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The Caine Mutiny
A Novel of World War II
By Herman Wouk
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Table of Contents
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Preface to This Edition
Herewith, by way of introducing this edition of The Caine Mutiny, is an account of the book's origin, from the perspective of the half-century since publication. It is excerpted from a memoir of my literary life which I have laid aside, to get on with that life by writing a new novel.
Somewhere in the South Pacific, early in 1945, I reported as executive officer to the USS Southard, an old destroyer-minesweeper much like the mythical Caine. Consulting the Navy regulations about my duties, I came upon three articles—184, 185, and 186—which struck me as a startling break in the chain of command, for they provided that if a ship's captain showed signs of disabling mental disturbance, his executive officer could relieve him. Here was a theme for a book or play, I thought, but not for me; too serious, the scope too broad. Before the war I had been making a living as a scriptwriter for the great radio comedian Fred Allen. My long suit was comedy, and where were the laughs?
My first two novels, Aurora Dawn and City Boy, were in the main comic tales, and I remain proud of them as early work. They showed little capacity to handle a panoramic war drama of mutiny at sea, yet the theme continued to haunt me, and I resolved to have a go at it. I had a wife and baby to support, and we had extended ourselves to buy a home with a sizable mortgage. There are few spurs to act like the need for money. Through good days and bad days, through exalted moods and black moods, I produced pages. In my diary of the time, now browning around the edges, I noted at a low point, "I am trying to play a symphony on a solo piccolo." I wrote and wrote into and through the typhoon, the court-martial, and the kamikaze attack, to my dubiously happy ending, and finished the novel in little more than a year.
Those were the primitive days before the computer. My wife typed the entire book twice, every page layered with eight carbons and eight onionskin sheets, so that my agent could have copies to submit around. The firm of Alfred A. Knopf, after a first look at a partial manuscript and outline of the rest, rejected The Caine Mutiny. Doubleday, a big commercial publisher, was taking a flyer on it, with a contract tying up two more novels in case The Caine Mutiny failed to earn back a prudent advance. In the subsidiary markets, which were then very important, my agent ran into a brick wall. No magazine wanted the serial rights. No book club wanted the club rights. No New York movie scout showed the faintest interest in the film rights. The general comment reported to me was "Nobody is interested in World War II anymore."
Early in 1951 there appeared a gigantic army novel, From Here to Eternity, at once beautiful and brutal, about the war nobody was interested in anymore. It won critical hurrahs and instant vast popularity, and my book came out in its shadow to a discouragingly poor start. As the months went by, however, the Doubleday people gradually turned animated and adulatory, claiming that things were looking up. They advised me to go and see for myself at Macy's, which was having a price war on the two books with Gimbel's (now extinct). It was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime sight, people lining up through the department store and out into the street just to buy my novel, or From Here to Eternity, or both.
The two big book clubs woke up and belatedly selected The Caine Mutiny. Magazines offered, too late, to serialize the novel. Film interest burgeoned, tempered only by concern that Navy cooperation might be hard to get because of Captain Queeg. This total turnabout of the smart money, once the public seized on my work, was only human I daresay, but ridiculous all the same. The Caine Mutiny was exactly the same novel these professionals had all read with eyes that did not see. I learned then, and have never forgotten, that the common reader makes or breaks novels, from Kafka's immortal visions to today's ephemeral thrillers, from Don Quixote to Remembrance of Things Past. I have been emboldened by this early perception to write exactly as I please, all through my literary life. It has not worked out badly, so far.
And now the old USS Caine (DMS22) sails on into its second half-century. The military and moral issues the book raises, and the art that has given it long life, are subjects beyond the scope of a preface, not to mention that when all is said and done, a good book should speak for itself. The Caine Mutiny has won its niche in American literature. It was the book that gave my name a sound while my fourth novel, Marjorie Morningstar, was taking shape in a pile of yellow pages. My own opinion of the novel, once I actually wrote it, was measured. I noted in my diary, "This is a good book, or I am the more deceived, but it is not yet my War Novel." Ahead, far down the years, challenging tasks awaited, including The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.
From the Navy Regulations
It is conceivable that most unusual and extraordinary circumstances may arise in which the relief from duty of a commanding officer by a subordinate becomes necessary, either by placing him under arrest or on the sick list; but such action shall never be taken without the approval of the Navy Department or other appropriate higher authority, except when reference to such higher authority is undoubtedly impracticable because of the delay involved or for other clearly obvious reason. Such reference must set forth all facts in the case, and the reasons for the recommendation, with particular regard to the degree of urgency involved.
Conditions to fulfill.
In order that a subordinate officer, acting upon his own initiative, may be vindicated for relieving a commanding officer from duty, the situation must be obvious and clear, and must admit of the single conclusion that the retention of command by such commanding officer will seriously and irretrievably prejudice the public interests. The subordinate officer so acting must be next in lawful succession to command; must be unable to refer the matter to a common superior for one of the reasons set down in Article 184; must be certain that the prejudicial actions of his commanding officer are not caused by secret instructions unknown to the subordinate; must have given the matter such careful consideration, and must have made such exhaustive investigation of all the circumstances, as may be practicable; and finally must be thoroughly convinced that the conclusion to relieve his commanding officer is one which a reasonable, prudent, and experienced officer would regard as a necessary consequence from the facts thus determined to exist.
Intelligently fearless initiative is an important trait of military character, and it is not the purpose to discourage its employment in cases of this nature. However, as the action of relieving a superior from command involves most serious possibilities, a decision so to do or so to recommend should be based upon facts established by substantial evidence, and upon the official views of others in a position to form valuable opinions, particularly of a technical character. An officer relieving his commanding officer or recommending such action, together with all others who so counsel, must bear the legitimate responsibility for, and must be prepared to justify, such action.
It was not a mutiny in the old-time sense, of course, with flashing of cutlasses, a captain in chains, and desperate sailors turning outlaws. After all, it happened in 1944 in the United States Navy. But the court of inquiry recommended trial for mutiny, and the episode became known as "the Caine mutiny" throughout the service.
The story begins with Willie Keith because the event turned on his personality as the massive door of a vault turns on a small jewel bearing.
Through the Looking Glass
He was of medium height, somewhat chubby, and good looking, with curly red hair and an innocent, gay face, more remarkable for a humorous air about the eyes and large mouth than for any strength of chin or nobility of nose. He had graduated from Princeton in 1941 with high marks in all subjects except mathematics and sciences. His academic specialty had been comparative literature. But his real career at Princeton had consisted of playing the piano and inventing bright little songs for parties and shows.
He kissed his mother good-by on the sidewalk near the corner of Broadway and 116th Street in New York City, on a cold sunny morning in December 1942. The family Cadillac was parked beside them, its motor running, but maintaining a well-bred silence. Around them stood the dingy gray-and-red buildings of Columbia University.
"Don't you think," said Mrs. Keith, smiling bravely, "that we might stop in that drugstore first and have a sandwich?"
She had driven her son to the midshipmen school from their home in Manhasset, despite Willie's protests. Willie had wanted to take the train. It would have seemed more like departing for the wars; he did not like being escorted to the gates of the Navy by his mother. But Mrs. Keith had prevailed as usual. She was a large, wise, firm woman, as tall as her son, and well endowed with brow and jaw. This morning she was wearing a fur-trimmed brown cloth coat instead of mink, to match the austerity of the event. Beneath her mannish brown hat her hair showed the dominant red strain that had reappeared in her only child. Otherwise there was little resemblance between mother and son.
"The Navy'll feed me, Mom. Don't worry."
He kissed her for the second time and glanced nervously about, hoping that no military men were observing the overtender scene. Mrs. Keith pressed his shoulder lovingly.
"I know you'll do wonderfully, Willie. Just as you always have."
"Aye aye, Mother." Willie strode along the brick walk past the School of Journalism, and down a few steps to the entrance of Furnald Hall, formerly a dormitory for law students. A grizzled, pudgy Navy chief with four red service stripes on his blue coat stood in the doorway. Mimeographed papers in his hand flapped in the breeze. Willie wondered whether to salute, and swiftly decided that the gesture did not go well with a brown raglan coat and green pork-pie hat. He had completely forgotten his mother.
"You V-7?" The chief's voice was like a shovelful of pebbles dropped on tin.
"Aye aye." Willie grinned self-consciously. The chief returned the grin and appraised him briefly with, it seemed, an affectionate eye. He handed Willie four sheets clipped together.
"You're starting a new life. Good luck."
"Thank you, sir." For three weeks Willie was to make the mistake of calling chiefs "sir."
The chief opened the door invitingly. Willis Seward Keith stepped out of the sunshine across the threshold. It was done as easily and noiselessly as Alice's stepping through the looking glass; and like Alice, Willie Keith passed into a new and exceedingly strange world.
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."
"I only want to see him for a moment. I must speak to him. He forgot something."
"They're taking physicals in there, madam. There are men walking around with nothing on."
Mrs. Keith was not used to being argued with. Her tone sharpened. "Don't be absurd. There he is, just inside the door. I can rap and call him out."
She could see her son plainly, his back toward her, grouped with several other young men around an officer who was talking to them. The chief glanced dourly through the door. "He seems to be busy."
Mrs. Keith gave him a look appropriate to fresh doormen. She rapped on the glass of the outer door with her diamond ring and cried, "Willie! Willie!" But her son did not hear her call from the other world.
"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. He hasn't a cent. Would you be kind enough to give these to him?"
"Madam, he won't need money." The chief made an uneasy pretense of leafing through the papers he held. "He'll be getting paid pretty soon."
"But meantime—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."
"Thank you," said Mrs. Keith, and then, vaguely, "I'm sorry."
The mother closed with a polite smile, and walked off to her Cadillac. 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.
Meanwhile, Willie Keith, spearhead of the new Navy, advanced to war; which, for the moment, took the form of a glittering array of inoculation needles. Willie was not angry at Hitler nor even at the Japanese, though he disapproved of them. The enemy in this operation lay not before him, but behind. Furnald Hall was sanctuary from the United States Army.
He was jabbed swiftly for several tropical ailments. The bugs thus liberated whirled down his bloodstream. His arm began to ache. He was ordered to strip naked, and his clothes were carried off in a heap by a burly sailor.
"Hey, when do I get those back?"
"Who knows? Looks like a long war," the sailor growled, and mashed the green hat under his arm. Willie followed with anxious eyes as his old identity was hauled away to camphor balls.
With forty other upright pink animals he was herded into a large examination room. His lungs, liver, heart, eyes, ears, all the apparatus he had been using since birth, were investigated by hard-eyed pharmacist's mates, who prodded and poked him like suspicious women about to buy a turkey in a market.
"Stand up straight, sir." The last pharmacist's mate of the line-up was eying him critically. Willie stiffened. It unnerved him to see, out of the corner of his eye, that the examiner looked very dissatisfied.
"Bend over and touch your toes."
Willie tried, but years of overeating barred the way. His fingers hung eight inches from his toes. He tried the ancient mode of cheating—
"Without bending the knees, please."
Willie straightened, took a deep breath, and tried to snap himself double. Something gave in his spine with an ugly crack. There were four inches to go.
"You wait." The pharmacist walked away, and returned with a lieutenant characterized by a black mustache, puffy eyes, and a stethoscope. "Look at that, sir."
"That" was Willie, erect as he could get.
"Can he touch?"
"Hell, no, sir. Hardly gets past his knees."
"Well, that's quite a breadbasket he's got."
Willie hauled in his stomach, too late.
"I don't care about the breadbasket," said the pharmacist's mate. "This joker has a hollow back."
The naked candidates behind Willie on line were fidgeting and murmuring.
"There is a lordosis, no doubt of it."
"Well, do we survey him out?"
"I don't know if it's that serious."
"Well, I ain't gonna pass him on my responsibility. You can, sir."
The doctor picked up Willie's record. "How about the pulse?"
"I didn't bother. What's the point if he's a lordosis?"
The doctor took Willie's wrist. His eyes emerged in surprise from the red puffs. "Ye gods, boy—are you sick?"
Willie could feel his blood galloping past the doctor's fingers. Various tropical bacteria, and above all, the shadow of the United States Army were pushing up his pulse rate.
"No, just worried."
"I don't blame you. How on earth did you get past the receiving station? Did you know the doctor?"
"Sir, I may be chubby, but I play six hours of tennis at a stretch. I climb mountains."
"There's no mountains at sea," said the pharmacist's mate. "You're Army meat, my friend."
"Shut up, Warner," said the doctor, noticing in the record that Willie was a Princeton man. "Leave pulse and back vacant. Send him down to Captain Grimm at the Navy Yard for a recheck."
"Aye aye, sir." The doctor left. Sullenly, the pharmacist's mate took a red pencil, scrawled on a memo pad, "Lordosis—Pulse," and clipped the crimson indictment to Willie's record. "Okay. Report to the exec's office right after inspection tomorrow, Mister Keith. Best of luck."
"Same to you," said Willie. They exchanged a look of pure hate, remarkable on such short acquaintance, and Willie moved off.
The Navy now dressed him in blue jumper and trousers, black shoes, black socks, and a perky sailor hat, marked with the special blue stripe of a midshipman. Then it filled his arms with books, of all shapes, colors, sizes, and degrees of wear. As Willie left the book-issuing room, seeing his way with some difficulty over the pile of prose in his arms, a sailor at the door laid on top a stack of mimeographed sheets which brought the heap level with his eyebrows. Willie craned his neck around the corner of his burden, and sidled crabwise to the elevator—the "HOIST," said a freshly lettered sign over the push buttons.
When the elevator reached the top floor, only Willie and a skinny horse-faced sailor remained. Willie walked down the hall, scanning the names posted outside each room, and found a door labeled:
He went in, and dropped the books on the bare springs of a cot. He heard the twang of springs again directly behind him.
"My name's Keggs," said the horse face, poking an arm toward him. Willie shook the hand, which enveloped his in a big moist grip.
"Well," said Keggs mournfully, "looks like we're roommates."
"This is it," said Willie.
"I hope," said Keggs, "that this Keefer doesn't turn out to be too much of a drip." He looked at Willie earnestly, then his face maneuvered its length into a slow smile. He picked up Naval Ordnance from the pile on his cot. "Well, no time like the present." He sat on the only chair, put his legs up on the only desk, and opened the book with an unhappy sigh.
"How do you know what to study?" Willie was surprised at such industry.
"Brother, it makes no difference. It's all going to be too much for me. Might as well start anywhere."
A heap of books entered the door, walking on stout legs. "Make way, gentlemen, heah Ah come," spoke a muffled voice. The books fell and bounced all over the remaining cot, unveiling a tall, fat sailor with a cherry flushed face, small crinkling eyes and a very large loose mouth. "Well, fellas, looks like we're in for a lot of Shinola, don't it?" he said, in a high, musical Southern cadence. "Ah'm Keefer."
The fat Southerner shoved a number of his books off the cot to the floor, and stretched himself out on the springs. "Ah had me a farewell party last night," he groaned, inserting a happy giggle into the groan, "to end all farewell parties. Why do we do it to ourselves, fellas? 'Scuse me." He rolled his face to the wall.
"You're not going to sleep!" Keggs said. "Suppose they catch you?"
"My boy," said Keefer drowsily, "Ah am an old military man. Four years at Gaylord Academy. Don' worry about ol' Keefer. Punch me if Ah snore." Willie wanted to ask the old military man how serious lordosis might be in a war career. But as he searched for a delicate way to open the subject, Keefer's breath grew regular and heavy. Within a minute he was sleeping like a hog in the sun.
"He'll get bilged, sure," mourned Keggs, turning the pages of Naval Ordnance. "So will I. This book is absolute gibberish to me. What on earth is a cam? What do they mean by an interrupted screw?"
"Search me. What do you mean, 'bilged'?"
"Don't you know how they work it? We get three weeks as apprentice seamen. Then the top two thirds of the class become midshipmen. The rest get bilged. Straight to the Army."
The fugitives exchanged an understanding look. Willie's hand crept around to his back, to ascertain how hollow his hollow back really was. He began a series of frenzied efforts to touch his toes. At every bend he came nearer. He broke out in a sweat. Once he thought the tips of his fingers brushed his shoelaces, and he gurgled in triumph. With a swoop and a groan he brought his fingers squarely on his toes. Coming erect again, his spine vibrating, the room spinning, he found that Keefer, rolled over and awake, was staring at him with frightened little eyes. Keggs had backed into a corner. Willie attempted a lighthearted laugh, but he staggered at the same moment and had to clutch the desk to keep from falling over, so the effect of nonchalance was marred. "Nothing like a little setting-up exercise," he said, with drunken savoir-faire.
"Hell, no," said Keefer. "Especially three o'clock in the afternoon. Ah never miss it myself."
Three rolled-up mattresses came catapulting through the open door, one after another. "Mattresses!" yelled a retreating voice in the hall. Blankets, pillows, and sheets flew in, propelled by another disembodied voice shouting, "Blankets, pillows, and sheets!"
"Couldn't imagine what they were less'n he told us," growled Keefer, untangling himself from a sheet which had draped itself on him. He made up a bed in a few moments, flat and neat as if it had been steamrollered. Willie summoned up boys' camp experience; his cot soon looked presentable. Keggs wrestled with the bedclothes for ten minutes while the others stowed their books and clothes, then he asked Keefer hopefully: "How's that, now?"
"Fella," said Keefer, shaking his head, "you an innocent man." He approached the cot and made a few passes of the hand over it. The bed straightened itself into military rigidity, as in an animated cartoon.
"You're a whiz," said Keggs.
"I heard what you said about me bilging," said Keefer kindly. "Don' worry. I be there on the great gittin'-up morning."
The rest of the day went by in bugles, assemblies, dismissals, reassemblies, announcements, marches, lectures, and aptitude tests. Every time the administration remembered a detail that had been omitted in the mimeographed sheets the bugle blared, and five hundred sailors swarmed out of Furnald Hall. A fair-haired, tall, baby-faced ensign named Acres would bark the new instruction, standing on the steps, jutting his chin and squinting fiercely. Then he would dismiss them, and the building would suck them in. The trouble with this systole and diastole for the men on the top floor ("tenth deck") was that there wasn't room for them all in the elevator. They had to scramble down nine flights of stairs ("ladders"), and later wait wearily for a ride up, or else climb. Willie was stumbling with fatigue when at last they were marched off to dinner. But food revived him wonderfully.
Back in their room, with leisure to talk, the three exchanged identities. The gloomy Edwin Keggs was a high school algebra teacher from Akron, Ohio. Roland Keefer was the son of a West Virginian politician. He had had a job in the state personnel bureau, but, as he cheerfully phrased it, he didn't know personnel from Shinola, and had simply been learning the ropes around the capitol when the war came. Willie's announcement that he was a night-club pianist sobered the other two, and the conversation lagged. Then he added that he was a Princeton graduate, and a chill silence blanketed the room.
When the bugle sounded retreat and Willie climbed into bed, it occurred to him that he had not had a single thought of May Wynn or of his parents all day. It seemed weeks since he had kissed his mother that same morning on 116th Street. He was not far, physically, from Manhasset, no further than he had been in his Broadway haunts. But he felt arctically remote. He glanced around at the tiny room, the bare yellow-painted walls bordered in black wood, the shelves heavy with menacing books, the two strangers in underwear climbing into their cots, sharing an intimacy with him that Willie had never known even in his own family. He experienced a most curiously mixed feeling of adventurous coziness, as though he were tented down for the night in the wilds, and sharp regret for his lost freedom.
Having one of the highest draft numbers in the land, Willie had passed the first war year peacefully without taking refuge in the Navy.
There had been some talk of his returning to Princeton after graduation for a master's degree in literature, the first step toward a teaching career. But in September following a summer of tennis and multiple romances at his grandparents' home in Rhode Island, Willie had found a job in a cocktail lounge of a minor New York hotel, playing the piano and singing his original ditties. The first earned dollar has remarkable weight in deciding a career. Willie elected art. He was not paid much. The fee was, in fact, the smallest permitted by the musicians' union for a piano player. Willie didn't really care, so long as fifty-dollar bills flowed from his mother. As the proprietor, a swarthy, wrinkled Greek, pointed out, Willie was gaining professional experience.
His songs were of the order known as cute, rather than witty or tuneful. His major piece, sung only for the larger crowds, was If You Knew What the Gnu Knew
- On Sale
- Jan 15, 2013
- Page Count
- 560 pages
- Little, Brown and Company