Folly, Meet Valor: Hemingway’s Wartime Adventures

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Photographer Robert Capa (left) and Ernest Hemingway (right), with their driver.

Ernest Hemingway’s novels A Farewell to Arms (1929) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) have, of course, forever linked him in the public imagination with, respectively, World War I and the Spanish Civil War. Less well known are his activities as a war correspondent for Collier’s magazine during World War II — experiences that provided him material for his 1950 novel Across the River and Into the Trees. Now, Terry Mort provides an in-depth look at those World War II endeavors with Hemingway at War: Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures as a World War II Correspondent.

Mort’s own military background — he served as a naval officer during the Vietnam conflict — gives him an authoritative voice on the subject. He’s good at describing procedures and protocol to those of us who never matriculated at a war college. Throughout the book, Mort strives to separate the facts about the writer’s wartime activities from the enduring Hemingway mythology, much of which “Papa” himself helped set in motion. Mort is sometimes critical of the importance Hemingway gave to his own contributions to the war effort. On the other hand, he frequently defends Hemingway against detractors who have written the novelist off as little more than a self-aggrandizing blowhard. In particular, he is eager to undo what he feels was a hatchet job against Hemingway by writer Charles Whiting in a 1999 book, Hemingway Goes to War.

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Hemingway participated in the war effort even before heading to Europe. In 1942-43, he patrolled the Cuban coastline looking for German U-boats, but never spotted one. Mort notes, however, that had Hemingway encountered such a vessel, he was prepared not merely to report it but also to personally attack it. This desire to take matters into his own hands would continue during his time in Europe. Some people who observed him were inspired by Hemingway’s eagerness and courage. Others found him meddlesome or worse.

The Hemingway/Gellhorn marriage fell apart when during his 1944 stint in Europe.
Martha Gellhorn’s marriage to Hemingway collapsed during his time in Europe covering the war.

His then-wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn, went to Europe to cover the war in 1943. Mort contends that if Gellhorn had been a more “compliant” wife, Hemingway might never have taken the Collier’s assignment. He considers their marriage to have been a bad bargain. The trouble seemed to be exacerbated by professional jealousies and competitiveness. At any rate, by the time Hemingway returned to the US in early 1945, the marriage was irrevocably broken. He’d been romancing the already-married Mary Welsh, whom he met in England shortly after he crossed the Atlantic. She would later become his fourth and final wife. Because war and romantic entanglements seemed to go hand-in-hand for Hemingway, perhaps a passionate affair with some woman or other was inevitable.

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Mort covers three main events during Hemingway’s European adventure: the Allied landing in Normandy on D-Day, the liberation of Paris and the horrific fighting that went on in the battle for the Hürtgen Forest, south of the German city of Aaden late in 1944. Throughout the book, Mort stresses that courage never failed the novelist. But throughout his time as a correspondent, Hemingway tended to neglect his journalist’s assignments in favor of fighting the war on his own terms. And in the Collier’s articles, he was not above exaggerating his own role in the events he chronicled.

It’s easy to understand why many people wished Hemingway had stayed put in Cuba for the duration: his outsized personality was problematic. Before taking the Collier’s assignment, he applied for a job with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the CIA. He was found, says Mort, to be “too much an individualist” to serve in such capacity. Mort posits that the OSS was on to something when they made such a pronouncement.

At one point during his stint in Europe, Hemingway accompanied a pilot on a bombing raid over the Pas-de-Calais. “It was all over too quickly for Hemingway’s taste,” Mort writes, “and he wanted to make another run to assess the damage.” The pilot refused, saying that it was too dangerous. On another occasion, he rode with a British flyer who was piloting a Mosquito fighter plane. The pilot later recalled: “Hemingway urged me to roll the Mosquito and throw it around quite considerably.”

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While covering the Paris liberation, Hemingway’s celebrity helped him attract a contingent of hangers-on that were happy to serve in what amounted to his personal army (Mort repeatedly calls them a “merry band”). At one point, Hemingway and his retinue holed up in Rambouillet, a town 30 miles outside of Paris:

Hemingway’s hotel room was a miniature armory, with small arms piled here and there, and a bathtub full of grenades, with his newly acquired guerillas coming in to report what they had been sent to see. As Hemingway saw it, his primary contribution to the next phase of battle would be to send out scouts to gather information about enemy positions, minefields, and other difficulties, such as roadblocks. The scene was very much in keeping with what Hemingway wanted. He was in command of an independent group of fighters, however motley, and he was reveling in it.

Mort: Hemingway "put himself in death's path and so became his best self."
“War had liberated [Hemingway} from the mundane.”
For a war correspondent to possess or use weapons was strictly forbidden; indeed, post-liberation, Hemingway was called to testify under oath about his personal arsenal. He committed perjury in denying the accusations, but the charges were dropped. However, by claiming innocence, he’d ironically forfeited his bragging rights about his role in freeing his beloved Paris. He also continued to keep weaponry after the hearing. He once claimed to have personally killed 122 enemies during his time in Europe. Mort believes he may not have killed anyone. Still, he lauds Hemingway’s continued bravery, especially during the brutal fighting in the Hürtgen Forest.

As for Hemingway’s war journalism, although the Collier’s pieces helped to earn him a Bronze Star in 1947, Mort contends that the articles were mediocre, that Hemingway dashed off half-baked work simply to remain in Europe and that the novelist fundamentally believed fiction was far more important than journalism. In one Collier’s article, Hemingway omitted a description of a soldier desperately trying to emerge from a tank. He later admitted to Roald Dahl, then an officer in Britain’s Royal Air Force, that he planned to save the description for a novel he had in mind.

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The work he envisioned was a trilogy about war fought on land, sea and air. What he finally delivered, in 1950, was the aforementioned Across the River and Into the Trees, which was poorly received. I’d never read the novel (which is not, really, much more than a novella), but after finishing Mort’s book, I plowed through it. Certainly no war epic with the stature of James Jones’s  From Here to Eternity or Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, the extremely tedious book concerns the last days of Colonel Cantwell, an aging American veteran of both world wars (he’s only 50, but rightly believes he’s approaching his last breath). Most of the novel is about his impossible relationship with an 18-year-old countess named Renata, whom he continually addresses as “Daughter.” Renata was inspired by Adriana Ivancich, Hemingway’s own postwar muse (Mary Welsh notwithstanding). The lovers in Across the River eat, drink (a lot), meander through Venice, engage in redundant love chatter and lie on a hotel bed together where the Colonel tells the young woman, in fits and starts, stories of the recent war. Very little battle action is described, although Hemingway draws on his own experiences to relate one memorable moment of horror that reportedly gave him postwar nightmares: the sight of a dog gnawing the charred body of a German soldier during the Hürtgen battles.

Why, as a man, had he put himself through such hell? Was it moral duty? The excitement of battle? Some sort of test? Mort contends that Hemingway became his “best self” when standing in death’s path. Still, how had his war experiences served him as a writer? If he hadn’t bothered to enlist his full artistry for Collier’s and didn’t manage to tap it well for his fiction, what, exactly, was he hoarding it for? Or it was it not hoarded at all, but simply spent?

Mort suggests that Hemingway — who had no patience for soldiers suffering from battle fatigue — was never the same man after living through the horrors of Hürtgen. And yet he claimed that that ordeal provided him with a “rebirth” of sorts. To which Mort sensibly asks: a rebirth into what?

There’s no good answer, I suppose — especially when you consider that Papa shot and killed himself in Ketchum, ID, a little more than a decade after the publication of Across the River and Into the Trees. If death was the remedy for a case of battle fatigue he’d sustained but couldn’t admit to, then we shouldn’t be surprised that Hemingway took it upon himself to write the biggest prescription of all.

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Mark Dundas Wood
Mark Dundas Wood is a writer and dramaturg in NYC and a regular contributor to StageBuddy.com and BistroAwards.com. His features and reviews have also appeared in Back Stage, American Theatre and The Oregonian. Fiction credits include Oregon Literary Review and Northwest Magazine. His adaptation of Henry James’s novel The Tragic Muse appeared at the Metropolitan Playhouse. As literary manager for New Professional Theatre, Mark has worked with such playwrights as Katori Hall and Colman Domingo. He has served as a dramaturg for the New York Musical Theatre Festival annually since 2009.