Within the first two chapters of Theodore Taylor's The Cay, we learn that, at the start or World War I in Europe in 1939, Phillip's father was asked by the oil company called Royal Dutch Shell to move from Virginia to the Dutch island of Curaçao to help with oil refinery for the war effort since he was an "expert in refineries and gasoline production" (p. 16). Now, in 1942, America has entered the war, and the Germans have just attacked the oil refinery in Aruba as well as several oil tankers around the chain of islands in the Caribbean. During the past few years they have lived on Curaçao, Phillip's mother never felt safe. Now that the Germans have attacked the Caribbean islands, she particularly feels unsafe and begs her husband to allow her and Phillip to return to Virginia.
Phillip's father warns that the only safe way to travel these days is by air, but his mother is terrified of flying. Phillip's father warns that it is safer to remain on the island then to travel via ship back to Virginia since their own area is unlikely to be bombed. At first, she agrees to remain on the island, but when a cessation of cargo ship activity to the islands cuts off water and food supplies, she pushes even harder for permission to return to Virginia. Soon, she and Phillip board the S.S. Hato, sailing to Miami via the Panama Canal.