Read Once There Was a War Online

Authors: John Steinbeck

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Once There Was a War

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THE WAY

IT WAS

“THE LIEUTENANT WALKED SLOWLY

up the hill toward the German positions.

He carried his white flag over his head,

and his white flag was a bath towel.

Last night when he had argued for the

privilege of going up and trying to kid

the Jerry into surrender he hadn’t known it

would be like this. He hadn’t known

how lonely and exposed he would be.

The lieutenant knew that if he were hit and

not killed he would hear the shot after

he was hit, but if he were hit in the

head he wouldn’t hear or feel

anything. He hoped, if it happened, it

would happen that way ...”

One of the Unforgettable Stories John

Steinbeck Tells in
Once There Was a War

Books by John Steinbeck

CUP OF GOLD

THE PASTURES OF HEAVEN

TO A GOD UNKNOWN

TORTILLA FLAT

OF MICE AND MEN

THE RED PONY

THE GRAPES OF WRATH

CANNERY ROW

THE WAYWARD BUS

THE PEARL

BURNING BRIGHT

EAST OF EDEN

SWEET THURSDAY

THE SHORT REIGN OF PIPPIN IV

Published by Bantam Books

ONCE THERE

WAS A WAR

by

JOHN STEINBECK

Bantam Books • New York

THIS LOW-PRICED BANTAM BOOK

printed in completely new type, especially designed for easy reading, contains the complete text of the original, hard-cover edition. NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.

 

ONCE THERE WAS A WAR

 

A Bantam Book / published by arrangement with

The Viking Press, Inc.

 

PRINTING HISTORY

Viking edition published September 1958

Books Abridged edition published March 1959

Serialized the
NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE
Syndicate

June-December 1943

Bantam edition published January 1960

 

All rights reserved

Copyright © 1943, 1958, by John Steinbeck

Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada

 

Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, Inc. Its trade-mark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a bantam, is registered in the U. S. Patent Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Printed in the United States of America. Bantam Books, Inc., 25 West 45th St., New York 36, N. Y.

 

Contents

Contents

Introduction

ONCE THERE WAS A WAR: AN INTRODUCTION

England

TROOPSHIP

A PLANE’S NAME

NEWS FROM HOME

SUPERSTITION

PREPARATION FOR A RAID

THE GROUND CREW

WAITING

DAY OF MEMORIES

THE PEOPLE OF DOVER

MINESWEEPER

COAST BATTERY

ALCOHOLIC GOAT

STORIES OF THE BLITZ

LILLI MARLENE

WAR TALK

THE COTTAGE THAT WASN’T THERE

GROWING VEGETABLES

THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD

THEATER PARTY

DIRECTED UNDERSTANDING

BIG TRAIN

BOB HOPE

A COZY CASTLE

THE YANKS ARRIVE

A HAND

THE CAREER OF BIG TRAIN MULLIGAN

CHEWING GUM

MUSSOLINI

CRAPS

Africa

PLANE FOR AFRICA

ALGIERS

A WATCH CHISELER

OVER THE HILL

THE SHORT SNORTER WAR MENACE

THE BONE YARD

Italy

REHEARSAL

INVASION

PALERMO

SOUVENIR

WELCOME

THE LADY PACKS

CAPRI

SEA WARFARE

THE WORRIED BARTENDER

THE CAMERA MAKES SOLDIERS

THE STORY OF AN ELF

MAGIC PIECES

SYMPTOMS

THE PLYWOOD NAVY

A DESTROYER

A RAGGED CREW

VENTOTENE

Introduction

ONCE THERE WAS A WAR: AN INTRODUCTION

ONCE UPON A TIME there was a war, but so long ago and so shouldered out of the way by other wars and other kinds of wars that even people who were there are apt to forget. This war that I speak of came after the plate armor and longbows of Crécy and Agincourt and just before the little spitting experimental atom bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I attended a part of that war, you might say visited it, since I went in the costume of a war correspondent and certainly did not fight, and it is interesting to me that I do not remember very much about it. Reading these old reports sent in with excitement at the time brings back images and emotions completely lost.

Perhaps it is right or even necessary to forget accidents, and wars are surely accidents to which our species seems prone. If we could learn from our accidents it might be well to keep the memories alive, but we do not learn. In ancient Greece it was said that there had to be a war at least every twenty years because every generation of men had to know what it was like. With us, we must forget, or we could never indulge in the murderous nonsense again.

The war I speak of, however, may be memorable because it was the last of its kind. Our Civil War has been called the last of the “gentlemen’s wars,” and the so-called Second World War was surely the last of the long global wars. The next war, if we are so stupid as to let it happen, will be the last of any kind. There will be no one left to remember anything. And if that is how stupid we are, we do not, in a biologic sense, deserve survival. Many other species have disappeared from the earth through errors in mutational judgment. There is no reason to suppose that we are immune from the immutable law of nature which says that over-armament, over-ornamentation, and, in most cases, over-integration are symptoms of coming extinction. Mark Twain in
A Connecticut Yankee
uses the horrifying and possible paradox of the victor’s being killed by the weight of the vanquished dead.

But all this is conjecture, no matter how possible it may be. The strange thing is that my dim-remembered war has become as hazy as conjecture. My friend Jack Wagner was in the First World War. His brother Max was in the Second World War. Jack, in possessive defense of the war he knew, always referred to it as the Big War, to his brother’s disgust. And of course the Big War is the war you knew.

But do you know it, do you remember it, the drives, the attitudes, the terrors, and, yes, the joys? I wonder how many men who were there remember very much.

I have not seen these accounts and stories since they were written in haste and telephoned across the sea to appear as immediacies in the
New York Herald Tribune
and a great many other papers. That was the day of the Book by the War Correspondent, but I resisted that impulse, believing or saying I believed that unless the stories had validity twenty years in the future they should stay on the yellowing pages of dead newspaper files. That I have got them out now is not for my first reason given at all. Reading them over after all these years, I realize not only how much I have forgotten but that they are period pieces, the attitudes archaic, the impulses romantic, and, in the light of everything that has happened since, perhaps the whole body of work untrue and warped and one-sided.

The events set down here did happen. But on rereading this reportage, my memory becomes alive to the other things, which also did happen and were not reported. That they were not reported was partly a matter of orders, partly traditional, and largely because there was a huge and gassy thing called the War Effort. Anything which interfered with or ran counter to the War Effort was automatically bad. To a large extent judgment about this was in the hands of the correspondent himself, but if he forgot himself and broke any of the rules, there were the Censors, the Military Command, the Newspapers, and finally, most strong of all in discipline, there were the war-minded civilians, the Noncombatant Commandos of the Stork Club, of
Time
Magazine and
The New Yorker
, to jerk a correspondent into line or suggest that he be removed from the area as a danger to the War Effort. There were citizens’ groups helping with tactics and logistics; there were organizations of mothers to oversee morals, and by morals I mean not only sexual morals but also such things as gambling and helling around in general. Secrecy was a whole field in itself. Perhaps our whole miasmic hysteria about secrecy for the last twenty years had its birth during this period. Our obsession with secrecy had a perfectly legitimate beginning in a fear that knowledge of troop-ship sailings would and often did attract the wolf packs of submarines. But from there it got out of hand until finally facts available in any library in the world came to be carefully guarded secrets, and the most carefully guarded secrets were known by everyone.

I do not mean to indicate that the correspondent was harried and pushed into these rules of conduct. Most often he carried his rule book in his head and even invented restrictions for himself in the interest of the War Effort. When The Viking Press decided to print these reports in book form, it was suggested that, now that all restrictions were off, I should take out the “Somewhere in So-and-So” dateline and put in the places where the events occurred. This is impossible. I was so secret that I don’t remember where they happened.

The rules, some imposed and some self-imposed, are amusing twenty years later. I shall try to remember a few of them. There were no cowards in the American Army, and of all the brave men the private in the infantry was the bravest and noblest. The reason for this in terms of the War Effort is obvious. The infantry private had the dirtiest, weariest, least rewarding job in the whole war. In addition to being dangerous and dirty, a great many of the things he had to do were stupid. He must therefore be reassured that these things he knew to be stupid were actually necessary and wise, and that he was a hero for doing them. Of course no one even casually inspected the fact that the infantry private had no choice. If he exercised a choice, he was either executed immediately or sent to prison for life.

A second convention was that we had no cruel or ambitious or ignorant commanders. If the disorganized insanity we were a part of came a cropper, it was not only foreseen but a part of a grander strategy out of which victory would emerge.

A third sternly held rule was that five million perfectly normal, young, energetic, and concupiscent men and boys had for the period of the War Effort put aside their habitual preoccupation with girls. The fact that they carried pictures of nude girls, called pin-ups, did not occur to anyone as a paradox. The convention was the law. When Army Supply ordered X millions of rubber contraceptive and disease-preventing items, it had to be explained that they were used to keep moisture out of machine-gun barrels—and perhaps they did.

Since our Army and Navy, like all armies and navies, were composed of the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the cruel, the gentle, the brutal, the kindly, the strong, and the weak, this convention of general nobility might seem to have been a little hard to maintain, but it was not. We were all a part of the War Effort. We went along with it, and not only that, we abetted it. Gradually it became a part of all of us that the truth about anything was automatically secret and that to trifle with it was to interfere with the War Effort. By this I don’t mean that the correspondents were liars. They were not. In the pieces in this book everything set down happened. It is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies.

When General Patton slapped a sick soldier in a hospital and when our Navy at Gela shot down fifty-nine of our own troop carriers, General Eisenhower personally asked the war correspondents not to send the stories because they would be bad for morale at home. And the correspondents did not file the stories. Of course the War Department leaked to a local newsman and the stories got printed anyway, but no one in the field contributed to that bit of treason to the War Effort.

Meanwhile strange conventional stories were born and duly reported. One of the oddest concerned the colonel or general in the Air Force whose duty required that he stay in reluctant comfort on the ground and who ate his heart out to be with his “boys” out on mission over Germany among the red flak. It was hard, stern duty that kept him grounded, and much harder than flying missions. I don’t know where this one started, but it doesn’t sound as though it came from enlisted personnel. I never met a bomber crew which wouldn’t have taken on this sterner duty at the drop of a hat. They may have been a little wild, but they weren’t that crazy.

Reading over these old reports, I see that again and again sentences were removed by censor. I have no idea what it was that was removed. Correspondents had no quarrel with censors. They had a tough job. They didn’t know what might be brought up against them. No one could discipline them for eliminating, and so in self-preservation they eliminated pretty deeply. Navy censors were particularly sensitive to names of places, whether they had any military importance or not. It was the safest way. Once when I felt a little bruised by censorship I sent through Herodotus’s account of the battle of Salamis fought between the Greeks and Persians in 480 B.C., and since there were place names involved, albeit classical ones, the Navy censors killed the whole story.

We really tried to observe the censorship rules, even knowing that a lot of them were nonsense, but it was very hard to know what the rules were. They had a way of changing with the commanding officer. Just when you thought you knew what you could send, the command changed and you couldn’t send that at all.

The correspondents were a curious, crazy, and yet responsible crew. Armies by their nature, size, complication, and command are bound to make mistakes, mistakes which can be explained or transmuted in official reports. It follows that military commanders are a little nervous about reporters. They are restive about people breathing down their necks, particularly experts. And it was true that many of the professional war correspondents had seen more wars and more kinds of wars than anybody in the Army or Navy. Capa, for example, had been through the Spanish War, the Ethiopian War, the Pacific War. Clark Lee had been at Corregidor and before that in Japan. If the regular Army and Navy didn’t much like the war correspondents there was nothing they could do about it, because these men were the liaison with the public. Furthermore many of them had become very well known and had enormous followings. They were syndicated from one end of the nation to the other. Many of them had established their methods and their styles. A few had become prima donnas, but not many. Ernie Pyle was so popular and so depended on by readers at home that in importance he much outranked most general officers.

To this hard-bitten bunch of professionals I arrived as a Johnny-come-lately, a sacred cow, a kind of tourist. I think they felt that I was muscling in on their hard-gained territory. When, however, they found that I was not duplicating their work, was not reporting straight news, they were very kind to me and went out of their way to help me and to instruct me in the things I didn’t know. For example, it was Capa who gave me the best combat advice I ever heard. It was, “Stay where you are. If they haven’t hit you, they haven’t seen you.” And then Capa had to go and step on a land mine in Viet-Nam, just when he was about to retire from the whole terrible, futile business. And Ernie Pyle got it between the eyes from a sniper on the trip he planned as his weary last.

All of us developed our coy little tricks with copy. Reading these old pieces, I recognize one of mine. I never admitted having seen anything myself. In describing a scene I invariably put it in the mouth of someone else. I forget why-1 did this. Perhaps I felt that it would be more believable if told by someone else. Or it is possible that I felt an interloper, and eavesdropper on the war, and was a little bit ashamed of being there at all. Maybe I was ashamed that I could go home and soldiers couldn’t. But it was often neither safe nor comfortable being a correspondent. A great part of the services were in supply and transport and office work. Even combat units got some rest after a mission was completed. But the war correspondents found that their papers got restive if they weren’t near where things were happening. The result was that the correspondents had a very high casualty rate. If you stayed a correspondent long enough and went to the things that were happening, the chances were that you would get it. In reading these reports I am appalled at how many of the reporters are dead. Only a handful of the blithe spirits who made the nights horrible and filled the days with complaints, remain living.

But to get back to the conventions. It was the style to indicate that you were afraid all the time. I guess I was really afraid, but the style was there too. I think this was also designed to prove how brave the soldiers were. And the soldiers were just exactly as brave and as cowardly as anyone else.

We edited ourselves much more than we were edited. We felt responsible to what was called the home front. There was a general feeling that unless the home front was carefully protected from the whole account of what war was like, it might panic. Also we felt we had to protect the armed services from criticism, or they might retire to their tents to sulk like Achilles.

The self-discipline, self-censorship among the war correspondents was surely moral and patriotic but it was also practical in a sense of self-preservation. Some subjects were taboo. Certain people could not be criticized or even questioned. The foolish reporter who broke the rules would not be printed at home and in addition would be put out of the theater by the command, and a correspondent with no theater has no job.

We knew, for instance, that a certain very famous general officer constantly changed press agents because he felt he didn’t get enough headlines. We knew the commander who broke a Signal Corps sergeant for photographing his wrong profile. Several fine field officers were removed from their commands by the jealousy of their superiors because they aroused too much enthusiasm in their men and too much admiration from the reporters. There were consistent sick leaves which were gigantic hangovers, spectacular liaisons between Army brass and WAACs, medical discharges for stupidity, brutality, cowardice, and even sex deviation. I don’t know a single reporter who made use of any of this information. Apart from wartime morals, it would have been professional suicide to have done it. The one man who jumped the gun and scooped the world on the armistice was ruined in his profession, and his career was terminated.

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