William Paden Mack, a retired vice admiral and former superintendent of the Naval Academy who had a prolific career writing books about life at sea, died Wednesday of cerebral vascular disease at his home in Annapolis. He was 87.
As a young naval officer, he served aboard a destroyer that escaped the Japanese bombing of Manila harbor during World War II. He later saw action in the East Indies and Aleutians; he also served during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Admiral Mack spent his career at sea mainly aboard destroyers, but he also had extensive experience aboard cruisers, battleships and amphibious ships. Among his awards and decorations were three Distinguished Service Medals.
He spent three years as superintendent of the Naval Academy, helping prepare the school for the admission of women that occurred a short time later.
After he retired from the academy in 1975, he spent the next quarter-century pursuing his love of writing, completing 12 works of fiction. His first novel, South to Java, was based on his experience as a gunnery officer aboard the destroyer John D. Ford, which slipped out of Manila harbor between attacks and later engaged the Japanese around Java and Borneo before retreating to Australia.
One of his former shipmates, retired Capt. John S. Slaughter, said the ship was lucky not to have been a primary target of the Japanese attack on Manila in December 1941.
"They were after the Navy shipyards and the commercial port facilities of Manila," he said.
Captain Slaughter recalled his friend as "one of the finest officers I ever ran across in my entire life. He was just a very solid citizen, very cool under the most extreme situations.
"His men just idolized Bill Mack. It was just recognized that he was the very best officer on the ship."
Admiral Mack was born in Hillsboro, Ill. He entered the Naval Academy in 1933 and graduated in 1937.
At the academy, he was a columnist for The Log, the midshipmen's magazine. His passion for writing had been sparked in 1931 when he was an intern reporter for The San Francisco Daily News, where his brother-in-law was city editor.
Shortly before being sent to the Pacific, he married his first wife, the former Ruth McMillin. She died in 1996.
Later in the war, he was part of a naval force that retook islands in Alaska's Aleutians. During the last year of the war, he received his first command, aboard the destroyer Woodworth.
He commanded another destroyer during the Korean War, a group of Atlantic-based amphibious ships in the mid-1960s and, toward the end of the Vietnam War, the entire 7th Fleet off the country's coast.
Ashore, he held various positions in Washington, including aide to the secretary of the Navy, as well as chief of information and chief of legislative affairs.
He began his writing career in the 1960s when he joined as co-author of a naval officers' guide and a book about naval customs and traditions. South to Java, published in 1987 and co-written with his son, William P. Mack Jr., was the first of many novels that chronicled the adventures of naval ships.
"They say you should write about what you know, and this is what I know," Admiral Mack said in a 1992 Sun profile. "I'm trying to cover the history of World War II through the eyes of destroyer men. I draw on my experiences. I've been in all the ports and on all the ships."
He said his initial manuscript, submitted to the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis about the same time Tom Clancy submitted The Hunt for Red October, was rejected.
"He won; we lost," Admiral Mack reflected.
After several years of laborious reworking, the Macks took it to Jan Hurgronje, who launched the Naval and Aviation Publishing Company of America in Baltimore. It became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and sold about 10,000 hardcover and 40,000 paperback copies.
Another novel, Checkfire, follows the amphibious campaign that began in the Aleutians and island-hopped across the Pacific toward Japan.
Captain Kilbournie tells the story of a Scottish sailor during the Anglo-French maritime battles of the 1790s. In a Sun book review, critic James H. Bready wrote that Admiral Mack "knows not only the system but the personality types who grease or clog it."
According to his son, who lives in Annapolis, "He wasn't happy unless he was doing something. In retirement, [writing] was something to keep busy."
In 1981, the Navy League awarded him the Alfred Thayer Mahan prize for literary excellence. He also received the Secretary of the Navy's Distinguished Civilian Award and the University of Maryland's President's Medal.
Services will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel.
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife, Elsie Sutherlin Mack of Annapolis; a daughter, Margaret Opsahl of Gaithersburg; two stepchildren, Henry Day Sutherlin of West Point, Va., and Mary Saunders Hedberg of Walkerton, Va.; four grandsons; three stepgrandchildren; and two step-great-grandchildren.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Naval Academy Foundation, 247 King George St., Annapolis 21402.