He had assumed it would be a softball assignment despite his nerves still being raw after Iwo and Okinawa. After all, the cargo was Army wives. She had wanted to take the new Pan Am commercial flight to Europe and arrive overnight, but the Army appealed to her sense of duty, and she agreed to join the other wives. The sailing would take ten days.
As WWII ended, the U.S. War Department created a program to send Army wives overseas to join their husbands. The first sailing is April 12, 1946, from New York for Bremerhaven, Germany, on the USS Maxwell Gordon.
Jim Stanton, on his last assignment as a Marine Corps Major before being mustered out, heads the security detail on this ship carrying 397 women and children. Diane Mason, the wife of a major general, is aboard as the representative of the wives. Neither will remember this as the trip they had anticipated.
As the Maxwell Gordon moves into the Atlantic shipping lane, early thoughts of an easy run disappear: Radiograms arrive from New York hinting that one of the wives may be an imposter. An unidentified body has been found in Central Park with clues indicating she may have been scheduled for the sailing. Since the head count of wives matches the scheduled passenger list, apparently the killer has taken the victim’s place.
A year of fighting on the islands has left Stanton edgy, nerves tattered, battlefield trauma he has kept from the Marines. The radiograms have their impact on his stress level, contributing to an early conflict with Diane. However, the growing crisis weaves them into a partnership, first one of compatibility, and later evolving into something much closer.
Radiograms eventually confirm the imposter is Lucille Black, who escaped from a Texas mental hospital and made her way to New York where she killed the woman in Central Park. The radiograms relay that she had been confined after killing a lover she had taken while her husband had been fighting overseas. When she discovered within weeks that she was pregnant and that her husband had been killed, it set off a psychic bomb.
Despite confirming Lucille’s background, the identity of the murdered woman remains unknown. They have no idea whose name Lucille has assumed on the ship.
Lucille is no single-minded psychopath, torn between her long range plans for the ship while succumbing to urges, undetected assaults on Diane, another woman on the ship, the murder of a Marine, and flirtations with Stanton. While Diane began the trip as Stanton’s link to the wives the terror of Lucille’s elusive attacks on her draws Stanton emotionally closer. In protecting Diane he is swept in by her vulnerability and sexuality.
The voyage also touches on the cultural dilemma of women enthused about reuniting with husbands, while facing the loss of their war-time personal freedoms. Not all the women on the ship, Diane among them, are at peace with this change in their lives.
Investigating through Radiograms, Stanton pieces together information that Lucille has stolen the makings of a bomb, the conclusive bit of information arriving on the ninth day of the trip. Since Lucille has bypassed nine days of earlier opportunities, Stanton and Diane realize that Lucille is waiting for the voyage’s most dramatic moment—the tenth day when the ship hits port—to blow up the wives in front of the waiting soldiers.
As the women mass for arrival Stanton finds the bomb and heaves it overboard, yet when he traps Lucille he realizes that it isn’t over: there is a second bomb, but where? As he discovers where, Lucille outsmarts herself, ending up in harm’s way.
From the top deck, Stanton watches Diane marching down the gangplank into the arms of her husband, quickly swallowed up in the crowd. He finds a note in his pocket that Diane has slipped there moments earlier. He starts to toss it overboard and stops.
(Our fictional trip precedes by one week the actual first sailing on this same route—New York to Bremerhaven, Germany.)