ISBN 978-1-4917-3192-5 (hc)
Reviewed by CAPT. Jim Patton, USN, Ret.
Captain Patton is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
I was given SHEPPARD OF ARGONNE, and was greatly relieved to discover almost immediately that it was not a story about a French goat-herder. In fact, I know G. William Weatherly—the real G. William behind the nom de plume. He’s a retired submariner, and a good one at that. No stranger to the rewards and burdens of command at sea, G. William also not only taught submarine wardrooms the arts and sciences of fighting their ships as the Director of Advanced Tactical Training at Submarine School, but also helped develop the supporting tactical doctrine at Submarine Development Squadron 12 and was involved at the global strategic level of naval power in a tour at the Naval War College. I have had the opportunity of watching G.William in action, and he is one of the kind of officers that enlisted submariners hope they always serve under, and that submarine junior officers hope they will someday be like. Above all, he was one who clearly was having fun in his assignments—an indispensible leadership trait.
But this review is not meant to be about G. William, but is about his book. The above is mentioned only because there is much about CAPT Sheppard McCloud that reflects the same outstanding traits that the Submarine Force fosters in its COs, and there is much about USS ARGONNE, his Battle Cruiser command and its crew that will get any ex-CO of a naval vessel a little tingly. CAPT McCloud is an exceptionally competent, but complex, leader of men and fighter of ships that also fights some internal demons.
The key to the story is the clever alternative history twist. In supposing that the nine nation Washington Naval Conference in 1920-1921, which placed significant limits on the participants growth of naval power, had fallen through, a credible scenario was set for the Atlantic to have been a much larger arena for naval engagements than it was historically. With this supposition,G. William Weatherly crafts a real page-turner on a believable “it could have been that way” basis. Students of naval history will notice whiffs of both the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the Battle of Midway.
What keeps SHEPPARD OF THE ARGONNE from being just a shoot-em-up video game in print is the author’s simply exquisite level of knowledge conveyed in the day-to-day operations of ARGONNE and other units—at the material, operational and personnel management levels. As a submariner, one would expect for him to get that part right, but the expertise extends across all warfare specialties. It isn’t everyone who realizes that the landing gear of an F4F Wild cathad to be manually cranked up and down (pilots of these aircraft were known for their Grumman arm-a very strong left bicep), let alone be masters of the delicate orchestration of events within a large caliber barbette while loading and firing those naval rifles. As far as this reviewer’s capability to judge, nomenclature throughout was spot on—even sending me to Wikipedia to determine what in the world a batten board was, and how did it affect the alignment of the ship’s gun batteries.
There is an element of mystery in the book that I’ll task readers to discover and solve for themselves. There is periodically a couple of short italicized paragraphs that seem out of place and disconnected from the story line, including the very beginning and the very end of the story. I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to decipher them, but when I did, it was an Ahamoment that largely captured the nature of naval service.
One of the missives that Admiral Rickover routinely sent to G. William, myself and all the other officers beholden to him spoke about the holy obligation one assumes when undertaking a book review in that you will be advising others whether or not to expend their money, and more importantly in Rickover’s view, their time on the book in question. Knowing that warts must be revealed where they exist, I thought I had found one when ARGONNE’s guns were described as being 18 inches in a few places, and 16 inches in another spot until, reading on, that the 16 in reference was false intelligence from a visual classification by the skipper of a German U-boat which led to far-reaching consequences. In the end I had to satisfy myself with noting that a PPI-type radar scope was explained as a Plane Position Indicator instead of the proper Plan Position Indicator. Certainly a fatal flaw!
I began to get a little nervous as I approached the end of the book, since there were many loose ends existing, and not apparently enough time and pages left to resolve them all. As I closed the book, however, it dawned on me that this was almost certainly by design, and (Harry Potter watch out!) that more adventures lie in the future for CAPT Sheppard McCloud and his German nemesis Vizeadmiral Klaus Schröder.