Friday, March 30, 2012

Adak Island, late April 1944, “Letter No. 3”


Dearest Nunny…

My last letter,  a thirteen page opus entitled No. 2, probably will not get to you. It was written before I understood the censorship restrictions. These include no discussion of means of transportation. Just in case the letter does get to you, that one taboo should explain why ten or twelve pages are blank. From what I have been told of the local censor’s rules they are almost exactly the opposite of those under which my last two letters were written.

This place is surprisingly pleasant, at least today. The scenery is tremendous combining the best of Rucar, Patzcuaro and the Monterey peninsula, although there are no Rumanian women serving corn mush, Mexican gals serving tortillas or John Steinbeck serving Tortilla Flats. 

My duffle bag is now under a steel cot in a Pacific and I have the typewriter on a nice desk in another hut. I also have an impromptu desk, an overturned packing box, beside my bed. Tomorrow I have off to complete some of the details of getting established in the hut, but the next day there will be work in earnest.  

Bill Usedane, one of the Elliotts’ closest friends, is more or less looking after me here. He is frightfully busy at present, running one of the sections in the absence of its commissioned officer. But already we have established a rapport on the merits of Thomas Wolfe, an understanding reached over the fervent protests of Joe Miller, who thinks Wolfe the best modern writer. Joe is at another typewriter in the room, batting out a letter to his wife. 

I had four letters today: two from you, the first announcing Carmen’s [Rosa’s houseboat housemate, Carmen Fett] arrival and the second her success as a tortilla tippler. … One letter was from Ann Elmo saying she liked the story on the Huts and hopes to sell it very soon. She also asked where she should send the check for the piece in Adventure. The fourth letter was not really a letter at all. It was a pamphlet, reprinted from Journalism Quarterly, entitled: “Importance in Content Analysis: A Validity Problem.” The Author? Milton D. Stewart. I haven’t read it yet, but it looks terrific, with footnotes quoting such publications as “Sciometry, August, 1943,” “The Nazi Newsreel,” from Wartime Communications No. 61, and “Public Opinion Quarterly, VIII.” And so far into the addendum. Milt is identified as a former newspaper and magazine man, has worked with the Office of Radio Research , and with both the Bureau of Intelligence and the Overseas Branch of the Office of Information. God, when I think that kid is only 22 now I feel like crawling under a blanket and calling it a day. 

There is a local paper published here and the editor of it is Dashiell Hammett, the mystery writer. One of the kids that Bill Usedane introduced me to has had some stuff published in Esquire but has done very little writing since coming here. This kid, incidentally, was kicked out of the University of Chicago, for, it is rumored, radicalism.
Well, darling, although my cot does not look as comfortable as the one in the houseboat, it is inviting right now and I think that I had better turn in. This has been a rather busy day.

You are much loved, Nunny, and forever thought of.

Ever,
M



For a short summary of Milt Stewart's career:

A good short history of Dashiell Hammet's paper, The Adakian:
http://windblownanddripping.com/about/



Aboard the transport to Adak, late April 1944


Salud my sweet…

Last night was unpleasant. In the late afternoon a good wind came up, which, combined with a moderate swell, made the ship flip her fanny in a most unladylike manner. Late in the afternoon a wave hit us just right and pair of the rafts which are in racks along the rail slipped into the sea. We turned back after them which meant that for a while we were in the trough of the waves. We really rocked. Then when we were pulling the ships back aboard we were not under power. We bounced along like a cork.

The kids on KP had quite a time. They were trying to keep the pots and pans in place, the tea from spilling, and various pieces of heavier equipment from climbing their frames. They lost all the tea in one big wave and a considerable amount of creamed chicken (no less) in another. Topside, the biggest of the waves piled GI spectators four deep along the rail. In the latrine one man fell in urinal. That same wave caught me walking across the officers’ mess with a plate of creamed chicken. I landed on top of a table, chest down on the plate. In all the confusion no one was hurt, although a couple of men were shaken up a bit. 

We continued to bounce around during the night. I felt bad. I don’t believe I was seasick, because my stomach was not upset. But I kept having fever and chills and my head ached. So I went to bed early. I mentioned in the last letter that I have a top bunk. That is a good thing ordinarily, but not in yesterday’s weather. I’m about ten feet from the floor and whenever the ship rolled enough I found myself hanging over the edge of the cot. My dreams were feverish. I kept dreaming of falling into pots of boiling metal, and I would wake up to look down at the floor, glowing dully in the light of the red night lanterns. The little clock stopped about a quarter to 12, and that made the night seem even longer. Doors banged and tin hats clanged against the walls. I got tangled up in the sleeping bag, which really is two bags, one inside the other. And then, crowning touch, I went to sleep about seven and almost slept through breakfast.

…I am, as usual, being troubled by manifestations of race prejudice among the men. We have some Negro personnel among the navy troops aboard and it annoys me to hear them referred to as coons, etc. They are Jim Crowed a little, but less than might be expected. For instance, they use the same washrooms as the rest of us and eat that mess with the rest of the naval personnel. This bothers a few of our southern boys. … Other racial remarks: by Joe –“He’s smart in a Jewish sort of way,” and by Tom – “a good guy even if he is a Jew.” While on the subject, there is a good and brave and restrained chapter on race prejudice in the Penguin book, “Psychology for the Fighting Man.” Sometime when you are in the University Book Store take a look at it. The Penguins are in a little case by the stairs going up to the Record section. 

Gee, I’d like to hear some good music. I am now getting an overdose of Blueberry Hill, as done by the bunk boys.

An interesting story from Joe [Miller]: He had discovered an old man who claimed to be Philadelphia Obrien, an ex boxing great. He wrote his life story for the Sunday supplement of the Lewiston paper and got a stranded boxer from Maine t pose with him for some pictures. Afterwards he staked the Maine man to a couple of meals and found him a room at the home of a friend. The day the AP killed the Obrien story as a phony (Obrien was dead) police arrested the Maine boy for a triple ax murder in Spokane.
When we boarded ship there were no Red Cross girls on the dock to give us coffee and kiss the boys goodbye. But today Red Cross gift kits were distributed. They are green cloth bags containing soap in an oiled cloth bag, a pack of red-backed playing cards, a large pack of Red Cross stationery, a package of life savers, a sewing kit with needles, thread and buttons, a shoeshine cloth and an extra pair of shoelaces (very welcome), and a Pocket Book. My book is Earle Stanley Gardner’s “The Case of the Sulky Girl.”
At the same time they were passing out the kits, the Red Cross men opened boxes of books and magazines. Quite a few of the books were of the Army Services Imprint, the first I have seen. They are about the same shape as a pocketbook but the binding is across the narrow part. They type is in two columns on each page. They are very easy to read. I picked up Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear. At present I am on page forty and fascinated. … Greene, you recall, is Gracene’s playmate. Even so he writes very well…Among other titles on board now are Howard Fast’s The Unvanquished, Saint Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars, Herman Melville’s Typee, and Murray Morgan’s Day of the Dead.

D of D is already a chapter longer than when I boarded ship. I have just killed Felix and introduced Angel to the blonde’s bedroom where, at this very moment, the poor boy is being held at the point of a gun. The situations are stereotyped a trifle? It is quite a novel. Even I am not sure what is going to happen next, and I would not be surprised if good did not triumph in the end. …

In addition to reading Greene and some extracts from The Telephone Booth Indian, I’ve done a little work on the Spanish texts. Already I am appalled by what I have been saying. If I can make myself work at it, we should be in pretty good shape to talk Spanish when we go back to Mexico. How are your conversations with Senora Fett proceeding? I can guess—in English.
This has been a day of modest excitements. In the morning, after breakfast, Neil and I were on deck when we heard a plane. At first it struck us as nothing unusual and then we realized we were out of sight of land and that, conceivably, this plane might not be friendly. But it was friendly, of course. It circled us three or four times, and went away. I recalled the story of how on his first Atlantic flight Lindbergh swept down at midsea and tried to shout at some fishermen to ask directions. Now the sight of a plane in mid-ocean is almost commonplace. 

Until about an hour ago, the weather had been quite calm and many more men were on deck than before. The variety of costumes is amazing. There is no specific dress required for the GIs aboard ship and the men wear everything from their fatigues to their Arctic issue. The most common costume is an open shirt, OD pants, Arctic field jacket and arctic wool helmet cap (the one the pulls down over your ears.) Some of the men wear their fatigue caps with the same outfit, and a few, including myself, are reveling in our first chance in some time to be outdoors bareheaded. The navy personnel are equally varied in their clothes. About half wear their blues, plus the pea jackets which you admired recently as we went down on the streetcar. Others wear their rich blue fatigues, which look like something Gordon Ford would enjoy. Headgear runs from the white beanies to black, tightfitting wool caps, these latter especially popular with the Negroes. 

The civilians, of course, have the most interesting clothing. They are all men going out to the construction projects and their gear and get-up makes the days of the gold rush seem very near: furlined caps with big earflaps, blazers in colors that would make Fletcher Pratt blanch, leather deerslayer jackets straight from Abercrombie and Fitch, mukluks, tin pants dark with the dirt of England, North Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Africa. Oddly, the Filipino workers are the most conservative in their costumes, either because they were not so well fixed financially before boarding ship or because previous experience with the weather where we are going has taught them what they will need. 

The old-time construction workers, who were in the game before the war, form an elite. They say little and unlike most other passengers freely admit they do not know where we are going or when we will get there. While most of us know our ultimate destination none know the route. The old-time civilians do not even speculate. Nor do they indulge in the fanciful worries about subs and storms which plague many of the men. Most are old hands at ocean crossings and more than one have been in Atlantic convoys under attack.

One old boy, who has been doing construction work ever since the last war and has been around the world often enough to misplace his birthday by a week, was in a convey that was scattered a couple of years ago somewhere between England and Iceland. His ship headed for the state, going north of Greenland to get off the usual lanes and to take advantage of the long Arctic night. “And, he assured me, “I’ll be a son of a beehive if we didn’t see the most beautiful northern lights for two full days and the lighted the water so that the British officers, who had not given up their cameras, the sons, could take pictures and have them do out just fine, and it was the most beautiful, most ugly, most awful thing in the world because we wanted it dark and here it was light as a virgin’s heart.” Not long after this speech I saw him sitting on a bulkhead, reading The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.

There is remarkably little mingling between the civilian and military groups aboard. This is due in part to the fact that some of the men resent the $100-$150 a week salaries the civilians are said to be making. But more, I believe, it is just a different approach to the whole thing. The soldiers  are being sent, the civilians are going of their own accord. That makes a profound difference. One group does not readily understand the other. It is another angle of the thing that worried me at Adair. 

As to my reading, I have finished Ministry of Fear, which in spite of Greene’s occasional lapses into Cory-ish religious references is a good book. … I am about to start Typee, by Melville. Red-haired, sad-faced Tom Kelly, strong of seed, is now reading Homer, for the first time. He assures me, “That boy is good. What a line! When he told a woman he wanted her! I didn’t know the Greeks were like that.” Neil is reading Bell for Adano and making unkind references to the army in general , General Patton in particular.  Joe Miller has finished all of James Farrell’s short stories and looks bilious. 

Another beautiful day, calm sea, moderate swell and some porpoise or seal playing far off the starboard side. So far no planes, no fire drills: not even the routine breaks in the routine. 


Breakfast was good: stewed apricots, little pigs, scrambled powdered eggs, bread and jam, mixed dry cereals (grape nuts, puffed wheat, corn flakes) with powdered milk, coffee and cream. Hardly anyone was sick and there was no repetition of the unpleasant experience of seeing a man take a bit, stop, and fill his messkit with vomit.
A trio of men are sitting, back to me, on the bunk two down, listening to a fourth, a black Irishman, tell about a date he had in Seattle just before leaving. The gal had been drinking beer and her met her while she was leaning against the wall of the Moore Theatre, urinating. “Hell,” he said. “She just bent over a little,  and I figured any girl that could do that was the girl for me. We got along swell until she rolled me for six and when I found out I said gimme back my six. She said what six, so I let her have five, knuckles up, and it knocked out all her teeth and I reached down the front of her dress and felt around until I found the six bucks and I got out of the taxi. There was a sailor standing there and he saw her out cold in the corner, her mouth all bloody, and I thought he was going to climb my frame but instead he says, how was she. I told him fine and he gave me two bucks to let him take me over. So I took his dough and got the hell out of there. Christ, I wonder what the taxi driver thought.” After which one of the men with a guitar went into a song:
I fought the battle of Seattle
From First to Ninth and Pine
I met every kind of woman they is
And none of them were kind.       

Another man on one of the nearby bunks was telling his experiences last night. He had met a woman welder from Boeings at a restaurant and found her pleasant to talk to. She turned him down on a date, so he followed her home. She wouldn’t invite him in and wouldn’t accept his invitation to go out to dinner. Finally she told him to come around the next day for dinner. It was a very nice meal, better than his wife had cooked while he had been home on a furlough, a few days before. She let him kiss her, but no more. They had several dinners together and one night she bought him a case of beer. That night their necking became a bit tempestuous and finally she said, “If we’re going to do a thing like that, let’s go to bed.” So they did. “And by God,” he said. “She just wouldn’t let me go.” He kept calling every night until just before the ship sailed. He told her about his home town and found that she had lived in it. When she asked him if he was married, he told her yes. She said, “That’s too bad because I’m going to break it up.” She told him she was going back to his home town to tell his wife about everything. He tried to talk her out of it, but she didn’t seem convinced. “Christ,” he said, “How I hope I don’t get any mail.”
I have to close this now so that it can be censored and be ready to go out as soon as we reach port. … To say how much I miss you, how much I love you is still beyond my ability with words, Nunny. I only hope that you do not miss me much as I miss you.

Best to Carmen, Jean, Bill, Myrtle, Haj, et al, and all my love to you,

M