W. E. B. Griffin is the pseudonym of William Edmund Butterworth III. Like a lot of authors with more than two names (I’m looking at you, JRRT, GRRM and J. D. Robb!) he cannot stop himself from creating sagas with every subject he writes on. He has more than 50 books to his credit, all of which are parts of series, and 21 of those have been co-authored with his son, William E. Butterworth IV. His expertise on military matters comes from his own experiences as part of Military Counterintelligence in post World War 2 Germany followed by active service during the Korean War.
The Honor Bound series is about the clandestine war fought between the Axis and the Allies in the South American continent, the countries of which were largely neutral and were being either wooed to align with one side or the other or stay neutral; an arrangement that suited both sides. The name is deliberate; each book explores and debates on the concept of honor, its nuances, the responsibilities it places on one and its consequences, specially in times of war and in places like Nazi ruled Germany.
One the series’ main plot points is the Nazis smuggling money and jewelry looted from the Jews into Argentina, as a means of creating a safe haven to disappear to after it is apparent that they are going to lose. Having read about the escape of a lot of prominent Nazis to South America after World War 2, I have been fascinated with the subject. There are a lot of reasons why South America was chosen by them, and the history, politics and economics behind the decision is simply spellbinding. So, when I got my hands on this series, it was a treat watching a storyteller of Griffin’s ilk weave his tale of intrigue and nail-biting action.
The story begins with 24-year-old Cletus H. Frade, a Marine Corps fighter pilot operating out of Guadalcanal since the beginning of the offensive. He is the grandson of prominent oil baron Marcus Howell and the son of an equally prominent Argentine Colonel Jorge Frade, from whom he has been estranged since birth. He gets reassigned Stateside to take part in a publicity tour to encourage civilians to buy War Bonds; something he quickly realizes is just a ruse when he is approached by Colonel A F Graham of the Office of Strategic Services even before the tour starts.
The OSS want him to go to Argentina for a two-fold objective – identify and destroy if possible “neutral” ships that are replenishing German submarines off the coast of Argentina and revive his relationship with his father to try and tilt him towards the Allies. The second objective is more important, because Colonel Frade is the brains and money behind the Grupo de Oficiales Unidos (GOU), a coalition of high-ranking officers planning a coup against the Axis-leaning Argentinian President Ramon Castillo who plans to hold on to power regardless of the results of the next elections.
Halfway across the world, General Kurt von Wachstein of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht is approached by the conspirators involved in Operation Valkyrie. The General, long having decided that Hitler and his inner circle will lead Germany to destruction, agrees to join but has a price. He wants his only surviving son Hans-Peter von Wachstein, who is a fighter pilot defending Berlin from Allied Bombers, to be sent to some far away neutral country as part of the embassy staff there to ensure his survival.
The opportunity comes when Captain Duarte, the nephew of Colonel Frade is killed in Stalingrad. Ostensibly a “neutral observer”, he participates in an artillery spotting aerial exercise and is shot down by the Russians. The Nazis see this as an opportunity to sway Argentina to their side, arrange for Duarte’s remains to be shipped back to Buenos Aires for a burial with full military honors and bestow upon him the Iron Cross for “falling in the line of duty against the Godless Communists”. Peter’s name is suggested as the officer who should accompany the remains as a mark of the Nazis’ respect. Before he leaves for Argentina, Peter has an emotional farewell with his father during which the elder von Wachstein gives him money and details of numbered Swiss bank accounts which contain the remaining von Wachstein wealth that he needs to safeguard for looking after their people after the war ends.
As Peter begins his journey, Cletus meets the rest of his team; Anthony “Tony” J. Pelosi, the demolitions expert seconded to the OSS from the 82nd Airborne, and David Ettinger, the investigator from CIC. His grandfather too, is part of the deception, agreeing to carry them on the rolls of his oil company as a cover, and once in Argentina, they will be hosted by the company’s representative Enrico Mallin. The grandfather also supplies the reason for Cletus never having met his father – he blames Colonel Frade for the death of his daughter during childbirth and has done everything possible to keep him away from Cletus.
While applying for Argentinian visas, it comes out that Cletus has Argentinian citizenship since he was born there. This news is relayed by the visa official to the head of Argentina’s Bureau of Internal Security (BIS), Colonel Martin, who decides to dig deeper into his parentage. Upon arrival at Buenos Aires, Cletus stays with Mallin and is shown around town by his daughter Dorotea. Though attracted to her, he dismisses it as unworkable owing to the five year difference in their ages and the dangers posed by his mission. Around this time, Martin makes the connection between him and Colonel Frade, and gives the Colonel the news that his son is in Buenos Aires.
Colonel Frade, at first taken aback, overcomes his astonishment and gets in touch with Cletus and they agree to meet for lunch. Their first interaction happens in the bar, a result of their mutual apprehension and curiosity. They continue from there to the Officer’s Club, where Cletus is introduced to everyone by his father as a flyer discharged from duty, and who then proceeds to get drunk. At first Cletus thinks of it as an act designed to get his guard down, but then realizes his father is really drunk as a reaction to meeting his son after so many years. As they come back to the family guesthouse, Cletus has another emotional meeting with Maria, the housekeeper who looked after him as a baby and meets Enrico, his father’s batman and lifelong friend, who carries the passed-out Colonel back to the car and back home.
The next day, Cletus moves into the guesthouse at his father’s insistence. The arrangement suits both him and Mallin; him because he can carry out his mission without interference, and Mallin because he has noticed Cletus and Dorotea giving each other looks. The team begins to get leads on which ship out of the many “neutral” ones is the replenishment vessel, which brings them to the notice of the German embassy. Gruner, the Abwehr man in the embassy tasked with the protection and execution of more than just the mission of replenishing submarines, decides to have Cletus assassinated.
Unaware of this, Cletus travels to his familial estancia outside Buenos Aires, accompanied by Maria. When they reach the estancia, a wide, eighty thousand hectares spread, Maria defies Colonel Frade and takes Cletus to the Colonel’s private library full of photos and newspaper clippings of Cletus from when he was a child till he joined the Marine Corps. The angry Colonel berates her, but she is unrepentant, saying the truth needs to be known, and over lunch Cletus hears of how his mother embraced Catholicism to marry his father, how she disregarded doctors’ advice to not have a second child after a life-threatening first delivery that resulted in her death, how his enraged grandfather had the Colonel first thrown out of the USA and then arrested when he entered again, and how he was barred from entering the country ever again and had to watch his only child grow up through newspaper clippings. The revelation serves to bring them closer.
After lunch, the father and son go to the former’s private airfield where Cletus flies the Colonel’s Beechcraft Staggerwing. As the estancia borders on the vast Rio Plate estuary, he takes the opportunity to fly over water and succeeds in locating one of the neutral ships they have shortlisted as the replenishment vessel. Its placement and distance from the nearest shore convince him that approaching it over water in a small boat would be suicidal. He resolves to contact Colonel Graham and suggest alternate means of destroying the ship, like a TBF Torpedo Bomber or an American submarine.
Meanwhile in Buenos Aires, Peter arrives with Captain Duarte’s remains, and assumes his duty as the Assistant Military Attaché in the German embassy. He participates in a trail run of the funeral ceremony along with Gruner, where he meets Duarte’s parents. The mother immediately considers him as part of the family, which seems to please Gruner as it gives him an avenue to the banker father. Once the trial is concluded, he retires to the Colonel’s guesthouse, and comes face to face with Cletus; the Colonel having forgotten about having Peter stay there when he offered the place to his son. Both, after their initial hostility, call a temporary truce since they are “enemy officers and gentlemen on a neutral ground” and over cognac and shared tales of flying soon become good friends. The next morning, when the mix-up is recognized and someone from the embassy comes to collect Peter, they decide to keep their friendship a secret from everyone else.
During the funeral, Gruner shares with Peter the assassination planned for Cletus later in the day. Peter considers this dishonorable, and at great personal risk alerts Cletus of the plot. As a result, he is prepared for the killers when they arrive; he kills one of them and wounds the other. However, when he sees that they have killed Maria in cold blood, he loses his composure and kills the second one as well. Soon after, he is accosted and placed under arrest by one of the officers in BIS who is on the German payroll.
When Colonel Martin hears of this, he takes over the investigation. As an intelligence officer, he has long known of the GOU’s plan, and the morality of standing with or against them has been weighing heavily on his mind. This incident makes him choose to side with the GOU; he covers up the murder of the killer as an act of self defense by Cletus and has him spirited away to an army hospital where he will be guarded. At the hospital, Colonel Frade meets Cletus and asks him to come clean about his intentions in coming to Argentina. They have an argument over Argentina’s supposed neutrality while leaning towards the Axis, and the Colonel’s refusal to acknowledge the Nazis’ atrocities. The Colonel then leaves Enrico to guard Cletus, while he arranges to have him expelled from the country. During this time Enrico informs Cletus that Maria was his sister, and his honor demands that he leave the Colonel’s service and avenge her death, which has further angered the Colonel.
The news of the failed assassination reaches the German embassy, and the German Ambassador von Lutzenberger summons Peter after correctly assuming he is behind it. He further reveals that he is old friends with Peter’s father and shares a letter sent by him through unofficial channels. The letter tells Peter of his father’s decision to take part in Operation Valkyrie and his belief that he is doing the honorable thing, also mentioning that the Ambassador is the only person he can trust in the embassy. The Ambassador suggests Peter take advantage of having helped Cletus by asking him to help protect the family money.
Soon after being discharged, Cletus takes the opportunity meet with the OSS station chief to inform him of having located the replenishment vessel and the impossibility of destroying it with the current means. Instead of supporting him, the station chief accuses him of cowardice and refuses to get in touch with Colonel Graham. The enraged Cletus decides to go over his head and contact Graham directly. He attends Maria’s funeral at the estancia, where the Colonel apologizes to him for not having trusted him and vows to help him in his mission even though it will cost him the Presidency after the coup. Cletus confides in him the need to contact Graham, and the Colonel agrees to help him with the endeavor. He also becomes romantically involved with Dorotea at this point.
Peter gets his chance to speak with Cletus at a dinner party given by the Colonel, when he gets invited as a guest of Duarte’s mother. The eloquent letter penned by Peter’s father moves the Colonel to tears, and as both Cletus and the Colonel consider Peter’s actions a debt of honor, they help him by bringing in Duarte’s banker father who can assist with moving the money discreetly.
Cletus gets through to Graham by bluffing his way onto an American warship in dock for supplies and sending out a message over their radio. It makes Graham come down to Buenos Aires, as he realizes the station chief is deliberately creating a scenario where Cletus might die in the line of duty, an event that could sway the Colonel towards the Allies. Cletus is more valuable to Graham’s long-term operations alive, so the station chief is recalled Stateside, while Cletus’ suggestion of a submarine is approved. To ensure the vessel is visible to the submarine at night, Cletus and Pelosi jury-rig a couple dozen flares which they intend to drop from the Colonel’s Staggerwing.
The operation goes off successfully, with Cletus lighting up the vessel with the flares. The American submarine blows up the ship as well as a German submarine that it is supplying at that time. In the process, the Staggerwing is shot down by the guns on the ship, causing Cletus and Pelosi to crash land into the Rio Plate, from where they are rescued by Enrico who has kept a boat ready for the eventuality.
Griffin does a masterful job of having real and fictional characters and events interact with each other in a manner that makes the reader believe it could really have happened this way. Colonel Frade, Colonel Graham and Cletus, for example, are fictional characters, but the GOU and the coup they were planning against President Ramon Castillo are entirely real. Also real is Operation Valkyrie and the premise of the Axis leaning Argentines turning a blind eye towards German submarines being replenished in their territorial waters.
Griffin brings out the subtleties of the notions of honor beautifully, from General von Wachstein joining Operation Valkyrie and putting the welfare of his people before him, to Peter’s thoughts on the morality of assassination and Cletus’ response to the deed. He also creates a unique reading style, presenting each chapter as a war communique by adding a location, date and time stamp at the beginning. It adds to the pace and the sense of urgency as the reader can see the action unfolding over a matter of mere days. As the first book in the series, it takes a long time establishing the stories of the characters, but that only makes you more eager to find out what happens next.