By David Healey
If there’s such a thing as navy noir, navy veteran and author Jeffery Hess has created just that atmosphere in his taught thriller NO SALVATION, set aboard an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War.
When Commander Robert Porter arrives aboard the USS Salvation, it is clearly a troubled ship. As the executive officer (XO) or second in command of the US Navy aircraft carrier, Porter soon encounters many challenges. First, he must juggle his own racial identity as an African-American officer against a white captain with antiquated ideas about black and white relations.
It doesn’t help that the captain also has some motive in requesting Porter as his XO.
From the moment that Commander Porter sets foot on deck after arriving by helicopter, it’s evident that racial tensions are brewing between the thousands of black and white sailors who call the cramped quarters aboard ship home. With no air conditioning and humid conditions, and little to dispel the boredom, tempers often flare as sailors get on one another’s nerves and hold grudges.
To give the story some context, it’s important to remember that the armed forces remained segregated for much of the 20th century that included World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. Even with racial equality given lip service, the reality of the 1970s was that the military culture was still uneasy about integration. In the conditions aboard USS Salvation, the uneasy racial peace begins to fray.
Hess, who has written previous historical thrillers in the vein of “Florida Noir,” captures the tense atmosphere aboard ship perfectly in his descriptions and characterizations. It helps that Hess is himself a navy veteran who experienced life aboard a sea-going ship. He served for six years, beginning in 1984.
That experience provides some telling details. For example, he knows that ships of the era lacked air conditioning but did have a ventilation system that essentially moved hot air around the ship—hardly comfortable conditions for the sailors.
Hess remains active in helping veterans become writers as the founder of the DD-214 Writers’ Workshop. He’s also written a book of short stories called Cold War Canoe Club that draw on his military experience.
In NO SALVATION, this is not the navy that today’s navy professionals or WWII veterans would recognize.
Illicit drug use is rampant in the 1970s navy and rules are lax on everything from uniforms to grooming and discipline.
There is a negligent captain who seems to condone the racist culture in the navy and back home in the States. His method of punishing recalcitrant sailors on televised Captain’s Masts soon reveal his prejudices against black sailors due to the harsher sentences they receive.
Hess explains that the captain is acting partly out of the fact that young men in trouble with the law were often given a choice between jail or enlisting. The captain believes that he is doling out punishments that the men deserve, one way or another.
Meanwhile, a conscientious objector aboard the ship doesn’t seem content with peaceful protest but actively plots sabotage.
Conditions on the ship are intense, but there also happens to be a war on in Vietnam. The ship plays an active role in the conflict, albeit from a distance. From the floating flight deck in the South China Sea, navy pilots take off and land for dangerous missions in the skies above Vietnam.
While several popular authors from Rick Campbell to David Poyer write novels set during the modern navy era, and authors such as P. T. Deutermann write about the WWII era, there aren’t many navy stories set around the Vietnam conflict. In a sense, this is also an historical novel.
The book was inspired in part by information that Hess stumbled across while doing research for another project. He became captivated by accounts of a 1972 race riot in the USS Kitty Hawk while in the Gulf of Tonkin. The riot involved more than 200 sailors and resulted in at least 50 injuries, some of them severe. The riot also helped to prompt new Congressional oversight of discipline and overall conditions in the U.S. Navy, launching many reforms. The Kitty Hawk also suffered other bad luck that included fatal crashes of navy pilots and a fire that killed six sailors and incapacitated the ship.
As so often happens with writers, upon learning about the real-life events, the creative cogs began turning in Hess’s mind.
“I kind of combined elements,” Hess says. “Of course, it turned into a novel.”
One of his goals was to create a realistic snapshot of one aspect of the war, giving readers an appreciation for what life was like at sea for that time and place. The USS Salvation itself is a fictitious ship.
Drawing from his own navy experience and the historical record, the story began to take shape. Hess says, “I try to incorporate reality by building on memory and imagination.”
He isn’t making any judgments about the politics of the Vietnam era, which remains divisive today. “I’m just trying to make an engaging story,” he adds. “I always try to write the story I most want to read.”
In NO SALVATION he has done just that, combining elements of noir and history to create unique historical fiction.
What’s next for this prolific Florida author? He plans to continue his series of Florida noir novels with Rough House, due out next year from Down & Out Books.
Jeffery Hess is the author of the novels Beachhead and Tushhog and the short-story collection Cold War Canoe Club as well as the editor of the award-winning Home of the Brave anthologies. He served aboard the navy’s oldest and newest ships and since 2007, he’s led the DD-214 Writers’ Workshop for military veterans and their dependents.
To learn more about Jeffery and his work, please visit his website.