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Away All Boats
by Kenneth Dodson
Little, Brown and Company, 1954, 444 pages

The gritty wartime realism and memorable officers and crewmen of the attack transport in Away All Boats make this novel one that was selected by the U.S. Naval Institute to be published in 1996 for its series "Classics of Naval Literature." The novel also was turned into a film released in 1956 starring Jeff Chandler as Captain Jebediah Hawks and George Nader as Lieutenant Dave MacDougall. The book follows the participation of the men of the attack transport USS Belinda (APA-15) and her 32 landing boats in several Pacific War battles beginning with the assault on Japanese-held Makin Atoll in November 1943 and ending when the ship nearly sinks after getting hit by three kamikaze aircraft on April 6, 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa.

The author Kenneth Dodson worked in the US Merchant Marine for 17 years including as ship master (captain) and then served as Lieutenant on the attack transport USS Pierce (APA-50) during the Pacific War. Pierce and her landing boats participated in many of the same assault landings depicted in Away All Boats such as those at Makin Atoll, Kwajalein, Saipan, Palau, Leyte, Luzon (Lingayen Gulf), and Okinawa, which makes this fictional work read like history at times with its battle details written by someone who was there. He became friends with poet Carl Sandburg, who recognized Dodson's writing talent and encouraged him to write a book about his experiences during the Pacific War. Sandburg, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, wrote the following in the inside front cover of the Away All Boats hardback published in 1954, "This is one of the best sea books ever done, giving wonderful personality to a ship that has rare and strange adventures, bringing into fine focus the vivid human characters on the ship."

The attack transport Belinda was built to land assault troops with all necessary equipment on enemy-held beaches by using her own 32 landing boats. The 516-foot long ship typically carried about 2,600 men for invasion of enemy islands, and this number included not only the regular crew but also over 1,000 troops for amphibious landings. The book's title comes from the command to launch the boats from the ship so they could head for shore, "Away all boats, away." The ship was also armed with two 5-inch guns and several 40mm and 20mm guns. The author uses quite a bit of military terminology, which contributes to the novel's realism, but in a few cases it would have been helpful if certain acronyms were defined the first time that they were used. For example, LCVP means "landing craft, vehicle, personnel" and is synonymous with the ship's landing boats, but it is not defined in the novel. The acronym VP is also used several times, which seems to just be a shortened version of LCVP, but it could not be determined with certainty since the author provides no explanation.

The novel presents the story of Belinda and her crew in chronological order from when Lieutenant Dave MacDougall boards the ship in San Francisco for her shakedown cruise from San Francisco to Hawaii in July 1943. Detailed maps of the western half of the Pacific Ocean show Belinda's path for all major operations including dates, which often in the novel's text are omitted. The author skillfully weaves in any necessary background information about the crew, ship, and operations without the need for extended diversions or flashbacks. Numerous characters get introduced as would be expected on a ship the size of the Belinda. Only about 15 or 20 men appear in enough scenes so that the reader gets to know them well, but some men get transferred off the ship such as Executive Officer Quigley who gets his own command of a supply ship and beachmaster Lieutenant Mike O'Bannion who loses his foot when he steps on an underwater Japanese mine during a beach assault. Although many chapters focus on intense battles fought during amphibious landings, other parts of the book depict typical everyday events in the Navy such as shakedown cruise challenges, shore leave, difficulties in receiving mail from home, and boat landing drills.

The story gets told in the third person mainly from the perspective of Lieutenant Dave MacDougall, who serves as Boat Group Commander until injured in an accident, when the Captain appoints him to be Navigator. When the Executive Officer gets transferred off Belinda, MacDougal becomes his replacement. Finally, when the Captain is near death after one of the kamikaze aircraft hits, MacDougall assumes command. MacDougal's history prior to the Belinda and his personal characteristics parallel those of Kenneth Dodson such as many years of prior service in the US Merchant Marine, rank of Lieutenant, and age of 36 years during the war. MacDougall has a wife Nadine and a son Robbie who is two years old. He writes many letters to his wife partly to relieve stress. In the case of Kenneth Dodson, such frequent long letters to his home became the basis for creating the novel Away All Boats.

The Belinda's two captains present a contrast in leadership styles. The first captain, Winthrop Gedney, seems more affable than the second captain, Jebediah Hawks, but both are strict Navy leaders and Naval Academy graduates. Gedney believed that "the man is more important than the machine," whereas Hawks had an intense focus on making the Belinda better and faster than any other ship such as reaching the beach more quickly even to the point of possibly endangering the ship. As Hawks continues to serve on the Belinda, he often shows his brilliance in battle, but the senior officers wonder more and more about several eccentricities that may have been caused mainly by a captain's extreme continuous pressure. He orders the building of a sail boat with red sails, colored with red ink that the supply officer had to spend many hours searching for in order to obtain, and he sailed the boat a couple of times when the Belinda was anchored. He obtains a pet monkey in the Philippines and became emotional when his pet could not be found. He also frequently asks one of the ship's doctors to provide him with medicinal whiskey to calm him. After Hawks gets injured during one of the kamikaze attacks, its seems that he loses his mind and enters another world when he gazes into the sunset as he nears death. Although Hawks displays certain odd behavior, the senior officers treat him and his personal situation with respect while recognizing that he had brought them successfully through several battles.

Japanese kamikaze aircraft attacks play a significant role in the book's last half. The first explosive-laden suicide plane that is encountered nearly hits Belinda off Leyte in the Philippines. The plane takes a light tank from a yardarm before it hits the water with an exploding geyser of water and smoke shooting up within 50 feet of the bridge, where the plane's gunfire on its dive had triggered panic. Captain Hawks feels shame that he had been robbed of firm control of the situation at the very time he wanted to set an example and exercise his proper authority. On the way to Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines, a kamikaze plane flies in the vicinity of Belinda and causes serious damage when it crashes into a nearby LST (landing ship, tank). When Belinda reaches Lingayen Gulf, the crewmen see wave after wave of Japanese suicide plans and some American ships that were burning. At Okinawa on April 1, 1945, a kamikaze plane causes the Belinda to take evasive action, but the flaming plane crashes into the bridge of another APA and drops what is probably a bomb down an open hatch forward of the bridge. The last four chapters cover the horrific events at Okinawa on April 6, 1945, the day of Japan's largest mass kamikaze attack when three kamikaze aircraft hit the Belinda. The preliminary medical report prepared by a medical officer gives the total casualties on the Belinda as 42 killed and 93 wounded with many men injured while fighting fires.

The most humorous and memorable crewman is Gilbert Hubert from the mountains of Tennessee, who is responsible for grinding the ship's garbage so that no Japanese submarine or ship will discover Belinda's location. He complains about chicken guts that clog up the gears of his garbage grinding machine to the point where he needs to take the machine apart to clean it. A ship doctor describes him, "The man was personally filthy—no amount of naval regulation, supervision or moral persuasion would ever succeed in keeping his person clean—yet his zeal for cleanliness of the garbage room and its grinding machinery was amazing" (p. 351). Captain Hawks depicts him with the following words: "Hubert is not military and he is not sanitary but he is important to the safety of the ship. Hubert is the only man on board who likes to grind garbage. If I gave the job permanently to anyone but Hubert, I'd have to assign a master-at-arms to see that nothing was sloughed off over the side. Hubert is the only man available for the duty who can be trusted to grind garbage properly day after day" (p. 347).

The most hated officer on the ship is Ensign Twitchell, signal and recognition officer, who constantly seeks to put crewmen on report for rule violations that will get them some extra duty or loss of liberty. Boski, a hulking signalman who later receives a Silver Star for valor in combat on Saipan, responds back to Quigley with the reason why he walked away from him: "If I stood there, Mr. Twitchell, when you talked to me like that, I would just flatten you—I couldn't help it. So I walked away" (p. 83). A humorous scene takes place when a quarter of the crew goes on shore leave at the Guadalcanal fleet recreational area. A fight breaks out between two crewmen, and while trying to break up the fight Twitchell gets hit in the jaw. He tells the sailor who had unintentionally hit him that he is under arrest for striking an officer. In the scuffle that follows, another sailor intentionally hits Twitchell in his midriff. MacDougal arrives then at the melee, but the Chief Boatswain's Mate explains that Twitchell had fallen over a coconut and fell down without anyone laying a finger on him. MacDougal let the incident go when the rest of the crewmen vouches for this account. Twitchell goes away saying it was a pack of lies and threatening that everyone would pay for this.

Pappy Moran, an experienced Chief Boatswain's Mate, works hard, pushes his men, and has the respect of other crewmen. Captain Gedney gives Captain Hawks his opinion of Moran just before command was transferred: "I consider him the most important enlisted man aboard—worth several of the officers put together. . . . His formal education was limited; I think he shines as a chief. In some strange manner he holds the ship's company together, makes men do what seems impossible to them. Moran is an Old Navy man" (p. 173). After the Belinda got hit by three kamikaze planes, he played a key role in rallying together selected crewmen to move a heavy compressor that was needed to keep the ship from sinking.

One crewmen describes to MacDougal why Sacktime Riley has his nickname, "Sleeps day and night—supposed to be a boat engineer but he never moves a muscle if he can help it—always waits to see if the other guys will do it for him" (p. 28). He is known as the best sleeper and poorest worker aboard the Belinda. Riley shows his true colors after the Belinda gets hit by three kamikaze aircraft. As crewmen toil to keep the ship from sinking, Riley goes to an undamaged flak magazine where reserve ammunition is stored. He picks up some dry foul-weather jackets and oilskin slickers from the deck to make a comfortable pillow. He stretches out, lights a cigarette, and drifts off to sleep. When crewmen yell out that there is a fire in the flak magazine, Dr. Bell rushes in without regard to personal safety in order to try to save Riley, who he had seen go into the magazine when he was on his way from surgery to the bridge in order to deliver a preliminary casualty report from the kamikaze attacks. The doctor dies in the rescue attempt, and the huge signalman Boski berates Riley for what he did even though he initially denies having any involvement: "You dirty little rat! You done this. You killed Doc Bell, that's what you done! . . . You're a liar by the clock. . . . You flaked out in that magazine, smoking; that's what you did. Fell asleep and set the place on fire. . . . The best man on the ship went in there after you. . . . You ought to crawl on your hands and knees the rest of your life, but you won't. You're one of those guys who thinks the world him a living" (pp. 431-3).

Away All Boats vividly depicts the strengths and weaknesses of men, many from civilian life, who have been put together on a ship to work together as a team to help win a war. The novel shows the challenges and pressures of the captain of such a ship who has to mold together many different personalities to fight effectively together. There are several incidents that depict the courage and resolve of a group of sailors or soldiers from the Belinda. For instance, Lieutenant Junior Grade Karl Kruger leads a group of men on a daring mission through a narrow pass in a coral reef in order to locate and rescue men from another ship who have been pinned down by the Japanese. The Captain recognizes him in front of the entire crew as a hero for his success in the mission without losing a man and awards him a Silver Star for gallantry in action against the enemy.

Cover of paperback published
by Bantam Books in 1963