Thursday, November 24, 2016

Silent Ship, Silent Sea

This is the last one. Over the past few months, I've been periodically posting about 3 specific novels and an anthology that I remembered reading when I was about 11-years old. For years, I was unable to remember or identify the titles or authors of these books. But recently, I hit the jackpot with all of them. I've written about the two PT boat novels HERE and HERE--and the anthology HERE.

All I remembered about this last one was that it was set on a destroyer fighting in the Pacific. The main character is a young sailor who takes it upon himself to start yelling "Abandon Ship!" when the destroyer is damaged during an air attack. I also remembered he got in trouble for also putting in too much information about the destroyer's location in a letter home. Later, though, he and the captain are the only two still aboard when the the destroyer has been abandoned for real and taken in tow by a Japanese ship. Since I was 11 when I read it, it's not surprising that I also remembered the gruesome detail of the captain killing a Japanese soldier with a fire axe.

The book, I've since discovered, is Silent Ship, Silent Sea (1967), by Robb White--who also wrote Torpedo Run. White has himself been a navy officer, so he knew his stuff and filled his novels with authentic detail.

Even taking into account that its been decades since I've read the book, I was surprised at how much cool stuff in it I'd forgotten. The protagonist is Kelsey Devereux, who was supposed to be on his way to Officer Candidate School, but instead got assigned to the destroyer Caron as a lowly seaman. This alone gets him razzed by his shipmates. When he does start yelling "Abandon Ship!" and convinces several other men to jump overboard with him after an enemy plan crashes into the superstructure, he he becomes the most hated man aboard.

At first, Kelsey seems to be a bit of a jerk. And there's no denying that he was in an immature snit for awhile after joining the Caron. But dealing with bullies and buckling down to do his job helps him mature quickly. Soon, he has a few friends and the captain has taken a slightly more positive view of him.

In the meantime, the Caron is in trouble. The damage from the plane crash is severe enough to get them sent back to Australia. But on the way there, they get hit by a torpedo. With the rest of the nearby Allied ships getting torn apart by the Japanese at the Battle of Savo Island, the Caron is on her own. There's no working radio, the engines aren't working and they have no choice but to ration food and spend over a month drifting to Australia.

The guns work well enough to take out a Japanese sub that surfaces nearby after its fooled into thinking the Caron is abandoned. But a typhoon then rips up most of the remaining weapons and leaves the ship even lower in the water than it already was. The crew now really does abandon ship, swimming to a nearby island--though the Captain stays behind. Kelsey--on his own initiative--also stays behind.

So when a Japanese destroyer shows up, puts a few sailors aboard and takes the Caron in tow, the two Americans have to do something about it. But that means somehow sinking the enemy ship, even though their only available ship-killing weapon is a torpedo without a working propeller.

Silent Ship, Silent Sea is fantastic. The chapter dealing with the typhoon--with a scene in which the damaged ship nearly capsizes--is particularly gripping, though the chapters in which the two Americans silently dispose of the Japanese boarding party and  desperately try to figure out how to blow up the other destroyer is equally enthralling.

Kelsey's character arc is fascinating to follow: You really don't like him that much at first, but then you come to change your mind about him as he progresses as a person along a believable, organic path. And you come to care about the Caron herself as much as both the Captain and Kelsey do.

So that's the last of the World War II novels I've spent my adult life searching for. My quest is finally over. It's a quest I would have gladly spent my fortune and betrayed friends & family to fulfill. Now I don't have to--so everyone I know can now rest easy.

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