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BIOGRAPHY

Excerpt from Grief Too Sad For Song: A Biography of Novelist James Jones

By Michael J. Moore

author michael j moore

From Chapter Eight, THE WAR IN THE WINTER OF '43

Toward the end of his life, looking back more than three decades to this crucible, Jones asserted that the most noteworthy contradiction was in the before-and-after status of those with whom he served: “No living soul looking at us, seeing us come hustling ashore to stare in awe at the hollow-eyed, vacant–faced, mean-looking First Marines, could have believed that in three months from that day we would be known as the famed Twenty-fifth Infantry ‘Tropic Lightning’ Division, bearing the shoulder patch with a streak of lightning running vertically though it. In the interim we had taken over from the First Marines, prosecuted the final offensive on the ‘Canal, chased the Japanese to Tassafaronga in the whirlwind windup which gave us our name, and begun to move up to New Georgia for the next fight of our campaign. By then we would have had a fair amount of casualties and sick, and as a division and as individuals have made our own EVOLUTION OF A SOLDIER.” 

Suddenly, Jones was one of those casualties. “I think I screamed, myself, when I was hit,” he recalled thirty years later. “I blacked out for several seconds. Then I came to . . . bleeding like a stuck pig and blood running all over my face. The thing I was most proud of was that I remembered to toss my full canteen of water to one of the men.”

His division was in the third day of a fight for a unique complex of strategic hills dubbed “The Galloping Horse” (due to visual shapes as seen on the graphics of their maps). Then it all happened quickly: “I was wounded in the head through no volition of my own, by a random mortar shell, spent a week in the hospital, and came back to my unit after the fight and joined them for the relatively little that was left of the campaign. I was shipped out after the campaign for an injured ankle that had to be operated on.” 

Although not a combat injury, that ankle was now Jones’s million-dollar wound.

      When he first landed at Guadalcanal, it was clear to Jones that anyone could be wounded at any time. Even more obvious was that once wounded, whether slightly or fatally, everything changed for the man who all of a sudden was no longer able to fight or even function in a soldierly capacity. But not just the injured soldier was compromised. Jones noticed that everyone around the stricken was also affected. His burgeoning ability to absorb critical experiences from multiple points of view—the trait that would later cause Scribner’s editor Max Perkins to say that Jones had the innate sensibility of a true novelist—manifested during his Guadalcanal crucible.

From the get-go, it was clear to Jones that “something strange seems to happen when a man is hit. There is an almost alchemic change in him, and in others’ relationship to him. Assuming he isn’t killed outright, and is only wounded, it is as though he passed through some veil isolating him, and has entered some new realm where the others, the unwounded, cannot follow.  He has become a different person, and the others treat him differently.”

What made such a deep impression on Jones at the start of his brief participation in the twilight phase of the Guadalcanal campaign was the sheer randomness involved in the fates of the dead or the wounded. Attitudes of bravery or cowardice were not at issue. Nor were physical bulk, individual speed, manual dexterity or personal endurance of any great matter. At any time, in any spot, one could be shattered.

“The first wounded I ever saw were remnants,” he recalled, “picked up by the rescue boat, of the bombed-out barge that was hit in the air raid the day we arrived at Guadalcanal. Of course we were all totally green hands at the time, so perhaps we watched with more awe than we would have done later.” 

Jones did more than watch. Rather than just steel his gut and willfully disconnect from what was right before his eyes (a coping mechanism GIs sometimes referred to as “closing off”), he instead observed with an admixture of compassion and scientific curiosity the changes that one could witness as the wounded were transformed.  After all, “only a short time before, some of us had been talking to some of these men on the ship.”

Viewing those who were wounded in the random air raid that occurred as Jones’s F Company made its way onto Guadalcanal’s terrain, he remembered that some “of them could walk by themselves. But all of them were suffering from shock as well as from blast, and the consummate tenderness with which they were handled by the corpsmen was a matter of complete indifference to them.”

Here, too, Jones began taking mental notes on another dimension of what he called “the evolution of a soldier.” The immediacy with which the wounded were thrust into a parallel universe had its counterpart in the deportment of the combat medics (usually hollered for as “Corpsmen! Corpsmen!” in reference to the Medical Corps). The humane gentleness of the combat medics was akin to the behavior of nurses.

Nonetheless, it remained apparent to Jones that the wounded remained beyond the pale: “Bloodstained, staggering, their eyeballs rolling, they faltered up the slope to lie or sit, dazed or indifferent, and allow themselves to be worked on by the doctors. They had crossed this strange line and everybody realized, including themselves dimly, that now they were different.”

As though being different all of a sudden in a community of combatants wherein able-bodied interdependence was at a premium, there was also the disorienting fact that all of this, at bottom, was largely a matter of bad luck. Ill timing. Happenstance.

“All they had done was climb into a barge and sit there as they had been told. And then this had been done to them, without warning, without explanation, perhaps damaging them irreparably,” he ruefully recalled. “They had been initiated into a strange, insane, twilight fraternity where explanation would be forever impossible. We watched all this with rapt attention. The wounded men, both those who would die and those who would not, were as indifferent to being stared at as they were to the tenderness with which they were treated. They stared back at us with lackluster eyes, which though lackluster were made curiously limpid by the dilation of deep shock.  As a result, we all felt it, too—what the others, with more experience, already knew—these men had crossed a line, and it was useless to try to reach them.”

What captivated Jones, as he observed this initial episode of seeing wounded soldiers react to trauma, was how instantly the ineffability was comprehended: “Explanation was impossible. It did not need to be mentioned. They understood it themselves.  Everybody was sorry, and so were they themselves. But there was nothing to be done about it. Tenderness was all that could be given, and like most of our self-labeled human emotions,” Jones surmised decades later, “it meant nothing when put alongside the intensity of the experience.”

On January 28, 1943, just a little more than two weeks after being wounded, Jones summed up as best he could (despite the military censorship he knew was in force) the details of his situation in a letter received back in America by his brother Jeff.

Wasting no words, Jones’s own sense of tenderness and compassion quickly came across as he told Jeff: “I’m writing this more or less to set your mind at ease concerning me. I’ve inquired around here as to what a guy is able to write, and—as per usual—I’ve found that there’s not a helluva lot to say that won’t be censored.”

It’s noteworthy to highlight how unmolested Jones’s letter was by the censors. But even more remarkable is the trajectory of that letter’s contents. After explaining his individual situation briefly, Jones elaborated on several themes in quick succession.

But first he reassured his brother, who was the “next of kin” the War Department would have alerted by telegram regarding Jones being wounded in battle. 

“It’s apparently OK for me to tell you that I’ve been wounded and have just been released from a Base Hospital in the South Pacific. I wasn’t hit very badly—a piece of shrapnel went thru my helmet and cut a nice little hole in the back of my head.  It didn’t fracture the skull and is healed up nicely now.” Just as succinctly, and with a storyteller’s passion for precise details, Jones went on to muse about both his missing helmet and his lifelong nemesis: eyeglasses.

“I don’t know what happened to my helmet; the shell landed close to me and when I came to, the helmet was gone. The concussion together with the fragment that hit me must have broken the chinstrap and torn it off my head. It also blew my glasses off my face. I never saw them again, either, but I imagine they are smashed to hell. If I hadn’t been lying in a hole I’d dug with my hands and helmet, that shell would probably have finished me off. The hole was only six or eight inches deep, but that makes an awful lot of difference.”

Jones was frighteningly destabilized by his visual incapacities: “I’m not much good without glasses,” he explained. “It bothers you a lot to know you can’t see well and that any minute some sniper you should have been able to see but couldn’t is liable to cut you down.  The glasses don’t help a lot either; you have to keep wiping sweat off of them every five minutes, and after a couple of days you don’t have rags or handkerchiefs clean enough to wipe them without leaving them badly smeared. That surprised me quite a bit, because I hadn’t thought wearing glasses would make much difference. But it does, a helluva lot: the knowledge that you can’t see well bothers the shit out of you—especially when you can’t make more than one misstep. I learned a lot of other things, too.”

Having assessed his own situation, Jones shifted his focus to ruminations he was having about war and literature. More specifically, about how a vast gulf separated the experience of reading about battles, wars and combat adventures, as opposed to finding oneself in the middle of hostilities. He was stunned by the discrepancies.

As he did in his paper about Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage” back at the University of Hawaii, Jones extrapolated from his recent wartime experience a range of ideas and conclusions in relation to an esteemed literary work: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, an iconic novel rivaled only by Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers in most discussions of the literature of World War One. 

“I found that reading books about other people fighting wars is adventurous, but when you are doing the fighting, it’s a helluva lot different. When you read a book like All Quiet on the Western Front you understand what the hero is going thru and sympathize with him. Even when he gets killed at the end of the book you sympathize, and in sympathizing, you feel a sadness you enjoy,” Jones stated. “But all that time while you are putting yourself into the hero’s place you still have the knowledge that after the hero dies you still will be around to feel sad about it.”

Now that he had narrowly escaped what could have been a swift death from a "random mortar shell" (adding yet another similarity to the list of commonalities Jones shared with young Hemingway, who was wounded in 1918 when a "random mortar shell" exploded in the trench where he was distributing cigarettes and snacks on behalf of the Ambulance Corps), Jones’s perspective was altered.

“When at any second you may die,” Jones insisted, “there is no adventure; all you want is to get the fighting over with. You don’t spend any time consoling yourself that if you die, you will be dying for your country and Liberty and Democracy and Freedom, because after you are dead, there is no such thing as Liberty or Democracy or freedom. It’s impossible to look at things from the viewpoint of the group rather than your individual eyes. The group means nothing to you if you cannot remain a part of it. But in spite of all this, you keep on fighting because you know that there is nothing else for you to do.”

Novelist James Jones (1921-1977) stunned the publishing world in 1951 with his blockbuster debut novel ‘From Here to Eternity.’ After winning the National Book Award for Fiction in 1952, Jones's legacy was immortalized by the release in 1953 of the Academy Award-winning film adaptation of his trailblazing novel. Over the next quarter century--until his untimely death from congestive heart failure at age 55--James Jones published ten more books. His most famous work consists of his World War Two trilogy: ‘From Here to Eternity’,’The Thin Red Line’ andWhistle.’ James Jones published ten more books, including, Some Came Running.

;Some Came Running starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley Maclaine was nominated for five Academy Awards.


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