Chapter 22: Ground War

“You had contracted to write about the RAF, and you did make some flights with them. Did you enjoy the experience?”

“Very much. Those were great boys, young like the way I was in 1918. Also, for some reason my headache would go away as long as we were in the air, and that was a relief. And being in the air gave me an unfamiliar perspective, plus something could happen at any moment.”

“But you didn’t spend much time in the air.”

“No, writing up the RAF was just me paying for my ride over. Collier’s was paying me to be at the front lines. On D-Day I went across the channel on a troop transport and transferred to a landing ship and went in with the seventh wave, at 7 a.m., but they brought me out again on the same ship. That was not the day for non-essential personnel to be on the ground.”

“When it came time for you to decide what unit to attach yourself to, you considered George Patton’s armored divisions.”

“I did, but with armor, everything was dust, and my throat couldn’t take it. I found my home in the infantry, with Buck Lanham’s regiment.”

“Your honor, I should like to call Gen. Charles T. Lanham and question him and the defendant together.”

“Without objection, proceed.”

.2.

And there was Buck, a general now, but in the colonel’s uniform he had been wearing during that long fall and winter. “It’s so good to see you looking like this, Ernest, very good to know you’re all right. Any chance I will remember this, back in the body?

The judge: “I’m afraid not, Colonel. I’m sorry.”

“Well, I wish I could.” He smiled. “So. Ernest, you were quite a handsome young man, weren’t you? Or are you embellishing?”

“Huh? Oh, you mean, am I improving this body? No, this is what I looked like when I was in my thirties. Or actually, I guess it’s what I would have looked like if I hadn’t gotten blown up in Italy.”

A dry chuckle. “Just like life, then. Always telling the truth, but always improving on the facts.”

He laughed. “I suppose so.”

“Col. Lanham, would you tell the court who and what you were in 1944?”

“I was career army, out of West Point, and in 1944 I was in command of the 22nd regiment, 4th infantry, under Tubby Barton.”

He grinned at him. “Just that, huh? Mr. Prosecutor, you should know, among other things, his unit was the first to break through the Siegfried Line, he survived Hurtgen Forest, and he led a breakout in the Battle of the Bulge. He was also my model for Colonel Cantwell, and he was the man I described, in print, as the finest and bravest and most intelligent military commander I have known.”

“Yes, well, maybe you didn’t know all that many military commanders. But thanks.”

“Hurtgen Forest won you the Distinguished Service Cross.”

“A lot of brave men won that for me,” Lanham said softly. “A lot of men who died there.”

“Col. Lanham, many people have said the defendant was just playing soldier, that he didn’t really know anything about warfare. Would you please give this court your impression of the defendant’s military knowledge?”

“I had heard of Hemingway the writer, naturally, so I watched him pretty close, to see what he really was. I saw right away that he could read a map, and visualize terrain, and he understood the briefing I gave him. He asked good questions, quietly and appropriately. As time went on, it became clear that he could size up a tactical situation, and he knew our weapons and the enemy’s weapons as well as any of us.”

“Would you describe the man as you observed him?”

“He was as brave a man as I ever saw, and I saw a lot of brave men. He was a born leader, and I was glad to have him there. He seemed to be absolutely fearless, sometimes in situations where a little fear would have been a good idea.” He smiled a tight reminiscent smile. “One night a group of us were in a house eating supper, and they started shelling. A shell came through one wall and went out the opposite wall. Everybody hit the deck, but I looked up and there he was, still sitting at the table, picking splinters out of his food, and he point-blank refused to take cover or even to put on his helmet. He said it can’t kill you unless it has your number on it, some nonsense like that.” A pause. “He also had this spooky ability to know when people were going to die sometimes. One time, he had been with me while I was talking to one of my officers, and as we were walking away I said I was going to have to relieve him, but Ernest said I wouldn’t have to, because he was going to get killed. And he got killed minutes later. When I asked Ernest how he had known, he said the man had smelled of death. And that wasn’t the only time that happened.”

“Colonel, why do you think the defendant’s reputation came to differ so widely from the man you observed at close hand?”

“Simple. He was always shooting himself in the ass with his crazy stories, like how he killed hundreds of Germans, or how he knew the whole German order of battle, or how he’d made his living as a professional prize-fighter. He could really pull you into his stories, and people started not believing anything he said. It’s too bad.”

“I was just being a story-teller, Buck. That’s what I was.”

“Colonel, would you have wanted him as an officer?”

“I’d have been glad to have had him.”

.3.

“Mr. Hemingway, please tell this court what happened in August, 1944, on the army’s road to Paris. Bear in mind, the intent is not to point a finger or to ask for a mea culpa, but to assist you to accurately assess your own motivations, judgments, and actions.”

Slowly, choosing his words: “That big storm in July that wrecked our mulberry harbors meant that we got fewer supplies and reinforcements than was planned. And hedgerow fighting was murder; it was perfect defensive terrain, and the Germans knew how to use it. But once we broke out into open country at the end of July, suddenly we had all the advantages. We had command of the air, which is everything. We had informants and guides everywhere, and they had nobody they could trust. From the breakout to the German border, the krauts were the fox and we were the hounds.”

“It became a chase.”

“It became a chase. But you can chase well or you can chase badly, and the difference determines how many of your boys you get killed.”

“And you viewed this as your opportunity to participate, rather than remaining on the sidelines.”

“Listen, you say you want my own judgment, here it is. I knew France and Frenchmen and Paris and the country around Paris. Frenchmen trusted me, because they knew me by name and reputation. All the French partisans knew which side I had been on. And I had the skills. I could read terrain as well as any officer, and the Crook Factory had given me recent experience in running a group of intelligence agents and evaluating their reports. In mid-August, while I was spending the night at Mont St. Michel, I met an OSS officer and told him what I could do, and I wound up acting as an unofficial liaison officer between the army and the Free French underground. I sent men here and there and they reported to me on where the Germans were setting mines, and which roads they were covering and which ones were open, and I told the army what I learned, as fast as I could put it together. I worked with the OSS and with Army intelligence both, and specifically I helped my old friend David Bruce from the OSS to defend Rambouillet, and I helped him interrogate prisoners. And since you know I can’t lie here, you tell me. Was I posing? Was I pretending? Or was I doing what I could?”

“Mr. Hemingway, you say the OSS officer sanctioned your activities?”

“That’s right.”

“Even though they contravened the Geneva Convention?”

A look of disgust. “This was warfare. Real bullets, and real soldiers getting killed. The OSS was like the army, they wanted to get the job done. If they found a way to save American lives and shorten the war, would you have told them they shouldn’t take it?”

“But you admit that what you did was illegal.”

“It also saved lives. And we could have saved more, if they’d used the information I gathered to move into Paris sooner. The extra five days it took to throw the Germans out of Paris cost the lives of 1,500 Free French irregulars and French civilians. None of that was necessary.”

“But the Geneva Convention forbids accredited war correspondents from engaging in combat operations. After some of your fellow correspondents filed a formal complaint about your activities in August, the army convened a formal inquiry, and in October you testified under oath that you had done nothing to violate your status as a war correspondent. You explained away the sworn testimony of your fellow correspondents that you had carried arms, and had kept a huge stash of arms in your hotel room, and had participated in military operations as the de facto chief of a band of French irregulars. Speaking to the court in an environment which makes a lie an impossibility, I put it to you directly. Did you lie to that military court?”

“I did.”

“You did engage in those activities forbidden to war correspondents under the Geneva Convention?”

“I did.”

“Knowing that you were thereby jeopardizing the protection that convention offered to your fellow correspondents?”

“I don’t know how much protection it ever offered them, and I don’t think I actually jeopardized anybody. But I couldn’t tell that court what I had done, and the court didn’t want me to. It was something that needed doing, and the best thing would have been to pass over it in silence. Instead, I had to squirm around like a worm on a hook, flat-out lying sometimes. Everybody in the room knew I was lying and wanted me to lie. I was covering for a lot of people, including Bruce and the OSS.”

“So it was merely theater?”

“The Army knew I had done a good job, but it had to pretend to investigate. And I think the worst of it was that I had to lie about something I was proud of. If I had been able to tell the truth, people might have understood why I had the respect of men like Buck. Anyway, to hell with it. I was exonerated.”

“It hurt.”

“Of course it hurt.”

“Very well, let us examine the day the allied armies liberated Paris. You remember that day well, I would imagine. I believe that day is sometimes known as the day that Hemingway liberated the Ritz.”

A grin. “Yeah.”

“You reached the city with the liberating armies, and found a city hysterical with joy.”

“People in the streets everywhere. People wild, just wild. They had had four years of occupation, and they were blowing it all out of their systems as best they could. Cheering, singing, offering us anything they had to drink, surrounding our vehicles so we could hardly move. Never got kissed so much in my life.”

“Sounds like wonderful material for Collier’s.”

“It would have been, but it was completely indescribable. We all knew we’d never see anything like it.”

“So what did you do?”

“Well one thing, we decided to get inside. Everybody with a weapon was shooting it off in the air, and all those rounds had to come down someplace. Would have been a hell of a thing to survive the Germans and get shot accidentally by somebody in another street, celebrating. So we took off – me and Bruce and Red Pelkey.”

“Pelkey being Private Archie Pelkey, your driver?”

“That’s right. We got onto the Champs Elysees – we were the only car on it – and we liberated the Travelers Club. We were the first ones to get that far, so they opened a bottle and toasted us in champagne, and then we headed out for the Ritz, which was totally empty except for Ausiello, the manager. Since we were the first ones there, we got rooms – and I had them set up fifty martini cocktails for the boys and me.”

“There was a formal surrender ceremony, but you did not cover it.”

“No need. Collier’s hired me as a feature writer, not a news reporter. Plenty of other people would get the story, and the Ritz was more comfortable.”

“You were not concerned that you were missing a bit of history?”

“Nope. That’s the kind of thing Martha wouldn’t dream of missing and I wouldn’t dream of covering.”

“And the victory parade through the city?”

“Not that either. Mary watched it, I found out later. No, I stayed at the hotel, and I ate and drank with whatever friends came by, and I was plenty happy to relax after what we’d just been through. When I went out, it was to revisit places I knew and loved. What did I care about parades and ceremonies? But, if I had known that the reason Paris was still standing was because von Choltitz had defied Hitler’s orders to destroy it, I would have tried to shake his hand for saving the city I loved best in the world.”

“Defense?”

“In context of the liberation of Paris, your honor, the defense would like to call a witness.”

“Without objection, you may proceed.”

“The defense recalls Sylvia Beach.”

.4.

Sylvia looked as she looked that day in 1944, a little underweight, a little drawn.

“May I do the questioning this time?”

“It’s irregular, but go ahead, and we’ll see.”

“Sylvia, would you tell the court where you were in August, 1944, when the Germans were driven out of Paris?”

“In 1944, Adrienne and I were living for the day when our lives would resume. I had had to close my shop and hide the books when the Germans came in.”

“Would you tell the court about the last time we met?”

Her eyes widened. “But of course! It is the very last anecdote I tell in Shakespeare and Company! As you know, Adrienne and I were in Paris for the whole time of the occupation, and it was very hard. At the end, there were still German snipers on the roofs of our street, and we were very tired of it all, and we were trying just to stay alive long enough to see the end. And one day I am in my apartment and I look down and there are several American jeeps, and I hear a voice calling my name. `Sylvia! Sylvia!,` and of course everyone else starts calling `Sylvia,’ and Adrienne says, `It’s Hemingway,’ and I went running downstairs and you were running upstairs and we crashed together and you picked me up and whirled me around and kissed me, and all the people were cheering.”

“Not the Germans, probably.”

“No, not the Germans. You remember? You asked me if Adrienne had collaborated, and when I said she had not, you knew we were in no danger from the resistance, and you asked if there was anything you could do for me, and I asked you to get rid of the German snipers. You got your men out of the jeeps and led them on to the roofs, and that was the last time we heard guns fire on our street. You came down from the roof bloody and dirty, but no worse when you arrived.”

“Yes, and Adrienne offered me a glass of wine and her next-to-last bar of soap.”

“Then you said you were off to liberate the wine cellar at the Ritz, and that was the last time we saw you. I heard that as a war correspondent you should not have been doing those things, but I assure you, you had no critics on the rue de l’Odeon that day.”

“Thank you Sylvia. You were a lovely person, and I loved knowing you.”

“Why, Hemingway, I thought you were prejudiced against lesbians!” They laughed again, and he felt like he had tears in his eyes. Good times. “Was that okay, Mr. Defense Attorney?”

“Yes, well done. No further questions, your honor.”

“Prosecution?”

.5.

“Very well, Mr. Hemingway, you were there on the day the city you loved was freed. You ate, drank and were merry. Then what?”

“I gave myself a few days off, and hung around with the boys , and then a couple of days later, on the first of September, Buck sent me a message: `Go hang yourself, brave Hemingstein. We have fought at Landrecies and you were not there.’ Taking off from Henry V, you know. So I went off to join the division up near the Belgian border. But by the time I got there, the task force was disbanding, and there wasn’t much to see, so I went back to Paris for a short sweet reunion with Mary.”

“And then?”

“And then on the 7th, Red and I were able to drive east along with two cars and another jeep and a motorcycle; much safer that way. By the time we got back to the regiment, it was already well inside Belgium, chasing Germans and defending against their counter-attacks. This kept up for another week and then we topped a hill and there was Germany ahead.”

“Were you off scouting again?”

“No, I was staying with the unit. My action with the irregulars around Paris was a one-time operation, taking advantage of the fact that I knew the area and could talk to the locals. None of that applied in Belgium, nor when we crossed over into Germany, which we did on the 12th.” A pause. “And I suppose that was the happiest day, and evening, and night of the war.”

“Because the army had reached German soil?”

“No. Because of what followed, how bad it was.”

Another pause, a long one.

“Mr. Hemingway?”

“You know, we go along rummaging through these old memories, and even the things I’m not proud of, the things I bitterly regret, the things that still sting, it hasn’t been as bad as I would have thought. But –.”

Another pause.

“When Buck’s combat team seized the high ground just beyond a village and we halted for the night, I decided to organize a feast. I took over a farmhouse, and got one of the German women to cooking some chickens I shot, and after the nightly staff conference, we ate chicken and peas and carrots and onions and salad and some preserved fruit for dessert. Naturally, we drank everything in sight. Everybody was laughing and drinking and telling stories, and since I was the one who had organized the feast, it was like they were my guests. We were happy that night.”

“And what happened next?”

“What happened next is that the division attacked Hitler’s West wall defenses. They cracked it after heavy casualties, but that first assault was nothing next to what was ahead.” Another pause. “It’s funny, all those years, I thought the feelings hadn’t dulled any, but I guess they must have. I see I hadn’t remembered how it felt fresh, not really.”

“Without a body to be numbed or diverted, you have no way to dull feelings, Mr. Hemingway. That’s one of the reasons for this procedure, to help you deal with them.”

“But I’m as dead now as those boys that got killed. Wouldn’t you think I’d feel differently about them? About the whole fuck-up that put them in the ground?”

“Why should you feel different, just because you are dead? You knew then that sooner or later everybody dies. What’s different now?”

“I don’t know, it just seems like it ought to feel different.”

“Please proceed.”

“You had to know what we were up against. The Germans had had years to plan their defenses, and Germans are always competent, always thorough. The 50 square miles of hill country that 4th was supposed to clear had been made into a fortress. Mines, mortars, machine guns, heavy artillery, you name it, all sighted and interlocked. Plus the trees and the underbrush were so thick. we couldn’t see, and the upper branches of the trees would shatter incoming shells, sending fragments flying, what we called tree bursts. The weather was lousy, first cold rain, then sleet. The ground was mud. You couldn’t get dry.”

Yet another pause.

“I’ll just give you the numbers. Between November 16 and December 3 Buck’s regiment lost 12 officers and 126 men killed and nearly 1,900 wounded in battle, and 180 men missing, as well as 500 non-battle casualties. That’s an 87% casualty rate, in 13 days. Replacements were getting killed before they even got to the front. The few of us that made it across wondered why we were spared when nearly nine out of ten of us weren’t. I wrote Mary a poem that said `Those of us who know walk very slowly, and we look at one another with infinite love and compassion.’ That’s what it came down to. Endurance, and love, and compassion.”

The prosecutor gave him a moment, then said, “It gave you nightmares.”

“Yes it did, as a matter of fact. For years. I thought, if I get out of this alive, I’m going to try to write it. But I couldn’t, really.”

“You needn’t fear going back into those memories, Mr. Hemingway. As I said earlier, the point is to free you from the need to forget. Please tell the court what you experienced.”

“I’m not going to talk about how I reacted to combat. You want to know, ask Buck, or any of the officers or men.”

“Very well, let’s do that.”

.6.

“Colonel, the defendant has declined to talk about his own participation in the Hurtgen Forest, and asked that you speak for his conduct.”

“I can do that. What do you want to know?”

“You have already testified that he was knowledgeable and competent. My questions now are somewhat less tangible. You said he was brave, and occasionally foolhardy. Would you say he had a death-wish?”

Weighing it: “He was a complicated man, variable.”

“Are you saying he was `mad north northwest’?”

“He wasn’t mad, at all. He was as sane as any of us”

I did not mean that literally, I was quoting Shakespeare –“

Hamlet, I know, but your question can’t be answered yes or no. Ernest was sane, but it seemed to me that he was caught between a death-wish and an equally powerful fear of death, and sometimes one would gain the upper hand and sometimes the other. Three forces, I suppose, because he told me that he had regained the old sense of invulnerability that he had lost in Italy in 1918.”

“It’s true. In September, I had been having premonitions that I was going to be killed, but suddenly I knew I was going to be all right.”

“Colonel, here, where you needn’t fear legal consequences, I ask you if his actions were those of a correspondent or a soldier.”

“We were in a desperate situation, Mr. Prosecutor, and every man was needed. We couldn’t afford to be too particular about the rules.”

“Even in the face of the inquiry that had investigated just such charges, a few weeks before?”

“I always thought those correspondents filed those charges more because Ernest annoyed them and made them jealous than because they really thought what he did was wrong. But that kind of correspondent wasn’t up in the lines among us.”

“But still, according to the letter of the law—“

“I know, and I’m not saying the Geneva Convention was a bad thing. It was better for all concerned that it be followed, and usually it was. But sometimes, it wasn’t practical. Correspondent status was not going to protect you from a shell burst, or mortar fire, or machine gun fire. Somebody 100 yards away from you is going to see a target, not a protected observer. And if you’re fighting off a counter-attack, do you think the attackers are going to be making fine distinctions? You can’t be safe unless you stay way behind the lines and live off the official handouts. And when the guys under fire are your friends, is that the right time to worry about the Geneva Convention?”

“Colonel, that brings me to perhaps the central question here. What effect on him do you think it had? Not just Hurtgen Forest, but the war?”

Long thought. “I suppose you want a simple answer, but the answer is as complicated as he was, and he was the most complicated man I ever met. He had always had this deep longing to emulate his grandfather, who had fought in the Civil War. Maybe in France in 1944 he finally got his chance to be a soldier. Perhaps it reassured him of his bravery, too. You mightn’t think it – and he never would have admitted it – but he had his doubts about himself.”

“You’re only as good as your last fight, Buck.”

“Right, see, that’s what I mean. And Ernest was always a student. The war in Europe gave him first-hand experience of modern infantry warfare, and he enjoyed learning and storing it up for possible use in a book. And, clearly, he enjoyed living a life with the emotional complications stripped away. It let him run away from his marital problems, for one thing. A lot of men find that.”

A hesitation. “But I think the most profound effect was that he came out of it with combat fatigue. Not that any of us could have come out of Hurtgen Forest without it, but of course he would be more prone to it than most. After the war, I heard about his depressions, and I was witness to a couple of his sudden irrational rages – sorry, Ernest, but you know it’s the truth. Those are common symptoms of combat fatigue.”

“You say `more susceptible than most.’ Why do you say that, colonel?”

“Combat fatigue is more than being tired. It comes from seeing too many boys die, too many terrible wounds, too many sights that soldiers see and never talk about. It’s the result of having experienced too much, for too long, with nothing you can do to forget, and no way to deal with it but to stuff it away as best you can. The most sensitive ones suffer the worst, especially if they tell themselves they’re tough and they can take it. I don’t think Ernest ever got over it, not really.”

“Col. Lanham, you accepted the defendant as a fellow soldier.”

“De facto. Quietly. But yes, absolutely.”

“And as a man?”

“As a man, he was a Godsend. In September, when our attack stalled out for lack of supplies, and division left my regiment practically unprotected for two weeks, he and I sweated it out together. And in November, on the night before Hurtgen Forest, he and I sat up until 3 a.m., telling each other our life’s stories. Only somebody who had been in my position would know what it meant to have somebody like him to talk to. We became brothers, those nights, no matter what happened afterwards.”

“Afterwards?”

“As you no doubt know, Ernest was capable of lashing out against his friends, as much as anyone else. His behavior after the war could be erratic. Such incidents affect friendships, even though you don’t want them to. I knew what he had been through. I’d been there myself. I still valued him as a friend, but I learned to be a little careful, I taught myself to expect a little less.”

“Thank you colonel. Mr. Hemingway, we are finished with the war, except for tying up loose ends.”

“Good.”

.7.

“I note that you returned to the front in December, despite fever and sweating that had put you in the infirmary, to see the culmination of the Battle of the Bulge.”

“Yeah, but that was the last combat action I saw. When it was clear that the Krauts were whipped, I went back to Paris and started thinking about how to get home.”

“You didn’t want to observe the battle for Germany.”

“No. I was glad to be able to leave without having to see any more kids get killed. On March 6th, I was in the air, hitching a ride home with General Anderson.”

“Did you see Miss Gellhorn before you left?”

“Yeah, in her hotel room for maybe five minutes. She was in bed with the flu. I told her I’d give her a divorce, and I beat it, and that’s the last time we ever saw each other.”

“As you look back, do you regret going to France in 1944?’

He waited for his feelings and thoughts to clarify, waited for the words to come.

“That is a harder question than maybe you know. I value my experiences in France, particularly with Buck Lanham’s outfit, but maybe I paid too high a price.”

“If you had to sum up your experience in the European theater, what would you say?”

“I put it into Across The River And Into The Trees. War can be exciting, but it isn’t glamorous. It had to be done, and we did it, but that didn’t blind us to how dirty it was. I wrote a short story I never got published, that I call `Black Ass at the Crossroads,’ that shows how the men hated what we were doing. It marked you, you couldn’t help being marked by it, and you were glad to be done with it. As soon as you were able to, you flew home to pick up the pieces of your life.”

 

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