SOUTH TO JAVA

By William P. Mack and William P. Mack Jr.

Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co.,

101 West Read St., Suite 314, Baltimore, Md. 21201. 460 pp. $19.95

Sometimes you give it your best shot and lose -- big. That's the bottom line in "South to Java," a harrowing, instructive and sobering account of the grim fortunes of the aged destroyers of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in the months following Pearl Harbor.

Authors William P. Mack and William P. Mack Jr. bring a unique perspective to their novel. The elder, a retired admiral, served on a destroyer during that period and fought in the Battle of the Java Sea -- which figures prominently in this book and at the time was the largest surface engagement since Jutland; his son and coauthor also served as a junior officer on a destroyer.

Their collaborative effort is set on board the fictional USS O'Leary. This outgunned, rusting relic of America's interwar isolationism is steaming out of the chaos and carnage of Manila in the wake of the Japanese onslaught and heading south to Java for operations against a war-ready Japanese Imperial Navy intent on securing the oil-rich Dutch East Indies.

The Macks trace the checkered fortunes of the O'Leary through the eyes of Lt. Ross Fraser, Annapolis '38, the vessel's young gunnery officer, who must contend not only with the superiority of the Japanese invaders but with the O'Leary's brooding enigma of a commanding officer, whose impeccable naval skills are at the mercy of an all-too-apparent death wish.

The authors know their subject and convey it in a rapid-fire, no-frills narrative style: "Flashes winked from the nose of the enemy plane. A line of splashes walked toward the O'Leary and hit just forward of Landry. Bullets whined and ricocheted ... Landry's stream of .50 caliber bullets shattered the aircraft's canopy. Shards of reddened plexiglass sprayed into the air where they caught the sunlight like pink drops of water." They also skillfully take the reader into the bowels of the aging destroyer as the crew labors frantically to shore up sprung plates in the hull as the O'Leary continues to take on water.

Given the sweep of the action, one wishes the editor had put a map of the Pacific somewhere in the book. The reader inexpert on the location of the likes of Jolo or the Sibutu Strait may find himself at a loss. It's a regrettable omission. Still, as a war story, "South to Java" rarely disappoints.

However, when the action shifts from ship to shore, from war story to love story, well, that's another story. There are the obligatory love interests -- Fraser falls for the cool Dutch beauty Ilsa, his men must leave their women friends behind in Manila -- but's it's garden variety de'ja-vu-all-over-again stuff, replete with such clunkers as "As he watched {Ilsa's} Mercedes vanish into the night, he felt as if part of him were driving away" and, worse, "He ran his hand along the newly painted gunwale. It was almost as smooth as Teresa's silky thighs."

These lamentable interludes are overshadowed by the first-rate accounts of the O'Leary's encounters with Japanese naval forces. There's an added educational benefit here as well for the reader who has fallen victim to the smug revisionism of the Second World War, which holds that in attacking Pearl Harbor, Yamamoto and the Japanese were signing their speedy death warrant. The months following Pearl Harbor were, as this book makes clear, a naval mismatch, and the Battle of the Java Sea -- the concluding engagement of the novel -- resulted in the destruction of the Allied fleet.

For by the spring of 1942, as William Manchester noted in "American Caesar," "Hirohito reigned over almost a seventh of the globe, an area three times as large as the United States and Europe combined, and the fact that much of it was water merely meant that it would be harder to retake." And, as the Macks make clear in this book, there was nothing in the short term that the Asiatic Fleet or anyone else could do about it. "They deserve to go home," Fraser aptly concludes of the O'Leary survivors in the wake of the Java Sea disaster. "They did their best with what they had -- which wasn't much."

As a sobering reflection on a dark period, "South to Java" is timely and welcome. As a love story, it's a bomb. As naval fiction -- the guts of the book -- "South to Java" crackles. And two out of three ain't bad. The reviewer, a Washington attorney, is a frequent contributor to Book World.