The Caine Mutiny



The Caine Mutiny‘ is a 1951 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by American author Herman Wouk. The book grew out of Wouk’s personal experiences aboard a destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific in World War II and deals with, among other things, the moral and ethical decisions made at sea by the captains of ships. The mutiny of the title is legalistic, not violent, and takes place during a historic typhoon in December 1944. The court-martial that results provides the dramatic climax to the plot.

The story is told through the eyes of Willis Seward ‘Willie’ Keith, an affluent, callow young man who signs up for midshipman school with the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army during World War II. After barely surviving a series of misadventures that earn him the highest number of demerits in the history of the school, he is commissioned and assigned to the destroyer minesweeper USS Caine, an obsolete warship converted from a World War I-era destroyer.

Willie, with a low opinion of the ways of the Navy, misses his ship when it leaves on a combat assignment, and rather than catch up with it, ducks his duties to play piano for an admiral who has taken a shine to him. He has second thoughts after reading a last letter from his father, who has died of melanoma, but soon forgets his guilt in the round of parties at the admiral’s house. Eventually, he reports aboard the Caine. Though the ship has successfully carried out its combat missions in Keith’s absence, the ensign immediately disapproves of its decaying condition and disheveled crew, which he attributes to a slackness of discipline by the ship’s longtime captain, Lieutenant Commander William De Vriess. Willie’s lackadaisical attitude toward what he considers menial and repetitive duties brings about a humiliating clash with De Vriess.

De Vriess has almost completely discarded discipline, and the crew has become slovenly and superficially undisciplined, but their performance is excellent. Despite this, he is relieved by Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, a strong, by-the-book figure whom Willie at first believes to be just what the rusty Caine and its rough-necked crew needs. But Queeg has never handled a ship like this before, and he soon makes a series of errors, to which he is unwilling to admit. The Caine is sent to San Francisco for an overhaul, not for any merit by Queeg, but in an admiral’s hope that the captain will make further mistakes someplace else. Before the ship departs, Queeg browbeats his officers into selling their liquor rations to him. In a breach of regulations, Queeg smuggles the liquor off the ship and when it is lost by a series of careless mistakes blackmails Willie into paying for it by threatening to withhold his shore leave.

As the Caine begins its missions under his command, Queeg loses the respect of the crew and loyalty of the wardroom through a series of incidents: He grounds the ship on his first sailing, then attempts to cover it up. While getting the Caine under way on a very foggy morning, he nearly collides with a battleship, refuses to admit that he is on the wrong side of the channel, and then chews out the helmsman, Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class John Stilwell, when Stilwell steadies on a course before Queeg orders him to steady. He causes the loss of a gunnery target sled by steaming over, and cutting, the target’s towline while distracted by a petty disciplinary action–a sailor’s loose shirt-tail–and again blames Stilwell, who is helmsman during the gunnery exercise. He confines Stilwell to the Caine for six months for flipping through a comic book while standing watch while the ship is in port. He court-martials Stilwell for being absent without leave, rigging the court-martial in an effort to convict Stilwell, whose sentence of forfeiture of six liberties amounts to an acquittal.

Twice, when under fire, he leaves a battle area, once abandoning troops under his protection to fend for themselves. One of these two incidents earns him the nickname ‘Old Yellowstain’: ordered to escort low-lying landing craft to their line of departure, the Caine instead drops a yellow dye marker to mark the spot when Queeg fears the ship has come too close to shore under fire, then leaves the area. The sobriquet, a double entendre, refers to both the dye marker and his apparent cowardice. After a combat mission near the Equator, noticing that the ship’s water usage went up 10% during the action, he cuts off water for the entire crew for three days. He claims to suffer severe migraine headaches and rarely leaves his cabin. He becomes obsessed over the theft of a quart of frozen strawberries missing from a gallon the Caine had received from the USS Bridge, reliving an episode from early in his career in which he had solved a shipboard theft and received a letter of commendation. He is regarded as tyrannical, cowardly, and incompetent. Tensions aboard the ship cause Queeg to isolate himself almost completely from the other officers, who snub him as unworthy, believing him an oppressive coward.

Communications officer Lieutenant Thomas Keefer, an intellectual former magazine writer and budding novelist who has chafed under Queeg’s authority, and initially portrayed as a sympathetic, if not heroic, character, plants the suggestion that Queeg might be mentally ill in the mind of the Caine’s executive officer, Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, ‘diagnosing’ Queeg as a paranoid. He also steers Maryk to ‘Section 184’ of the Navy Regulations, according to which a subordinate can relieve a commanding officer in extraordinary circumstances. Maryk keeps a secret log of Queeg’s eccentric behavior and decides to bring it to the attention of Admiral William F. Halsey, commanding the Third Fleet. Keefer reluctantly supports Maryk, then, while waiting to speak to Halsey, gets cold feet and backs out, warning Maryk that his actions will be seen as mutiny.

Soon after, the Caine is screening the fleet when it is caught in the path of a typhoon, an ordeal that sinks three destroyers and causes great damage and loss of life. At the height of the storm, Queeg’s paralysis of action and refusal to turn the ship into the wind convinces Maryk that he must relieve the captain of command on the grounds of mental illness in order to prevent the loss of the Caine. Willie Keith, as Officer of the Deck, supports the decision, although he later realizes that his decision is probably based on the hatred he has developed for Captain Queeg. Maryk turns the Caine into the wind and rides out the storm, rescuing survivors of a capsized destroyer.

Maryk is tried by court-martial for ‘conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline.’ Willie and Stilwell are to be tried depending on the outcome of Maryk’s trial. In the courtroom, Keefer distances himself from any responsibility. Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, a naval aviator who was a crack attorney in civilian life and who has been grounded for medical reasons after being injured in a plane crash, is appointed to represent Maryk. His opinion, after the captain was found to be sane by three Navy psychiatrists, is that Maryk was legally unjustified in relieving Queeg. Despite his own disgust with Maryk’s and Willie’s actions, Greenwald decides to take the case after deducing Keefer’s role. During the trial, Greenwald unrelentingly cross-examines Queeg until he is overcome by the stress and displays a confused inability to handle the situation. Greenwald’s tactic of attacking Queeg results in Maryk’s acquittal and the dropping of charges against Willie. Maryk, who had aspired to a career in the regular navy, is later sent to command a Landing craft infantry, a humiliation which ends his naval career ambitions, while Queeg is transferred to a naval supply depot in Iowa.

At a party celebrating both the acquittal and Keefer’s success at selling his novel to a publisher, an intoxicated Greenwald calls Keefer a coward. He tells the gathering that he feels ashamed of having destroyed Queeg on the stand because Queeg did the necessary duty of guarding America in the peacetime Navy, which people like Keefer saw as beneath them. Greenwald asserts that men like Queeg kept Greenwald’s Jewish mother from being ‘melted down into a bar of soap’ by the Nazis. Greenwald had to ‘torpedo Queeg’ because ‘the wrong man was on trial’–that it was Keefer, not Maryk, who was ‘the true author of ‘The Caine Mutiny.” Greenwald throws a glass of ‘the yellow wine’ in Keefer’s face, thereby bringing the term ‘Old Yellowstain’ full circle back to the novelist.

Willie returns to the Caine in the last days of the Okinawa campaign as its executive officer. Most of the officers have been transferred to other ships. Keefer is now the captain, succeeding a troubleshooter from the Regular Navy who had restored order to the crew. Ironically, Keefer’s behavior as captain is similar to Queeg’s. The Caine is struck by a kamikaze, an event in which Willie discovers that he has matured into a naval officer. Keefer panics and orders the ship abandoned, but Willie remains aboard and rescues the situation. Keefer is sent home after the war ends, ashamed of his cowardly behavior during the kamikaze attack. Ironically, Keefer’s brother, Roland Keefer, had died saving his ship from a kamikaze fire. Willie becomes the last captain of the Caine. He soon receives a Bronze Star Medal for his actions following the kamikaze–and a letter of reprimand for his part in unlawfully relieving Queeg. The findings of the court-martial have been overturned after a review by higher authority. Willie discovers that he agrees that the relief was unjustified and probably unnecessary. Willie keeps the Caine afloat during another typhoon and brings it back to Bayonne, New Jersey, for decommissioning after the end of the war.

Wouk himself served during World War II aboard two destroyer-minesweepers converted from World War I-era Clemson-class destroyers, the USS Zane being the first and the USS Southardbeing the second. (Wouk uses the latter name for one of his characters in the novel, Captain Randolph Patterson Southard. In an allusion to history professor Jacques Barzun of his alma mater,Columbia University, Wouk also has Queeg refer to a previous assignment he had on a ship named the Barzun.) The USS Caine is a fictional depiction of a DMS conversion. This class was named for Midshipman Henry A. Clemson, lost at sea on 8 December 1846 when the brig USS Somers capsized off Vera Cruz in a sudden squall while chasing a blockade runner. In November 1842 Somers was the scene of the only recorded conspiracy to mutiny in U.S. Naval history when three members of the crew—a midshipman, a boatswain’s mate, and a seaman—were clapped in irons and subsequently hanged for planning a takeover of the vessel.

Many of the incidents and plot details are autobiographical. Like both Keefer and Willie, Wouk rose through the ship’s wardroom of the Zane from assistant communicator to first lieutenant, and then was executive officer of the Southard, recommended to captain the ship home to the United States at the end of the war before it was beached at Okinawa in a typhoon. In 1954, a film adaptation of the novel was released by Columbia Pictures. Humphrey Bogart starred as Queeg in a widely acclaimed performance that earned him the third and final Academy Award nomination of his career.

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