On Nov. 26, 1942, “Casablanca” premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York. Originally slated for the following year, the film was released early to take advantage of public interest surrounding Operation Torch, the Allies’ invasion of North Africa, which had begun a few weeks earlier. By the time Humphrey Bogart told New Yorkers that the problems of three little people didn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, 280 officers and enlisted men aboard the USS Plunkett, a Gleaves-class destroyer, were actually in Casablanca, feeling they had arrived late and missed the action. The ship would play a more significant role in five subsequent invasions, including Operations Shingle (Anzio) and Overlord (Normandy).
Now, nearly 80 years later, James Sullivan’s “Unsinkable: Five Men and the Indomitable Run of the USS Plunkett” presents the bracing story of Jim Feltz, Ken Brown, Jack Simpson, Ed Burke, and John Gallagher. By the end of the book, what begins as family lore (Gallagher was Sullivan’s great-uncle) has broadened and deepened, rippled outward to reflect our national story. Accounts of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty, especially those rendered with humility, have lately been in short supply, and we need them.
Unsinkable is Sullivan’s second book. His first, a memoir titled “Over the Moat: Love Among the Ruins of Imperial Vietnam,” details Sullivan’s wooing of Thuy, a young Vietnamese woman. Complications arise — other suitors, for instance, including a police officer originally from the North who is in a position to influence the renewal of Sullivan’s visa. At one point, he contracts an acute viral infection and fears he will die. At last, dreaming of a life together in America, the couple secures a Vietnamese marriage license — their very own letters of transit. Reviewing “Over the Moat” in these pages, I anticipated a sequel, adding that I would in the meantime welcome “any story Sullivan wants to tell.” That was 16 years ago.
It was worth the wait.
In “Unsinkable,” Sullivan has assigned himself a task of immense complexity: Tell the story of five men who hailed from different parts of the republic and came to share a defining communal experience as shipmates, and, at the same time, provide readers the background needed to wrest the war from the past, while also presenting Sullivan’s own unfolding relationships with men in their 90s. The result is poetry and pathos. Sullivan orchestrates overlapping story arcs for each of the five men at the book’s center, all leading up to and away from Jan. 24, 1944, the “moment that would cleave time for the crew between everything that happened before Anzio and everything to happen after.”
We learn, for example, of Jim Feltz’s courtship of Betty Kneemiller. We learn of Jack Simpson’s post-Plunkett experiences in the Pacific. And we learn of Ken Brown’s three years in Vietnam, as well as his tolerance — even acceptance — of antiwar protestors at the University of New Mexico, where he concluded his Navy career by serving as ROTC commandant.
The book is a feast of details large and small: A Gleaves-class destroyer is the length of a football field, including most of the endzones. Among Plunkett’s provisions were 1,500 pounds of potatoes stored in a “spud locker” on the main deck (Ken Brown never referred to their ship as “the Plunkett” — always just “Plunkett”). Depth charges not set to safe can do cruel things to men bobbing about in the ocean after their ship has gone down. Jim Feltz, water tender third class, weighed 117 pounds when he entered the Navy at age 17. A German Junkers Ju 88 bomber, approaching its target at a 45-degree angle and a speed of 350 mph, dropped “sticks” of three to five 550-pound bombs, engineered to separate as they fell and to strike at intervals of 50-70 yards. While the hull of a battleship was more than a foot thick, the steel hull of a destroyer was just ⅜ of an inch — no wonder they were called “tin cans.”
In the hands of a less capable writer, such a flood of information might overwhelm the reader. But like a water tender regulating the flow of steam that powers his ship’s screws, Sullivan releases these details so artfully that by the time Plunkett reaches Anzio, he has positioned us to recognize the implications of each new threat to the ship. Indeed, the sailors’ 25 crucial minutes at Anzio unfold with cinematic clarity.
Sullivan is a journalist, and “Unsinkable” is marked by scrupulous fidelity to fact. Measured from his earliest recorded interviews with a great-uncle, Sullivan has been gathering background for this book for more than 20 years; his sources range from Plunkett’s deck logs to classified Navy reports, from newspaper and magazine stories to unpublished memoirs, from histories of the war in Europe to photographs and personal letters. In telling this story, in locating members of Plunkett’s crew and coming to know them, Sullivan performs a kind of miracle. “The sounding of those two syllables — Plunkett — has always been holy in the halls of my family,” he writes. “Resurrection is a powerful thing, the kind of thing that can sustain people a long while.”
At the end of “Casablanca,” Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, too, experiences a sort of resurrection, abandoning his isolationist stance and devoting himself to a pragmatic idealism. Like Bogart did onscreen at the old movie palaces, the men in “Unsinkable” show us what it means to be larger than life.
UNSINKABLE: Five Men and the Indomitable Run of the USS Plunkett
By James Sullivan
Scribner, 416 pp., $24.99
David Thoreen is chair of the English Department at Assumption University in Worcester. His recent poetry appears in “New Letters” and is forthcoming in “Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry.”