful mutilation, at least two things impairing the confidence, the aggressiveness and the speed with which a battle crisis must be met.
"First, in the giver of the order, it breeds a realization that if he takes this step, which in his judgment is exigently indicated, it may convert into a gory horror that tall, ruddy-faced man who has the next chair at dinner.... The order may be given; but the doubts, emotional stresses and temptations to rationalization, set up then, distract from the almost inhuman concentration on the development of the battle that must prevail, if those already dead in the struggle are not to have died in vain and the battle is to be won.
"Second, in the receiver of the order, familiarity breeds the constant reminder that the giver is merely a human being like himself, that the tactics on which he bases the summons to death may be as faulty as his familiar table manners, that he may be as mistaken here, in this fatal matter, as he was the other night at dinner in regards to the basic causes of the War Between the States. In the end, the order may be obeyed; but the slight taint of hesitation, dissatisfaction and lack of confidence in the obedience may be quite sufficient to infect a hundred surrounding men, lead to a half-hearted spurt where fury, accuracy and decisiveness are imperative. It was no crowd of cronies that responded with lethal alacrity to the command, 'Damn the torpedoes! Go ahead!'"
Okay, that may be -- even expurgated as I have presented it -- a little heavy handed, but that is indeed what command is about. The captain of my ship (who held the rank of captain, unlike Captain Borden of Delilah, a Lieutenant Commander, and Captain Stafford of the sub-chaser, a Lieutenant junior grade, the second lowest among commissioned officers) was a man in his 50s who had a beautiful, much younger wife. When she visited me in the hospital, I recall being struck dumb. So this passage about the Delilah captain's wife I found on the mark:
"Laura, the Captain's wife, was the only woman any of the crew ever had seen aboard Delilah, and even her visits were rare. Nevertheless, the ship was populated by women, women who never had seen each other, women who slept and ate in houses often thousands of miles apart ... a prosperous woman who knelt in a clean New England church ... a whore in Brooklyn ... a spare, barefooted woman slowly dying on a dank field in Alabama ... a white-haired matron who chaperoned dances in Baltimore ... a woman who each day filled a dinner-pail in Akron ... a woman in the Green Mountains ... a cloud of women, nostalgic, powerful, ever-present, that rested upon the ship as a cloud embraces a mountain top.... One of them stood behind Ensign Snell at table and told him how to eat his soup. One placed a muffler around Petrie's neck when he went on watch on a damp night; and to another, a bedraggled woman on an Illinois farm, a man had made his last appeal when Delilah crushed him in an engine-room: 'Mom,' he had whispered, 'Mom ... Mom.'
"Although the men knew little about her, save her appearance and that she was a Senator's daughter, they did deeply respect her. Perhaps if Wright, the Seaman, for example, had been asked quickly in private by the right person why he respected her, and he had answered just as quickly before stopping to think that he did not know, he might have answered: 'Because she loves him.'
"Once when she had started off on a trip to be gone for a few months, she had sent him a radiogram back from her steamer at sea. Delilah's apparatus being temporarily out of commission, the message, 'I love you,' had been received by the station ashore and then semaphored out to Delilah, anchored off Cavite. Bidot, the Quartermaster on watch, had been profoundly embarrassed on receiving the message, and as he had delivered it, carefully folded, to the Captain, he had stood more rigidly than usual at attention, his face almost lifeless with formality. The rest of the crew had been just as acutely disturbed by this message, for its transmission had been observed by a number of men about the deck who understood semaphore, and who had instantly made public this unprecedented communication. It was not because his wife was in love with him that they were upset. They would have been definitely indignant if she had not loved him, this man whom they accepted so thoroughly, who aroused in many of them a warm enthusiasm; but it was because the message, as a message to him, seemed somehow outrageously inappropriate. Never again, however, would they envision him, small, wrinkled, his hair ineptly combed, save through the added cogency, the glow of this woman's love."
This book is about peacetime, yes, but there are violent episodes here and death too. If you've ever served in the navy, read it and reminisce; if you haven't served in the navy, read it and learn.
I was led to Sub-Chaser by my brother who served on an LST partly protected by this very SC 692 a few months after this narrative ends. That service was in the English Channel just after the D-Day invasion of France. My brother commended the book to me as a good account of what his service was like. And it is just that, I am sure. Written as a day-by-day log of service, it perfectly conveys the excitement of the time as well as the good or bad fortune that made the difference between life and death. It was a time when barely trained and sometimes incompetent officers had to take responsibility for small ships and the men who manned them. Consider, for example, the case of a LCT flotilla that Stafford found sailing across the Mediterranean 100 degrees off course:
"I found out that the ensign in charge, the night dark with the coast lost to view, had decided to steer by the stars, a phrase he had read somewhere but had not entirely understood. Instead of picking out the essentially stationary North Star, in that latitude about a third of the way toward the zenith, and keeping it broad on his port bow to maintain the required northeasterly heading, he had simply picked a convenient but unidentified bright star dead ahead and kept his bow on it. As the star moved across the sky from east to west (as stars are wont to do), it pulled his bow around to the north before fading into the dawn, a course to which this ensign had steadfastly held until the 692 providentially arrived."
Thankfully, World War II marked the twilight of racial prejudice in the armed forces. To this Stafford's shipboard policy contributed:
"Thanks almost entirely to the skilled pitching of Cleveland Hedge Ray, age eighteen, the 692's only mess attendant and only black, that little ship remains undefeated to this day. Ray was also the best lookout, quick, alert, and willing to take on any task assigned. The assignment of a mess attendant to an SC, especially in a combat area, was a nonsensical hangover from bigger ships in peacetime. After that special farewell luncheon in Key West, Ray was never again required to perform the duties of a steward: dishing up the officers' meals back in the galley; stowing them in a special shelved box with a handle on top; and transporting the box up the ladder from the galley, along the deck, and down the ladder into the wardroom where the meals were served. After Key West, Ray was incorporated into the crew as a valued watchstander who pulled more than his weight. And at softball he was a true champion."
And there is even a connection between these two books.
"Tuesday would be the last day in Oran, and the little ship was busy running around the harbor to top off with fuel and water. The fuel came from the LST 380, whose cordial skipper invited me to dinner. It was an invitation I later regretted declining because the 380's CO turned out to be Marcus Goodrich, the author of DELILAH, one of the great sea stories of this century."
Another fine tale, well told.-- Gerry Rising