VII The Last Captain of the Caine
38 The Kamikaze
Following the trial, the Caine resumes duty but with few sailors aboard from Queeg's command. Maryk is removed from duty on the Caine and is given command of an LCI, a landing craft. Captain White serves as commander of the Caine for several months, but he is eventually reassigned and Keefer becomes captain. Willie is now executive officer, and Queeg's whereabouts are unknown. Though most of the men are new to the Caine, a certain air of mistrust hangs about Willie and Keefer.
As the Caine steams to Okinawa to pick up mail for the minesweeper fleet, it is struck by a kamikaze. A fire breaks out and Keefer panics when some ammunition begins to explode. Initially, Willie fears the ship might be lost and he experiences a deep regret for never having married May. Then a strange calm and clear-headedness comes over him. Willie insists that the damage isn't too bad, but Keefer seems oblivious to his comments. As the ship loses power, Keefer grabs his novel and gives the order to abandon ship. In a scene parallel to the events surrounding the relief of Queeg, Willie contradicts Keefer's order and tells the men to remain with the ship. Still panicking, Keefer, along with a handful of other men, jumps overboard. Willie, however, remains very calm, stays with the ship, and directs the men to put out the fire. He manages to restore power and to retrieve the men who abandoned ship.
When he is back aboard, Keefer praises Willie for his heroic actions and comments that he will recommend Willie for the Navy Cross. One by one the men are accounted for, all except for Horrible, one of the few men who also served under Queeg. Eventually, Horrible's body is located, and it is clear that he was killed when the kamikaze entered the ship. Willie takes it upon himself to organize the recovery of Horrible's body.
Later, as he rests in his bunk, Willie begins to shake from the trauma of the events. However, he regains his composure and smokes a cigar that was given to him by Horrible several days earlier to mark Horrible's promotion to water tender third class-a promotion which Willie realizes ultimately led to the man's death. It is a life-altering moment for Willie.
Keefer calls Willie to his cabin, and they privately discuss the events. Keefer compares himself to the main character in Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, a man who also jumps at a critical moment and must forever live in the shadow of his act. Willie tries to soothe Keefer by suggesting that the act was justified, but they both know Keefer had simply panicked. Willie states that in any case he will tell the commodore that the act was justified. When Keefer asks Willie why he remained on the ship, Willie replies that he had seen the damage and understood that it wasn't that serious. Keefer states that even if he had seen the damage, he still would have jumped. Then Keefer notes that the main difference between himself and Queeg was that Queeg didn't have enough brains to see through his own self-deceptions. Because Keefer can see the truth, he will be forever haunted by the fact that he couldn't perform under pressure. Keefer then asks if Willie had placed two steel balls on his pillow following a confrontation Keefer had with a sailor. Willie admits that he did and apologizes. Keefer comments that, despite what Willie might think, he now has the utmost sympathy for Queeg because commanding a naval vessel is one of the most difficult things a man can do. Keefer notes the irony that both he and Roland faced the same trial; Roland performed heroically, while he failed. Keefer then comments on how much Willie has changed during his two years of service on the Caine; he mentions how when Willie first arrived Captain de Vriess had believed Willie would one day make a good officer but Keefer had no faith in Willie. Keefer lightens the mood a bit by asking if the men are referring to him as "Old Swandive." Willie suggests that everyone will forget the event in a week or two, but Keefer notes that each man has one or two pivotal moments in his life, and this is his. He also remarks that he metaphorically jumped ship during the court-martial. Keefer concludes their conversation by asking if Willie would like to read his novel. Willie gladly accepts the piece and treats it as if it were a top-secret document.
That evening after finishing Keefer's draft Willie writes a lengthy letter to May.
39 A Love Letter
Willie's letter to May is very passionate and in it he asks her to marry him. He admits he has treated her badly but explains that he has grown up as a result of his experiences on the Caine. He considers their relationship to be a "once-in-a-lifetime miracle." He tells her that when he is eventually discharged he still wants to teach, and, if she will agree, he desires to spend his life with her.
The Caine rests in Okinawa as the damage from the kamikaze is repaired. Eventually the ship is returned to duty. Willie runs into Keggs, who is now captain of the Moulton. Keggs tells Willie that Willie will probably be captain of the Caine in the next few months, but Willie doubts it will ever happen.
Weeks go by, and seventeen days before the war ends, the Caine at last gets the chance to perform minesweeping operations. The equipment and processes work just as they were intended, and Willie begins to believe that perhaps the Navy knows what it is doing after all.
Six weeks pass but Willie does not receive a reply from May; he begins to become anxious. He receives a letter from Ducely which comments on the "mutiny" and contains a newspaper article about Queeg being assigned as the new executive officer of a naval depot in Iowa. Ducely also informs Willie that he has tracked down a girl he fantasized about when he served on the Caine and he has seen May performing in a club. Out of anger, Willie dumps the article into the sea but immediately regrets not having shared it with Keefer.
Morale rises as news of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan makes its way to the ship. The men begin talking of what they will do when the eventually return home. A short time later, they learn of the Japanese surrender; a tremendous celebration breaks out. With the surrender, Willie believes that Keefer will be the Caine's last captain; he laments that he will never be able to command a warship.
When the first notice of release from service circulates, Willie learns that he is scheduled for release in February; however, he believes the date will be moved forward as a new procedure is implemented. With the Caine's fuel pump operating marginally, Willie seeks help from the repair ship but is only given two repairmen for seventy-two hours. Willie manages to convince the men of the Caine to repair their fuel pumps so that the ship can return home; otherwise, they may have to wait in Okinawa for months. Even though the Caine is again operational, it is denied participation in the minesweeping of Tokyo Bay.
When the new schedule for release from service is delivered, Willie learns that half the men of the Caine, including Keefer, are to be released immediately. Willie's release date has been moved forward to November. Keefer asks if Willie is ready to take over command of the ship, but Willie notes that he doesn't have enough experience. Keefer replies that he has more war-time experience than de Vriess had when he was given command of the Caine. Keefer also states that if Willie is willing, he will send a dispatch to the personnel bureau requesting the change. Willie consents.
Willie and Keefer travel to the personnel office, and Keefer manages to convince the personnel officer that Willie has both the experience and the desire to captain the Caine. The officer makes no promises, but three days later Willie receives word that he is the new captain of the Caine. Keefer wastes no time departing the ship, noting that he has no sentimental attachment to the ship. As Keefer prepares to disembark, Willie envies the fact that Keefer will have a wonderful career as a writer, while he will end up teaching in some small college. Keefer tells Willie not to envy him too much; after all, he had jumped from the ship.
40 The Last Captain of the Caine
Willie has some odd feelings as he moves into Queeg's old cabin. He's excited to be commanding the Caine yet distraught after not having heard from May. He writes May another letter stating that her silence must mean she has rejected his proposal. He then writes to his mother.
Willie experiences a change in his personal identity, as he settles into his role as captain. A typhoon passes close to Okinawa, and Willie manages to keep the Caine out of trouble, although several other ships have considerable trouble. For his efforts he gains some respect from his men. When the sea settles, Willie travels to the Moulton and talks to Keggs. He tells Keggs that he is ready to go home and suggests that the try to get orders for both of the ships to return home-the Moulton serving as escort for the Caine. Keggs notes that captains don't initiate sailing orders, but Willie reminds him that things are in such a state of flux that they just might be able to get such orders approved. Keggs agrees to give it a try, and the pair visit the operations officer, make their case, and get approval.
Willie has mixed emotions as the Caine leaves Okinawa. He savors the trip, knowing that these are the closing moments of his naval career. When the ship arrives in Hawaii, he calls May's old address but is told that she has moved out. In the mail he receives a Bronze Star for his actions during the kamikaze attack; at the same time he receives a letter of reprimand for his participation in the relief of Queeg. Higher authorities disapproved the acquittal, and he understands that this spells the formal end of his naval career. He pities Maryk because he knows that the event will also impact him.
Three weeks later, as the Caine is docked in Bayonne, New Jersey, about to be decommissioned, Willie feels that all his time aboard has been like a dream. He has trouble imagining himself as the old Willie, the pre-war man. He wants to deliver a prepared formal speech at the decommissioning ceremony, but he ends up speaking from the heart, noting that "Every hour spent on the Caine was a great hour in all our lives." Willie keeps some of the ship's flags to send to Horrible's parents. As he walks down the gangplank, he understands that the Caine is now mere junk.
Willie's mother meets him at the dock, driving a new Cadillac. Although he doesn't like the message the act implies, he leaves with her. When she asks if he is sad to leave his ship, Willie echoes de Vriess' comment, stating that it is the "Happiest moment of my life." He asks if his mother has heard from May, and she replies that she hasn't. Willie tells her that he's going to try to locate May and is still intent on marrying her. To his surprise, his mother says that he is now a man and that she will respect his decision; she only hopes that she can still remain a part of his life. She comments that since Willie truly loves her, there must be something in May she is not seeing. She also suggests that Willie is partly to blame for her poor assessment of May.
Willie contacts Marty Rubin, who convinces him to come to his office. Rubin takes Willie takes to the lobby of a popular hotel and shows him a marquee with the name Marie Minotti on it. Rubin tells Willie that May has been having a relationship with the bandleader, Walter Feather. When Willie asks how it's possible, Rubin replies that Feather caught her on the rebound and that the man is actually quite talented and makes a good deal of money. Rubin also informs Willie that he hardly speaks to May anymore and that they fought over Willie's proposal letter.
Willie and Rubin enter the hall during a rehearsal. May is arguing with Feather about having to sing "Anchors Aweigh," and Willie notices that she has dyed her hair to a bright blond. Feather calls for a break, and as he exits with May, Willie comes forward. May is shocked but regains her composure and introduces Willie to Feather. Feather and Rubin go off to lunch, leaving May and Willie to have a private discussion. Willie asks why she dyed her hair, noting that it makes her look hard. He asks why she didn't respond to his letter, and she replies that he was the one who dumped her. Thus, she felt no obligation to remain faithful to him. Willie tells her that everything in the letter still stands. May replies that it was a wonderful letter but that it came too late. Willie asks if she is Feather's mistress, and she becomes upset, suggesting that it's only natural for a relationship to develop between two people who spend so much time together. Willie is struck by the comment, but he accepts it and again asks her to marry him. She suggests that he is only doing so out of a sense of duty, but he replies that he is guilty of all that she says but nonetheless still loves her. He asserts that they belong together. May comments that he is a different man and asks what has brought about the change in him. Willie replies that it was his near-death experience on the Caine. May notes that she can't possibly give up what she has to become the housewife of a struggling academic. Willie kisses her passionately, and she is amazed that there is still such a physical connection between them. He asks if she's in love with Feather, and she replies that it's not the same type of feeling that she once had for him. Willie grows romantic and speaks eloquently, but May asserts that the magic they once had is gone-he destroyed it when he jilted her. Willie asserts that the fact they are having such a real, deep conversation is evidence of their true feelings. When May adds that she has become accustomed to a certain style of living, Willie replies that he will do whatever it takes to make her happy, even abandon his teaching aspirations and go into business. May then reveals that she hasn't slept with Feather, mainly because he hasn't finalized his divorce. She then adds that Feather wants to marry her. Willie asks if he can see her that night, but she replies that she will be busy with a party Feather is giving. The pair begin to joke with each other, and May realizes that the old Willie is still inside of him. Willie tells her the story of the kamikaze and his urge to write her the proposal, and he shows her his Bronze Star. He attempts to give her the medal, but she refuses to take it. She suggests that they kiss again, and they again kiss passionately. She questions whether he would ever be able to forget her involvement with Feather, but Willie dismisses the issue.
May feels herself slipping back into the relationship but becomes flustered, knowing that Walter and the band will soon return. She agrees to see Willie again, but tells him not to pressure her and not to build things up too much in his mind. Willie notes that they might not be rich but they will be happy. He suggests that he will check in to the hotel so that he can be closer to her, but she tells him not to. As Feather and the band return, Willie goes out into the street and watches a parade of Navy men march by. He is confident that he will make May his wife.
Maryk's reassignment to a landing craft validates Greenwald's assertion that his hope of a career in the regular Navy is gone. The fact that Keefer abandons ship during the kamikaze incident reveals that, like Queeg, he too folds under significant pressure. Willie's volunteering to recover Horrible's body is solid evidence that he has greatly matured, and Keefer's admission of his own cowardly actions is evidence that he too has matured. Willie's letter to May is clear evidence that he truly loves her. Queeg's reassignment to a Navy depot in Iowa reveals that the Navy takes care of its regulars. Keefer's suggestion that Willie should command the Caine suggests that he too sees how Willie has matured. Willie's elevation to captain is an outward manifestation of the changes that have taken place within him. While Willie continues to doubt his readiness for the role of commander, his performance illustrates that he is ready to command his vessel and the men aboard it. The fact that Willie is both praised with the Bronze Star and given a letter of reprimand on the same day illustrates one of the many incongruencies that are part of military life. When Willie openly tells his mother that he is going to try to find May and that he is still planning on marrying her, he shows that he has finally arrived at the point where he can stand on his own two feet. In the novel's closing lines, Willie's honest, direct discussion with May and his ability to dismiss her relationship with Feather are further evidence of the depth of his maturity.