‘Ghosts of Bungo Suido’: Wartime commander faces deadly dilemma at sea

August 11, 2013

P.T. Deutermann’s gripping maritime thriller, “Ghosts of Bungo Suido,” delivers on the promise of its exotic title. Into this yarn of a perilous mission in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, Deutermann packs capsizing ships, surprise attacks and explosive battles.

A skillful plotter, Deutermann briskly sets up a tense confrontation. Late in 1944, word comes that the Imperial Japanese Navy will launch a monster aircraft carrier that’s more than 1,000 feet long and capable of carrying 300 planes. The ship has been sighted in Bungo Suido, a strait off the coast of Japan, near Hiroshima. In this heavily mined and guarded passageway, five U.S. ships have gone down — these are the ghosts of Bungo Suido.

The Japanese carrier must be taken out if U.S. forces are to invade Japan, as they plan to do. The man for the mission, it appears, is Gar Hammond, a former boxer at the U.S. Naval Academy who charged across the ring and pummeled his opponents. As lieutenant commander of the submarine Dragonfish, Hammond often sails by his own rules, not the Navy’s. Nevertheless, his record for sinking Japanese ships impresses the brass.

But Hammond initially balks at the assignment. “[It’s] like trying to get a sub into the Chesapeake Bay, right past all the Norfolk navy bases,” he says. Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, orders Hammond to undertake the mission. “There are forces at work in this war that dwarf the Dragonfish and all its efforts,” Nimitz argues.

So Hammond and his crew set sail, carrying along a Japanese fisherman that the United States had interred in Oahu, Hawaii, in 1943. Said to despise the Japanese war effort and its leaders, the man will guide Hammond through Bungo Suido’s deadly network of mines and then be allowed ashore. Can he be trusted?


“Ghosts of Bungo Suido” by P. T. Deutermann. (St. Martin's)

A veteran of 26 years of military and government service and the author of several previous military thrillers, Deutermann portrays submarine life and war at sea in sharp and fascinating detail: Cooks hold off preparing hot meals until Dragonfish surfaces so that food odors don’t permeate the ship’s claustrophobic quarters; crews are encouraged to sleep a lot, as doing so burns up less of the sub’s vital oxygen. It should be noted, though, that some of the more technical detail — and there’s a lot of it — will probably leave landlubbers wishing for something like “Submarines for Dummies.”

Deutermann’s setup, and the book’s cover, which depicts Dragonfish headed to the towering destroyer, promises a climactic battle to rival the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack. The blazing confrontation arrives — and it’s a good one — but only at the narrative’s midpoint. Then the tale tacks in an unexpected direction, following a mission that offers a suspenseful and harrowing picture of the Pacific campaign. In an extended epilogue, Hammond is called to account for actions he takes during the second half, when he was forced to choose between his instinct for survival and prescribed military procedure.

This trenchant theme, which adds heft to the book, recalls Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny.” In his World War II epic, a Navy crew on an operation in the Pacific must also choose between survival and duty during a moment of high danger. They, too, face the consequences of their actions. But as engaging as it is, “Ghosts of Bungo Suido” doesn’t attain the classic status of “The Caine Mutiny.” Unlike Wouk’s characters, Deutermann’s lack dimension. Deutermann pegs most of his characters with a basic trait or problem. Hammond’s scant backstory says little more than that he’s a pugilist. A female lawyer, who seems introduced just to give the plot a romantic angle, is labeled with a drinking problem.

And while the author’s prose and dialogue sometimes rise to the occasion of the action scenes, especially at the climax, other sections are flat-footed. Japan’s Inland Sea, for example, is described as “gorgeous.”

It’s largely the action, then, that carries “Ghosts of Bungo Suido.” In this tale of wartime, what matters is the challenges the protagonist faces and what he does to prevail. Deutermann gives him — and the reader — more than enough to contend with.

Bartell is a freelance writer in Manhattan.

GHOSTS OF BUNGO SUIDO

By P. T. Deutermann

St. Martin’s.

343 pp. $25.99

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