The novel focuses on the plight of the Henry family (and in extension the Jastrow family). Victor Henry is the protagonist although the story does shift from event directly involving him and spends a great deal of time with his son Byron, Natalie Jastrow Henry (Byron’s wife) and Aaron Jastrow (Natalie’s uncle).
As the novel starts, Henry is given the commission of captain of the USS Northampton after his prospective ship, the USS California, is sunk at the battle of Pearl Harbor. He commands this heavy cruiser until it is sunk at the Battle of Tassafaronga at the end of November 1942.
Henry is not held at fault for the sinking but does not receive another command. Instead, he is sent to the Soviet Union where he sees the Siege of Leningrad and assists in the Tehran Conference of 1943. At this point, he becomes involved in the landing craft production unit. This lands him in Oak Ridge, Tennessee where he works directly with Colonel Peters (who has eyes for his wife Rhoda).
Victor is promoted to rear admiral in 1944 and in the same year Rhoda files for, and is granted, a divorce from him.
Victory commands the USS Iowa during the Battle of Leyte Gulf under the command of Admiral Halsey. This is the last battle we see from the perspective of Victor and he makes it very clear that he doesn’t agree with some of the admirals tactics.
As a man, Victor is a straight talker and gets right to the point. He suffers a great loss when his son, Warren, is killed during the Battle of Midway.
At the beginning of the novel, Byron is an officer on the USS Devilfish. After its captain suffers a traumatic breakdown, the executive officer takes command and Byron is promoted to the executive position. Byron is aware that his wife is in enemy territory and tries to find a way to get from his current deployment in the Pacific to a station in Europe in hope of reuniting with her.
He serves as a courier to Vichy France and meets with Natalie there. He tries to convince her of the danger she is in and that she should leave with him. She argues that they don’t have their son Louis and that she should stay and pick him up from her uncle Aaron at which time the three of them will return west. The plan falls apart as Operation Torch starts at roughly the same time and prevents Aaron, Natalie and Louis from obtaining passports.
Byron is then returned to the Pacific to serve on the USS Barracuda under the same commanding officer he had been executive officer for on the Devilfish. The commander is severely wounded on deck during an attack and commands Byron to submerge the ship with him still on deck. This traumatic episode doesn’t change Byron’s feelings for the commander although he does hesitate before submerging.
One of the major elements of the rising action happens when Byron visits his father just before the battle of Leyte Gulf. Byron is upset with his father for the divorce from his mother and blames new love interest Pamela for the entire fiasco. The two reconcile their differences after Byron learns the truth about his parent’s marital problems from his sister.
Natalie has been missing for the better part of two years but surfaces in April of 1945 in Germany. Byron does everything in his power to return to Europe to be with his wife. He is granted a position as a U-boat researcher and reunites with his wife but not his missing son.
Louis is eventually found in an orphanage but is too traumatized to speak. He doesn’t speak until August 6, 1945, when he is reunited with his mother and the two of them begin to sing together. This is the last day of the novel as well as the date of the atom bomb was first dropped.
Mr. Jastrow is a well-known author that begins the novel as a potential face for Nazi propaganda. When he refuses to broadcast, he becomes an enemy of the state and is forced to flee to Vichy France. He is interned with the U.S. diplomats when Vichy is occupied by the Axis forces. Although the diplomats are freed, Aaron is tricked into staying behind.
He is sent to the “relocation" camp in Thresienstadt and forced to take part in the convincing of Red Cross officials that the camp conditions were excellent and everyone was being treated with the utmost respect. Once he has convinced the Red Cross of this, he is sent to Auschwitz and cremated. Although he is not a major character in the sense of action in the novel, his diary is quoted throughout the book. It is a very poignant reminder of what it is to be Jewish and keep the faith.
Berel is the lens through which the reader views the atrocities of the Holocaust. He begins as a prisoner of war at the Auschwitz camp where he is placed in a work company that is in charge of digging up mass graves and looting the dead then burning the bodies. After countless digs, the leader of his work group turns on the Nazi guards and attacks them. He is killed and the group is put on hiatus.
This gives Berel the chance to escape to the Czech underground. Here he hears that his cousin Aaron and niece Natalie are being held at Theresienstadt. He sneaks into the camp and is the reason that Louis is able to escape. Berel takes him to stay with a Czech farmer but never gets a chance to return to reclaim him.
Through all of the hardship he is put through and all of the devastation he sees, Berel is still able to show love for his fellow man and hold tight to his faith.
Natalie Jastrow Henry
Natalie is caught in Axis-controlled Europe at the beginning of the novel. She, along with her Uncle Aaron and son Louis, tries to escape but is thwarted at every turn. After not leaving the country with Byron in 1942, she is captured and sent to Theresiestadt.
She refuses to help in the beautification project meant to impress the Red Cross and it is only when the Germans threaten to kill her son that she finally takes part. Although she is sent to Auschwitz with her Uncle Aaron, she manages to survive and when Auschwitz is liberated, she is sent to a military hospital to recover.
She is eventually reunited with her husband and son and ends the novel on a note of hope as she and Louis begin the long road of recovery with a song.
Armin von Roon
Although not a major player in terms of pages on which he appears, Armin von Roon is extremely important as the readers line into the German side of the story. He is a Brigadier in the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or Supreme Command of the Armed Forces. With direct contact with Adolf Hitler, this character chronicles the fall of the German Reich.
He is also a device that allows the reader to see the last moments of Hitler including the suicide and cremation. In a very interesting plot device, Wouk has Victor Henry translate von Roon’s World War II book and this presents the German viewpoint of the war. Henry offers his own version of many of the events depicted by von Roon.