Don´t Go Near The Water

Reviews by Willard Manus

About a year ago I reviewed in Lively-Arts SEA DEVILS, a book about the famed Italian WW II navy commandos, published by Naval Institute Press. Now NIP has released several new titles dealing with navy or maritime affairs, the best-known of which is DON'T GO NEAR THE WATER, by William Brinkley. First published in 1956, the comic novel has been reissued by NIP's Bluejacket Books division. The novel's hero is a big, ungainly ensign who has a love affair with a native girl on the Micronesian island of Tulura during WW II. European-educated, the daughter of Tulura's leading citizen, Melora is not only sophisticated but fetching, more than a match for the bumptious Max Siegel. Their up-and-down, bawdy relationship combined with the author's satirical digs at the US Navy's bureaucratic mentality makes it easy to understand why the book became a bestseller and then a film starring Glen Ford and Gia Scala.

On the more serious (non-fiction) side is SISTERHOOD OF SPIES--THE WOMEN OF THE OSS by Elizabeth P. McIntosh, who interviewed more than a hundred women who served as spies, saboteurs and cryptographers in WW II. Their little-known stories are quite amazing: some were dropped by parachute behind enemy lines and joined partisan groups; others, like Julia McWilliams, were posted to the Far East and did yeoman work in intercepting and deciphering Japanese military cables. McWilliams later became famous as the cookbook writer and TV personality, Julia Childs.

JOURNEY TO PEKING--A SECRET AGENT IN WARTIME CHINA by Dan Pinck is a memoir of the author's experience in wartime China as a badly-trained 18-year-old tasked with the responsibility of spying on that country's Japanese occupiers. Pinck's intelligence and street-smarts kept him alive; it also helped that he quickly learned Chinese and acquired a Chinese mistress. Pinck survived many a close call and pulled off lots of daring stunts, but there is no chest-thumping in his low-key narrative.

"War books that I am most fond of are those that move along unheroically and with a quixotic imperturbability, no matter how desperate the situation," he writes. "They are accounts of reasonable young men in a series of unreasonable situations. War itself is seldom absent, but its emotional dimension is often mitigated by the writer's refusal to take himself seriously."

That pretty much sums up his own book's attributes.

"For as long as ships have put to sea, the sea has swallowed them up," John C. Fine comments in LOST ON THE OCEAN FLOOR--DIVING THE WORLD'S GHOST SHIPS. Fine dramatizes the hunt for some of those ill-fated shipwrecks, whether by treasure-seekers, marine archaeologists and historians, or just-plain amateur divers.

Lust for treasure has always motivated men to risk their lives in the deep. The first part of Fine's book deals with the expeditions, some dating as far back as 1626, to recover gold and silver from Spanish and French galleons which went down in storms or pirate attacks in the Caribbean. In more recent times, the American diver Mel Fisher won fame and fortune by salvaging ships in the Marquesas that yielded as much as 40 and 50 million dollars' worth of bullion, jewelry, bronze cannons and other prized artifacts.

Fine, who is also a diver, underwater photographer and maritime lawyer, writes knowledgably and skilfully not only about the quest to wrest riches from the sea, but about the attempts to locate such tragic shipwrecks as the Titanic and the Lusitania. War is undoubtedly the cause of most sinkings, which is why the author devotes considerable time to Scapa Flow (Scotland) and Tubruk (Micronesia), where vast numbers of German, British and Japanese warships were sunk (or scuttled), with considerable loss of life.

Today deep sea divers visit those watery graveyards, some simply to gape, others to honor the dead by planting flags and ikons.