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The Hemingway Patrols: Ernest Hemingway and His Hunt for U-Boats

“The Hemingway Patrols is modest in length and epic in scope. Writing in a limpid, economical prose that his subject would admire, Terry Mort tells the story of a little-known period in the life of one of America’s greatest novelists and manages to weave all sorts of disparate threads into a harmonious whole. Descriptions of submarine warfare and naval battles alternate with insightful commentaries on Hemingway’s art and career and portraits of his troubled marriage to his third wife, the fascinating Martha Gellhorn. There is even a poetic treatise on celestial navigation. Like a well designed memory chip, this book crams an awful lot into a small space and does so with elegance and grace.” — Phillip Caputo, Author of A Rumor of War

Free Preview[SYNOPSIS] A fascinating account of a dramatic, untold chapter in Hemingway’s life—his pursuit of German U-boats during World War II. From the summer of 1942 until the end of 1943, Ernest Hemingway lived in Havana, Cuba, and spent much of his time in the Gulf Stream hunting German sub- marines in his wooden fishing boat, The Pilar. This phase of Hemingway’s life has only been briefly touched upon in biographies of Hemingway but proved to be of enormous importance to him. At the time, the U-boats were torpedoing dozens of Allied tankers each month and threatened America’s ability to wage war in Europe. Hemingway’s patrols were supported by the U.S. Navy, and he viewed these dangerous missions as both patriotic duty and pure adventure. But they were more than that: they provided some literary basis for The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream.

Book Excerpt

Chapter 1 – A Serious Man: Sometimes you know the story. Sometimes you make it up as you go along and have no idea how it will come out. Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview

For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and our world islanded in its stream of stars …. Henry Beston

Sailors who have studied celestial navigation remember the first time they worked on a complicated navigational fix, and their calculations actually came out correctly. Three lines drawn on a chart and derived from the angles of three stars intersect at the same pinpoint, and the navigator knows his exact position in the universe. The pleasure of the moment comes in part because the process of measuring and plotting is not that easy, at least not when you are new to the business. But there is pleasure also in the poetry of knowing you are precisely in this place because the stars have said so. You are at the juncture of three streams of light that began their travels millions of years ago. It’s a moment for humility and, at the same time, for a kind of pride of place and an affirmation of self, which is both satisfying and comic, given the fact that you are miles from land and at the complete mercy of that very universe in which you have so accurately and skillfully placed yourself. In calculating where you are, you are reminded that your ship is very small. And you, star plotter, even smaller. Still, you are at the center of it all, ‘islanded in its stream of stars,’ and you know it. It is a wonderful conceit. A fine and complicated moment. Full of irony and whatever the opposite of irony is. These moments are fleeting, of course. After all, even the best star fix is accurate only for a short time, for the ship moves on, as do the stars. And that brief period, when everything comes together, just right, passes quickly.

In 1942 Ernest Hemingway must have experienced a similar moment of recognition — that he was just then at the top of his arc, that vectors from many different directions had come together – his writing, his physical well being, his professional reputation and success, his family, his friendships, his pastimes and pleasures. All these major forces had joined to place him at or near his personal and professional zenith. Of course, from the zenith there is only one future direction, and the emotion of the moment would have been complicated by a rueful reflection or two. Still, Hemingway had every reason to savor his position. He had a talented and attractive wife, international acclaim, a farmhouse outside of Havana within easy reach of his well loved Gulf Stream and near also to the little port town of Cojimar, where he kept his fishing boat, Pilar. His most recent novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, had been published two years before and had been a smashing commercial and artistic success. A six figure offer to do a film script was in the works. Though his country was at war, he was forty three, still vigorous, but too old to be expected to fight. As with most people and especially artists, his life was not uniformly serene and satisfying; he still had his dark moods, fits of temper and worries now and then. But those periods aside, it was all just about as good as it could get, just then, in Cuba, and he could hardly be criticized for sitting beside his swimming pool, relishing his achievements and enjoying the view from the heights: “Out of all the things you could not have there were some that you could have and one of those was to know when you were happy and to enjoy it all while it was there and it was good.”

But from the summer of 1942 through the whole of 1943 Ernest Hemingway did not spend much time resting on his considerable laurels. Nor did he do any writing of consequence. Instead, he spent a great deal of his time cruising in his 38 foot wooden fishing boat, Pilar, along the north coast of Cuba and out into the Gulf Stream. He was looking for German submarines. U boats.

That sounds like something he would do. It’s certainly in line with the popular image of the man, an image created partly by the author himself and partly by the media for whom he was good copy, always. But this was no publicity stunt. While Hemingway was ostensibly trolling for large fish, he was actually looking for even larger and infinitely more dangerous quarry during a time in the war when the U boats were winning and America’s resources to fight them were absurdly thin. The patrols were his idea, but they were sanctioned by the local American embassy and done in cooperation with the military, both in Cuba and America. In short, this was a serious business.

It’s also important to understand that Hemingway was hunting U boats at a sacrifice to his work – and his income. For Whom the Bell Tolls had been an astounding success; Hemingway was at the top of his game; the stars were all aligned in his favor. He could have ridden the wave of critical acclaim in any number of ways. But he did not. He set aside his work to volunteer. And not writing was more than a simple matter of losing revenue, for as he said later: “ … the time to work is shorter all the time and if you waste it you feel you have committed a sin for which there is no forgiveness.” He was at his best when he was working and he knew it; writing defined him. “Writing is a hard business … but nothing makes you feel better.” Even so, he gave that up for a time – a long time — and went looking for U boats.

But Hemingway’s quest does raise a number of questions, and the most fundamental is – if he ever actually found a U boat, what did he expect to do with it? It seems like looking for a wolf to grab by the ears. Had he suspended his imagination to the point of foolhardiness? (“Cowardice, as distinguished from panic, is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination.”) Or was his imagination actually in overdrive, like some modern Don Quixote?

At first glance these patrols do seem quixotic. But in fact Hemingway’s self designed mission was mainly a matter of reconnaissance. He would search an area hoping to spot a U boat cruising on the surface, so that he could plot its position, course and speed and then radio the Navy units in the area – perhaps contacting the Miami Naval Air Station that would send planes to bomb the U boat before it became alarmed, submerged and escaped. Or maybe a patrolling destroyer or escort vessel could somehow arrive soon enough to pick up the U boat’s trail and attack it with depth charges. Meanwhile, Hemingway in his fragile fishing boat would stay out of the way, having done the initial job of spotting and reporting. That’s how it would work if everything went right. Even if no action resulted, it would be useful for the Navy to know that a U boat was in a particular area. And viewed that way, Hemingway’s patrolling made good sense, and it was consistent with naval operations, which relied on a variety of amateur and professional intelligence sources to report U boat activity. (U boats were even spotted and reported by Pan American airline crews.)

But Hemingway’s job was more complicated than merely cruising around and scanning the horizon for enemy submarines, for much of the time U boats traveled beneath the surface, and Pilar had no underwater detection equipment. She had only the eyes of her crew. Hemingway might sail Pilar through an apparently empty sea and never know that a submerged U boat was lurking near by, perhaps watching him through the periscope and trying to decide if Pilar was worth destroying. Therefore, the only way to detect a submerged U boat was to entice it to the surface.

The experience of some local fishermen suggested a way to do that.

U boats, which had traveled far from their bases in France and had been on patrol for weeks, had long since run out of fresh food and were often attracted by the sight of a local fishing boat. Having spotted a potential target, a U boat would suddenly surface in a massive display of foam and streaming water, no doubt astonishing the fishermen. The Germans would then send over a boarding party to relieve the locals of their catch, as well as any fruits or other fresh foods they might have on board. This had happened to commercial fishing boats more than a few times during these early days of the war. If the fishermen were lucky, the Germans would go on their way with no further harm done, beyond the loss of their catch. If they were not lucky, they would be set adrift in life rafts and their boat sunk with gunfire, for a U boat would not waste a torpedo on a fishing boat. And if they were very unlucky, they would be machine gunned along with their boat (though most, if not all, U boat commanders drew the line at this sort of thing, despite orders from the commander of the U boat fleet, Admiral Donitz.)

Hemingway reasoned that a fishing boat like Pilar would offer a tempting opportunity to U boat captains on the lookout for fresh food. He would have to hope, though, that the U boat he attracted was not having a run of bad luck. No U boat skipper wanted to go home with little or nothing to show for the patrol. Even sinking a fishing boat like Pilar would at least be something positive to report.

If he lured a U boat to the surface, though, Hemingway knew he would have to confront the enemy alone – at least initially. He had a timing problem, for if Navy units were summoned immediately and arrived quickly, Pilar would be lying next to a U boat that was suddenly under attack by bombs or naval gunfire. The fact that he had radioed in the information would be no guarantee against being caught in the crossfire. Pilar would be in as much danger as the U boat, for pilots or gunnery officers would not hold their fire simply because a fishing boat was in the target area — not when there was a chance to sink an enemy U boat that was lying on the surface. (Besides, for all they knew the fishing boat might be an enemy craft based clandestinely in Cuba and used for re-supply; there were numerous German agents on the island, rumored to be cooperating with U boats. In fact, one of Hemingway’s secondary missions was to be on the lookout for just these kinds of rendezvous.) On the other hand, if Hemingway waited until the German boarding party finished ransacking Pilar before he called for help, the U boat would undoubtedly disappear before the Navy could get there. And that also assumed, of course, that the German captain would not decide to sink Pilar, as a parting gesture.

Hemingway’s problem, therefore, was to find a way to prevent the U boat from disappearing before the Navy could arrive and yet, at the same time, to avoid becoming a victim of friendly fire.

His solution was characteristic: he would attack the U boat — suddenly and unexpectedly – and then run for it. Just exactly how he would conduct this attack was something he would have to work out. But if he could somehow cause enough mayhem and, possibly, damage, Pilar might be able to slip away in the confusion of combat and at the same time pin the U boat on the surface for the Navy.

The prospect no doubt appealed to Hemingway’s imagination and artistic sense. U boats were unpredictable, ruthless, impersonal and fearsome; metaphorically they were close cousins of the sharks in The Old Man and the Sea – sinister forms appearing suddenly to turn a calm sea into a scene of bloody carnage. They were also a particularly appropriate metaphor for Hemingway’s view of the universe – a universe that alternated between indifference and sudden violence. The metaphor was consistent with others Hemingway used to depict humans confronting powerful and often malign external forces – the matador and the bull, the hunter and the charging lion, and especially the aged fishermen and the sharks. To Hemingway, Pilar versus the U boat was an irresistible and compelling representation of man’s fate: a small wooden boat attacking an iron and steel machine of industrial war, knowing the odds against success or even survival were long, but attacking nonetheless, for dignity lay in making the attempt.

But … U boats were also real. The shells and bullets they would be firing were not metaphorical, and wood versus steel is an interesting literary trope but a decided mismatch in battle. To imagine a story is one thing; to make an actual attack is something else. And so it’s fair to ask — was Hemingway really serious? Did he mean to go through with it, if he actually encountered a U boat? And, if so, was this just part of an on-going and well advertised death wish? Who went with him and how did he convince them to go along? Why did he go looking for U boats in the first place? Did he see this as some sort of symbolic quest? Was he gathering material for fiction? Does this period tell us anything about the man as artist? Or the man, himself? And how many U boats were in the area, really? Were the occasional sightings merely random, or was this area of the Gulf of Mexico an active theater of the war? Did Hemingway know deep down that the odds of encountering a U boat were infinitesimally small and that therefore he could broadcast his intentions, knowing that he would never be put to the test? Was it all just bravado, a farce, an unintentional opera bouffe, the product of a blustering middle aged man playing at war while actually just fishing? Some thought so; his wife, Martha Gellhorn, for one — especially when she was angry with him. Those who were not his admirers, and there were many, characterized these patrols as little more than self aggrandizing stunts. Was there any truth in this?

Some, perhaps. But not much. Instead, it’s much fairer, and closer to the truth, to realize that Hemingway, like any sailor at the start of a patrol in wartime, did not know, could not know, what lay ahead. And this not-knowing constituted an act of – if not bravery – at least a kind of mental and physical fortitude that is, in itself, worthy of respect. His experiences during WWI and the Spanish Civil War provided hard lessons in the inherent uncertainty of war. As he wrote in the Introduction to Men at War, “war is the province of chance.” Things rarely go the way you think they will; and a great many things could go wrong during an encounter with a U boat. And yet he went to sea, not once, but repeatedly from June of 1942 until the end of 1943, each time putting himself, his boat and the friends who went with him potentially into harm’s way. As for his plan to attack – that was the most uncertain part of it all. It’s easy to look back on history, knowing the outcomes, and opine about the way things happened and the way people acted. It’s not so easy in the moment, when those outcomes are not guaranteed or even fully imagined.

Undoubtedly, Hemingway was thinking over many of these same questions as he guided Pilar out the channel of Havana harbor, past the fortress of El Morro, and out into the open water in search of the enemy. The flying bridge of a fishing boat is a fine place for introspection. And when that boat is also a ship of war, and you are in command, responsible for the vessel and crew, the bridge is where your thoughts become most truly serious. It is not a place for illusions. Or self delusions.

And perhaps in the waters north of Havana, the captain of a U boat was standing on his own bridge, similarly thoughtful.

Thieves' Road


ISBN: 9781416597902

Publisher: Scribner