Enduring What Cannot Be Endured

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

“Reliving this chapter of my life is not an easy thing to do because of the trauma and excruciating pain it caused me for many years. Yet I know it must be told….” [130] The sentence leads the ninth and climactic chapter of Enduring What Cannot Be Endured. But it might well have come on page one to introduce to the entire book. The title has already set the stage. As a young women coming of age, Dorothy Dore Dowlen endured trauma no one of any age should experience, let alone a teenager. She was sixteen-years-old when the Japanese naval air force began bombing her home country, the Philippines, just hours after its attack at Pearl Harbor. For the next four years she and her family went on the run and into hiding, became resistance fighters and prisoners under house arrest. She saw family members die and heard grapevine reports of others being tortured and killed. She came close to being raped or killed at least seven times herself.

Dowlen’s tale could be a thrilling adventure story if it weren’t so painfully tragic.

Why then was she rejected “several times” by publishers who were “too uncomfortable with my unusual war story.” [189] After all, adventure and tragedy is what all publishers seek–he more unusual, extraordinary, the better. So why didn’t they snatch up her story? My guess: she needed a co-author, or perhaps a ghost writer, to make the text crackle and to push her thinking past the safe and comfortable. It is not quite fair  to say that Dore shows no self-awareness, no philosophical examination of events. There are moments when she shows admirable honesty. Yet, overall, the narrative feels cramped. Too often Dowlen seems to be guarded, staying within safe parameters, speaking in lofty ideals, occasionally contradicting herself unwittingly. There is no evidence that she did the necessary research of the war in the Philippines to accurately place her own story within the greater documented narrative.

Let’s look both at what is to be admired and questioned in this powerful but somewhat disappointing book.


Dowlen’s father was English-American and the grandson of the acclaimed French-English illustrator Paul Gustave Doré. His own father was a farmer, though, and the farm life was too limiting for young Victor Alexander. At sixteen, with  his parents’ grudging blessing, he made his way to Liverpool and sneaked aboard a ship bound for New York. He sneaked off the boat, too, since he had no official papers. Living in the shadows in New York, he eventually learned he could come into the light if he enlisted with the army. He did and gained his citizenship. In 1901, he was sent to the Philippines to help quell ongoing resistance to American colonial rule. He had many adventures, which he later related to his daughter (and sons), often in a spirit of impish good humor. One story, he told more seriously: the time he was attacked by a Moro (Muslim) rebel and lost his arm to amputation. For the rest of his life, he was often called One-Arm.

Dowlen’s mother was Filipina from the island of Bohol, though Dore describes her heritage as a mix of Spanish, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Pacific Islander: mestiza. Paulina Cueva graduated from high school with honors and could have gone to college, but she chose to go to work teaching underprivileged children, instead.  One day, walking home from school laden with schoolbooks, she passed a tall man with blue eyes dressed in typical haciendero clothes (Without an arm, Victor Dore had been discharged from the army and now worked as business manager for a rich plantation owner): white suit, dark tie, and straw hat. From Dowlen’s account it was love at first sight for both of them. At twenty, Pauline (at some he changed her name to the more American/English spelling) was half her new husband’s age. They built a life and a family on Mindanao, the largest and southernmost main island of the Philippines.

Dorothy had two brothers precede her, Samuel and George, and one come after, Philip. (Her older sister Mary died in infancy.) The four siblings were separated by less than five years, 1922-1926. They all came of age at the wrong time.

The family’s story reveals that Philippine resistance, by both Americans and Filipinos, extended beyond Bataan and Corregidor, even after the main USAFFE (United States Army Forces in the Far East) had withdrawn onto the Luzon peninsula. Sixty-three-year-old One-Arm served as a quartermaster for the remnant of USAFFE on Mindanao. His sixteen-year-old daughter served as a nurse, picking up on the job how to clean and bandage open wounds, give injections with a syringe, dispense sulfa powder and other drugs. If there is anything perfectly clear in this book, it is that young Dorothy Dore was a quick study. She worked hard and learned fast.

On April 8, word arrived that Bataan had fallen. But the USAFFE holdouts fighting at the Digos line, outside Davao, Mindanao, had their “own troubles to deal with,” as Dowlen put it, and never let up their resistance. [55] They kept fighting until General Wainwright‘s surrender of Corregidor a month later. The forces on Mindanao were  given three days to present themselves to the Japanese and lay down their arms. The alternative was to take to the hills and the jungles. The Dore family faced the same dilemma as  everyone else. They chose to turn themselves in.

The Dore family were not incarcerated as POWs in central Mindanao, mother and daughter were women and Filipina. The sons had gone their own ways. The father had but one arm. Still, he looked American and remained out of sight. The Dores lived in a hut near the Casisang concentration camp which was not even enclosed. Prisoners were free to wander to the stream to bathe and among the civilians to socialize and trade for goods. Dorothy and her mother took in laundry from the  officers who paid them in cigarettes and canned goods. The cigarettes were as good a currency as any, and they traded them in town for other supplies they needed. After a month or six weeks, the Japanese rolled out the barbed wire. Exchange between POWs and civilians, commercial and otherwise, was severely restricted.

What Dorothy chose to do for one group of prisoners was either brazenly foolhardy or an act of selfless courage. Or both. She smuggled in a compass and two radio messages to a certain Captain Richardson who had had enough of Japanese hospitality. He and a small group of men were going to escape into the jungle and needed these items to find their way to safe hiding. As the civilian peddlers awaited their turn at inspection, Dorothy walked out of line and offered the Japanese commander with a sampling from her basket of cookies. As he munched, she kept him talking. Just as she had hoped, the flattered commander let her in without a search. She slipped the contraband to the POW Captain and asked never to be imposed upon again.

She was not out of danger yet. In her chat with the commander, he had asked her address and, in the uncertainty of the moment, she had given it to him. She dreaded the day he would come to seek her out. He came that very night, in a drunken uproar. Dorothy hid out in the outhouse, and the drunken officer left, thwarted and angry. Dorothy learned the next day that three young girls had been raped by a Japanese officer that night. Evidence supported her guess that it was the commander she called the Walrus. The three were not merely girls. They were virgins, and the shame was too much both for the families and the girls themselves. All three promptly took their own lives rather than face that shame. The author expresses sympathy but makes no effort to condemn the cultural attitudes that led to this  drastic and irrevocable response. She provides no evidence that the sexual revolution in the United States, where she lived after the war, had any impact on her. She did say, “Although we shared our neighbors’ grief, I could not help but feel thankful that I had not become a victim that night when the Walrus came to our home.” [86] Close call number one.

The Japanese feared the Casisang POW camp had become too tempting a prize for rebels still at-large. They feared an impending jailbreak, as it were, and preempted it by removing the POWs to other camps off the island. In a stroke, Dorothy lost her trading partners. She was forced to conduct business with locals, some of whom she worried were Japanese collaborators. She tread cautiously but kept up her peddling; kept her family supplied and fed. Her father, a pale-skinned American, was under self-imposed house arrest. He went nowhere, until one day in early December, around the first anniversary of the Japanese invasion, he could stand it no longer. Over Pauline’s desperate objections, Dore ventured out to find a barber–with his protective daughter close behind.

They were stopped almost immediately by a patrol of Japanese soldiers. Taken in and questioned separately, father and daughter succeeded in getting their stories straight. Dore was a French national, dispossessed of his farm by invading Japanese and forced to seek refuge in Malabalay. The two were set free. Close call number two.

On the heels of this incident, Dorothy came down with a virulent strain of influenza. Spanish-Filipino Dr. Cid employed an experimental treatment to keep Dorothy alive. He took breast milk from a lactating flu survivor, siphoned it into a syringe, and injected it, complete with antibodies, into Dorothy’s backside. It was the first time Dr. Cid had ever tried such a thing, but it worked. Dorothy survived her third close call.

She recovered in time to be caught in the middle of an all-out crossfire between Japanese forces and members of Salipada Pendatun‘s guerilla army. The resistance fighters arrived at the POW camp too late to spring the captives, but they took out their aggression on the Japanese at Malaybalay. Dowlen contends that Pendatun struck at Malaybalay for the main purpose of freeing her family, the daughter and wife of Pendatun’s one-armed friend. This feels far-fetched. Wouldn’t they rather have stolen in under cover of darkness, and take them out surreptitiously? Pendatun would have been foolhardy to believe that he could hold Malaybalay, even if he won it. In any case, the Dores, father, mother, and daughter, hid out in the basement of their building while bullets zinged into the upper floors and bombs blasted in the streets outside.

Pendatun and his men, predictably, were forced to retreat. The civilians of Malaybalay, potential collaborators all, were rounded up and taken into custody at the local municipal building. The Dore family and scores of other prisoners could only wonder what their fates would hold. Mostly, they remained docile, not wanting to draw attention to themselves or provoke their captors. When three young girls were taken away, kicking and screaming, Dorothy feared she would be next in line for mass rape.

Once again, she slipped between the cracks. In the middle of the second night, she awoke to hear a handful of mysterious men tiptoeing around bodies, asking for the Dore family. Salipada Pendatun had sent a rescue just for them. Here Dowlen’s story takes on the feel of a movie thriller. Out to rear balcony and over the railing they went, shimmying down the cliffs by a fixed rope. Old One-Arm was helped down first, followed by mother and daughter and the other men. Among the boulders on the ground, they heard a cry from the building above: “Escape! The Americano and his family have escaped!” [107] All eight fled, dodging bullets as they ran. Close call number 4.

Everyone reached the rebel hideout safely, and the Dore family were reunited with their youngest son/brother, Philip, who had already joined up to fight with Pendatun’s guerillas. Escape to freedom had been exhilarating; reunion with Philip was an overwhelming relief. For the first time in many months, the Dore family felt a modicum of control over their war-shattered lives. They went back to working for the rump USAFFE (these guerillas guarded their military legitimacy), driving cars in the motor pool. It was during this time Dorothy met and fell for a mechanic in the motor pool, Captain Jack Grant of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Jack was six year older than Dorothy, and he was attracted to her, too. Significantly, he “remained a gentleman,” and did not press his suit aggressively. [126]

Dowlen recalls this period of the war with some fondness. Her work was purposeful. Her love interest was progressing apace (cautiously but steadily). She admired the man who led them all, General Salipada Pendatun. Here is one of the few places when she ties her own story into the wider narrative of the Philippine war. She recounts how in mid-1943 (she provides few dates with which to place events) General MacArthur ordered, apparently from his headquarter in New Guinea, the replacement of Pendatun by an American officer, Colonel Wendell Fertig. In fact, all Moros officers were shunted  aside in favor of their lighter-skinned, American-educated comrades. Dowlen expresses controlled outrage that they could have been treated so cavalierly and unfairly. “I believe that the Moros from Cotabato and their leader Salipada Pendatun should have their names etched in the history books.” [114]

Yet somehow General MacArthur‘s mystique loses none of its burnish, though he, as the man at the top, was first to deny Pendatun the support he deserved. Dowlen takes time out from her narrative to give a brief yet sweeping apologia for the man who cast aside her beloved Pendatun. Responding to MacArthur’s outspoken critics from a half-century before, Dowlen contends that they “could not see the depth of his ingenious military mind.” She goes so far as to assert that if MacArthur had been given “full power of command to follow his instincts of destroying the enemy; …it is possible that all wars would have ended with World War II.” [117] The readiness to bypass democracy, to ignore the separation of civilian and military leadership, and to cede total power to a charismatic military leader is disturbing enough without the unsupported audacity of the final phrase. Dowlen needed a less obliging editor. In  my opinion.

In the same vein, she makes several questionable geographical assertions, giving the wrong order of magnitude for distances. It was not “thousands of miles away from” [27] her home in Kidapawan, Mindanao to Silliman school in Dumaguete, at the southern tip of Negros. By bus and ferry it appears to be 200 miles. (Of course, I have the luxury of Google maps!) But I suppose if one went by boat from Davao City around the entire island of Mindanao, it would be at least 700 miles. Later, when she must travel from Malaybalay to Talakag, she emphasizes the endurance that will be required, saying that it will be “several hundred miles of unfamiliar mountains and jungles.” [158] The Google map shows it could have been no more than thirty miles–which makes sense. Thirty miles of bushwhacking would be demanding in the extreme. Several hundred miles would be beyond the abilities of anyone but the most thoroughly trained and prepared.

Her history feels questionable, too. Writing of the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War, Dowlen writes that the United States “helped the Filipinos obtain their freedom from the cruel Spaniards.” After that time, “the people of the Philippines did not forget what the Americans had done for them.” [57] I imagine the Moro insurgents who turned their arms on the new colonial overlords did not forget. But Dowlen never acknowledges the dark side of American colonial rule in the Philippines. Her account never rises above a schoolbook history. Only one sentence, much later in the book (see below), shows any recognition of the full complexity of her country’s past.

But first, there was a love story unfolding. Dorothy and Jack got their first kiss, but the bliss was interrupted by her father. Dore père fumed and sent Jack packing. Mortified, shamed by her “unforgivable sin,” [127] Dorothy packed up, too, and made to run away. Jack leapt on his own bike and trailed his girlfriend. He caught up to her, kissed her, and proposed marriage. Dorothy agreed, and the two returned to ask the blessing of the so-recently angered father. Old One-Arm accepted with both alacrity and enthusiasm. All were playing their appointed roles. A fascinating, delicate ballet.

The eighteen-year-old Filipina and the twenty-four-year-old American were married on the spot, and their honeymoon began with a bang. The bang of gunshots and mortar fire. The halcyon days, such as they were, had passed. Rump USAFFE, Americans and Filipinos, was on the run again, this time into the jungle where dangers as frightening as Japanese soldiers lurked: wild animals, poisonous snakes, malarial mosquitoes, and unwelcoming, possibly hostile, natives.  Not the stuff of newlywed romance.

Yet Dorothy and Jack sneaked away from the group each night to do what all newlyweds do with abandon, especially when they have respected “the sanctity of marriage” during their courtship. [124] Dowlen writes about their first jungle tryst: “Then I gave up my virginity and discovered the meaning of heavenly sex in marriage between two people in love. The tender emotion, the sweetness of the hour, and the lovemaking were things I had never experienced before that night. My young body gave into my husband’s need to be loved, and I enjoyed being consumed by his passion.” [134] The account is at once open and constrained. I don’t doubt her honesty, yet I can’t credit this as the full picture. Can her first sexual experience–with, one might suppose, sticks and rocks jamming into her back, blanket notwithstanding–have been so heavenly? My world view and temperament are so radically different from Dowlen’s that I find more truth in Ian McEwan’s fictional depiction of a wedding night gone badly awry. And what are we to make of “things I had never experienced before that night”? Didn’t we already know that? She told us more than once that she respected the sanctity of marriage. The two kissing scenes she shared both ended in her feeling intense shame. Besides, as stated, the sentence could apply to the first sexual experience of almost any of her readers. The power of this seen is diminished by its saccharine aftertaste.

The newlyweds’ ardor did more than seal their marriage and bind them in intimacy. It would yield a pregnancy. This was a blessing because their brief spate of sexual relations would soon come to an abrupt end.

The band of guerillas and resistors were searching the jungle for a certain Datu Taylor, a native leader with known Western sympathies. One morning two “half-naked men” [141] wandered into their camp and, behind a façade of goodwill, promised to lead Jack, Dorothy, and Dorothy’s cousin Beth to the tribal chief they sought.

It was all a ruse. The three were to be sacrificed according to a sinister and arcane practice of the Magahat tribe. As it happened, Dorothy was away from the group when the attack began. As it happened, Jack had uncharacteristically removed his gun-in-holster and left it with his young wife. Dorothy fired the gun and the murdering natives scattered. She was able to save Beth, who was badly cut up, but Jack was already dead. Together, unharmed and wounded fled the crime scene in search of help.

Close call number five and the climax of the book. But there were still more to come.

Dowlen does not give us much window into Dorothy’s thoughts and feelings about the loss of her new husband so soon into her marriage. The narrative stays focused on their struggle to survive and to keep Beth’s wounds from festering. Dorothy might well have been in such shock that she did not allow herself to reflect on the horror she had just witnessed. In other words, the narrative Dowlen relates decades later might well be faithful to the events as they happened. Still, I would have liked to get inside the young Dorothy’s head a little more. What was she thinking and feeling in these most difficult of days. She did give readers this reflective passage on the first morning of their flight: “A  beautiful ray of sunshine broke through the opening in the trees, waking me up the following day. This day had to be better than the day before; I could not think how it could be worse.” [149] The “beautiful ray” braced me for an acknowledgement of irony of the contrast between the beauty/comfort of the rising sun and the ugliness/horror of what she had just witnessed. But, no. Dowlen continues with the tritest of comments–that the day could only be an improvement.

Actually, it could get worse. The reality of the murder could sink in more deeply and replace her initial shock with a post-traumatic memory that keeps looping through her mind, almost without cease. After such a sudden, violent loss, I doubt anyone could care about what kind of day they had. Contentment would be the last thing a survivor would want to feel. I would have liked a little more commentary on the teenager’s mental state. Dowlen had a half-century to examine her long-repressed emotions from those traumatic days.

Several pages later, Dowlen makes just such a revealing commentary, as revealing as any passage in the entire book. Dorothy and Beth meet up with a native who seems more trustworthy that the Magahats. Not that the wanderers had any realistic alternative. Unless they got help soon, Beth’s suppurating wounds would have advanced too far to save her limbs from the surgeon’s saw–and possibly too far to save her life. They were, in fact, taken to Datu Taylor. After examining the wounds, the chief chewed betel nuts into a paste and applied it to the wounds. Beth’s recovery was both dramatic and swift.

Then convalescing Beth made a shocking announcement. She would not follow Dorothy when Taylor’s men led her back to Mr. Dore and the resistance fighters. She would stay and marry the chief’s son. To Dorothy, this must have felt like a betrayal. A metaphorical slap in the face to the one who helped save her life. There was nothing figurative about Dorothy’s jab to her cousin’s cheek. Nor when she leapt on Beth’s fallen body, or when she grabbed her by the neck with both hands. This took guts to put in print and share with the reading public. It forced her to examine those thoughts and feelings, as I hoped she would: “All of the emotions bottled up in me simply exploded at that time: I felt a delayed rage over Jack’s death and took it out on the only other person who survived the attack. Was I so uncharitable as to be angry that Beth survived and Jack did not?” [156] This commentary reveals self-awareness and has the feel of authenticity.

Her husband of a few weeks dead; her mother, unable to keep up with the fleeing resistance fighters, captured and probably tortured; ditto her younger brother; Dorothy and her father had nothing left but each other. They would escape the jungle to the towns in the west. Datu Taylor offered father and daughter a raft to speed their flight downriver. It must have been an exciting trip until it became terrifying. The raft flipped. Dorothy got caught under the raft but managed to free herself. She saw her father’s hat floating on the river and was able to pull him up with it. Somehow, they recovered raft (but only one of their knapsacks) and complete their journey without incident. But only after a sixth near miss.

By this point the sixty-six-year-old Victor Dore had lost the will to live. Guilt over the fate of his wife and son had become too much to bear. Dorothy’s one-armed father died on Leap Year day, 1945. Now the nineteen-year-old widow was all alone. Pain in her abdomen led her to a doctor who told her she was pregnant. Jack’s legacy would live on. The way Dowlen tells it, the doctor who might have delivered her baby was called to another mother’s bedside, instead. His mishandling of the breach baby led to the death of both baby and the mother. Dorothy was cared for by a skilled midwife, who handled her breach baby adeptly. Labor was painful, but the breech delivery went off without hitch. The young mother survived a seventh close call and was able to name her daughter, Jean Louise Grant.

The young mother found a job, providing meals in a mess hall for soldiers and refugees. She hired a fourteen-year-old girl to care for little Jeannie during work hours. One day Dorothy heard an explosion coming from the back room, where Jeannie spent the days. Dorothy rushed in to see the place in shambles with blood widely splattered. She assumed Jeannie had been injured, but she was not. The babysitter had taken the full brunt of the explosive, apparently a Japanese booby trap mine. How it got there, remained a mystery, but Dorothy’s daughter was unharmed and the sitter was blinded and scarred on her face for the rest of her life. Fate seemed to shine on Dorothy Dore one last time, her eighth.

Dorothy attributed her good fortune to God. One could as easily say she was unfortunate to have witnessed so much violence and to have borne so much loss. Dorothy said as much herself. Looking up at the sky after her father’s death, she asked God, “Why did this happen to my mother, whom I dearly loved, God? My mother was taken, my youngest brother was beaten to death, my husband was killed, and my father died from suffering so long with tropical diseases and a broken heart. Now I am left all alone.” [173] Years later, after having relocated to the United States, Dowlen was told by a Baptist minister that God had given her the trials because she “had a strong faith and a strong spirit that could not be broken.” [173] Dowlen demurred. The God-doesn’t-give-you-more-than-you-can-handle theodicy didn’t work for her, not yet.

It took time–Dowlen gives little clue about how much or what milestones were–but she eventually settled on the idea that God allowed her to survive so she could tell the world of the horrors of war–including “the evil Magahats who lived in the Philippine jungles in WWII.” [143] Inevitably, my mind when back to Rickenbacker who survived at least as many close calls as Dowlen, even if his story seems almost tame in comparison to hers. Rickenbacker sought a purpose from God, too, and decided it was to badger…er, spur his countrymen on against the twin evils of Fascism and Communism. Dowlen’s God-given purpose might have been more modest: simply to share her story that others may learn. “I believe that any and all war stories must be  told,” she writes near the end of the book. “They cannot be swept under the rug, or wars will continue if their horrors are forgotten.” Then she waxes unusually philosophical. “I believe there are no winners in [war]. Both the aggressors and the liberators caused a great deal of destruction, after which the people of the Philippines have had to reconstruct their lives and their culture.” [189] Nothing that came before in the book can have prepared the reader for this assertion. The Americans–even if unnamed, left simply as “the liberators”–shared in the blame for her troubles. She seems to say this, but she drops it as soon as she brings it up. She leaves the thought unexamined. The reader is given no guidance as to what it means, what its implications are.

Reconstruction defined Dowlen’s postwar years, too, though she chose to do it in her father’s erstwhile country

Dowlen had to reconstruct her life in a new country, the United States. Her ability to work hard and learn quickly allowed her to build a life that was both fulfilling and thoroughly middle class. She wed another American, from whom she took her new surname. Though she doesn’t explain how she was able to break free from her traumatic past, it is clear that the publication of her book was an important step in the process. She needed to know that the pain and suffering–not just hers but her family’s–had a purpose in the divine plan. “God must have really loved me because he made me worthy of undertaking a difficult path in life and surviving. He needed a living witness of war’s hell, and I am one.” [189] (I appreciate the modesty in the last simple sentence. Her story is not the last word on war’s inhumanity, even if it is more “unusual”–haunting–than most.)

As she neared the completion of her WWII memoir, Dorothy Dore Dowlen was able to write, “Today I am finally free of any guilt or blame from the deaths of my family that took place during World War II….” [173] The sentence is pregnant with meaning. First, it hints at survivor’s guilt that must have haunted her for years and probably decades. More important, it announces the fact of her psychic healing? Did healing enable writing the memoir. Or did the writing enable the healing? My guess: The two formed an ongoing, circular, self-reinforcing act of recovery. I would have liked Dowlen to delve deeper into the psychological implications of her war experiences, but that was not her style. A different author might have done so. A different might not have lived to write the memoir. God didn’t give her trials because she could handle them. She survived because, by nature and upbringing, she had the inner strength to “endure what cannot be endured.”

Source: Dowlen, Dorothy Dore. Enduring What Cannot Be Endured: Memoir of a Woman Medical Aide in the Philippines in World War II. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Inc., Publishers, 2001.

Images: Wikimedia Commons

Pacific Crucible

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

Ian Toll‘s Pacific War Trilogy, coming in at more than 1,700 pages of text and 500 pages of notes and sources, obviously aims for comprehensiveness. Yet, in its breadth, there are nevertheless many moments of you-were-there intimacy. Instead of dry recitations of process or technology or organization, Toll brings historical elements to life within the narrative itself. He allows dozens of participants on both sides–admirals, politicians, pilots, sailors, support crew, intelligence officers, corpsmen, war correspondents–to speak for themselves, bringing the entire range of primary sources to bear on his narrative. The result–at least in the first volume, the only one I have yet read–is a remarkable achievement, narrative history at its best.

Pacific Crucible tells the story of the Pacific war from Pearl Harbor to Midway. Though covering just seven of the war’s forty-five months, this first volume must also lay out much backstory–from two sides of the ocean–and introduce many key players. Besides, the bracketing encounters probably loom larger in Americans’ memory of the war than any of the later pivotal battles.

Here is Toll describing the return of carrier planes to the Enterprise during Halsey‘s raid on the Marshall Islands of February 1, 1942:

As the planes entered the landing circle they passed close to starboard, circled across the  bow, flew downwind to port, and then made a final turn aft, directly above the wake. A spotter confirmed the landing gear, flaps, and tailhook were all down. The landing signal officer (LSO) stood prominently on the port quarter and held his two yellow paddles high over his head. At the moment of truth he either waved both paddles above his head–the “wave-off,” requiring the pilot to pour on the throttle, pass over the deck, and return to the landing circle for a fresh approach–or drew his right-hand paddle across his throat–the “cut,” telling the pilot to chop his throttle and let his aircraft fall to the deck, where the tailhook seized one of the cables and brought the plane to a abrupt, jarring halt. The deck crews sprinted out to release the cable from the hook; the hydraulic crash barriers retracted into the deck; and the pilot abruptly gunned his engine to taxi his aircraft forward of the barrier. The barrier shot back up , the arresting wires were tensioned, and the deck was made clear for the next plane landing in the circle. “A tricky and dangerous business,” wrote Ordnanceman Kernan, “and everything depended on doing it fast and doing it well.” [Toll 221]

This is general description seamlessly serving in the account of a particular carrier raid. (The launching of the strike force, ten pages earlier, was equally both informative and charged with tension.

The best example of Toll’s descriptive-cum-narrative writing comes when the carrier Lexington makes its trans-Pacific sail from Oahu to the Coral Sea. The equatorial heat, anti-aircraft gunnery practice, “crossing the line” rites, all come in for deep treatment in Toll’s bravura five-page dive account:

The Lexington‘s colossal power plant, deep in the bowels of the ship, included sixteen huge steam boilers and four 33,200 kilowatt turbine engines. Scorching heat was an inevitable byproduct of those great machines, and much of it remained trapped in the steel envelope of the carrier’s interior. On the flight deck at midday, where the ambient heat from below merged with the overbearing rays of the equatorial sun, the steel plates were like skillets. They would burn exposed flesh or melt rubber soles, and sailors sometimes amused themselves by frying eggs on them. On the sauna-like lower decks, where condensation collected on every surface, Chicago Tribune reporter Stanley Johnston observed that the ship appeared to sweat like a human being: “Beads of moisture combined to form rivulets which forever coursed down floors, walls and roofs, the bulkheads, decks and side plates of this great floating city.” No place was hotter than the engine room itself, in which the “black gang” (the engineers) toiled in a harshly lit subterranean cavity where the temperature never fell below 110  ͦand sometimes approached 130  ͦ, about the upper limit of human endurance. [Toll 324]

Toll has mastered the Japanese sources, too. This account of the Imperial Navy’s damage control effort at Midway provides a window into the desperate chaos that would have followed the bombing or torpedoing of almost any warship, while showing, in this instance, how the Japanese had not sufficiently trained. Toll does tell the story of three different ships as a composite, yet the sense of immediacy remains undiminished:

Even when firefighters could get hoses on the fires, the water pressure was too weak to make much of an impression; in some cases it actually made matters worse, by spreading spilled aviation fuel to as-yet-undamaged portions of the ships. Fire-suppressing foam would have been better, but the Japanese ships were not equipped with it. Firefighters descended into the lower reaches of the ships, where the passageways were choked with smoke and heated to oven-like temperatures. Lacking gas masks, they held wet rags to their mouths, or they crawled on all fours, to breathe the slightly better air near the deck, across steel plates that seared their hands and knees. But on all four carriers, no matter how bravely the firefighters persisted in their hellish labors, they could not extinguish the fires. [Toll 456-457]

Toll does more than paint telling scenes. He also composes muscular sentences that get to the heart of the matter. After discussing Allied morale and views of the enemy, Toll sums up by saying, “The subhumans of 1941 had mutated into the superhumans of 1942.” [Toll 247] On the chaotic nature of history’s first carrier battle, he writes: Coral Sea was “one of the most confused and confusing battles in the history of war at sea, characterized on both sides by an almost incredible series of miscues, miscommunications, misidentifications, misinterpretations, and miscalculations.” [Toll 374] (True enough, this battle was one section of the book in which I felt lost in the details and began to consider skimming.)

After discussing Japanese planning for Midway, Toll writes, “The Midway operation was not a product of sound military planning. It was a farrago of compromises struck to quell internal dissent and to balance the demands of rivals.” [Toll 379] More narrowly, on Yamamoto‘s willful myopia, he writes of the commander, “He was a gambler, and he had decided that he liked the odds.” [Toll 381]


Sometimes luck is on your side. I discovered Toll’s trilogy last month and was able to purchase and read it right away. The second volume, The Conquering Tide, is in my shopping cart at Better World Books and cued up for my reading in April. The third and final installment, Twilight of the Gods, is due out in July of this year. I should be able to wait a couple months for its release without too much hardship. Time to preorder my copy now!

Source: Toll, Ian W. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Norman Mailer’s Audacious Big Novel

Silly or serious?

Silly and serious?

The fight over American Dirt can seem either or both.

“Mexicans have been writing about the border and borderlands published in English since the 1800s. It is a bit insulting that someone thinks we need them to tell our story,” said one professor of Latinx literature [Campos]. I’m not sure that’s what the author, Jeanine Cummins, was trying to do. But she did respond to such criticism, saying, “I endeavored to be incredibly culturally sensitive. I did the work. I did five years of research. The whole intention in my heart when I wrote this book was to try to upend the traditional stereotypes that I saw being very prevalent in our national dialogue.” [Campos] I guess I see the professor’s point. Another professor weighed in: “An author has to have the authority to write a book. It does not mean they have to be Mexican. It means they have to have academic, literary or personal expertise to write it.” [Campos] Exactly so.


I just finished reading  The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, published long before the current blood sport of identity politics but when a brainy, talented Jewish boy could, just, storm the New York publishing world castle. How did Mailer write about war in the Pacific jungles? Where did “a tearful, bookish momma’s boy” [Lennon 17] from the Jersey shore and Brooklyn gain the academic, literary, and personal experience to write about war with authority?

The academic and literary experience are not the subject of this blog post. Mailer went to Harvard. His father was a compulsive gambler who frittered away savings and employment opportunities, but young Norman earned a scholarship and had the support of his successful Uncle David when he lost said scholarship later in his tenure. He earned his degree in engineering, though his decision to become a writer occurred early in his freshman year. (Switching majors was harder in those days.) By graduation, he had taken a full load of writing courses but only one in literature. He created his own voluminous literary syllabus, instead.

Mailer created his own independent study for “personal experience,” too. In the summer of 1941, he hit the road, in the great American tradition, hitchhiking into the South, sleeping under the stars, playing the hobo for two weeks. He took extensive notes in his journal, as he had been since his first year in Harvard. The next summer, he worked in the Boston State Hospital, also known as the asylum. He assuaged his (Jewish) mother’s fears by telling her the patients were mostly shell-shocked veterans. He was gathering material for his fiction, he said. [Lennon 49] When one violent patient was, well, violently beaten by hospital attendants, Mailer had seen and gathered enough. He quit after just eight days. But the brutal scene became the basis for his first stage drama and, decades later, a novel.

By fall of 1942, Stalingrad and Guadalcanal, Hitler and Hirohito, were on everyone’s lips. Mailer knew that his number would be called sooner or later (probably sooner). He felt a responsibility to serve but also a deep interest in material gathering. He began to conceive the idea of a great war book and understood that he would need to experience the war from the inside, not just from the print on a newspaper. “I was a little frightened of going to war, and a great deal ashamed of not going to war, and terrified of my audacity in writing so ambitious a novel,” Mailer wrote many years later. [Lennon 56] Elsewhere he wrote, “While worthy young men were wondering where they could be of aid to the war effort, and practical young men were deciding which branch of the service was the surest for landing a safe commission, I was worrying darkly whether it would be more likely that a great war novel would be written about Europe or the Pacific.” [Lennon 43]

It would be the Pacific.

On December 8, 1944, after eight months of training stateside, the twenty-one-year-old Mailer shipped out from San Francisco bound for the Philippines. The Japanese Navy had already been roundly beaten at Leyte Gulf, but the invasion of Luzon, the main island, had yet to begin. Mailer put ashore at Lingayen Gulf affixed to the 112th Cavalry (now Infantry) on January 27, 1945, more than two weeks after the original landing. Mailer never used the artillery training he had received. His engineering education was squandered but his literary talents were (sort of) put to use. He typed reports telephoned in from the outlying posts for Intelligence and Operations. Far from the actual operations on the ground, he was nevertheless able to follow how they worked in concert–the big picture, so to speak, or at least bigger than most grunts could see. It enabled him to write passages such as this in his big novel:

“Powerhouse will reach you at 2330,” the General said. “You will deploy them between Paragon Red George and Paragon Red Easy at the following coordinates: 017.37–439.56, and at 018.25–440.06. …As additional support, I am going to send you a reinforced platoon from Paragon Yellow Sugar. They’re to be used for pack train and lateral communication with Paragon White Baker or Cat.” [Mailer 112]

Unfortunately–or the converse–his typing skills were not up to the job. The 130-lb. Harvard grad was told to study manuals on the reading of aerial reconnaissance photographs. Before he could put the training to use, he was assigned to build showers for officers–until he was transferred to another unit in communications, rolling out telephone wire from headquarters to the outlying posts. The work took him beyond base camp into rice fields and bamboo forests and war-torn villages. He carried a carbine for encounters with the enemy and engaged in his first skirmishes. He shared it all (even the showers) with his wife of one year, Bea, in a steady stream of letters. In one he told her how his unit came across the remains of a Japanese unit. The smell was “a good deal like faeces leavened with ripe garbage.” The “ape-like charred bodies” reminded him of the victims of the Cocoanut Grove fire they had seen at the morgue in ’42. (More material gathering.) [Lennon 67] The experience would provide the basis for an important scene in the big war book he eventually wrote:

Another Japanese lay on his back a short distance away. He had a great hole in his intestines, which bunched out in a thick white cluster like the congested petals of a sea flower. The flesh of his belly was very red and his hands in their death throe had encircled the wound…. [Mailer 211]

Near the end of April, Mailer asked for a transfer to a reconnaissance platoon. He might have felt the need to gather the experience of actual combat. He might have felt a need to bolster his self-respect. He told Bea, “You’re doing something when you go out on patrol that you don’t do when you lay a mile of wire.” [Lennon 71] Over the next three months, he made twenty-five reconnaissance patrols across the Philippine countryside and into enemy territory. After his first encounter with the Japanese, while still laying wire, he had told Bea it was just a “little combat, nothing very tremendous, but still one of the three or four ‘first experiences’ a man has.” [Lennon 69] He had written what he felt was “not exactly fear–it was more, well, ‘awareness.’ But an awareness so acute that it approached pain and fear.” [Lennon 70] He drew on this emotional authority many times when writing about the characters in his war novel:

Croft’s mouth tightened. His hand felt for the bolt of the machine gun…. Croft swallowed once. Tiny charges seemed to pulse through his limbs and his head was as empty and shockingly aware as if it had been plunged into a pail of freezing water. [Mailer 148-149]

He drew, too, on the exhaustion he experienced climbing mountains and bushwhacking through jungles. To Bea, again: “You can never plumb the last agony of exertion, there seems always a worse one beneath it.” [Lennon 73] And in The Naked and the Dead:

They were merely envelopes of suffering. They had forgotten about the patrol, about the war, their past, they had even forgotten the earth they had just climbed. [Mailer 658]

Growing up in Brooklyn, a scrawny, brainy Jew among street-tough Irish kids, Mailer expected to be beat up almost any time he stepped outdoors. The situation, he said, made him “always terribly alert to the outside world. I took the inside world for granted. And I was free to indulge myself to….” [Lennon 17] Mailer carried this attitude into the Army, where he was always The Good Private, a “detached, quiet observer,” according to Mailer biographer, J. Michael Lennon. [Lennon 61] This did not mean he stayed aloof from his fellow men in arms. He chatted up as many of them as he could, always on the lookout for character, for background stories.

Over months, the personalities he met combined and converted and coalesced into a cast of characters for his novel. Fourteen enlisted men and three officers all became primary characters in his novel. Big book, indeed. Lennon tells us that the Southern “cracker” Wilson was based on Mailer’s closest army buddy, Fig, a white Southerner with no college but a passion for books. The fictional General Cummings was based on General Julian Cunningham, Red Valsen on the actual Red Matthiessen, fictional Julio Martinez on Ysidro Martinez, Roy Gallagher on, well, Roy Gallagher. Mailer really stretched when he made Isadore Feldman into the character of Joey Goldstein. Lennon says that Mailer’s Platoon Lieutenant Horton may have served as the model for the novel’s “titular hero,” Robert Hearn. His Platoon Sergeant Donald Mann certainly did as the model for its “secret hero” Sam Croft. “Obviously, he combined some characters and sculpted the personalities of others. But he began with real soldiers,” writes Lennon. [Lennon 76]

The Good Private could not maintain his detachment his entire tour of duty. In the spring of 1946, cooking now for the occupying troops in Japan, he lost his cool at a mess sergeant. The indignities of Army protocol had finally become  too much to bear. He called the head mess sergeant a “chickenshit son-of-a-bitch.” [Lennon 83] The next day he was forced to apologize by a superior and stripped of the sergeant stripes he had recently been awarded. The experience left him with a hatred deeper than any he had yet known–and one from which he  made fictional hay in his big war novel.

For almost an hour [after being made to lick up the General’s tossed cigarette, Hearn] lay face down on his cot, burning with shame and self-disgust and an impossible impotent anger. He was suffering an excruciating humiliation which mocked him in its very intensity. [Mailer 326]

Interestingly, one of the strangest scenes in the book–also the funniest and the book’s climax–actually happened to Mailer. Croft is leading the platoon up the slope of Mt. Anaka against their combined wills. He is driven against all reason to reach the crest of the mountain, like Ahab in his quest for the white leviathan. As he nears the summit, doubt creeps in, and even a fear that the achievement of his goal may leave him empty. He considers stopping short and turning back. But before he can decide, the decision is made for him. He kicks a hornets’ nest the size of a football, and the giant, tropical insects chase him and his men down the mountain they just had labored so strenuously to scale. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the scene. But it actually happened to Mailer’s platoon! (The only difference was that the hornets struck the middle of the file sending front half scrambling up the mountain and the rear half scrambling down.)

Also interesting, the war scene I liked best had no basis in Mailer’s personal experience: the amphibious landing on the island of Anopopei.

At 0400, a few minutes after  the false dawn had lapsed, the naval bombardment of Anopopei began. All the guns of the invasion fleet went off within two seconds of each other, and the night rocked and shuddered like a great log foundering on the surf. The ships snapped and rolled from the discharge, lashing the water furiously. For one instant the night was jagged and immense, demoniac in its convulsion.
Then, after the first salvos, the firing became irregular, and the storm almost subsided into darkness again. The great clanging noises of the guns became isolated once more, sounded like immense freight trains jerking and tugging up a grade. And afterward it was possible to hear the sighing wistful murmur of shells passing overhead. On Anopopei the few scattered campfires were snubbed out.
The first shells landed in the sea, throwing up remote playful spurts of water, but then a string of them snapped along the beach, and occasionally a shell which carried too far would light up a few hundred feet of brush. The line of the beach became defined and twinkled like a seaport seen from a great distance late at night. [Mailer 19]

Mailer probably gleaned the details he marshalled so brilliantly in discussions with soldiers who had made such landings. That’s what he did as a novelist.

It was his greatest strength–and his greatest weakness, according to The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. In his “mad pursuit of so-called experience,” those that he considered “literature-worthy” Mailer, in Brody’s view, missed his chance to plumb the material he knew best: Jewish Brooklyn in the 1930s. Instead, he wrote the big novel of the war and succeeded too well. “I think the book may be better than I am,” he said to his wife. [Lennon 5]

The book created a stir, but it wasn’t without its critics. Henry Luce’s Life complained that the book “seems to tell us is that such purposes as marrying and procreating and raising a family or mastering and art or a profession or building a business or beating Japan are without value to anybody now living.” [Lennon 109] The Times reviewer called it a “triumph of realism, but without the compassion which gives final authority in the realm of human conduct.” Its style, he said, “will offend many readers, although in no sense is it exaggerated: Mr. Mailer’s soldiers are real persons, speaking the vernacular of human bitterness and agony.” Marshalling all the martial metaphors at his disposal, he added, “For all its virtuosity, its deafening emotional cannonades, it is primarily a series of brilliant skirmishes; the central objective is never taken.”


So can a Jewish boy from Brooklyn write convincingly from the point of view of a Mexican-American sergeant, a Southern “cracker” private, a homosexual general, among many more? Mailer did so by relentlessly observing, gathering experience, and taking notes. He established his authority even while leaving the imprint of his burgeoning ego and his personal artistic intents all over the manuscript. Jeanine Cummins surely did much the same thing, though perhaps not as relentlessly as Mailer. She had the audacity to try to “upend the stereotypes in the national dialogue,” which is yet not as great as Mailer’s audacity to try to write the big novel of the biggest war of the twentieth century.


Robert E. Lee, Demythologized

posted in: Good Reads: Nonfiction | 0

Removing the statues of fallen heroes is one thing. Writing a thoroughly-researched, elegantly-written history that sets the record straight is another thing entirely. Brandon Miller’s 2019 biography of Robert E. Lee deserves praise for disentangling the man from the myth and bringing out his full humanity, both the praiseworthy and the dishonorable.


To begin with, Miller reminds us that “The Man” started life as a boy named, simply, Robert Lee. (The “E.” came later, as part of the hagiography.) He was an incredibly hard worker, driven to compensate for the failings of his father, both war hero and deadbeat. Miller provides illuminating details of his education at West Point, his early career in the Army Corps of Engineers, and his first battle experiences in Mexico. She shows how willing he was to undergo privation in the service of his country, yet so quick to disdain those less fortunate. Miller shares a dismissive phrase that she found more than once in the record. “They are not worth it,” he wrote, referring to Comanches or Mexicans or some other Other.


Miller’s section on the Civil War shows Lee at his best, though not without fallibility. The stress of war made him brittle–“Lee seldom bellowed at those around him; his anger shone forth as sarcasm, silent coldness, and a glare that chilled.”–and his military decisions were sometimes questionable. The post-war section shows Lee at his worst. It’s not just that he took stances that are objectionable to modern sensibilities. It was that he lacked the courage of intellectual honesty, falsely cloaked himself in principle, and never truly accepted responsibility for his own actions. These stances had large consequences. Robert E. Lee–both the man and the myth–gave cover to millions of Southerners who likewise shirked responsibility for decades. Knowingly or not, Lee collaborated in his own mythologization.


Brandon Miller has given young adult readers a mature biography that brings to life a subject who no longer convinces as a hero, a tragic figure, or even a principled statesman. To be clear, Miller is not engaged in iconoclasm, the toppling of metaphorical statues. She immersed herself in the documentary evidence and reported on what she found. It wasn’t always a pretty picture.