Tidewater Review - December 2009


December Delights
Anne Stinson

   The Spectral Tide: True Ghost Stories of the U.S. Navy by Eric Mills. Naval Institute Press. 184 pp. $24.95.
    This critic is not superstitious, nor does she believe in ghosts. Having made that disclosure, this critic has thrown a furtive glance over her shoulder, just in case. For several nights after finishing reading this unsettling account of persistent ghost sightings in the no-nonsense world of the U.S. Navy, my sleep was disturbed by unfamiliar noises and shadows.
    Whatever the explanation, unquiet forces ride the spectral tide in Eric Mills’s new book of hauntings in the Navy. Mills, long a student of sea history and ghostly phenomena, has collected a panoply of stories – whole ghost ships that appear and vanish before awe-struck modern sailors – and visits of long-dead officers and crew members onboard vessels from the time of the American Revolution to the present.
    The reader of this spooky volume may decry the subject with the caveat, “Yeah, its tales would make perfect telling around a camper’s bonfire, but I’m not scared.” Mills acknowledges the skepticism up front and debunks the notion that he’s trying to convince the reader of the stories’ authenticity. His role, he implies, is that of a reporter, not a proselytizer.
    The element that makes these incidents worthy of note is the long list of credible witnesses. Believe in ghosts or not, the numbers of people who encountered the apparitions make it difficult to dismiss the evidence, whether it be corporeal or ectoplasmic.
    Mills is a bit of a magician himself. In his accounts of the early history of the Navy his vocabulary evokes the terms and conceits of literature of the period. The formality of his prose and the gravitas of its delivery mime the oratorical style of the 18th century. The reader all but hears the echo of organ music as Mills unrolls the sonorous phrases:
   “The mightiest ship is but a speck on the vast, primordial ocean,” he writes. “From the dimly remembered seafaring days of canvas and oar to this prideful age of nuclear-powered steel behemoths, fragile humans have sallied forth on their frail vessels, braving the blue planet’s far watery reaches, venturing out beyond that distant line where heaven meets the waves.” In modern American, only Senator Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) could deliver that opener with the appropriate quaver and gestures.
    Whether as a literary prank or a brilliant stroke to put the reader into the frame of mind to accept the ensuing accounts, the archaic tone works. Mills has lured the reader into events that have no logical explanation and no easy refutation.
    Here’s an example:
    The date is 1937. The Navy’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley, is en route to Panama. At dawn a sailing ship rises on the horizon, fully rigged and all canvas filled with wind, speeding toward the carrier. News spreads fast on the carrier and crewmen scramble on deck for a view, Mills writes. “As the beautiful old vessel raced ever closer and the sun rose in the sky, the officers and men of Langley stared dumbfounded as the sailing ship dissolved into nothingness.” Could it have been the fabled Flying Dutchman?
    Just in case the skeptic is muttering that it was most likely a cloud formation, the same apparition was reported by a whaling ship in 1911, by a Royal Navy ship in 1923 and by German Admiral Karl Donitz in 1939.
    During World War II a deluge of strange sightings joined the menace of the wolf packs of German submarines in the Atlantic. Both the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy answered a radar alarm off the coast of Maine in August 1942. A ship had violated the perimeter of an important shipyard and fled close inshore where its name - Dash – Freeport - was visible before it disappeared. Dash, out of Freeport, had sunk 127 years earlier.
    Young Teazer, a sister of the phantom ship Dash, was a two-masted schooner, a privateer in the quasi-navy during the War of 1812. Its career came to a fiery end off Nova Scotia. Its remains were completely dismantled and its timbers sold for scrap, yet - pause until you hear a pin drop - exactly one year later, its flaming visage sailed directly into a fleet of fishermen who watched in horror as it came at them. Then, an explosion and inferno of flames and it was gone. But not forever. Local fishermen are still warned by a mysterious light and prudently don’t go to sea that day.
    In Baltimore Harbor, Constellation seems to be alive with sounds and sights from her youth, or, as Mills puts it in reference to a ghostly figure that surfaces fairly often on deck, “teeming with his shipmates, with souls that have seeped into the timbers.”   That conclusion came with the incident that frightened a staffer who came aboard at night with a flashlight to check on a task and encountered a moving patch of white fog. It congealed to reveal a human in archaic sailor’s garb. The staffer was frozen with fear. The apparition walked right through him. And that’s not the half of it.
    Mills runs the gamut of Naval history in all its global travels, from the threat of Barbary pirates to the Great Lakes, the Caribbean and the Mississippi and wartime service, particularly in the Pacific. The survey includes weird goings-on at many naval bases and installations state-side and abroad. There’s a distinct ghostly presence at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
    As interesting as the episodes out of the distant past may be, this critic found the lingering echoes from World War II the most gripping. The devastation of Pearl Harbor seems as alive and poignant as if it happened last week. Any reader who can get through the sinking of Juneau in the battle for Guadalcanal that took the lives of all five Sullivan brothers and not be weeping has no heart. Mills covers the paranormal activity on the destroyer The Sullivans, the Navy tribute to the brothers and their sacrifice. It goes on to this day.
    A litany of famous ships with names the reader recognizes from accounts of heroic service appear in the pages of this slender volume. Most of these scraps of ragged grief and heart-stopping horror are almost too dramatic to accept as fact. If, indeed, they are fiction, there are legions of credible witnesses who felt goosebumps rise on their arms and swallowed the sudden aura of fear of the unknown that suddenly intruded on their unsuspecting lives.
    There are no such thing as ghosts? Try to convince them otherwise.
    The unquiet spirits of the deep call out for remembrance.
    The Spectral Tide is the third of Eric Mills’s chronicles of the sea, with Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War and Chesapeake Rumrunners of the Roaring Twenties in print. His articles have appeared in Naval History, Proceedings, Chesapeake Bay Magazine and other publications.
    Full disclosure note: Mills is this critic’s son-in-law.

   Show No Fear by Marliss Melton. Grand Central Publishing. 320 pp. $6.99.
    Here’s a rip-snorter of an adventure that features a daring team - Lucy, a CIA agent, and Gus, a Navy SEAL on loan to the CIA. The two have a history. They were lovers in college, but they haven’t seen each other in almost a decade. Their breakup was less than amicable.
    Their new assignment is a foray into Colombia, a rescue mission to locate and return two CIA agents, friends of Lucy, who were captured and held hostage a year ago. The bad guys are Colombian rebels who finance their anti-government crimes by working the cocaine trade, terrorizing villages and taking hostages for ransom. Because the U.S.A. has a policy of not negotiating with terrorists, Lucy assumed her colleagues were dead, but her new post, posing as part of a United Nations mission, has been designed to effect a rescue.
    Lucy has a reputation in the Company (the name CIA operatives use for their boss) for being outstandingly brave. Her mantra is Show No Fear. On a previous assignment in Spain, three of her friends were killed as the four of them sat at an outdoor café for lunch. A terrorist’s bomb shattered the streetside calm, and only an upturned iron table sheltered Lucy from certain death.
    Her next job took her to Venezuela, where she helped abort a scheme by that country’s rebels as they tried to steal a warehouse full of weaponry. Lucy was almost killed in that encounter when Gus saved her and then vanished from her life again. Now, healed and forced into desk duty until she recovered, she’s eager to get back into action.
    The U.N. fact-finding group, a legitimate inquiry into the fair treatment of the hostages, is prepared for an arduous climb up the precipitous heights of an extinct volcano. The trek takes them from steaming jungles in the valley to frigid, windswept heights.   Their guides are rebels, suspicious and hostile, restrained only by the need to sanitize their reputation.
    It soon becomes clear that the hike on difficult terrain is a fool’s game to wear out the searchers. The rebels’ headquarters, where the hostages are reputedly held, are always just around the next hazardous bend in the non-existent trail. Lucy dares the  impossible by stealing a map from the rebel leader’s logbook.
    Villages are labeled in code, and Gus unravels its clues.
    What would a spy book be without gadgets? Gus has a transmitter inside the hollow heel of one of his boots and an extra battery in the other heel. Washington is notified of their location and the probable site of the captives.
    Meanwhile, in spite of hordes of insects, no bathroom within miles or kilometers or whatever, Lucy and Gus are drawn together by deprivation and ’ere long have found a way to stay warm in the cold Andean heights. Surprise.
    That takes care of the romance part of the formula - the suspense part is not neglected either. Ostensibly, a rescue helicopter is on its way. A problem remains - the hostages have yet to be produced. And there’s treason all over the map. Allies turn out to be enemies. A vanquished leader of the foes turns up and captures Lucy. Things quickly turn ugly. It’s time for the nick-of-time ploy.
    Can the reader endure the AWWW! factor of an upcoming wedding?
    All snarky comments aside, this is a pleasantly entertaining book. All the miters fit smoothly, so to speak, and the plot is intelligently plausible. And no wonder. Ms. Melton has written 10 books since she was first published in 2002. Her husband is retired military and she’s a mostly stay-at-home mother with two teenage boys, three stepchildren and a baby girl. She’s also an adjunct teacher at her alma mater, the College of William and Mary near her home in Virginia. What do you suppose she does with her spare time?