Vice admiral charts new career in books Navy veteran plans series of novels

November 04, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

From his floor-to-ceiling picture window, Vice Adm. William P. Mack watched his sailboat rock gently at its mooring as the late afternoon sun sparkled like a field of diamonds across rippling Aberdeen Creek.

But his mind's eye was focused thousands of miles and 50 years away, visualizing warships on similarly sparkling waters -- the U.S. Navy's battles in World War II, and his part in them.

For 38 years, Admiral Mack, now 77, served in or commanded every type of ship in the Navy, from World War II destroyers to the Vietnam War's 7th Fleet.

"Battleships were the easiest duty, but destroyers were my favorite," he said.

The 1937 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy retired in 1975 as a three-star vice admiral, serving his last three years as the academy's superintendent.

That duty capped a career that earned him three Distinguished Service Medals and a wall of autographed photos of presidents, Cabinet officers and other admirals.

But for Admiral Mack, retirement did not mean just relaxation, tennis and golf.

Writing had been an avocation since 1931, when he was an intern reporter on the San Francisco Daily News, where his brother-in-law was city editor.

At the academy, he was a columnist for The Log, the midshipmen's magazine. Throughout his career, he wrote articles and books for the Naval Institute Proceedings.

Some of his titles include: "The Naval Officers' Guide," "Command at Sea," and "Naval Customs, Traditions and Usage."

In 1981, the Navy League awarded him the Alfred Thayer Mahan prize for literary excellence.

But sailors are natural yarn-spinners and Admiral Mack is no exception. He had a wealth of experience to draw upon.

At the suggestion of his son, William P. Mack Jr., a former naval officer and non-practicing physician, he launched a second career as a popular historical novelist, chronicling the adventures and crews of the sleek, speedy destroyers, the tin cans that went everywhere and did everything.

"They say you should write about what you know, and this is what I know. I'm trying to cover the history of World War II through the eyes of destroyer men," said Admiral Mack. "I draw on my experiences. I've been in all the ports and on all the ships."

A football knee injury at the academy helped put him on all those ships.

He initially wanted to be a pilot. The injury precluded that, so he went into the fleet.

World War II's beginning found the future admiral as a young officer in the Philippines, aboard a destroyer, the USS John D. Ford.

His experiences there, including the initial Japanese victories and his ship's escape to Australia, provided the background for his first novel, "South to Java," published in 1987 and co-written with his son.

The admiral said that he and Tom Clancy submitted their manuscripts to the U.S. Naval Institute at Annapolis at about the same time.

The institute, which had announced it would accept fiction for the first time, eventually published Mr. Clancy's "Hunt for Red October," the first in a series of techno-thrillers that brought him international fame and fortune.

"He won; we lost," said Admiral Mack.

The rejection slip was simply a goad. He cut 150 pages from his 700-page manuscript and took it to Jan Hurgronje, 50, who launched the Naval and Aviation Publishing Company of America Inc. in Baltimore in 1979. The company publishes technical and non-technical military literature.

"Fiction is so different from non-fiction," the admiral said. "When I wrote news stories, editorials, sports, everything you could think of [in the Navy and in civilian life], it had to be clear and concise -- no adjectives, no big words.

"Then you change over and try to write fiction," he said. "You have to have plot and characterization and conflict. I've read all the books on how to create plots and characters. You use adjectives and you can have long sentences. And if there's something wrong, you can gloss over it and say it's only fiction."

Mr. Hurgronje, a former editor at the Naval Institute, remembers the original draft of "South to Java" as a "nice book but not publishable as submitted; no manuscript ever is."

"We worked with him to get it rewritten, and we published it," Mr. Hurgronje said. "The book related experiences that were not well known. The Battle of the Java Sea was a cruiser-destroyer battle.

"It was a defeat, and Mack had been in it. It was a rare subject and he had done a reliable, creditable job."

It became a Book of the Month Club selection and sold about 10,000 hardback and 40,000 paperback copies. Not bad for a first novel, the admiral said.

"If we had connected with a New York publisher, we might well be up with Clancy, but we're not in it for the money," said Admiral Mack. "We write to give people pleasure. And the books are written so a 13-year-old girl can read them, and a sailor can find them realistic."

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