Mister Roberts (novel)

Mister Roberts is a 1946 novel written by Thomas Heggen.

Mister Roberts
First edition
AuthorThomas Heggen
IllustratorSamuel Hanks Bryant
CountryUnited States
GenreWar novel
PublisherHoughton Mifflin
Publication date
Media typeHardcover


The title character, a junior grade lieutenant naval officer, defends his crew against the petty tyranny of the ship's commanding officer during World War II. Nearly all action takes place on a US Navy auxiliary cargo ship, the USS Reluctant that sails, as written in the 1948 play, "from Apathy to Tedium with occasional side trips to Monotony and Ennui."

Douglas Roberts, the title character, joined the Navy expecting that he would be assigned to a surface combatant like a destroyer or a cruiser. He had no idea that the Navy had support ships. To his distress, he was first assigned to a tanker in the Atlantic and then to the USS Reluctant, AK-601, a general cargo freighter ferrying supplies to backwater Pacific bases. Mr. Roberts is the ship's First Lieutenant, meaning that he is responsible for maintaining the entire ship except for the engineering spaces. He hates the ship, but he is more responsible for her than anyone aboard apart from the Captain. The irony is not lost on him.

Every month he submits a request for transfer; every month Captain Morton, the commanding officer of the Reluctant, forwards it not recommending approval. Roberts is the balance wheel between the unreasonable behavior of the Captain and the frustration of the crew at being assigned to "this bucket" that never goes anywhere worth going or does anything worth doing.

The novel is a series of stories set aboard the Reluctant, showing the problems of life aboard a naval auxiliary in the rear areas of the Pacific war. One chapter deals with a very new ensign finding his feet aboard a ship much more casual than a taut man-of-war. Another shows the kind of feuding that months of boredom can engender between two officers. One chapter shows what can happen when a crew that hasn't had a liberty in more than a year is anchored off an island that has a naval hospital with nurses and no shades on their windows. Yet another recounts what happens when the Reluctant is sent with a load of cargo to the port of Elysium and Captain Morton grants liberty to half the crew. The final chapter illustrates the affection of the crew towards Mr. Roberts, when his transfer finally comes through and he leaves the ship to return to the United States for assignment to a new destroyer ... and what happens afterwards.


Heggen based his novel on his experiences aboard the cargo ships USS Virgo (AKA-20) and USS Rotanin (AK-108), in the South West Pacific theatre of World War II. He had written a number of short stories, which he collected and merged into the novel.[1] It was subsequently adapted as a play circa 1948,[2] a 1955 feature film,[3] a 1965-66 television series, and a live 1984 television movie.[4] Heggen only enjoyed the initial success and profits of his creation, as his life ended in May 1949, by accident or suicide, just after turning 30.[1][5]

The character Mister Roberts was based on the Rotanin's executive officer, Donald House. Contrary to the story in the book, he was not killed in action, but continued as a career Naval officer until retirement, and lived until early 1998.[6]

Initially, Ensign Ralph (changed to "Frank" in the book) Pulver threatened to sue Heggen for using his actual name. Pulver was, in reality, an officer who took his Naval career very seriously. Pulver was still an active-duty officer at the time the book was published, and was concerned that having his name in the book and play might be detrimental to his career.

The ship's Captain portrayed in Mister Roberts, played by James Cagney, and the ensuing palm tree shenanigans, was based on the real-life captain of the USS Virgo (AKA-20), Lt. Commander Herbert Ezra Randall Sr., USNR. Captain Randall continued as a career Naval officer until retirement and lived in southern California until November 21, 1991. In 1997, the USS Virgo Association held their annual meeting in Riverside, California and conducted a graveside ceremony, plot: 28, 2693; Riverside National Cemetery, Riverside County, California, including a 21-gun salute in honor of their captain - complete with a potted palm tree placed on the grave. [7]


  1. "The Wacky Ship of Mr. Roberts", Sea Classics, USS Virgo, January 1979, archived from the original on 2008-08-21.
  2. "Broadway play, circa 1948", Mister Roberts, Sea bird adventure.
  3. "Feature film 1955", Mister Robert, Sea bird adventure.
  4. "1984 remake, television movie", Mister Roberts, Sea bird adventure.
  5. "TO Heggen, Author, Found Dead in Bath", The New York Times, May 20, 1949.
  6. High beam.
  7. USS Virgo Association - first-person member interviews and Wayback Machine website USS-Virgo.com
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