The Old Man and War

Ernest Hemingway’s wartime service

Ernest Hemingway with American soldiers in France
(Photo: The New York Times)

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, whose adventurous lifestyle and world-famous literary oeuvre both captured the public’s imagination as much as his literary work. His fans probably know that he was involved in not one but three major European conflicts, but might not realize that his involvement once even went beyond the limits of law. Today’s article is about Hemingway’s action in World War I, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II.
In early 1918, young Hemingway volunteered at the Red Cross to drive ambulance trucks in World War I. He was not the only well-known literary figure to do so: others included American novelist, poet and playwright Gertrude Stein, modernist poet E. E. Cummings, and novelist John Dos Passos. On the non-literary side, Walt Disney also served as a Red Cross ambulance driver during WWI.

Hemingway in World War I
(Photo: The National WWI Museum and Memorial)

Paris was being shelled by the Germans when Hemingway arrived to Europe. On his first day in Milan, Italy, he helped a rescue team retrieve the remains of female workers after an explosion in a munitions factory. Hemingway’s experiences as an ambulance driver acquainted him with the horrors of war, and gave him the inspiration for his novel A Farewell to Arms. On July 8, 1918, he was bringing cigarettes and chocolate from the canteen to men on the front when he was seriously wounded by mortar fire. His legs were hit by shrapnel, but he insisted on finishing helping others on the scene before undergoing surgery to save his legs. He later commented on the experience: "When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you ... Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you."
Hemingway spent half a year in hospital before he could return to the United States. He met and fell in love with an American nurse during his convalescence. He returned home in January 1919 believing that she would follow him in a few months and they would get married. Instead, she sent a letter informing him that she became engaged to an Italian officer. Hemingway was crushed, and the young man’s heartbreak informed his love life for the rest of his life: from that point on, he was always the one to abandon his partner before she could do the same to him.

Hemingway after his wounding during World War I
(Photo: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library)

Hemingway spent most of the 1920s in Paris, socializing with numerous other expatriates. He had wild drinking sessions with James Joyce, the Irish author of the novels Ulysses and the experimental, notoriously impenetrable Finnegans Wake. He received career help from American poet Ezra Pound, who would become a fascist and a propaganda radio broadcaster for Mussolini’s regime in World War II. He also developed a friendship “of admiration and hostility” with F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose stories chronicled the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 30s. Hemingway covered the Greco-Turkish War of 1921-22 and interviewed Benito Mussolini, but was not impressed. At a time when many commentators praised the Italian dictator for revitalizing the country, Hemingway already saw the man for who he was: “the biggest bluff in Europe.”

Excerpt from a documentary describing the relationship between James Joyce and Hemingway (Source: YouTube)
The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 between the left-leaning pro-democracy Republicans and the authoritarian Nationalist junta of General Francisco Franco. The Nationalists received help from Portugal, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the latter in the form of the Condor Legion, which was responsible for the infamous bombing of Guernica. The Republican cause was officially aided by the Soviet Union and Mexico, and some 60,000 international volunteers, Hemingway being one of them. The war ended in April 1939, the same year World War II broke out, in a Nationalist victory. Hemingway was not particularly political before, but the war turned him into an ardent anti-fascist.
Hemingway (center) with other Republican combatants during the Spanish Civil War
(Photo: Robert Capa)

In a little-known episode of Hemingway’s life, his experiences in Spain led him into an unlikely cooperation with the NKVD, the Soviet secret police and the predecessor of the KGB. Hemingway fought alongside numerous members of the revolutionary left in Spain, and it’s no surprise that he found rapport with them – not because he necessarily supported the Soviet cause, but due to having a shared enemy.
According to a 2009 book by a former KGB officer, a Soviet spy named Jacob Golos approached Hemingway in New York in 1940, and the author agreed to act as a spy under the code name “Argo.” As far as historians can tell, Hemingway most likely never did anything that could have harmed the United States or benefited the NKVD. He never worked in a position where he could have accessed sensitive information, and it’s possible the NKVD only wanted him for his widespread network of high-profile friends. On his part, Hemingway was probably just excited by the idea of being a spy (and happy to do something to harm fascism), but ended up being completely useless to the Soviets.
In January 1941, Hemingway traveled to China with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, to report on the Sino-Japanese war. The United States entered World War II at the end of the same year. Hemingway was back in Cuba at time and jumped at the chance to grab some action even though he was too old to serve. He assembled a bizarre circle of artists, bartenders, prostitutes, hunters, sailors and government officials into a private spy ring he called “the Crook Factory,” financially supported by the FBI. The ring’s purpose was to ferret out Axis sympathizers in Havana, a task they took to with great enthusiasm but absolutely no skill or success.

Hemingway aboard his ship, the Pilar
(Photo: National Archives)

Hemingway’s next idea to be of service was to convince the U.S. ambassador to Cuba to outfit his private boat, the Pilar, with a direction finder, a few rifles and machine guns, some grenades, and a lot of fuel. He then gathered some of his friends (including a cousin of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill) and went off on a Caribbean cruise to hunt German U-boats. His plan was to wait for a submarine to surface and try to raid the Pilar for fish (German U-boats apparently did that to sailing boats on occasion), then turn the table on the German sailors and capture the submarine. The year-long mission was a complete dud: they once saw a U-boat from far away, but never managed to make contact with one. This one probably a good thing, as the plan of taking over an enemy submarine with a small handful of civilians was extremely harebrained and almost certainly suicidal.

Hemingway with a Thompson submachine gun onboard the Pilar
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
Hemingway finally got a chance to contribute to the war effort in a more formal manner in the spring of 1944, when he travelled to Britain as an accredited war correspondent to Collier’s. Using his clout as a world-renowned novelist back to doing war journalism, he managed to get onboard several British airplanes and witness missions to hunt down German V-1 flying bombs (Read our earlier article – Germany's V-1 vengeance weapon) bound for England and to bomb V-1 launch sites.
Hemingway before boarding a plane for an RAF mission
(Photo: Royal Air Force)
He was slated to accompany troops across the English Channel on D-Day, but got in trouble before the invasion could kick off. One night, he insisted on driving home drunk after a party, crashed into a water tank, and suffered a head injury that took 50 stitches to sew up. It was around this time that he became completely estranged from his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, who entered into an affair with “Jumping” Jack Gavin (Read our earlier article - James M. Gavin, the “Jumping General”), the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, shortly after.
An injured Hemingway after his accident
(Photo: International Center of Photography, New York)
Hemingway recovered well enough to accompany the troops on D-Day (with a large bandage still on his head), but, like other correspondents, he was considered “precious cargo” and not allowed to actually set foot on Omaha Beach. He traveled to water’s edge in a landing craft which took on the wounded and returned back to its ship. He got to make a second trip, again without disembarking, in the evening, after the fighting had largely died down. He wrote:  “…the fight gone, just slowly, laboriously, as though they were carrying the world on their shoulders. Men were climbing, they were not firing, they were just moving slowly, going the other way from home.”
He finally got to France in mid-July. He first intended to follow one of General Patton’s armored units
(Read our earlier article – the wars of George S. Patton), but the constant dust raised by the tanks irritated his eyes and throat. He quickly got himself transferred to the 4th Infantry Division under the command of General Raymond “Tubby” Barton. It was here that he met and quickly befriended Colonel Charles Trueman Lanham, commanding officer of the 22nd Regiment. Hemingway acquired a captured German motorcycle with a sidecar, and a driver provided by General Barton.
Hemingway (center) with General Barton (left)
(Photo: unknown photographer)
On August 3, Hemingway and his driver came upon a market town still contested by the Germans. Upon questioning the locals, Hemingway was told that several SS men had just hid in a nearby cellar. Picking up some of the hand grenades he was carrying in the sidecar, Hemingway went over to the cellar door. He shouted a demand for surrender in bad German. Nobody replied or came out even after a repetition, so chucked a few grenades down the stairs. He did not go down to check if there really had been any Germans down there, but soon started boasting about killing them.
This was, of course, highly illegal according to the Geneva Conventions. As a war correspondent, Hemingway was not allowed to carry, let alone use, weapons. He did, however, have a complete disregard for rules, and started to see himself as an irregular guerilla leader rather than a civilian.
Hemingway with his driver
(Photo: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library)
Hemingway had several scrapes with death over the coming weeks. His motorbike once came under fire from a German anti-tank gun. The bike overturned, and Hemingway and the other two passengers had to play dead until nightfall to get away. On another occasion, he was invited to Colonel Lanham’s wedding anniversary at his HQ. Hemmingway had an inexplicable bad feeling and declined to stay. The chateau came under artillery attack later that night, with several officers killed.
Hemingway went to the recently liberated island abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel
(Read our earlier article – The liberation of Mont-Saint-Michel) to rest after his first few adventures in Europe. The abbey was off-limits to most military personnel, but served as a resting and meeting point for war correspondents and photographers.
Contemporary footage of Mont-Saint-Michel with Hemingway showing up for a few shots
(Source: YouTube)
Hemingway finally got the chance to fully become the (blatantly illegal) combat leader he fancied himself later in the summer. Traveling in a commandeered jeep, Hemingway came upon a group of French freedom fighters armed with German Luger pistols, grenades and Sten guns (which the British distributed to many anti-Nazi guerilla groups), led by a tired-looking man. The leader did not seem to have a clear idea of what to do. Hemingway turned on his legendary charisma, removed his correspondent’s insignia (another illegal act) and tacitly assumed command of the group.
Hemingway during World War II
(Photo: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library)
Rambouillet, a local town not far from Paris, had already been abandoned by the Germans, but they left behind minefields, booby traps and a destroyed U.S. Army patrol they managed to ambush. Hemingway had the guerillas start removing booby traps with the help of some American anti-tank troops his driver found in the vicinity. He himself set off for the nearby American positions to requisition weapons to defend the town with. The American general on site flatly refused the request of a civilian war reporter, even that reporter was Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway returned to Rambouillet and set up his private headquarters in a local hotel, where he was happy to find a wine cellar and an excellent chef. He went back to the American lines the next morning, wisely avoiding the commanding officer, and loading his jeep full of machine guns and grenades after lying that they were needed by another American unit.
Hemingway started sending out partisans to map the roads leading into Paris. He also interrogated German prisoners and French civilians. His activities were described by Colonel David Bruce, an officer in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA. Bruce immediately recognized the value in Hemingway’s work (and also learned that Hemingway’s son was a fellow OSS officer), and put the famous author’s reports to good use in preparing the final advance on Paris.
Hemingway (center) with Colonel Bruce (far left) and others in France
(Photo: John Fitzgerald Kenney Library)
The road to Paris became open on August 23. French Generals de Gaulle and Leclerc, who were to spearhead the liberation of their nation’s capital, knew they had to hurry. The various resistance groups inside the city came from a wide range of political backgrounds, some of the communists. As German control over the city was slipping away, the danger of these groups turning against each other and starting a civil war was growing by the day. The two French generals had a meeting not far from Hemingway’s hotel HQ, and agreed to begin the push on the 24th. Hearing the news, Hemingway decided to get to his beloved Paris, where he lived before the war – and more specifically to the famous Hotel Ritz – before anyone else.
There were still German units inside and around Paris (suggesting that some of Hemingway’s intelligence on road conditions might have been less than reliable), and the idea of getting into the city ahead of the proper military force was preposterous. Hemingway, however, was caught up in his dream of adventure and glory, and was adamant in forging ahead with his band of irregulars and Colonel Bruce of the OSS.
Hemingway with French resistance leader Michel Pasteur, also known as Mouton 
(Photo: S. L. A. Marshall’s collection)
Sometimes travelling with Leclerc and sometimes racing ahead on back roads, the group somehow made it to the Café Claire de Lune a few miles from Versailles, on the outskirts of Paris. With an intense firefight going on outside, Hemingway entered the café for a drink and met Lieutenant Colonel Sam Marshall, also known as S. L. A. Marshall, the official U.S. Army historian, who was already there. After sharing the remains of a bottle of Scotch in Marshall's possession, they moved on with the historian in tow.
By late afternoon, Hemingway's little army was getting close to the Seine and encountering joyful, celebrating crowds every step of the way. They spent the night drinking everything the locals brought them, then moved on in the morning of the 25th. They came under sniper and artillery fire at a square near the park Bois de Boulogne just as French tanks and halftracks approached to join the fray.
Photo taken by Hemingway of the jeep carrying the first U.S. flag into Paris. S. L. A. Marshall is in center, standing
(Photo: S. L. A. Marshall’s collection)
Hemingway somehow made his way up to a balcony, from where he shouted back down that French artillery was about to strike the house behind them, the one where the German snipers were; the company made a quick getaway in the nick of time. On Avenue Foch, they met French forces shelling a house where locals have spotted a “sinister group of Orientals.” Hemingway and Marshall went over during a lull in the shooting and found an injured and terrified Tonkinese laundryman who had taken refuge in the building; they gave him a drink, attended to his wounds and moved on.
Working their way into the inner city, they reached the Arc de Triomphe, where the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier allowed them to climb to the top of the Arc and take in the view of the city with the battle raging on in various spots. They then drove to The Travellers Club and had several toasts with the club’s president until a German sniper started taking potshots at them. Once the sniper was dealt with, they moved on to the Café de la Paix, one of Hemingway's pre-war haunts, then finally moved on to the Hôtel Ritz, where Hemingway immediately asked for the best rooms and fifty dry martinis. (It should be noted that some sources claim that while Hemingway did reach the Ritz, he was not the first to do so, and therefore not its liberator.)
Modern photo of the Bar Hemingway, formerly La Petite Bar, Hemingway’s favorite of the Ritz’s multiple bars
(Photo: Vincent Leroux)
Marshall wrote that after their extravagant dinner, the waiter “slapped a Vichy tax on the bill. Straightaway we arose as one man and told him: ‘Millions to defend France, thousands to honor your fare, but not one sou in tribute to Vichy.’”
After a short rest in Paris, Hemingway moved out again to catch up with the 22nd Regiment and his friend Colonel Lanham on the push toward Belgium and Germany. Meanwhile, however, his previous actions have been catching up with him. Numerous eyewitness reports of him bearing arms and removing his correspondent identification prompted a military inquiry into the matter. He was clearly guilty, but handling the matter incorrectly could have caused the U.S. military a great deal of embarrassment. Eventually, after much pressure from both Patton’s Third Army HQ and Eisenhower himself, and with Hemingway defending himself by claiming he only “offered advice” to partisans, he was officially found innocent.
Hemingway (right) with photographer Robert Capa (left) and his own son, OSS officer Jack
(Photo: Getty Images)
In September 1944, U.S. forces blundered into their direst test in Europe, the Battle of Hürtgen Forest (Read our earlier article – America’s bloody blunder in Europe). The battle had been raging for a few weeks when Hemingway arrived to report on it in mid-November, and quickly reunited with his friend Colonel Lanham. Hemingway was still his incorrigible old self, toting a gun, ghost-writing love letters for soldiers to send back home, and then reading the best bits of those letters to fellow correspondents behind the soldiers’ backs. On one occasion, Lanham’s adjutant was killed by machine gun fire during a particularly ferocious German attack. Hemingway, who was nearby, grabbed a Thompson (Read our earlier article – The Thompson submachine gun) and charged the Germans while firing form the hip, successfully breaking them up.
Hemingway and Colonel Lanham with a captured German artillery piece near the Hürtgen Forest
(Photo: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library)
It seemed, however, that the horrors of the battle, which he compared to the Battle of Passchendaele “but with tree bursts,” started to sap his desire for adventure. Collier’s still wanted him to write pro-war articles about the heroism of the troops, but Hemingway started to show more of the truth: “The German SS troops, their faces black from the concussion, bleeding at the nose and mouth, kneeling in the road, grabbing their stomachs, hardly able to get out of the way of the tanks” – he wrote about the aftermath of an armored assault. The combat, the cold, and heavy drinking also strained his body, and he returned to Paris in December.
Hemingway with Colonel Lanham
(Photo: Bill Downs)
He didn’t have much time to recuperate, though. Later that month, Germany launched its last major counterattack on the Western Front, the Battle of the Bulge. Hemingway was suffering from pneumonia, but still traveled up to Luxembourg in a jeep filled with weapons, and reunited with Colonel Lanham. The colonel quickly confined Hemingway to the regimental surgeon’s care on account of his sickness, and he was quartered in the home of a local priest who had fled the area, and who was rumored to be a Nazi sympathizer. Hemingway spent his recuperation time drinking the priest’s private wine collection, filling the emptied bottles with his own urine, corking them, and labeling them as “Schloss Hemingstein 44” as a gift to the clergymen when he came back. He allegedly got so drunk once that he opened one of his own “vintages” by accident and took a draught before realizing his mistake. He got better by December 22, but most of the heavy fighting, at least in the areas he could possibly reach, had already died down. There was talk of Hemingway traveling to the Pacific to cover the war on Japan, but the trip never happened. Instead, Hemingway returned to his home in Cuba, done with the war. In 1947, he was awarded the Bronze Star, the highest military decoration available to civilians, at the U.S. embassy in Havana. When Fidel Castro took over in 1959, Hemingway and his wife left Cuba and moved to Ketchum, Idaho, where he committed suicide on July 2, 1961.

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An Independence Day-related propaganda poster from 1943
(Photo: Office of War Information)
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