RED SKY IN MORNING
(A Novel of World War II)
By Patrick Culhane
A William Morrow Book
Life aboard a Navy ship in the South Pacific during World War II was never a picnic but for the men of the Liberty Hill Victory, it is ten times more dangerous. Their newly launched ship carries tons of live ammunition intended for the fighting U.S. forces going toe to toe with Japanese troops along a string of tiny islands none of the crew had ever heard of before Pearl Harbor. And if their cargo of bombs and bullets wasn’t enough of a threat to their survival, the Liberty Hill Victory also has the dubious distinction of being one of the first integrated ships to sail into harm’s way.
Set in 1943, RED SKY IN MORNING, follows young ensign Peter Maxwell, a choir director form Iowa, who signs on to the newly christened ship along with four buddies unaware that ninety percent of the crew are black. No sooner is this discovered than Maxwell and his pals meet the skipper, Captain Egan, a bigoted seadog who despises snot-nosed college boys as much as blacks. Save for the five officers and four petty officers, the entire crew is made up of mostly illiterate young negroes eager to defend a country that considers them second-class citizens. While abhorring the senseless ignorance of racism, Maxwell is afraid that with the added nature of their cargo, those tensions will create a recipe for disaster.
Fortunately one of the black seamen is a former Chicago Police Detective named Ulysses Grant Washington, Sarge to his friends. Both he and Maxwell are musicians and share a passion for jazz. It is this bond that brings them together and becomes the foundation upon which Maxwell and his friends hope to create an atmosphere of cooperation and teamwork that will keep the Liberty Hill Victory on an even and steady course.
Things are going well until they encounter a fierce ocean storm and are separated from their convoy escort and left vulnerable in hostile waters. Then the body of one of the white officers is discovered in the ship’s bowels, his throat slashed. Captain Egan orders Maxwell to investigate and find the killer, convinced it is one of the crew. Realizing he is in way over his head, the young Lieutenant (jg), persuades Sarge to take over the investigation as he is the only man on board with any real experience in such grisly matters.
Inadvertently the two begin stirring up racial tensions anew as old feelings of mistrust rise to the surface amongst passionate accusations and denials. And while they methodically set about unraveling their murder mystery, the Liberty Hill Victory is spotted by enemy fighter planes and is soon under attack. As Jap zeroes descend on them with claws of hot lead, any single hit capable of igniting their floating powder keg, a killer roams the decks ready to strike again to protect his identity.
Max Allan Collins, writing as Patrick Culhane, expertly weaves history, social mores and a gripping mystery into a suspenseful story that never lets up. His characters truly evoke a different time and place when patriotism and self-sacrifice for God and country were the norm. They are also human, with faults and fears, each caught up in a war they never asked for, but are too stubborn and brave to flee from. RED SKY IN MORNING is a classic war drama that is rich in its authenticity and emotional honesty.
As a post-war baby-boomer myself, I often listened to my late father’s stories of his years in the South Pacific as an anti-aircraft artilleryman. I know he would have loved this book as much as I did.