The Commodore by P.T. Deutermann. (Historical/War Novel, 2016).
It’s 1942 and the US Navy is still frantically rebuilding its Pacific Fleet, less than a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor. For now, their Japanese opponents have the upper-hand with more experienced officers and crews, and from sheer numbers of major warships. And yet, America has launched its first counterattack–invading the island of Guadalcanal. It’s just the first step in gaining control of the Solomon Islands. On the ground, US Marines are struggling with a determined garrison–the carnage and suffering on both sides is extreme. Both sides are short of supplies, so the frequently out-gunned US Navy faces a double challenge: To keep supplies coming in for the Marines, while preventing the enemy fleet from re-supplying and reinforcing the Japanese ground forces.
In this very serviceable, if not quite great war novel, the focus is squarely on the last of these necessities–as seen through the eyes of Herman Wolf, an aggressive officer who at the book’s opening has just been given his first command, the destroyer John B. King. All too often, the mid-sized King and its CO find themselves facing off against larger and more heavily armed Japanese cruisers and battleships. A further problem is the tradition-minded older/superior officers who resist the new tactical innovations required now.
Adding to Wolf’s personal woes is the fact that he is a half-Native American man in a service that by tradition has featured a lily-white officer corps. He’s been struggling against (and overcoming) racial doubts and prejudices ever since attending the Naval Academy, so he’s used to dealing with casual slights. But they’re a distraction he doesn’t need. While steadfast in the face of danger, he isn’t immune to self-doubts and guilt feelings when his actions–though necessary–cost lives.
Anyway, with the support of the highest of higher-ups in the Pacific Navy (area commander ‘Bull’ Halsey and overall Admiral-in-Chief Nimitz) Wolf rises to command not just his own ship but eventually an entire squadron of six destroyers. While officially still a Captain, this position earns Wolf the honorary but traditional title of Commodore.
Battle after battle is fought (mostly at night, when the new radar systems give the Americans their only advantage). The Navy (including Wolf’s little squadron) hold off the enemy and eventually Guadalcanal falls, the first of the string of brutal successes that will eventually win the war for the US and its Allies. But it all comes at a great cost to Wolf and others.
Repeatedly wounded, and enduring numerous adventures and other strains I won’t spoil for readers, the Commodore ends up back in Hawaii, unfit for combat but well-able to teach other newcomers his hard-won lessons, in hopes they will be able to better face the gory challenges ahead. And of course, there’s a bit of a love interest–in the form of a Navy nurse–that compensates for what he’s gone through. While this tasteful and restrained romance is well-presented, this theme struck me as an overly conventional (and predictable) addition to a literary war story.
In any case, this is but one of a string of books from an author who comes from a family of Naval Officers (including ones from WW II). He personally spent 26 years in the service, as well. So Deutermann knows all the ends and outs of Navy life–from day-to-day shipboard procedures to the internal politics, in-fighting and bureaucratic frustrations of the naval command structure. He does an excellent job presenting all this and proves especially masterful in conveying the frightening, blood-soaked chaos that a ship-to-ship firefight always seems to dissolve into. It’s no wonder that one of his earlier books won the W. Y. Boyd Award for Military Fiction.
If war fiction–especially focused on the naval exploits of American forces in the Pacific during the second world war–is of interest, this one is a good bet.