Herman Wouk ‘The Caine Mutiny’

At the instant that Mrs. Keith saw Willie swallowed up, she remembered that she had neglected an important transaction. She ran to the entrance of Furnald Hall. The chief stopped her as she laid a hand on the doorknob. “Sorry, madam. No admittance.” “That was my son who just went in.” “Sorry, madam.” “I only want to see him for a moment. I must speak to him. He forgot something.”IMG_1107“They’re taking physicals in there, madam. There are men walking around with nothing on.” … “Madam,” said the chief, with a note in his rasping voice that was not unkind, “he’s in the Navy now.” Mrs. Keith suddenly blushed. “I’m sorry.” “Okay, okay. You’ll see him again soon—maybe Saturday.” The mother opened her purse and began to fish in it. “You see, I promised—the fact is, he forgot to take his spending money…. suppose he wants some? I promised him. Please take the money——Pardon me, but I’d be happy to give you something for your trouble.” The chief’s gray eyebrows rose. “That won’t be necessary.” He wagged his head like a dog shaking off flies, and accepted the bills. Up went the eyebrows again. “Madam—this here is a hundred dollars!” He stared at her. Mrs. Keith was struck with an unfamiliar sensation—shame at being better off than most people. “Well,” she said defensively, “it isn’t every day he goes to fight a war.” “I’ll take care of it, madam.” …The chief looked after her, then glanced at the two fifties fluttering in his hand. “One thing,” he muttered, “we’re sure as hell getting a new kind of Navy.” He thrust the bills into a pocket.

In this 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Herman Wouk brings us ‘The’ story of the Pacific war or more precisely a study of the wartime Navy told by way of a Bildungsroman of young Willie Keith on the more or less obsolete mine sweeper, the Caine. The opening quote illustrates the difference between the peace time Navy, illustrated by the Chief and of the new Navy with officers from different walks of life, we can imagine that ‘two fifties’ as pocket money was not the norm for peacetime enlisted  officers.

Who was Willie at the outset? He had a Princeton education which left him wanting to be a night club piano player and he had the prejudices of his class where the following quotes illustrate his views of women and of religion:

—in Willie’s world familiarity with opera was a mark of high breeding—unless you were an Italian. Then it became a mere racial quirk of a lower social group, and lost its cachet. Marie Minotti was someone Willie could cope with. She was pigeonholed after all as a mere night-club singer, if a very pretty one. The feeling that he was tumbling into a real relationship was an illusion. He knew perfectly well that he would never marry an Italian. They were mostly poor, untidy, vulgar, and Catholic. This did not at all imply that the fun was at an end. On the contrary, he could now more safely enjoy being with the girl, since nothing was going to come of it.

—Her agent and coach, Marty Rubin, came several times each week to watch her. After her performance he would spend an hour or more talking to her at a table or in her dressing room. He was a short stout moon-faced man, perhaps thirty-five, with pale hair and very thick rimless eyeglasses. The exaggerated breadth of shoulder and fullness of trouser in his suits showed they were bought on Broadway, but the colors were quiet browns or grays. Willie spoke to him casually. He was quite sure Rubin was a Jew, but thought no less of him for that. Willie liked Jews as a group, for their warmth, humor, and alertness. This was true though his home was in a real-estate development where Jews could not buy.

After military training, Keith is transferred to the Caine as an Ensign from where he is able to witness and take part in the events leading up to the Caine Mutiny. The Caine is taken over by the new Captain, a tyrannical, cowardly career officer who cannot come to terms with the relative leniency on officers and men that actual wartime engagement requires. The officers and men soon notice that when there is action he is always to be found on the opposite side of the ship and he avoids engagement with the enemy so that the crew  nickname him old yellow stain, or as the officer Keefer says:

You can’t say he isn’t on the ball, invasion or no invasion Dewsley does his assignment, you never saw a more fearless wielder of a checklist than old yellow stain.

Willie Keith, still a relatively young officer is on deck during the Typhoon when Queeg freezes putting the ship and the lives of his crew in danger and goes along with the decision of the executive officer Maryk to relieve Queeg of his command, the central event of the book, we know he was right to do it and that he would be wrong in the Navy’s eyes.

Events eventually come full circle when Willie, as executive officer saves the ship after the new captain, Keefer, abandons ship during a Kamikaze attack. He however remains loyal to the Captain:

I now see pretty clearly that the mutiny was mostly Kiefer’s doing though I have to take a lot of the blame and so does Maryk and I see that we were in the wrong, we transferred to Queeg the hatred we should have felt for Hitler and the Japs….our disloyalty made things twice as hard for Queeg and for ourselves.

This book is an epic story of the Pacific war seen through the eyes of small cogs in a big wheel, that elusive creature, an enjoyable war time story. I will now have to dig out the film!

First Published in English as “The Caine Mutiny” in 1951 by Doubleday

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