Review: The Last Tallyho by Richard Newhafer

Fighting air battles over Wake Island, Tarawa and Truk Lagoon, the U.S. Navy pilots of Air Group Two blazed a trail of flaming Japanese planes and hard-won glory across the Pacific skies. Yet among the heroes lived a man with a terrible secret shame, a vice that kept him from enjoying the conventional pleasures offered by the bevy of beautiful women waiting to welcome their men back to Pearl Harbor.

Set aboard the fictional carrier Concord during the latter part of World War Two, “The Last Tallyho” was called “The epic novel of World War II naval fighter pilots” by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and “Excellent” by The New York Times.

Review by Elliott Mackle

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Richard Newhafer’s thoroughly conventional World War II novel, “The Last Tallyho” (1964), is that it inspired the much more deeply felt “Wingmen,” by Ensan Case (1979). (See my five-star review-appreciation here on Speak Its Name.) The primary evidence appears on Case’s dedication page: “Thanks to silly Dick Newhafer and his first Tallyho.” In a recent email, Case explained: [Big time spoiler alert]:

“Sometime in the late ’70’s I reread Tallyho. Good writing, excellent technical info, but much too contrived for my adult taste. And the portrayals of CAG Crowley and the ass-kissing effeminate swabbie named Rathburn just sort of pissed me off, and I wrote Wingmen in retaliation. My officer protagonists would be too smart to diddle enlisted men, aboard ship no less, and would not be required to slit their wrists in shame. It was my first attempt at a full-length novel. Avon published it with only typo editing, and I waited in vain to become rich and famous. Hell, I would have settled for rich.”

“Wingmen,” in significant ways, is as groundbreaking a mainstream masterpiece as it was possible to publish at the time. Both novels are melodramas set aboard fictional American aircraft carriers during the Pacific campaigns of the war, with operational and recreational interludes in and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Both are event and character driven. Both writers are extraordinarily familiar with the workings of carrier-based aircraft, in particular the Grumman Hellcat, and both describe the vibrant lives and violent deaths of naval aviators in the kind of seat-of-pants detail that suggests first-hand knowledge. Newhafer, a Navy pilot who served in World War II and Korea, was awarded the Navy Cross in 1945. Case was commissioned as a Navy ensign.

Both novels culminate in battles over Truk lagoon, Japan’s principal naval base in the west-central Pacific, ending in routs by American pilots and the almost total defeat of Japanese fliers. It is safe to say that when the Emperor of Japan lost Truk he lost the war.

“The Last Tallyho” follows the adventures of Air Group Two aboard the carrier Concord during 1943-44. The cast of pilots and commanders is wide and varied, though universally white, athletic and educated. Among pilots there is a professional football player (Steve Stepik), a son of wealthy Park Avenue bluebloods (Maxwell Winston III), an amateur golfer (Dick Marriner), a career flyer-administrator (Harry Hill), even a coward who loses his nerve at the expense of his mates (Bob Crowley). Most of them become aces, among the highest scoring killers in the fleet. Symbolically, but unfortunately for the reader, these guys are hard to tell apart because they all talk alike. The same is essentially true of their gorgeous and good-hearted women.

The brilliantly characterized heroes of “Wingmen,” Commander J.J. “Jack” Hardigan, his junior wing, Ensign Frederick “Trusty” Trusteau, and half a dozen other pilots and crewmen, on the other hand, are living, breathing individuals, and totally unforgettable.

Captain Sam Balta, skipper of Concord, and his superior, Vice Admiral “Frog” Delacroix, the commander of the fleet, date their friendship from the Naval Academy at Annapolis and call each other by nicknames from that period. They are much better drawn, more complex figures than the men they send out to fight, and their voices and movements, though naturally similar, are always distinct. Through them we learn much about the cruelties of high command. Before the last battle, for instance, they must calculate the odds of success in a rapidly changing situation and count up the possible losses of their own men against the necessity of defeating the enemy and ending the war. Their counterpart in “Wingmen,” an admiral, is as sympathetically drawn but not nearly as well characterized.

Commander Bob Crowley, the cowardly pilot, is not only a homosexual, he beds at least one enlisted sailor between flights (or “hops” as they are termed) and, when caught naked with the sailor in his bunk, begs for mercy and a medical discharge. When that is refused by a bull-headed executive officer, Crowley kills himself. The hapless sailor suffers essentially the same fate, dying “in screaming agony, his face contorted out of shape,” after being gutted by a piece of flying metal that, a moment earlier, was part of a Japanese Zero. Although Crowley’s shipboard seduction was certainly unwise under the circumstances, Allan Bérubé’s “Coming Out Under Fire” and other histories demonstrate that such liaisons were not all that uncommon. Superior officers and NCOs, especially toward the end of the war, tended to look the other way.

Newhafer’s war is the John Wayne version, in other words, the official version, the real men version. It is no surprise that after leaving the Navy Newhafer became a successful writer of Hollywood and television film scripts.

The underlying nature of Mr. Case’s novel explains his use of a semi-pseudonym, “Ensan” being the phonetic pronunciation of “Ensign.”

Taking off from the carrier Constitution, Commander Jack Hardigan, leader of Air Group Twenty (that’s two plus zero), and his wingman Fred Trusteau also become aces. They risk their lives for each other, for the members of the group and for their shipmates. After considerable trust building and combat, they discard their conformist heterosexual role-playing, accept their mutual attraction and share a bed in Waikiki’s Moana Hotel during Christmas shore leave. The physical details are not described and the affair remains discreet and low key. What happens ashore stays ashore. Although suspicions arise in another pilot’s mind, he has the good sense to keep his mouth shut. Blood is shed but the three men survive the war and prosper thereafter.

Case’s writing is vibrant and lively throughout the book, a pleasure to read and to reread. Newhafer is all over the map. His battle scenes soar – especially the final battle, which brings together all the remaining main characters – but small talk in officers’ clubs and the wardroom drones on and on. Sometimes his descriptions are simply flat, as in the following:

“The dusk had deepened to a murky darkness when the combatants drew apart. For this is the way fights end. One moment the sky is a wild place and the next as silent as a cathedral.”

Finally, Newhafer’s novel features a stream almost totally lacking in Case’s: the war from a Japanese pilot’s point of view. Commander Isoku Yamota, an ace every bit as brave and successful as his counterparts Winston and Marriner, appears early and fights to the end. He is a stock character but a good one, a warrior who, facing death, dreams of returning to his wife and child not as a hero but as a loving husband and father.

For fans of military and maritime fiction, both novels are worth reading. “Wingmen,” a Speak Its Name Five Star Read that includes the pleasures of first-rate gay historical fiction, is simply the better book. “Tallyho” is out of print but used copies are widely available in hard and soft cover. Four stars.

Amazon UK      Amazon USA

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