Thursday, September 1, 2016
Mutiny on a small boat
When I was maybe 11 years old, I found a book about PT boats in the public library. It was a young adult novel whose title I forgot, but years later I could still remember certain key elements about it. I do remember thoroughly enjoying it.
For a long time, I was unable to identify the book again. I didn't remember title, author or enough of the plot to narrow it down. Also, it turns out, that I had actually read two different young adult novels set aboard a PT boat. In my memory, I was combining elements of both these novels into one non-existent book, making my quest that much harder.
I discovered this a few years ago, when I found a copy of Torpedo Run on Iron Bottomed Bay, by John Clagett. This was definitely one I read as a kid, but it didn't include one of the characters I remembered. It was then I realized I was indeed remembering two separate books. Gee whiz, I thought I had fulfilled my quest but was only half-way there.
Recently, I tried again and found a copy of Torpedo Run, by Robb White (1962). It is not the second PT boat novel from my childhood. But it turned out to be quite good and was well worth reading.
The main character is Peter Brent, the second-in-command of a PT boat nicknamed Slewfoot by the crew. When the book opens, Peter and the crew are burying their captain, who had been killed on the last mission.
He'd been a good captain and Slewfoot had built up an impressive record in attacking Japanese ships and barges trying to sneak reinforcements into New Guinea each night. So the loss of their commander is a serious blow.
The crew, though, is confident that Peter will also be a good commander. The next night, they at first think they might be badly mistaken when Peter seems to be reluctant to attack some Japanese transports. But Peter suspected a trap--guessing that some destroyers were hiding behind the transports, using the bulk of the larger ships to hide both visually and from radar.
He's right and is thus able to maneuver Slewfoot for an attack on the destroyers. These leads to the first of several superbly described action scenes.
But Slewfoot will not remain a happy boat. Peter isn't allowed to permanently take command. A brand-new and completely inexperienced officer named Adrian Archer is given that post.
Archer is a spit-and-polish disciplinarian who quickly alienates the crew. By itself, enforcing strict military discipline is usually a good thing in a military unit, so I was at first curious to see what direction the book took with this. In fact, it had been established that the crew had become a little lax in some of the maintenance needed to keep the boat in prime condition.
But Peter makes an effective argument that a small unit (the crew numbers just a dozen men) in an isolated post has to have a more relaxed manner of doing things and he seems to be right. Archer's leadership style damages morale in a very real way.
But his views on discipline aren't the only thing that makes Archer unpopular. He's also stubborn and unwilling to learn, making several decisions while Slewfoot is at sea that endanger the boat and the crew. Soon, several of the crew are openly considering defying Archer, while others shy away from this. Peter, as an officer, can't openly take the crew's side even when he thinks Archer is wrong. Soon, a crew that worked together so well is about to come apart at the seams.
One dark night, when Archer refuses to open fire on Japanese barge because it hasn't been clearly identified yet, the barge has a chance to shoot first. A crewman is seriously wounded and the Slewfoot's engines are wrecked. Now they are drifting towards the Philippines, which are 2000 miles away and occupied by the Japanese. Archer, though, still makes decisions that tick off the crew and put them in greater danger. Peter finally reaches a point where he feels he has to step forward and take command.
But Archer might have depth to him that the others haven't recognized.
Torpedo Run is a great war story filled with three-dimensional characters. As a young adult novel, the violence is never described in an overtly graphic manner and the characters don't use some of the saltier language that sailors commonly used in real life. But that's fine. Robb White gives us guys we accept as real and who all believably act and react according to their own personalities.
The book never uses its status as a young adult novel to shy away from difficult subjects. Is the crew right to consider mutiny? Is Archer right to enforce strict military discipline, even if he is clearly wrong in his combat decisions? Was a crewman right to fire back at an American bomber that mistook them for Japanese and attacked them?
The last 50 or so pages of the book, with the exhausted crew trying to tow Slewfoot into the path of an island (using a rubber raft and oars) and then dealing with a possible attack from local cannibals, is real edge-of-your-seat stuff.