The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny

A Facebook post by Dave Petersen. Published with his permission

LIEUTENANT COMMANDER PHILIP FRANCIS QUEEG USN served as commanding officer of the USS Arthur Wingate Caine DMS-18 (or DMS-22 in the original source material). (Note: “DMS” stands for “Destroyer Minesweeper” and refers to a World War I era destroyer converted for high-speed sweeping. DMS’s of that era carry low registry numbers because they are among the first destroyers to launch.)


He succeeded to this command in September of 1943. On 18 December 1944, his executive officer, Lieutenant Steven W. Maryk USNR, relieved him of command under Artlcles 184, 185 and 186 of the Articles for the Government of the Navy, then the governing body of regulations for the Navy. (World War II, of course, predated the Uniform Code of Military Justice that now serves as the body of military law in all services.) That act occasioned a sensational court-martial of Maryk that, ironically, caused the Navy to shunt Commander Queeg into shore billets for the duration of the war.

Queeg graduated the US Naval Academy in 1936. As the court-martial of Lt. Maryk (see above) later disclosed, he did not bear up well under the hazing from upperclass midshipmen. He came out of the Academy determined to prove himself perfect and to give no one any cause for complaint.

In 1937 he served as an ensign aboard the destroyer USS Barzun, on assignment in the Atlantic, on patrol for German U-Boats. His service record includes one letter of commendation he earned on that cruise. The occasion: as crew’s mess treasurer (his collateral duty), he discovered a discrepancy in the ship’s cooks accounts, concerning a quantity of cheese for which the cook could not account. Queeg insisted on following the lead, though his executive officer told him to “forget it.” Queeg discovered that one sailor had made a wax impression of the key to the galley icebox and was helping himself to the cheese every chance he got. Queeg caught the sailor red-handed and saw him tried and convicted in a summary court-martial, and drummed out of the Navy in disgrace.

In September of 1943 he transferred to the Pacific and finally earned his first command: as commanding officer of the USS Caine. Queeg ran his ship “by the book.” And from the beginning, he had problems.


Among his first missions, he drew orders to tow practice targets for the battleships and destroyers in Pearl Harbor. After but a few such missions, he cut a towline by steaming over it in a circle. He did this because, of all things, he was reprimanding a sailor at length for having his shirttail out–and also reprimanding the ship’s morale officer (then-Ens. Willis Seward Keith USNR) and communications officer (Lt. Thomas Keefer USNR) for alleged lapses in supervising this sailor. (The source material identifies said sailor as Signalman Third Class Louis Urban USN, but the famous Humphrey Bogart movie identifies him as Water Tender Third Class “Horrible” Dlugatch USN.) Queeg sent word to Commander, Service Squadron Pacific that a “defective” towline had parted, leaving the target adrift. The service squadron’s commanding admiral, thoroughly irritated, cut orders to send the Caine and one other DMS to the San Francisco Navy Yard for overhaul and new radar installations. As soon as he brought the ship in, he had to report to Com Twelve to talk about losing the practice target. He managed to convince Com Twelve that he could still handle things aboard the Caine.

Shore leave at his home in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife, his son, and his family dog was a bit of a strain. The Navy didn’t help his mood any when it cut the leave short. Hastily he summoned the officers and crew back to the Caine, and steamed southwest for Pearl Harbor–minus some twenty-five of his crew, who would rather stand trial by court-martial for missing ship than sail with him. He didn’t care–or at least, didn’t let on.

Shortly after making Pearl, he got orders to take part in the Flintlock Maneuver, otherwise known as the Battle of Kwajalein. His specific orders: to shepherd a wave of LVT attack boats from their transport to a line of departure 1000 yards off the beach of Jacob Island. He ran a mile ahead of the attack boats, insisted on turning tail way short of the line of departure, dropped a yellow dye marker, and retired at high speed, leaving the LVT crews and Marines to grope their way to their landfall as best they could. Thereafter his officers habitually referred to him as “Old Yellowstain.”

His interactions with his officers and crew went from bad to worse. Different projects mention different incidents, in different chronological order. But one incident stands out in the record: the Strawberry Incident. The details: Ensign Jorgensen, wardroom mess treasurer, managed to obtain a gallon of frozen strawberries from the crew of USS Bridge. That night, the officers helped themselves to a total of twenty-three helpings of ice cream and strawberries. And then Captain Queeg sent down for another helping of ice cream and strawberries. Whittaker, the leading steward, brought him the ice cream and said, “There [aren’t any more] strawberries.” At once Queeg jumped on this chance to investigate another theft. He refused to believe that Whittaker and his fellow steward’s mates had simply eaten the remaining quart of strawberries for themselves. He insisted on this narrative: that another sailor aboard the Caine had made himself a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox. He ordered all men aboard, officer and crew alike, to turn in every key they had. Then he ordered the officers to search the ship and crew for any stray keys. He little knew how bitterly he had heightened the resentment of himself on the part of the crew–or played straight into the hands of Lieutenant Keefer.

He found out soon enough on the morning of 18 December. The Caine encountered winds and seas the like of which he had never before experienced: Beaufort Force 10 to 12 winds and mountainous waves. He tried going down wind, to get out of the path of the storm, but the ship broached to three times in one hour. Then he froze to the engine-room telegraph. He barely felt it when Lt. Maryk actually shoved him aside. But when he realized the ship was now headed into the wind, he snapped out of his fog and insisted that Maryk turn the ship about. Not only did Maryk refuse, but he also put Queeg on the sick list as per Article 184. Thereafter Maryk steered the ship through the storm (and by one account, offered rescue to three survivors of a capsized ship, USS George Black).


Queeg did make one other attempt to resume command, on the morning of the nineteenth. He tried to stop Maryk from reporting his relief of command to the local Officer in Tactical Command (OTC). Queeg tried to get Maryk to erase the incident from the quartermaster’s log and Officer of the Deck’s rough log, this although every regulation in the book forbade such erasures. Maryk refused, on principle. So Queeg, furious, told Maryk to go hang himself if he wanted to, and get out of his cabin.

Directly the Caine next made port, the local commandant had Queeg examined. He then asked Queeg whether to let Maryk take the Caine to Lingayen Gulf, where the Fifth Fleet next needed her. Queeg agreed. Maryk got the Caine through, this although she came under attack from a kami-kaze suicide pilot.

Eventually the Caine and all her officers came back to San Francisco, where the local JAG set up a court-martial, assigned Lt. Cmdr. Jack Challee USN to prosecute, and recruited Lt. Barney Greenwald USNR to defend. The court-martial proved disastrous for Queeg. Having to tell his side of the Shirttail Business, the Yellow Stain Business, the Strawberry Business, and a few other “businesses” of that nature proved his undoing. He didn’t take it with any terrible surprise when the court acquitted Maryk of the charge (of either Making a Mutiny or Conduct to the Prejudice of Good Order and Discipline). But Queeg was right about one thing: Maryk would never get a major command ever again.


Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny may be the greatest American novel of World War II. This 1951 study of men at war with a foreign foe and with each other spent 122 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and received a Pulitzer Prize in 1952. Wouk adapted the novel, his third, into a hit play; The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial became a much-produced classic. The 1954 film based on the book starred Humphrey Bogart in his least typical and arguably greatest role as Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, the paranoid bully who captains a beleaguered destroyer-minesweeper. The Caine Mutiny earned seven Academy Award nominations. Since then, Wouk’s story has been retold countless times on stage, in film, and on television.

Wouk’s fictional revolt rings true because he was writing from intimate firsthand experience during World War II with the conditions, ships, and character types he portrays.

Wouk was an established writer by the time of Pearl Harbor. He enlisted immediately after that attack, attending midshipman school at Columbia University and communications school at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Wouk fought in the Pacific from early 1943 until the war ended, serving in eight invasions aboard the World War I–era destroyer-minesweepers Zane and Southard.


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