Book Review: The Sailor's Homer: The Life and Times of Richard McKenna, Author of The Sand Pebbles


by Dennis L. Noble

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015. Pp. xxii, 236. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $38.95. ISBN: 1612518958

The Life of Richard McKenna and the Origins of The Sand Pebbles

In this work, maritime historian Noble does three things for us, and does them well. Firstly, he gives us a fine biography of McKenna’s life and more than two decades in the Navy. Noble weaves into this a critical discussion of the man’s evolution from voracious reader to author, culminating in the publication of powerful 1962 novel, The Sand Pebbles. Finally, he gives us a look at the life and experiences of a “common” seaman in the U.S. Navy during the inter-war period.

McKenna’s naval career was rather unique, as, one destroyer aside, he mostly served in patrol or non-combatant vessels, the longest in a troop transport, the former luxury liner Mount Vernon (AP 22), and never in “The Fleet”. Oddly, although his masterwork is about the river gunboats on the Yangtze, McKenna actually spent only two years on such duty. Adept at the care and operation of intricate machinery, McKenna rose to Chief Petty Officer, then the highest enlisted rate in the Navy, yet although he served through World War II and Korea, he was apparently only “under fire” once, briefly, when Mount Vernon landed the reinforcements to the doomed British base at Singapore, just days before the city fell to the Japanese.

Noble, himself a former career enlisted Coastguardsman, drew upon an impressive trove of papers, letters, photographs, souvenirs, and similar ephemera that have survived, and was also able to interview many of McKenna’s former shipmates and friends.

Noble’s portrait of McKenna does not match the accepted image of the “typical” sailor of the day, and apparently neither did many other enlisted men. In telling McKenna’s story, and that of his shipmates, Noble gives us a look at a very neglected part of the naval service, the lives, and experiences of enlisted personnel in the period. Based on the documents and interviews, Noble concludes that McKenna had a liking for the Chinese and Japanese, which was also shared by many of his shipmates. In addition, Noble is able to use his sources to provide some insights into the origins of many of the events and characters in The Sand Pebbles, the only one of the top ten best sellers of 1962 that is till in print.

The Sailor’s Homer is an excellent read for those interested in the naval service or in the literature of the sea.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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