Ernest Hemingway -Going The Other Way From Home: Part 1
France, Summer 1944
Ernest Hemingway was not new to war, having, as a nineteen year old, been badly injured in Italy in 1918 driving ambulances for the American Red Cross. In 1922 he’d reported on the spiteful Greco-Turkish War for the Toronto Star. He covered the war in China, and the Spanish Civil War, and in 1942 he ran his own spy network in Cuba, and chased U-Boats in the Gulf of Mexico, before heading to England in 1944 to cover the war in Europe.
He was one of the most innovative war correspondents of his generation, but by 1944 he wanted to be a general and not a correspondent. He’d become slightly mad, quite bad at times, and rather dangerous to know.
The RAF and Normandy
After his experiences on D-Day, Hemingway flew with the RAF on a bombing raid against VI bases in France, followed by a night chasing them in a MKVI Mosquito fighter bomber, flown by Group Captain Wykeham Barnes, the head of Attack Wing 140. For Hemingway it was the scariest thing he’d ever experienced.
But what Hemingway really wanted was to get back to Normandy, which he eventually achieved on July 18th, and as Carlos Baker, in his 1969 biography of Hemingway, describes:
“ …he first checked in with one of Gen.George Patton’s armoured divisions. The dust they raised was a constant irritant to his eyes and his always sensitive throat…but there were other irritants [such as] a fellow correspondent called Nemo Canaberro Lucas, a Brazillian for whom Ernest conceived an almost instant dislike.”
Which wasn’t helped when Lucas, on Hemingway’s birthday, and as the novelist was removing his boots, drank a whisky Hemingway had just prepared for himself. Lucas was lucky to get away with his life.
Soon after that encounter Hemingway managed to get a transfer to the 4th Infantry Division where he was introduced to its commander, Gen. Raymond O. Barton, known as ‘Tubby’. It was a brief meeting as Barton was in the midst of preparing a large scale offensive. Barton handed Hemingway over to Capt. Marcus Stevenson, a Texan who had served as an ADC to the late Gen.Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. As Carlos Baker tells us:
“Under Stevenson’s guidance, Ernest set out to meet the officers in Barton’s command. On the 28th, three days after the break-out operation had been launched, he went…to pay a morning call on the 22nd Regiment in a small farmhouse near the crossroads hamlet of Le Mesnil-Herman…[where] American and German troops were often separated by little more than a hedgerow or a patch of timber.”
It was there he met Col. Charles Trueman Lanham, who was busy studying maps when Hemingway shoulder his bulk into the room.
“ My name is Hemingway.”
“ Ernest, no doubt,” said Lanham.
Lanham, known as ‘Buck’, briefed Hemingway on the day’s operations. The two men became friends there and then. It was to be something of a bumpy friendship, especially over the next few weeks.
On the 31st of July,1944, at Villebaudon, Hemingway acquired a captured German motorcycle and sidecar (plus a badly shot up Mercedez-Benz convertible), and a driver — courtesy of Barton — called Pelkey.
Private Archie Pelkey, known as ‘Red’, was a 29 year old cigar-chewing grade school drop-out from Potsdam, New York. As his nickname suggests he had red hair. He also had sharp blue eyes, and a broken front tooth. Pelkey had already done two stints in the regular army before the war and hated military discipline. Hemingway ignored military discipline completely, which suited Pelkey down to the ground. By the time Hemingway and Pelkey split-up some months later the New Yorker was under the care of an army psychiatric unit. Many years later Pelkey died in front of his TV set drinking beer. It would be two days before they found his body. But on July 31st 1944 ‘Red’ Pelkey was the first recruit of Hemingway’s private army, with their opening offensive starting just three days later.
The morning of August 3rd 1944 was clear and warm as Hemingway and Pelkey — on their motorcycle combination — approached the northern outskirts of the market town of Villedieu-les-Poêles, known locally as the City of Stoves. Both Pelkey and Hemingway were armed, with the sidecar full of grenades.
US troopers from the 22nd Infantry were already heavily engaged in trying to take the town, with fierce house to house fighting. Shells were coming in from both German and US artillery and many of the town’s buildings were on fire. German snipers were active, and as US Army medics tried to give aid to the wounded and dying were themselves being killed.
Into this mayhem rode Pelkey and Hemingway as if on the set of a World War II movie from the 1960s — think of Telly Savalas as Hemingway and Peter Falk as Pelkey and you’ll get my drift.
Our intrepid duo — with shells exploding around them — pulled up alongside some locals sheltering behind a burned-out car. Pelkey switched off the engine and Hemingway asked, in perfect French, if there were any Germans close by. The locals might have easily suggested that the question was evidently ridiculous, but no, they were polite and said yes, they’d seen a squad of SS (if true part of the 9th SS Division who were defending the town) dive into a cellar of a house a couple of streets away.
Hemingway convinced one of the locals to guide him and Pelkey to the house, and arming himself and Pelkey with grenades, followed the terrified guide to the house. Hemingway then yelled down the cellar steps in bad German:
“Kommen outen mit den hands hoch!” There was no reply.
Hemingway repeated his command, “Come out with your hands up!” No reply.
He shouted again. Still nothing happened. Hemingway then pulled the pins from three hand grenades, waited a moment, and then bounced the grenades down the cellar steps.
“ Divide these amongst yourselves!” he yelled.
It’s not clear if there were any SS in that cellar, and Hemingway never went down to find out, but afterwards boasted that he’d “ Killed plenty of Nazis.”
If the above incident is true, and most historians seem to think it is, Hemingway had already decided — less than two weeks after arriving in France — that he was not, in the words of military historian, Charles Whiting, prepared to “…abide by the rules of land warfare which prohibited war correspondents from bearing arms in combat.”
After this incident — and thinking Hemingway to be an American general — the Mayor of Villedieu-les-Poêles, who was also a local innkeeper, presented Ernest and Red with several bottles of champagne in thanks for helping to rid his town of the Germans. Many toasts were made and a good deal of the champagne drunk. And as Hemingway and Pelkey were loading the remaining few bottles into the sidecar, Colonel Lanham pulled up alongside them in his Jeep.
“ What in God’s name are you doing here, Ernie, this is no place for a goddam war correspondent?”
Hemingway told him he thought it the very best place for a correspondent to be, then explained what had happened in the house. A very “…whiskery, dead eyed” Lanham then exploded with a string of colourful expletives; then lit a Lucky Strike. Hemingway just put on his helpless schoolboy look and smiled.
“Sorry, Buck. Hey, have a bottle of champagne courtesy of the mayor.”
Lanham, too angry, too tired, and too busy to respond roared off in a cloud of blue tobacco smoke, the bottle of champagne in his lap.
After the grenade incident in Villedieu-les-Poêles Hemingway boasted openly about his ‘ military exploits’. Soon every correspondent working in the European theatre of war was familiar with ‘Colonel’ Hemingway’s adventures. Resentment began to build.
But the adventures of Hemingway and Pelkey continued, and a few days after the grenade incident they were out on their motorcycle combination again trying to locate Lanham’s new HQ (this time with Hemingway stuffed into the sidecar, and photographer Robert Capa sitting behind Pelkey) when they came under fire from a German 57mm anti-tank gun. Pelkey pulled hard on the brakes and as the motorcycle began to overturn the three men dived headlong for the nearest ditch as anti-tank shells, and machine gun fire, slammed repeatedly into the stricken machine. Hemingway landed badly, hitting his already injured head on a concealed rock. For several hours the three of them pretended to be dead as German patrols criss-crossed the road. Only with the coming of darkness did the three venture from their ditch and make their way back to the American lines on foot. Hemingway joked afterwards that he’d only taken Capa along to ensure a good photograph was taken of himself should he be killed.
For several nights afterwards Hemingway couldn’t sleep, the pain in his head was just too much. But even through the pain he could still hear the slowly, constantly repeating whine and crunch of those damn anti-tank shells, each one hitting and tearing into the motorcycle combination in a vicious burning of white deadly phosphorous. And above and around and beneath each one of those luminous shells was the constant demonic metallic clatter of the firing mechanism of at least two MG -38 machine guns, with every firing pin’s smacksnap followed, each fraction of a second later, by the insane, utterly insane tacktacktacktacktacktacktacktacktacktack of the detonation caps of their 800 rounds per minutes. It was the sound of D-Day, of Omaha beach. It was the sound of death approaching at nearly 1000 miles an hour.
Christ Almighty that was a damn close run thing, thought Hemingway, catch one of those 57millimetre anti-tank shells and you’d be sliced, fried, and ready to serve in ten seconds. Hemingway got out of bed and poured himself a glass of the local red wine. It was good, it helped. He needed to get away though, just for a day or two.
“ Would you mind, general, just a few days away?”
“ Hell no, Hem, wish I could join you.” General Barton replied.
He also gave Hemingway a bottle of Jack Daniels to help things along. No doubt the average GI under Barton would have enjoyed a bottle too.
The place Hemingway chose was the Hôtel de la Mère Poularde, at Mont-St Michel — just a few miles to the east of St Malo — which sits on the hilltop of a peninsular that is cut off by high tides twice a day. It was an ideal bolt hole from the fighting, and Hemingway took along one of his favourite books, Henry Adams’ classic ‘Mont-Saint-Michel and Charters’, which Adams, the great-grandson, and grandson, of two American presidents, had written when he stayed there in 1902. But of course Hemingway didn’t go to be alone and read, no, he persuaded Barton to
allow a good proportion of the accredited press corps to go with him — it was going to be one hell of a party. Just the thing for a bad head.
The group consisted of Bob Capa — although he and Hemingway had fallen out for a time after the motorcycle incident — Ira Wolfert of the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA); Lael Tucker Wertenbaker of Time; Helen Kirkpatrick of The Chicago Daily News; A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker; CBS reporter Charles Collingwood, and Hemingway’s new friend, Bill Walton, who also worked for Time, and had parachuted into Normandy with the American Airborne.
Everything started off well enough. Liebling, who was something of a gourmet, was put in charge of the cuisine, with Hemingway choosing the daily wines from Madame Chevalier’s extensive cellar, which the middle-aged proprietor of the hotel and her husband had kept hidden from the Germans throughout the war.
The lunches were long, with Hemingway always heading the table and dominating any discussion. Helen Kirkpatrick described him as being “…good company, amusing, yet dogmatic and holding forth always on strategy.”
Hemingway biographer Jeffrey Meyers’ own considered opinion is that Hemingway’s fascination with military matters was “..not objective and analytical,” but was the obsession of a writer who wanted to be a field officer.
A couple of days into the holiday and just after the liberation of Rennes — a few miles to the south west of Mont-St Michel — Collingwood and Wertenbaker discovered a joke shop which was wholly intact and surprisingly well stocked. The two journalists brought back “…half the gadgets and booby-trapped Ernest’s dinner plate with plastic nasties, and even gave him a left-handed corkscrew which drove him to distraction. They even put a very realistic looking rubber worm into Liebling’s dish of stewed pears. But the old columnist was made of stern puritan stuff ( he’d been at The New Yorker ever since its creation by Harold Ross in1927 and wasn’t phased by much) and simply picked up the worm, placed it on the side of his dish without comment, and then went on eating and discussing the finer points of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow with Hemingway. Collingwood and
Wertenbaker almost burst their lower intestines trying not to laugh.
It wasn’t all holiday of course, with the correspondents trundling off each morning to find the front line, gather details on the progress of the war, to then return to the hotel where they would write-up their stories, get them censored, and then wire them off to their publications back in the States. It was like reporting on a local game of football.
Hemingway didn’t do much reporting, but was keen to find Buck Lanham’s HQ and catch up with his new friend. When he finally did so, in a beautiful old Norman castle, the Château Lingeard, perched on the top of a hill from which, on a clear day could be seen the island of Jersey, hewas invited to stay for a special dinner to celebrate the Colonel’s twentieth wedding anniversary, with a menu that included roast goose.
Hemingway was tempted but felt uneasy and nervous. He turned down the invitation and made his way back to Mont-St Michel. Later that evening, as the correspondents were having dinner, heavy artillery fire could be heard in the distance, and as they all gathered beneath the monastery walls on top of the hill they could clearly see the Château Lingeard under bombardment.
The following day they all heard the news that the German’s had broken through the Mortain gap in a counter-offensive to try and re-take Avranches and that Lanham’s HQ had come under heavy artillery fire with several of Lanham’s officers killed and many more badly injured, including Lanham himself. Sometime later, when Hemingway, caught up with Lanham, the Colonel asked Hemingway why he hadn’t stayed for the anniversary dinner. Hemingway answered that “..the place stank of death.”
Toward the end of the correspondents short holiday Hemingway, who’d just finished writing a profile of General Barton for Collier’s, asked the young Charles Collingwood to read it and let him know what he thought.
Collingwood has described himself as being “…a very young and very brash war correspondent in those days,” who really thought Hemingway wanted his opinion. It had been a long and boozy lunch as usual and Collingwood quickly read Hemingway’s piece, which was called ‘The General’. When Collingwood had finished reading, and with all the correspondents looking at him, and with Hemingway at least expecting a respectful response, Collingwood drunkenly blurted-out:
“ Well, Papa, it sounds like a parody of Ernest Hemingway to me.”
There was total silence in the room until Hemingway spoke.
“ Collingwood, I suggest you pack your bags and leave.”
Collingwood and Hemingway didn’t speak again for ten years.
The holiday was over. The next business was the taking of Paris.
Note: Although based on fact I have used creative licence here and there.