Monday, March 1, 2010

"The Hemingway Patrols" by Terry Mort

To begin with I have never been a fan of Ernest Hemingway. I have found that his books make excellent films, after being re-done as screenplays. "To Have and Have Not" is one example, as is "Farewell to Arms." Be that as it may, I have always been fascinated by the man and his self made legend.

In 1942 German U-boats were taking an awful toll on allied shipping. I grew up on tales of the wolf packs 10 miles off Coney Island and oil slicks from sunken vessels washing ashore. So it's no surprise that this book grabbed my attention.

Hemingway was a Veteran of the First World War, having served as an ambulance driver and later as the operator of a canteen in Italy. He was wounded when an Austrian shell exploded near his ambulance, which was loaded with chocolates and cigarettes for the troops. His right knee was shattered and the war was over for him. But he had tasted the adrenaline of battle and would never forget the rush it gave him.

The 1930's found him in Spain, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. By this time he had become a published author and "Farewell to Arms" was already established as a major motion picture. In 1936 he published what many consider to be his best work "For Whom the Bell Tolls." This book was a direct outcome of his experiences in Spain.

By the time World War Two erupted Hemingway was living in Cuba, just outside Havana, in his beloved home Finca Vigia. He was married to his third wife, Martha, and all seemed to be going well. Fishing daily in his beloved 38 foot boat Pilar seemed to be enough to occupy the mind of the great writer. But not for long.

By the early part of 1942, when the German Wolfpacks were wreaking havoc all around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, Hemingway hatched his plan. He would take the wooden hulled Pilar out on "patrols" to hunt U-boats. This was like Don Quixote thrusting at windmills. Surely he could not be serious. But indeed he was.

Armed with Thompson submachine guns and handgrenades, along with a supply of bourbon, Hemingway made hundreds of these patrols. He was eagerly assisted by anyone who wished to accompany him on these trips. Everyone wanted a piece of this story!

With no sonar and radar still in it's infancy, eyes were the only real means available to detect submarines. As a matter of fact, all up and down the East Coast of the United States there were hundreds of fishing boats daily on the lookout for the submarines. Once sighted, the boats would call in the position of the U-boat and the Navy would send ships and planes to the area.

All this was risky business for these small craft. U-boats had a range of 8,400 miles on the surface at 16 knots. Below the surface they had only 20 hours of cruising time utilizing their batteries before needing to resurface and re-charge. By the time these U-boats had reached North America they were starved for food and vegetables. They were known to seize the cargo of many fishing boats and even freighters. The freighters were always sunk. Sometimes the fishing boats were sunk, other times they were merely relieved of their cargo.

Hemingways plan was to attempt an approach on one of these U-boats. He would then toss hand grenades into the conning tower while using the Thompsons to keep the subs crew from reaching the deck guns. Not a bad plan. The German conning towers were open from the rear, unlike the 360 degree protection on their American counterparts.

Mr. Mort delves deeply into the psychology of Mr. Hemingway and his plan to divine whether or not it was for real or just an act of false bravado.

Nevertheless, he has written an engaging book about one of America's most celebrated authors and his flamboyant, self styled attempt to hunt down, and perhaps capture, a German U-boat. That he never caught one does nothing to diminish the glory of his attempt to do so.

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