Jack Whitehouse’s latest book, “From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle: Memoir of a Naval Officer in the Cold War,” speaks to the reader about the life-and-death issues of the Cold War from the perspective of a young man who grew up in one of our South Shore communities. Whitehouse’s book defines the Vietnam War and the greater Cold War through stories about the heartbreaking and little-known sacrifices made by local men and their families in the fight against the rise of Soviet-style socialism in the 1960s and 1970s. What happened to Air Force Capt. Merrill Masin’s family after his death in action? How did the local community respond? Who, if anyone, mourned the loss of Army Capt. Mike Gibbons after he was shot and killed in combat? Who was it that, by himself, fought the good fight and finally got a street named for Gibbons?
The book balances the pathos of the time with humorous incidents that are always a part of military life, as well as characters who seem to step out of our classic literature, like the brilliant Destroyer captain with a mercurial personality and fatal flaws.
The book is much more than just Vietnam. The author spent two years as second in command of a 165-foot gunboat, with two months of that as commanding officer and four months of that time in the waters around Guantanamo Bay. He also studied Norwegian language and culture and subsequently sailed on Norwegian frigates, gunboats, and a submarine on the Soviet border north of the Arctic Circle.
What was the Navy doing in Cuba that we needed a gunboat running special operations? Why did this Navy gunboat diplomat moor in Port-au-Prince following the passing of the longtime, infamous dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier and the transition of power to his son? One of my favorite parts of the book is the description of the gunship’s visit to Great Inagua Island, just north of the Windward Passage. The crystal-clear water, the flocks of thousands of pink flamingoes in the Morton salt flats, the voracious barracuda trapped in the island’s salt flat channels, and so much more.
You almost feel colder reading about life aboard Norwegian warships sailing in the darkness and winter storms of the Norwegian and Barents seas. Who knew one of the biggest threats to sailors is claustrophobia aboard the tiny Norwegian submarines that patrolled the frigid waters of the old Murmansk Run?
Once again, you can’t help but laugh when you read about the author’s run-ins with Norwegian shipboard food. He talks about why he’ll never eat another codfish for the rest of his life and why you should avoid seagull eggs and horse mussels as a steady diet.
The bottom line is that this is a book about us as a local community in the grand scheme of international affairs. It is well worth a read.
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