Published in 1951 the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Caine Mutiny” is about an average young man during World War II. He joins the Navy as an officer to avoid the draft and ends up on a destroyer and minesweeper in the Pacific.
The main character, Willie Keith was a graduate of Princeton who was floating around New York working as a piano player in bars. He comes from a wealthy family and meets a woman from a poor family who is beautiful, but he has no intention of marrying her. He expects her to wait for him, without giving her any promises of marriage.
The Captain of the Caine, Queeg is slightly unhinged. The crew puts up with his erratically behavior until he almost capsizes the ship during a typhoon. Then the executive officer takes command. Queeg brings him up on charges of mutiny, but the charges are reduced. In the end Queeg is relieved of command on the Caine and the ship passes to other Captains, landing on Willie as the last Captain before it is demolished after the war.
Willie goes home to New York but has a tough time convincing the beautiful girl to give him another chance. She had moved on after he seemed to not be interested in a commitment. But after almost dying a number of times in the three years he was at sea, Willie comes home ready to settle down. He wants to finish his education on the G I Bill and become a teacher.
The book begins with Willie Keith. A young man of average height, a little chubby, curly red hair and an innocent face. He graduated from Princeton in 1941. His specialty was in comparative literature. Although he didn’t want her too, his mother drove him from their Manhasset, New York home in the family Cadillac to the Naval Academy school in Furnhold Hall. It was a former dormitory for the Columbia University School of Law.
He kissed his mother goodbye, hoping no one saw him and entered the building. He was met by a Navy chief who looked him over, gave him some papers, confirmed he was “V-7” and ushered in the door. Willie called him “sir” and continued to make that mistake for the first three weeks.
As his mother is going back to the car, she suddenly remembers she meant to give her son some money. She returns to the door and is stopped by the chief. She is a formidable woman and not used to being stopped by anyone. He tells her Willie belongs to the Navy now and is getting a physical. Then he tells her she may possibly see him on Saturday. She tells him she forgot to give Willie any money. He tells her Willie won’t need any money, but she has a hundred dollars in her hand. The chief takes it with assurances he will give it to Willie. When she goes back to her car, he pockets it while saying to himself, “We’re sure as hell getting a new kind of Navy.”
Willie almost doesn’t pass the physical. He has lordosis, an increased inward curving in the lower back. He also has an unusually fast pulse rate and can’t touch his toes. But, he’s a Princeton man so the doctors pass it up the line to Captain Grimm at the Navy Yard to decide. Willie goes on to his room, number 1013. There he meets his two roommates, Edwin Keggs, a high school algebra teacher and Roland Keefer an overweight civil servant from the South. While Keefer is napping, Keggs tells Willie that by the end of training at least a third of their class will be transferred out of the Navy and into the Army. No one wants that.
Since he had a high draft number, Willie didn’t worry about the war for the first year. After a summer of tennis and romances, he took a job at a bar in New York playing the piano and singing his cute songs. He didn’t earn much, but his mother supplemented his income, so he didn’t care. His parents wanted him to go back to Princeton and get a master’s degree, but Willie lost interest in school.
One day May Wynn came into the bar to audition. She stood out to Willie, the piano player, because she auditioned with Mozart. She was pretty, voice was good, she got the job. When Willie learns the girl comes from a lower class Italian family, he feels free to just have fun with her since his family would never accept her into their upper class world anyway. So he could never marry her. Their romance is going along smoothly since she doesn’t expect more from him, until Willie gets called by the draft board. This prompts Willie to enlist in Navy officer’s training.
The next day Willie drinks a bromide to make slow his pulse some. Unfortunately, it puts him to sleep in the doctor’s office, and they forget about him. He sleeps for eight hours. Then when the doctor checks his pulse, it is still too high. But, the doctor can see he is eager to be a Navy officer and passes him.
When Willie gets back to his room, he finds the other men practicing taking their rifles apart and reassembling them. Suddenly the mainspring from Willie’s rifle shoots out the window. He sees it in the gutter. When he and Keggs climb out to retrieve it, they are caught in a surprise inspection. Willie manages to talk his way out of a demerit for being out of his room.
All three roommates survive the first three weeks and make it through “bilge day.” Willie seems to be a master at the military ordinance, but he has just memorized the manual and doesn’t understand a word. They get their first night out, and Willie takes May Wynn out for dinner. Afterward he goes to visit his parents which make her a bit angry.
At his parent’s house Willie discovers they are throwing a party for him. His father finds out about May and tells him to bring her to meet them. Willie goes back to meet May and she is very angry with him. The two go to the club Tahiti where they met so they can talk. But there they meet Keefer and a floozy named, Tootsie. May and Willie are called to perform as past celebrities of the club. After their performance. She breaks up with him because he won’t marry her. Willie tries to make up with her on the cab ride home, but she is adamant.
Willie gets twenty demerits for arriving late by four minutes back at the barracks. Days later, at a military parade he is marching in, Willie sees May. She shouts to him that she will take him back. This causes him to turn the wrong way and march away from his battalion. He tried to smoothly join back in but it was impossible. He is taken in front of the Commander for a reprimand. Instead of bilging him, the Commander remembers an essay he wrote that he received a commendation for and gives him enough demerits to make his point but two short of enough to be tossed out. He also grounds him to the base for the rest of his time in training.
The rest of his time there moves fairly smoothly. Willie doesn’t get any more demerits. He writes letters to May. His father visits him and so do his mother and May. The visits are polite and cordial. Finally the assignments are coming up. Instead of putting in for for assignments that he actually wanted, Willie put down requests for assignments that would show his bravery and devotion to duty. He was given duty on the DMS Caine, a minesweeper/destroyer.
Willie has ten days leave before he reports to San Francisco. While there he meets up with Keefer who takes him to a party that lasts for twenty days. Willie plays the piano and sings for the group. Keefer arranges a plush trip over water to their assignments to Hawaii. There they are to board the Caine. Willie has put May behind him and has taken up with a “freethinking nurse” while on the ship. Although he did write a love letter to May, just to keep her on the string.
While Keefer checks in on their lodgings, Willie goes to check in at their ship but finds that it has already sailed without them. When he goes back to find Keefer, they decide to go to a party at an Admiral’s house. The Admiral is so pleased with Willie’s playing and singing that he makes arrangements for them to be assigned to his shore group while they wait for their ship to return.
A few weeks later, Willie is woken by Mr. Paynter, an officer aboard the Caine. She has returned and Willie is to report for duty. They find the ship in the repair basin. When Willie boards he is introduced to Lieutenant Gorton and the Captain of the ship, Mr. De Vriess, who is naked. Willie is taken to his berth where he meets his new roommate, Ensign Harding. Then he meets his supervisor, the communications officer, Tom Keefer, who is his friend’s older brother. He is writing a book and therefore they have a lot in common through literature.
Willie and Harding are given an introductory tour of the ship by an Ensign Carmody. This includes going up in the crow’s nest. After dinner, they hear about how bad the clip shack, their room, is. Willie says it’s ok, but that night the room is filled with a black smoke so Willie sleeps in the officer’s wardroom on the couch. The next morning he is surprised at how lax the discipline is on board. But, he is so tired that he nods off while trying to decode a message. The captain yells at him for sleeping and says he should have had enough sleep while in Pearl Harbor the last month.
While Willie is working, his friend Keefer arrives with two nurses from their parties. While Willie finishes a mundane task, the captain entertains the nurses. Willie is furious and drinks too much out that night with his friends. The next morning he decodes a message that says Captain De Vriess is being replaced by Lieutenant Commander Philip F. Queeg. Caine is sent out on a minesweeping mission. During the mission Willie receives a message that is supposed to be decoded right away. He is so enthralled with watching the smooth speed of the sweeping exercises that he shoves the message in his pocket and it dissolves when he is hit with seawater. Although Willie considers the management of the Caine to be lax he is glad to not be on the ship, Moulton with his friend, Kegg. The captain treats the crew roughly and has them confined to the ship because of a minor infraction for a week.
When Willie returns from visiting his friend, Kegg, he discovers an invitation from the Admiral to a party. But, De Vriess had discovered the note Willie dropped earlier and finds out Captain Queeg will be assuming command immediately. For a punishment De Vriess gives Willie an unsatisfactory report and confines him to the ship for three days. Willie convinces De Vriess to allow him to attend the Admiral’s party, but before he leaves he receives a box of his father’s things. It includes a Bible with a verse marked for Willie that changes his mind about going to the party, where he was going to as the Admiral to get him off the Caine. The next morning Captain Queeg takes over the ship.
Captain Queeg is a short plump man who carries two steel balls around in his pocket that he plays with. Queeg is not impressed with the Caine. He meets with De Vriess who is surprised to learn that Queeg plans on transferring command withing forty eight hours even though he has no experience in minesweeping or command. When Queeg questions the report on Willie, De Vriess says he did it as punishment for losing the note and will remove it before going to bed.
Queeg runs a tight ship. Willie is pleased with the method of command. Queeg likes Willie instantly. He removes Willie’s punishment and makes all the men where white. They must clean the ship, too. Just because it is old and needs to be demolished doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be clean. Queeg calls a meeting to lay out his orders. He tells them how he wants things done, “Now, there are four ways of doing a thing aboard ship — the right way, the wrong way, the Navy way and my way. I want things on this ship done my way.”
The change of command does not go smoothly. Willie gets permission from his supervisor to visit his friend aboard the Moulton without the permission of the commanding officer. His supervisor is called into to be reprimanded by his immediate Superior for allowing Willie to leave and for spending time working on his novel instead of his duty.
They receive orders to set sail for Pago Pago to accompany a convoy. When the ship is backing out, Queeg scrapes the hull of the Moulton, then it gets grounded on the other side of the channel. Instead of admitting to his mistakes when questioned by his superiors, Queeg sends a message that it was the fault of the engine room and the offending sailor has been relieved of duty. The Moulton is sent in his place to Pago Pago. Queeg continues to make mistake after mistake. He focuses on the minor infractions of his crew and places the blame on others as often as possible. He obviously doesn’t know how to captain a ship. He is called before ComServPac to explain his actions. He manages to shift blame and sound imperious enough to clear his case. When asked if he would like a stateside assignment, Queeg says he wants to stay aboard the Caine. He leaves his commanding officers impressed with his desire to do his duty.
Queeg gets back to the ship and throws his anger at everyone, except Willie. Meanwhile back at ComServPac Captain Grace has reported on his findings to the Admiral. He thinks Queeg is harmless, just not too bright. He was probably nervous about his first command. The Admiral just wants Queeg where he can’t be a nuisance, so he sends the Caine to the States for repair. The crew is overjoyed, and Willie writes a letter asking May to meet him in San Fransisco and his mother to stay home.
Queeg has a drill and punishes the men when they all show up without their life vests on. Queeg also smuggles liquor from Pearl Harbor that he drops off in Oakland. Due to Queeg’s poor sailing, he loses the liquor and bangs up the ship again while trying to moor it. Queeg punishes the crew with two extra days of confinement. Willie is exempt because he is an officer. When he goes ashore he sees his mother and May waiting for him. He is forced to introduce them.
Willie and May go to a motel room where they have sex for the first time. He is happy but she is shivering and crying after he leaves her room. They don’t talk about it the next morning. He tells her he had to pay $150 to Queeg for the lost liquor. She says that it was kind of his mother to let them go off for the weekend since the woman flew all that way to see her son. Then she wants to know why he introduced her by her real name, Marie Minotti instead of her stage name, May Wynn. He is actually ashamed of her, but he tells her he just wanted to be honest. That night she sends him out of her room without even kissing him. The next morning he awkwardly proposes marriage but she doesn’t answer. They don’t discuss it again until they are on the bus back to San Francisco. She tells him to give it more thought because she doesn’t want a marriage based on pity or charity. His mother advises him to wait until after the war to decide.
When Willie gets back to the ship he sees a message recalling the ship to Pearl Harbor. The crews leaves will be cut short and some who have been confined to the ship won’t get a leave. When the acting commander, Maryk informs Queeg he is angry but tells him to carry out the orders. Maryk decides to telegraph each officer on leave to come back early and allow a man to leave for each that comes back, so they can split up the leaves. Queeg doesn’t like it but agrees. On December 30th Caine sails back to Hawaii after being hastily put back together. Willie moves into another room.
When the Caine ships out it is minus twenty five sailors. They would rather face court martial than sail with Queeg. Willie is promoted to Communications Officer. Queeg becomes increasingly moody. He spends most of his time in his cabin eating ice cream and napping. When he emerges he becomes extremely picky and punishes the crew for any infraction. They begin to make a “circle of compliance.” the areas he visits are perfect while the rest of the ship looks worse than it did under De Vriess. Meanwhile, Willie is taking his job seriously and has reorganized the mail room to strict Navy regulations. A message comes across sending the ship to the Kwajalein Atoll to help establish bases. Queeg tells him to keep the information a secret from the crew.
Willie is excited when they get the chance to see some action. But, Queeg hides in his quarters and tries to steer the ship as far away as possible. He acts like he didn’t get the orders to engage. He leaves Maryk to command the ship. Maryk performs well. The crew meets to discuss the Captain’s mistakes and cowardliness. Maryk tries to quell the talk, but Keefer keeps the gripes building. When he asks Willie if the Captain was cowering on the far side of the ship, he doesn’t want to answer. From the ship they can see the action on the shore with binoculars. Willie even hears a man dying on the radio. The men on the ship are safe.
Orders come across for Lt. Rabbit to be assigned to a new destroyer. Queeg tells Willie not to tell him. He says it because he doesn’t have a replacement, but Willie knows that is not true. Finally, Captain Frazier comes aboard and takes the Lieutenant against Queeg’s protests. Queeg is furious and throws a tantrum. He bans the crew from using water for forty-eight hours.
The ban on water usage gets worse as the heat increases. Finally the enlisted men figure out how to smuggle water from the engine room, but the officers are still hurting. Unfortunately Queeg sees one of the new officers wet and loses it. He gives the water back to the enlisted men but the officers have to go another forty eight hours. One of the men, Stillwell runs afoul of Queeg when it is discovered he lied about his mother being sick and instead used emergency leave to try to repair his marriage. Queeg gets a confession from him, but when the man speaks to a lawyer he decides to plead not guilty at his court martial. That plan is changed after he spends time alone with the Captain. Stillwell emerges and signs a confession he says was not obtained under duress.
At the hearing the officers, including Willie accept the guilty plea but give him a light punishment. When Queeg finds out he promises continued reprisals. He will punish them for every slight misstep and give them bad fitness reports. Keefer has been spreading rumors about the mental health of the Captain for a while. Finally Meryk asks him if he will take his thoughts to the doctor on board the Pluto, the ship that is moored nearby. He basically tells him to “put up or shut up.” Keefer turns the chance down, so Maryk tells him to stop spreading gossip about the Captain, but starts reading books on mental health, himself.
Maryk begins keeping a medical log on the Captain. He notes his many changes in personality and his increasing punishments. Another entry is the cowardly actions of the Captain during a combat mission to Saipan. After more signs of the Captain being unhinged, Maryk begins to look up the requirements for an Article 184. Finally Maryk thinks he has enough to bring up a complaint about the Captain. He wants Keefer to go with him because he is good with words and has a knowledge of psychiatry. But Keefer is reluctant to act on his complaints.
Then a huge storm hits at sea. Queeg’s inability to perform his job becomes spotlighted. He put Stilwell on report for insubordination for anticipating a safety order ahead of time. While Queeg is frozen in terror and clinging to the telegraph pole, Maryk takes over command. Willie calms some of the crew that looked ready to abandon ship. Maryk is forced to disobey the few orders Queeg has given through his frozen lips in order to save the ship and crew.
When the storm calms some, Queeg realizes Maryk is in command and begins to give cross orders that would endanger the ship again. Finally, Maryk releaves him of duty stating Article 184. As the duty officer, Willie must make the decision which commanders orders to follow. He chooses Maryk. Even through orders of charges of mutiny Maryk stays firm. The storm passes, and he still doesn’t return the ship, but he does rescue stranded seamen from the water. He sends Queeg to his cabin.
Back in San Francisco the case of mutiny goes to court. They have trouble finding someone to represent the men accused of mutiny. They finally find Greenwald, a Jewish man who joined the military as a fight pilot but was a lawyer in New York. Greenwald decides the true instigator of mutiny was Keefer, but all of the officers will go to trial. Although Caine was supposed to go in, they had to perform more maneuvers first. Queeg sat back and let Maryk keep command. He performed admirably. The charges are reduced from mutiny to prejudice of good order and discipline.
While awaiting trial, Willie flies home to New York. He doesn’t seem to fit in there. He has changed, so he thinks to break things off with May who he has been stringing along. When he takes her out to dinner he discovers she has changed, too. She is working long hours and supporting her family. She seems to be ill. When she tries to impress him with the classes she’s been taking and the books she’s been reading, she can tell he still thinks she is too far below him. She breaks up with him.
At the trial, Queeg appears sane and well spoken. He has had rest in the Florida sun. He tries to say he suspected Maryk from the start. But Greenwald finds proof that is a lie. But, when Keefer testifies, he denies his statements on the sanity of Queeg and speaks against Maryk. Willie tells the truth in his testimony, which explains why Maryk took command. He accuses the Captain of being a coward, which is a terrible accusation for a commander. Greenwald even discredits the psychiatrist that examined Queeg and found him fit for command.
The prosecution rests and the defense begins. Greenwald calls Meryk to the stand and has him tell the whole story. When the prosecutor cross examines he can’t break him. Then Queeg comes to the stand and denies everything. Greenwald proves he is lying repeatedly. After an hour and ten minutes the jury comes back with not guilty. Keefer throws a celebratory party afterwards. He is also celebrating his novel. The party is paid for by the presale. Greenwald attends. Then gets drunk. After congratulating Keefer on his book, he criticizes him for instigating the mutiny and then leaving his friends out to dry. “I found out the wrong guy was on trial.” That is why he worked so hard getting Maryk free even though he believed he was guilty of mutiny. He also tells him about his Jewish family in the concentration camps, and predicts that Maryk will carry the stain of this through his career and Keefer will probably command the Caine.
What he said came to be. When Willie makes it back to the Caine, Keefer is Captain. He is the same kind of Captain Queeg was. Then when the ship comes under fire from a kamikaze, he tries to order abandon ship. Willie, as the executive officer, saves the ship. After the war, Keefer goes home and is ashamed of how he handled the kamikaze attack. Then Willie is the Captain of the Caine. He is given a Bronze Star for his actions during the kamikaze attack and a reprimand for his part in the trial of Queeg. The court martial was overturned up the line.
Willie survives another typhoon in the ship and then brings it back to New Jersey for decommissioning. His mother picks him up at the gate and drives him home. “She drove me to the Navy’s gates,” He thought. “Now she’s driving me back home. The little boy is through with the sailor game.”
Willie wants to marry May now. He wrote her a letter proposing months earlier but she never answered and now he’s having trouble finding her. He finally gets in touch with her agent who wants him to see him right away. The agent takes Willie to where May is performing. She is now using her real name, Marie Minotti and being billed as “Broadway’s Beloved Bombshell.” She is involved with Walter Feather the saxophonist. Rubin, her agent, is very worried because the man is “a prime no-good.” When Willie sees her performing he is surprised because her hair is bright blond.
He finally gets to talk to her when they take a break from rehearsal. He tells her he still loves her and wants to marry her. She agrees to have lunch with him, but there relationship would need an “iron lung” to repair it. Willie is determined to make May his wife. Then he steps outside to watch the Navy parade march down Broadway. Confetti is raining down on the marchers. One of the papers “brushed the face of the last captain of the Caine.”
Willie Keith – Willie comes from a well to do family. He went to Princeton where he graduated with a degree in Comparative Literature. One summer he gets a job playing the piano and singing little tunes he wrote in a bar. He becomes a bit of a hit and starts making money in tips. Not enough to support himself, but his mother helps him financially. Willie thought to go back to school for his masters so he could teach, but playing the piano is paying pretty well. Then he meets May Wynn.
May wins him over with her beauty and talent. He falls in love but knows she is from a poor background so he can’t introduce her to his family. Especially his mother who is possessive and almost as much of a snob as he is.
Although his draft number is very high, which would mean he wouldn’t be called, he gets a message that it is coming up. Willie decides to avoid the army by joining the Navy as an officer. He is shipped out of Hawaii on the Caine. He wants May to wait for him but doesn’t wait for her.
His first captain is lax, but the next one is rough. Capt. Queeg is paranoid, and Willie learns how to deal with his changing personalities while he juggles his friends and tries to keep May on the hook.
At the beginning of the novel, Willie is young and slightly over weight. He is childish and doesn’t care about anything but his personal gratifications. After a few tests on the battle field and near death experiences he comes back from the war more of a man. He still has trouble letting go of his childish thoughts but he is learning to see the world as a man does.
May Wynn – a beautiful young girl who is a lounge singer. Although she doesn’t have a higher education, she is world wise. She sees the romantic games Willie plays and tries to shield her heart.
May comes from a poor Italian family. Her real name is Marie Minotti. For the three years Willie is out at sea, she tries to improve herself. After she meets him while he is on leave in San Francisco and sleeps with him for the first time, she feels he isn’t in their relationship as deeply as she is and breaks things off. Before that the two corresponded. Months later, he writes her and proposes but she never answers him. When he returns after the war, she is making a good paycheck singing in a nightclub. Willie wants to renew their romance, but she is wary and he will have to work hard to lower her shields.
Philip Francis Queeg – Queeg becomes the Captain of the Caine. He is inexperienced but tries to hide it by placing the blame for his mistakes on others. He is proud and won’t listen or ask for help. He is very ambitious and sees himself as the hero. But in reality, he is a coward. Whenever he thinks he is losing his authority, he meets out punishments like no rations, no shore leaves, etc. Deprivation is one of the few punishments available to him, and he uses it liberally.
Queeg is also sporadic in his orders. His crew learns to manage his unreasonable requests by making a “circle of compliance” around him. Wherever he walks and whatever he sees is ship shape, but the rest of the crew and ship become unorganized and messy. During battles, he freezes, and the orders he gives are self-preserving. When he finally faces court martial, Queeg lies on the stand, makes excuses and places blame on others.
Herman Wouk Biography
In 1915 Herman Wouk was born in the Bronx. He was the second of three children for Abraham Isaac Wouk and Esther. The couple were Jewish immigrants from Belarus. When he was thirteen his grandfather came to live with them. The man gave him his education in Judaism. As a young boy, Herman did not want to study the Talmud, but his father insisted, so he learned it and later as a young adult lived a secular life for a while. Throughout his life and career religion played an important part. When asked what his most important influences he has always replied that is was his grandfather and the Navy.
By the age of nineteen Herman had earned his B. A. from the Columbia University. There he was the editor of the university’s humor magazine. He also spent time writing humor for the radio including Fred Allen. In 1941 he wrote for the government selling war bonds.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Herman joined the Navy. He was in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He served as an officer of two different minesweepers and won some battle stars while participating in eight invasions. He used the information from these experiences to write “The Caine Mutiny” published in 1951. It won a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1955 Herman wrote, “Marjorie Morningstar” which was made into a movie. He also wrote “Slattery’s Hurricane” which became a screenplay and “This is My God; The Jewish Way of Life” as a religious primer. During the sixties, he wrote, “Youngblood Hawke” based on a Thomas Wolfe like character and “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” a story about a man who moves to the Caribbean during his mid-life crisis.
Then in the seventies, he wrote two epic novels, “The Winds of War,” and “War and Remembrance.” He spent the eighties, nineties and early two thousands, writing about Judaism, Israel, and Jewish people. He has also dabbled in science. Especially the tension between science and religion and how to balance them. In 2012 he wrote “The Lawgiver” about a Hollywood writer writing a script about Moses.
Herman met Betty Sarah Brown in California while the ship he was on was being repaired in 1944. They married in 1945 after the war, and she converted to Judaism. They settled in New York, and he supported them with his writing. Their first son drowned in a pool at five years old. Their other two children became writers.
In their later years they settled in Palm Springs, California. That is where his wife and agent, Sarah died in 2011. He credited her as the driving force behind his career. His books have been translated into twenty-seven different languages. In 1995 he was honored by the Library of Congress by a large group of novelists, historians, publishers and critics for his eightieth birthday. In January of 2016 his latest and he says, his last book was released. It is an autobiographical memoir, “Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100 Year Old Author”.