Author's fiction captures WW II life aboard destroyers Mack, former Naval Academy superintendent, plans 10 volumes

June 19, 1992|By Michael R. Driscoll | Michael R. Driscoll,Staff Writer

The Napoleonic Wars and the Royal Navy had C.S. Forester. World War II and the U.S. Navy have Vice Adm. William P. Mack.

The 76-year-old Mack, a former superintendent of the U.S Naval Academy, is the main author of a projected 10-volume fictional history of the American destroyers during the Second World War.

"It's a history of the feeling of sailors in World War II," Mack says. "The equipment and the facts are authentic. The only fiction is the characters."

The first two books are "South to Java" (released in 1987 and written with his son, William P. Mack Jr.), which deals with the frantic days following Pearl Harbor; and the just-released "Pursuit of the Seawolf," about the submarine war in the North Atlantic.

A third book, "Checkfire," covers the Aleutian Islands campaign and the amphibious war in the Pacific. It will be released in September by The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Co. of Baltimore, publisher of the series. That will leave seven books to go.

"And then one will follow every year until they're finished," said the admiral, a veteran of the Pacific war.

Post-gulf war disillusionment notwithstanding, Mack says there is still an interest in World War II.

"A whole lot of people still like World War II," he said. "Either they served in it, or their fathers and uncles did, and so forth. A lot of people were there, and did things in large numbers. It was a big war, and there's lots to write about."

Mack's story -- isn't just a fictionalized biography or a waterlogged "Winds of War." Instead, using the O'Leary and its crew as a starting point, Mack plans to move on to other ships and characters.

"My memories are cranked in with fiction, some details from other people, imagination, that sort of thing," Mack explained. "I don't know any one character that is in the book, as a person. They're conglomerates of a whole lot of people."

As a former naval officer and member of the Naval Academy Class of 1937, Mack was concerned about his portrayal of the other half of the Navy, its enlisted personnel. He pointed at a picture of several seamen on the wall over the word processor in his study.

"I always make sure I do justice to the enlisted men by keeping that picture up there. Whenever I wonder if I am, I just look up there and think, 'Hey, would those guys like that?' "

Mack said he developed his rather lean style thanks to working as a summer stringer for the San Francisco Daily News, and to his time on the staff of Adm. Arleigh Burke, an aggressive destroyer commander himself who told him, "There are only two words you can use to describe me, 'good' and 'bad.' Anything else I'll cross out."

Mack intended originally to be a flier, but a football injury forced him into a brief career flying an observation plane off a battleship. He later moved to a destroyer, the John D. Ford, with the Asiatic Fleet in the Philippines. He was aboard when the war started.

After a series of battles, mostly Japanese victories, Mack recalled, "everything just sort of evaporated. We were one of the few ships that didn't get sunk, but escaped and went to Australia. But that become the focus of 'South to Java.' "

Mack shared that book with his son because "he had the idea to do this. He read all this stuff that I had [old photographs and records of the Asiatic Fleet] that no one else had, and said there was enough stuff in there for a book. So when it came time to write the book, I wrote all the battle scenes and laid out the plot, and my son filled in the characters."

Both books have done pretty well in hard-back and soft-back editions, the admiral said. But he expressed reluctance about putting his stories on film.

"I just won't have anything to do with it," Mack said flatly.

Why? "Because an agent comes at you and says, 'I'll give you $50,000 for an option on your book,' and then he takes the book and sells it to some fly-by-night guy who makes a lousy movie about it, and then the public doesn't like the movie so they don't buy any more of the books."

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