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Tonkin Gulf: A Realistic Fantasy
By Joe Miller (reviewer)
The Abel Mutiny
It is 1964.
What if the crew of a destroyer like the USS Maddox, realizing that their ship was part of a conspiracy to make war against Vietnam, decided to mutiny in order to take the ship out of the war?
This is the fundamental basis of the story that Allen Meece has constructed in The Abel Mutiny.
I asked to review this novel because there are not many, if any, books - fiction or nonfiction - published about the Blue Water Navy during the Vietnam War. We have glory and gore stories about Seal teams. There have been books about the Brown Water Navy in the river patrols. Any writing about Blue Water Navy tends to focus on Navy pilots and carrier duty (nothing about the crew, for sure).
This little book, written by a former Sonarman who actually served on a destroyer during two Westpac cruises during 1964 to 1966. Though a work of fiction, does provide a realistic account of shipboard life for the average sailor during that period.
The descriptions of what it's like to ride rough seas on a destroyer or "tin can" resonated with me, though I never served on one. Meece and I were apparently serving in the same area around the same time, and I recall times when our carrier, the USS Ticonderoga, had occasion to refuel or replenish the destroyers in our task force. His description of that process is very real, and I saw destroyers and their crew getting bounced up and down by the seas while we on the carrier were riding smooth as can be.
Shipboard life, whether it is about gripe sessions among the crew, the workings of General Quarters, or scenes in the Combat Information Center (CIC), is well-reflected in Meece's prose. That is all part of the realistic aspects found in this absorbing novel.
The fantastic, though also riveting aspect of the novel, is found in some of the inner dialog among members of the crew, as well as in the topic and tenor of their gripe sessions—at least for the period: late summer and early fall 1964.
The classism and lifer mentality of the Navy (and other services) is elaborated quite vividly throughout the novel in the thoughts of some main characters. For example:
"Officers are up on the bridge above gun mount 31, the twin three-inch antiaircraft guns. They see you're enjoying yourself and they don't like people having fun. It's better military bearing to be depressed and repressed like they are." (p. 2)
And...when the crew was being told about Vietnam as a "military conflict" as opposed to a real war:
"The officers have been to college, they'd tell you if there were any killing going on in this conflict. They're smarter, older, better-paid and more respected. They wouldn't lie....unless that's how they earn that extra income." (p. 9)
This all comes to a head when the USS Abel is placed on the firing line with other destroyers and they spend six days firing into the jungles of Vietnam. A conversation between Sonarman John "Jack" Mason and Torpedoman's Mate Gerald "Obie" Oberhoffen goes like this:
"Does this feel wrong?" Jack asked. "Isn't this, let me see here, what's the right word? What's it called when you shoot somebody who doesn't shoot back?" "Yeah," Obie answered. "The word is murder." (p. 26)
It should be pointed out that the official establishment of gunnery attacks on Vietnam from the sea does not take place until late 1966, so the author may be taking poetic license here.
Chapter 3 of the novel is titled "Tonkin," and this is where it all hits the fan. You get a small dose of the action from the section quoted by Allen Meece in this issue. This chapter is a high-powered description of the preparation and completion of a DeSoto patrol, an intelligence mission that, in this novel, takes place soon after the Tonkin Gulf Incidents of August 1964.
Historically, as Meece points out in this issue, there actually was a third Tonkin Gulf Incident in September 1964. There were two destroyers involved, the USS Morton (DD 948) and the USS Edwards (DD 619). An NSA intercept team was on board the Morton. Meece was a Sonarman Third Class on board the Edwards. The events that took place during that patrol from 17 to 20 September provide the details and the emotion behind Meece's novelistic account of the action.
[For an official account of these events, one may wish to consult a September 28, 1964, National Security Agency document titled: "Chronology of Events of 18-20 September 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin." This was declassified and released by the NSA on February 13, 2006.]
In the novel, a character sums it up: "We went where we shouldn't, killed who we didn't need to, and didn't rescue any survivors." (p. 72)
The Abel then goes on R&R in Hong Kong for four days. As the ship prepares to get underway to return to Vietnam, Torpedoman's Mate Obie goes on strike, locks himself inside the torpedo shack, and demands that the ship not return to Vietnam.
Of course, the Captain refuses. As Meece writes, "Obie had committed two cardinal military sins: Believing in truth and acting against lies. He was useless." (p. 104).
Obie is removed from the ship and, through a secret deal among the top officers and lifers, he is sent to Long Binh Jail (LBJ). As he was Navy, he was not supposed to be sent there. [Note: Long Binh Jail was not established until 1966]
The fate of Obie causes Jack Mason and others among the crew to mutiny, take over the ship, remove the officers, lifers, and members of the crew who would not go along, and take the ship out of the war altogether.
The remainder of the novel details the mutiny, the discussions about where to go and how to get there, and their ultimate fate. This is an exciting ride, and the reader by this time is rooting for them to make it happen and be successful in challenging the war.
It is a fantasy, but you can easily get sucked into it by the great writing and the intense dialogue between men who feel betrayed by their own government and feel compelled to do something about it.
Those of us who participated in the war and felt that betrayal should read this exciting book. Do not be put off by the historical or other inaccuracies; take it as it is—a book written by one of us that successfully, I think, expresses feelings and emotions about "our war" and what we learned about ourselves and our government through that war—or was it just a "conflict?"
Joe Miller, US Navy, 1961-1968, Naval Security Group, 1961-1964, USS Ticonderoga, 1964-1966.