Saturday, October 13, 2012

Kenneth Dodson, Away All Boats


Opening Passage:

The first time MacDougall saw the Belinda was the night before her launching. He was master in the Roamer then, his ship in Moore's dry dock at Alameda after a voyage to the Coral Sea. It was late at night; restlessly waiting for word from Nadine, who was coming by train from Seattle, he was alone in his cabin. Near midnight, he went down into the floating dry dock and walked along the bilge chocks, looking up at sea grass and barnacles on the Roamer's bottom, and checking her propeller for nicks. One of the workmen down there mentioned a new Navy ship to be launched next day.

"A cruiser?" he had asked.

"No, one of these new attack transports."

Summary: Away All Boats is the story of the Belinda, a World War II attack transport. She represents a new kind of warfare, a highly maneuverable invasion-by-sea force packaged into one ship, and she and her sister ships will play an utterly important role in the island-hopping campaign of the Pacific -- a role perhaps second only to, perhaps in some ways even more than, the role of the aircraft carrier in importance. And since she was written by Dodson to represent all such attack transports everywhere, she sees the full gamut of action, from her shake-down cruise, to practice dry-runs, to minor island invasion, to assault on Okinawa.

The book is quite realistic, as one might expect from the fact that the author himself served aboard an attack transport. There are some grisly scenes, although they are told quite well, and we get an excellent sense of the psychology of the U.S. Navy -- all the petty rivalries and competitions, the complications of having to work around the personal quirks of one's captain, the strange obsessions that come from being stuck on a ship all the time, the cracks that start to show under stress and strain, but also the camaraderie, the sense of being bound together in an important cause that transcends one's likes and dislikes, the famous sense of Navy accomplishment (the difficult is done immediately, the impossible just takes some time). There are lots of little details that bring the Belinda to life. One of the ones that caught my eye was the importance of the chaplain, who is not in any of the main action, and who is not a major character in the book, but who ends up playing a role again and again. Some of it is the obvious, of course -- there are men dying in sickbay who need someone to talk to, and the doctors, much as they might wish otherwise, have far too much to do. But much of it is the sort of thing that would only be obvious to someone who actually had served at a ship at sea. The chaplain, for instance, is in practice a back-up supply officer, because he is the one who receives and keeps track of donations that do not come through the logistical supply chain -- all sorts of odds-and-ends trumpets, or bottles of red ink, or boxes of tissue. It is the chaplain whose phonograph and records play what is in effect the background song for much of the book: "Red Sails in the Sunset". But we get these glancing bits about many others in the crew: the self-important and widely detested Ensign Twitchell, the spiffy but unpracticed executive officer Quigley, the original captain, Gedley, and the captain who succeeds him, Hawks, and many others. Although MacDougall will be our guideline character, the book often swings away from him: the protagonist of the book is the Belinda herself, and all these sailors aboard her just express different facets of her personality.

Favorite Passage:

MacDougall had put his ear to her hull, cautiously at first, then, forgetting half dried anti-fouling paint, had held his cheek snug to the bilge. Sound there all right: rustling of autumn leaves, distant surf, sounds she had never heard before, restless whisperings, voices in pain, voices thrilling with eagerness, mixed chattering in some unknown tongue, calling to far off places. MacDougall knew what it was; could explain these sounds in cold, scientific terms; why then was his spine tingling? He took his ear away and looked down at the old man, who was carefullly refolding a yellow telegram. "Those are locked-in stresses working out. They come out slowly in a part-welded hull."

"I know, son. Each part is trying to be free again, but they'll soon settle together; she's going to be a good ship, I tell you."

Recommendation: You probably can skip it otherwise (or watch the 1956 movie instead), but if you have any interest in naval history, this is an interesting and at times gripping fictional account of what it was like actually to be there in the Pacific.

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