The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny is a novel of historical fiction about World War II by Herman Wouk. It was published, and won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1951.

The Caine Mutiny follows the life of Willie Keith from December 1942, one year after Pearl Harbor, to October 1945, shortly after the end of the war. Keith spent most of that time aboard the USS Caine, a World War I destroyer converted to minesweeping duty in the South Pacific.

I read this book in high school, and I just re-read it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book again, after so many years. It holds many more meanings for me now.

This book is about leadership. I now have more perspective about leadership than I did as a teenager. In the course of the novel, the USS Caine has six captains. Each has a different style. Many lines in the book resonate with me as I reflect on the bosses I’ve had, and on the kind of boss that I was. There are leadership lessons in this book that are applicable to our current era of political polarization. No, I’m not suggesting mutiny. Read the book.

This book is about love. I now have more perspective about love than I did as a teenager. There are many different kinds of love: in courtship; in marriage (not the same as courtship); within families, especially the bond between parent and child; and between people working together in a common enterprise. This book covers them all. Once I attended a leadership seminar where the speaker said that leadership is love. The speaker was ex-military.

This book is about death and chance, both of which I now have more perspective about than I did as a teenager.

This book is about growing up. Like the topics listed above, the depths of this topic will never be exhaustively plumbed by anyone, but now that I am in my 60s, a parent with grown children, I have more perspective about it than I did as a teenager. The USS Caine saw mostly minor combat action, but it did survive two kamikaze attacks. The second attack, some six months after the “mutiny,” nearly sank the ship. When the danger had passed, Keith lay alone on his bunk and smoked a cigar while he thought about things:

A half hour of such racking meditation can change the ways of a lifetime. Willie Keith crushing the stub in the ashtray was not the Willie who had lit the cigar. That boy was gone for good.

The Caine Mutiny is about “The Greatest Generation.” That phrase had not been coined when the book was published in 1951, nor when I first read the book in the early 1970s. The Greatest Generation was the generation of my parents. I had two aunts whose beaus (and future husbands) served on ships in the South Pacific. I had an aunt who lost a beau in the Battle of the Bulge. (My parents had only sisters, no brothers.) One aunt joined the Navy herself. Those who stayed home, both men and women, also served their country. The government asked my father to work on the farm and produce food. They asked his best friend to fly gliders across the English Channel into occupied Europe; after the war he was the best man at my parents’ wedding and he ran a gas station and car repair shop in Cambridge, perhaps like the one that Carl Hess ran in Arlington. What made them The Greatest Generation? The accident of growing up during The Greatest War in history.

The Caine Mutiny is about Big History, as seen through the eyes of a junior naval officer. This book may not resonate with many modern readers, who seem uninterested in history. Social media fuels interest in the gossip of today. But if we fail to learn any lessons from history, we risk repeating its failures – not in exactly the same way, of course; advances in technology will see to that.

If, however, you should be interested in Big History, I also recommend Herman Wouk’s later novels which cover the full sweep of World War II: The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. They are magisterial, and like The Caine Mutiny, riveting good reads.

There is a passage in The Caine Mutiny that made me smile when I read it a few days ago, as I made the connection with things I learned on our most recent travel adventure last fall (see my other blog The Switchel Traveler).

The “mutiny” on the USS Caine occurred in December 1944 during a typhoon when the executive officer believed the ship was in danger of sinking because of the captain’s orders. The executive officer relieved the captain of command. The ship survived, and two months later there was a court-martial. The executive officer was not charged with mutiny, but with “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline,” a serious charge carrying a 15 year prison term. After an emotional and dramatic 3-day trial, encapsulated by the image on the book cover above, the executive officer was acquitted.

This greatly pleased the rest of the officers on the Caine, who disliked the captain. Indeed, they had nicknamed the captain “Old Yellowstain” because of his cowardice in battle. One of the other officers, a novelist in civilian life, threw a dinner party to celebrate:

“Nothing but champagne will be served,” yelled the novelist. “Champagne to toast the Fifth Freedom. Freedom from Old Yellowstain!”

In high school I’m sure I had no idea what “the Fifth Freedom” meant. Now I know.

Do not conclude, however, from this little snippet that either the executive officer or the novelist was necessarily a hero. People are complicated. Read the book.

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5 Responses to The Caine Mutiny

  1. Beth says:

    Great review on this book. Makes me want to read it.


  2. michael carpenter says:

    Loved the Caine Mutiny review, like Beth above it makes me want to read it (or maybe see the movie!). Also enjoyed learning about how you came by the word Switchel as the name of your blogs. I’ve never had so much as a swig of switchel but I can imagine how it must have hit the spot when working in the hayfield! Sounds a little like Gatorade ahead of its time. And also happy to see that the Putnam Farm is still in the family, operated by your brother Bill I believe. I enjoy your blogs, George!


    • Thanks, Michael! Yes, brother Bill is still on the farm. Yes, switchel is the original sports drink. And Bill’s maple syrup makes the best switchel! Maple sugaring season seems to come a little earlier every year. Bill is all tapped and ready for this year’s season whenever it warms up. If you ever have a hankering for some Cambridge maple syrup in Connecticut, Bill has a website:


  3. I watched the 1954 movie for the first time last night. It is entertaining, with a fine performance by Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg, but it contains few of the life lessons in the book. A book can be so much more expansive than a two hour movie.

    Early in the book, Willie Keith is significantly affected by the unexpected death of his father. Late in the book, the kamikaze attack with two deaths resulting has an even more profound effect on Willie. Neither event occurs in the movie. There is no death in the movie. We cannot understand life without contemplating death. On a more upbeat note, the interlocking relationships between Willie, his mother, and May Wynn, as they evolve over three years, are much, much more complex, subtle, and interesting in the book.

    The movie ends almost immediately after the court-martial, in the middle of the war. The book continues until several months after the end of the war. Willie Keith did a lot of growing up in the time that is missing from the movie.

    The movie contains none of the leadership lessons in the book.

    Bottom line: Read the book.


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