HEMINGWAY AT WAR: ERNEST HEMINGWAY‘S ADVENTURES AS A WORLD WAR II CORRESPONDENT
By Terry Mort
Pegasus, $27.95, 304 pages
As a Hemingway aficionado since my early teens, I’ve read all of Ernest Hemingway’s novels, short stories, his letters and most of the biographies written about him. I’ve also read collections of his journalism, including the six articles he wrote as a war correspondent for Collier’s magazine during World War II.
Since his suicide in 1961, there has been a steady stream of books about Hemingway, whom many suggest may be the greatest and most influential writer of the 20th century.
Of course, Hemingway has his detractors. Hemingway weaved his real life through his fiction, thus creating the Hemingway persona and the quintessential macho fictional Hemingway hero. This has made it easy for the Hemingway haters to zero in on his personal life and disparage both his life and his work by emphasizing his bragging, bullying and boozing. They have also delighted in deflating his tough guy image by zeroing in on his time as a World War II combat correspondent, branding him a coward, a liar and a fake journalist.
Terry Mort, a writer who has written seven novels and six nonfiction books, including “The Hemingway Patrols: Ernest Hemingway and His Hunt for U-Boats,” offers an evenhanded look at Hemingway’s wartime role in “Hemingway at War.”
“Hemingway had a talent for being at the center of important events. Those events — and some of the people connected with them — are a large part of this story. He was with the Allied landings on D-Day. He flew with the RAF on at least one bombing mission. He flew with them during an attack of V-1 flying bombs. He operated with the French Resistance and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as the Allies advanced to Paris. And he was present and indeed active during the horrendous carnage of the battle for the Hurtgenwald in Germany’s Siegfried Line. As such he provides a useful lens to examine these events and also some of the people, both the troops who fought and the civilian journalists who covered the fighting,” Mr. Mort writes in his introduction. “Inevitably and understandably, his exposure to people and events affected his journalism, and later his fiction. This book attempts therefore to place him in the context of this history and in so doing expand understanding of those events and their effect on him, personally and professionally.”
I believe Mr. Mort largely succeeded in his goal.
At the outbreak of World War II, Hemingway was a world-famous author basking in the critical and commercial success of his Spanish Civil War novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and living in Cuba with his third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn. She took off to cover the war for Collier’s, while Hemingway remained in Cuba. With his fishing boat and friends he joined the “Hooligan Navy,” the hundreds of volunteer yachtsmen, fisherman and civilian pilots who took to the sea to provide intelligence to the Navy about Nazi German U-boat submarines. He later contacted Collier’s editors and arranged to become their European frontline correspondent. Hemingway was nothing if not competitive, so perhaps he was in competition with his wife, who thought he was stealing her plum assignment.
Mr. Mort offers fine sketches of Hemingway’s fellow war correspondents, A.J. Liebling, Ernie Pyle and others, as well as the military people Hemingway accompanied throughout the war, such as OSS Col. David Bruce, Private Archie “Red” Pelkey and Col. Charles “Buck” Lanham, who commanded Hemingway’s favorite infantry outfit, the 4th Division’s 22nd Regiment.
In a letter Lanham wrote to his wife, he described Hemingway: “He is probably the bravest man I have ever known, with an unquenchable lust for battle and adventure.” So much for Hemingway being a coward. Lanham also confirms that Hemingway did indeed fight alongside his troops while under heavy attack.
But as a former naval officer during the Vietnam War, Mr. Mort disputes some of Hemingway’s piece on the D-Day landings, noting that Hemingway got some of the command terminology wrong and Hemingway’s descriptions of the actions of the landing craft’s officer and coxswain ring false.
I was disappointed in Hemingway’s World War II novel, “Across the River and Into the Trees,” thinking he ought to have written a war novel more akin to his short story, “Black Ass at the Crossroads,” but Mr. Mort’s book makes me think differently about the novel and I plan to reread it.
“Hemingway at War” is about much more than Hemingway, offering what some might think of as padding, but I found Mr. Mort’s character sketches and descriptions of momentous events that were the backdrop to the Hemingway story to be interesting and informative.
This is a well-written and well-researched book that will interest admirers of Hemingway, as well as those interested in the war in Europe.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage, terrorism and the military.