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By Patrick Culhane

Harper (imprint of HarperCollins), 2009, c2008 ($7.99)
ISBN-10: 0060892560
ISBN-13: 978-0-06-089256-2

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

It's summer, 1944, and Ensign Peter Maxwell is having a good war. Thanks to his musical talents, he's been assigned to conduct the base choir in San Diego, and his new bride, Kay, is living with him in a small apartment. Still, Pete and his three buddies, Richard Driscoll, Vince Rossetti, and Ben Connor, who sing together as the Fantail Four, would like to do more. They've made an agreement that they'll only ship out if all of them can go together.

In the evening, Pete likes to take his horn and find a bar where he can join in. One night his wanderings take him into a neighborhood and a bar where he's definitely not welcome, being the wrong color. One of the musicians, seaman and ex-Chicago homicide detective named "Sarge" Washington, saves his hide. It won't be the last time Sarge will do that, but for now, he manages to get Pete up on stage, and the crowd gives him grudging acceptance. In the weeks to come, he, Washington, and another sailor, Willie Wilson, play together in other bars and become friends.

One day, Pete sees a notice requesting four officers for a new Victory cargo ship, the Liberty Hill. Since the ship was named for the small Iowa town where he grew up, he sees this as a sign that the Fantail Four have found their ship. When they arrive at the base where the ship is docked, they are surprised at the hostility others sailors display when they mention their ship's name, but the puzzle is soon solved. They are to be the officers in charge of a Negro crew, and their cargo is live ammunition. FDR had ordered the integration of the military, but black sailors, even those with college degrees, are given jobs as cooks, stewards, or seaman on dangerous assignments such as this one. Their commanding officer, Captain Egan, is from the Old School, and says he hates three things: "college boys, commies, and coloreds." In private, he shows his bigotry to the other officers, but he treats his sailors with respect when he addresses them. There is one bright spot for Pete: among the sailors are his buddies, Sarge Washington and Willie Wilson. They will provide vital support in bridging the differences between the white officers and their crew.

After witnessing the horror of the Port Chicago explosion, where 320 men, mostly black, were killed, 390 injured, and two ships destroyed, most likely due to lack of training and proper equipment for the workers, Pete and his friends demand that their crew get what they need to prevent their ship, now dubbed "USS Powderkeg," from going up in flames. They even start a program to teach the many illiterate sailors how to read. When Captain Egan questions this program, Pete explains that not knowing what a "No Smoking" sign says could prove deadly.

The ship sails for the Pacific, and in a bad storm, with engine trouble, they lose sight of their convoy and are literally dead in the water. Then one of the officers is murdered, and the captain orders Pete to find the man -- the black man, of course -- who committed the crime. Pete chooses for his assistant the one man with the background and abilities to solve the crime.

The author does not sugar-coat the reality of the way black military personnel, as well as other minorities, were treated in World War II, and the difficulty the military had with making the transition to an integrated organization. Patrick Culhane is a pseudonym for the multi-talented, award-winning author Max Allan Collins, and the story is based in part on his own father's service. He, like Pete, was one of a small group of white officers in command of black seamen, and like Pete he treated them with dignity and respect, even teaching some of them to read. Unlike Pete, he did not have to solve a murder case.

Collins says his father is not Pete, nor his mother Kay, "however much I may have plundered both their lives for details and color."

This is an excellent look back at a troubled time in our history, as well as an homage to Max Collins Sr. and others like him who were brave enough to change the system for the better.

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