I served in the U.S. Navy, but never in the “regular” Navy. I was part of a very small community within the Navy that performed decidedly non-“big Navy” operations. I did do some time on a handful of big Navy ships, but never enough time to become a shellback (one who has crossed the equator, as juxtaposed to a polliwog, a more junior/inexperienced sailor). That is a milestone reserved for truly salty Navy personnel who spend years at sea in the course of a full naval career.
All that being said, I am not the most qualified guy out there to tell you that the World War II Navy movie “Greyhound” is authentic and a gripping tale of war at sea. Still, I am going to go ahead and tell you that “Greyhound” is a gripping tale of war at sea, and as far as I can tell, an authentic depiction of a sub-hunting destroyer-class U.S. warship doing what it does best against the attack submarines (U-boats) of Nazi Germany.
The movie (on Apple TV+) is “inspired by true events” and by the 1955 C.S. Forester fiction book, “The Good Shepherd.” That is to say, it is not actually a true story, however well-researched and grounded in actual events it may be. In the film, Hanks plays the commander (Ernest Krause) of the USS Keeling, code-named GREYHOUND, which is escorting both troops and supplies across the North Atlantic in 1942, at the height of the six-year-long Battle of the Atlantic (1939-1945). That long naval engagement was fought to secure control of the sea lanes between America and Europe, which was vital to the success of the allied war effort.
Because of its strategic importance to the allies fighting in Europe, the German Navy relentlessly attacked convoys supplying Europe from the United States, sinking nearly 3,000 merchant vessels and killing tens of thousands of sailors in the process. U.S. Navy ships like the USS Keeling — as well as military aircraft — rode as armed escorts for the convoys, hunting the “wolf packs” of multiple U-boats that were sent to destroy the convoys. Once the convoy’s security could be handed off to British naval vessels and aircraft across the Atlantic, the U.S. warships would refuel and refit in Britain, and then repeat the voyage over again.
It was a fraught and perilous crossing, which is depicted masterfully in the film, using sonar tracks, occasional shots of periscopes and surfacing U-boats, radio traffic between allied vessels, a countdown until the vessels reached the safe hands of British patrol aircraft in the eastern Atlantic, and of course, crippled and sinking convoy vessels and U-boats. The film is told exclusively from the point of view of the allied warships, and would be a dynamite companion to 1981’s Nazi U-boat drama “Das Boot” for a naval warfare movie marathon.
Hanks is his usually-great acting self in the movie, playing the dedicated, tireless, and seemingly-tactically adept commander. Although, late in the movie, we find out just how much experience in war his character has, and his tactical acumen is re-evaluated by the viewer (no spoilers). The film is bare-bones on backstory, offering very little in character development or background, which in this case does not take away from the movie at all. The film is, after all, all about the convoy’s trip across the Atlantic, and how they will survive it (or not) through the efforts of the Keeling and the other escort ships. We do not need the sonarman’s personal history to feel tension at the peril he finds himself in.
I watched the movie with both of my teenaged sons, and they were as riveted as I was throughout, peppering me with questions about the nautical dialogue and tense and anxious to see if the convoy made it. We were all on the proverbial edge of our seats throughout, which is an accomplishment for a movie about naval warfare. The genre is not usually as suspenseful as those covering conflicts on land or in the air.
The dialogue is the one area where some viewers might get hung up. It is as authentically realistic in terms of the vocabulary, diction, and language of naval warfare as I have ever seen on film. My sons asked on multiple occasions what certain phrases meant (“Right full rudder! All ahead full! Come about hard to starboard!”), and I had to pause it at one point to explain the 360 degree compass course concept, as applied to a ship on the sea. It helped and allowed them to better understand from where the U-boats were attacking, and what the warships were doing to counter. Don’t let the words scare you off, though. Just accept that it is how things actually sound on a warship’s bridge, and revel in the realism.
If you want to understand what life on a naval vessel at war was like in the era, in one of the most dangerous theaters of the naval war, I cannot imagine you will find many better films out there. “Das Boot” is definitely one of them that is a must-view in the genre, as well. I would suggest watching both that film and “Greyhound” back-to-back, or in a weekend, from the comfort of your own home, thanking God you are not in the North Atlantic trying to save the free world in a warship being hunted by enemy submarines. All of us should salute those brave souls who did just that, and who continue to sail the seas today. Bravo Zulu, as we say in the Navy.