James Holmes

Hemingway’s Naval Adventures

Literary figures have made a point of taking part in great events. They also remind us that there are many ways to organize navies.

Ernest Hemingway is the first serious literary figure whose work I genuinely liked, as opposed to being forced to read it in high school or college. As it happens, two nautical-themed biographies of Hemingway have seen print over the past three years. Both are excellent reads. One bears directly on sea power. Hemingway’s Boat, by Paul Hendrickson, uses the writer’s 38-foot fishing boat Pilar as the organizing device for a work recounting the years from his purchase of Pilar in 1934 until his suicide in 1961. The book is an elegy, tracing the author’s slow descent from the zenith of his fame to relative obscurity, despair, and darkness. Seafaring is a constant in Hendrikson’s account.

The Hemingway Patrols, by Terry Mort, narrows the aperture to Hemingway’s little-known hunt for German submarines in the Caribbean following American entry into World War II. After Berlin declared war on the United States, U-boat skippers swiftly extended their patrol grounds to the North American east coast, and then to the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Hemingway had developed an abiding hatred for fascism while traveling in Spain during that nation’s civil war (1936-1939), when Hitler’s regime supported General Francisco Franco militarily. And the author was living in Havana at the outbreak of World War II. Cuban geography granted him easy access to the Gulf Stream for sport fishing — and for anti-submarine warfare.

Undertaking this seemingly mad quest thus appeared natural. Accordingly, Hemingway signed on as a U.S. Navy auxiliary during the U-boats’ “happy time,” when German subs based in France rampaged against a navy and merchant fleet that proved woefully slow to take countermeasures. The Straits of Florida, along the Cuban north coast, offered the shortest, most fuel-efficient passage from Atlantic waters into America’s inland sea.

Armed only with grenades and small arms, Hemingway and a band of seagoing brothers operated out of Cuba, hunting not just for submarines but for fuel dumps rumored to be dotted around the Caribbean basin to support German cruises. In those days, long before the advent of naval nuclear propulsion or air-independent propulsion, amateurs stood at least some chance of catching a U-boat unawares. Rudimentary technology compelled submarines to spend substantial intervals on the surface, ventilating their interiors with fresh air while recharging the batteries used to drive electric propulsion motors while submerged.

But what would the wooden-hulled Pilar’s crew have actually done had they sighted a steel-hulled German boat boasting far heavier armament and a bigger crew? Hemingway’s tactical vision was on the vague side — at best.

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From Sophocles and Pericles during the Peloponnesian War to Hemingway and George Orwell during the Spanish Civil War, literary and cultural figures have made a point of taking part in great events, or at least witnessing them firsthand. The life of Hemingway, moreover, reminds us that there are innumerable ways to organize navies. Combining public and private assets is common practice. Coastal states are apt to resort to such measures in desperate days like the U-boats’ happy time. For a quixotic tale of maritime derring-do, scope out The Hemingway Patrols.