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Historical Notes: `Something wrong as hell,' said Hemingway

IN THE late afternoon of Monday 5 June 1944, the big bearded "Yank" with the bandaged head left his "HQ at the Dorch" (Dorchester Hotel) and set off for the war. That evening he limped aboard the US supply transport the Dorothea L. Dix. Ten hours later she set sail from Portland Bill to take part in the great invasion. "Papa" Hemingway, voted that summer, "America's greatest living writer', was on his way to the "D- Day" beaches.

"That day we took Fox Green Bench was fifth June and the wind was blowing hard . . . As we moved in toward the land in the grey early light, the 36-foot coffin-shaped steel boats took solid green sheets of water that fell on the helmeted heads of the troops packed shoulder to shoulder in the stiff awkward uncomfortable lonely companionship of men going to battle . . ." Thus wrote America's "greatest living writer" in his Collier's Magazine account of D-Day called "Voyage to Victory".

Naturally "Papa" Hemingway, the veteran, who had "fought" in Italy and the Spanish Civil War, knew all the tricks. He told the ship's officers how to keep their binoculars free from flying spray (wrap them in an old sock). He found the mine-free approach channel for them, "It's green," he cried spotting the flagged buoy, "and there was a sigh of relief." He discovered their landing spot with the aid of a small chart he had providently brought with him, only to discover, "There's something wrong as hell. See the tanks? They're all along the edge of the beach. They haven't gone in all the way."

Naturally "Papa" knew what to do. He told the worried ship's officers where to run in and "[we] put our troops and TNT and their bazookas and their lieutenant ashore and that was that".

Modestly he finished his later account for Collier's with "Real war is never like paper war. But if you want to know how it was . . . on D-Day when we took Fox Green and Easy Red Bunch on 6th June 1944, then this is as near as I can come to it."

That very same evening Hemingway was back at his "HQ" in the Dorchester Hotel. His cronies and the journalists were waiting for him. Naturally plenty of booze too. Papa needed a drink badly. "Goddammit," he exclaimed, drawing the press's attention to his "head wound". "What a wound needs is a good stiff drink." "The wound" had been the result of a drunken car crash in the London blackout a few days before.

Hurriedly the drink was presented to the Great Man. Someone asked, "Does your own family know you are safely back from the beachhead?"

Hemingway, all soldier now, answered; "Gentlemen, I've got too much to do right now, getting ready to go back where the fighting is heavy at the moment."

The journalists must have loved it. Great copy! In years to come, they'd still be loving it, extolling "Papa" Hemingway's hard battle on "Bloody Omaha" in articles entitled "Hemingway's Longest Day" and the like. That night at the "Dorch" in "little old London town" (as the Great Man called the capital) a legend was born.

The truth? The Dorothea L. Dix (named after an American lady who had founded 32 asylums for the mentally ill in the United States in the late 19th century) was a very large supply ship. She had landed her supplies in the seventh wave at Omaha Beach. By then the fighting troops had already passed on inland.

As for "Papa", well he never put a foot on land where that day 3,000 young Americans had been killed and wounded. No one in authority would have all- owed the future Nobel prizewinner to endanger himself. Perhaps the Great Writer's choice of ships hadn't been too unapt. After all, she was, in a way, a ship of fools.

Charles Whiting is the author of `Hemingway Goes to War: travels with a gun 1944-45' (Sutton, 25 June, pounds 6.99)