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O.C. Author Dusts Off Epic Tale : 1943 Book Is Basis for Gobbell Thriller

August 22, 1995|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The seed for John J. Gobbell's World War II thriller, "The Last Lieutenant," was planted nearly 25 years ago in an unlikely place: a Century City high-rise where he worked as director of administration for an investment company.

Gobbell was standing outside the president's office one day waiting for a meeting when he began perusing the bookshelves in the outer hallway. You know the kind of books: those used strictly for decorative purposes.

"They bought books by the pound from the UCLA bookstore--old statistics books, a 1929 accounting book, things you'd never want to pick up," Gobbell recalled.

But one title caught his eye: "South From Corregidor," Lt. Cmdr. John H. Morrill II's 1943 factual account of his escape from Corregidor, the small, fortified island at the mouth of Manila Bay, which suffered four months of continuous bombardment before falling to the Japanese on May 6, 1942. Hiding out in coves during the day and sailing under the cover of darkness to avoid capture, Morrill and 17 half-starved fellow officers and men from his sunken minesweeper traveled down the entire Philippine archipelago to Darwin, Australia: a 1,900-mile voyage in 28 days.

Gobbell, himself a former Navy lieutenant in the early '60s and a longtime World War II buff, blew the dust off the book and asked the president's secretary if she minded if he read it.

"Go ahead, take it," she said.

Gobbell not only took the book and read it, but he kept it, showing it to friends and rereading it several times over the next two decades.

By 1992, the Newport Beach author's first novel--a techno-thriller called "The Brutus Lie"--had been published, and he had undergone several failed attempts at writing a sequel. Then he remembered Morrill's book.

The result is "The Last Lieutenant" (St. Martin's Press; $23.95), just published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of V-J Day.

Using Morrill's wartime exploits as the basis, Gobbell traces the events leading up to and following the American defeat at Corregidor--the last U.S. outpost in the western Pacific--to the U.S. victory at Midway a month later, which turned the tide of the war against Japan.

Where Gobbell's book veers from historical reality is that his Morrill-modeled main character, Navy Lt. Todd Ingram, must not only save himself and his men, but also catch a Nazi mole cryptographer who plans to tip off the Japanese that U.S. Navy intelligence experts have cracked the Japanese code and that the Americans are planning a trap for the Japanese fleet at Midway.

Publishers Weekly calls the novel a "thickly inhabited page-turner" that "successfully melds elements of espionage, classic combat heroism and carefully reconstructed historical fiction."

Gobbell, an executive recruiter, says that before writing the book, he wanted to learn more about John Morrill. Through the U.S. Naval Academy, he tracked down the Navy veteran, now 93 and living in Bland, Va. They spoke over the phone.

"The more I talked to him, the more I felt a responsibility" to write a novel based on his exploits, says Gobbell, 57. "His fighting spirit just astounded me. Time and time again, I'd say, 'I really admire what you did, and people from my generation really thank you for what you did for us.' And guess what he would say? 'We weren't heroes. We only did what we had to do.' "

Gobbell says 130,000 American and Filipino soldiers and sailors were lost during the fall of the Philippines. "It was the worst military defeat in U.S. history," he says. At the time, "Churchill and Roosevelt had to sacrifice Asia because they just didn't have enough men and materiel to fight a two-ocean war."

Gobbell says 95% of his novel is historical fact, "but in fiction, you have to have something to make the reader turn pages.

"If I merely documented Morrill's voyage, it would not have been interesting to a reader, so we had to introduce a sinister element in the form of the mole. And the fact that the fall of Corregidor and the battle of Midway were so close [in time], if you could put anything about the American victory at Midway at risk that would, I think, make a compelling work."

Gobbell, who is launching a 17-city book signing tour from San Diego to San Francisco to Las Vegas, is working on his third novel--a contemporary thriller involving a U.S. Navy submarine and biological warfare.

He is, he says, a long time fan of thrillers.

"I pick those up before I pick up some of the things your literature teacher would recommend," he says. "My first editor really captured the essence of what a thriller is. She said a thriller is a 'desperate quest."'

But a good thriller involves more than that, he says.

"I think with a thriller, it's not just [a matter of] writing pulp fiction. You have a debt to your readers to provide something they can retain and profit by. In this case, it's history and [information showing] what a marvelous area the Philippines are. If you don't [give the reader something more], I don't think you're doing your job."

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