Hawaii. December 7, 1941. On a tropical Sunday morning the drone of Japanese fighters emerges over the U.S. Army’s Wheeler Field next to Schofield Barracks. Billowing plumes of smoke rise into the air as American fighter planes are destroyed. Men whirl about in confusion and fire desperately at the Japanese bombers overhead. In the midst of the attack, a young private from Illinois runs messages back and forth from one post to another. That private is James Jones, the son of a dentist in the town of Robinson, Illinois. Years later he will write a novel about World War II that will become classic: From Here To Eternity (1951).
There is no shortage of writers who fall within the geographical scope of this blog who served in the military. The two large scale conflicts of the twentieth century, coupled with the following wars in Korea and Vietnam and an ongoing postwar draft from 1945 through the 1970s, meant that plenty of American authors had some experience with the military. But James Jones stands out for a number of reasons.
One is that he was a member of the prewar American army. He enlisted in 1939 and came to know the U.S. Army and stateside garrison life, including service in Hawaii, before the full-scale mobilization of World War Two. This experience separates him from the draftees and men who enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He knew the old Army, its lifer enlisted men and officers, and its rituals and folkways before the war transformed this institution.
Two, he had combat experience on Guadalcanal. Third, he experienced a period of convalescence in military hospitals related to both minor war wounds and a more serious ankle injury, which gave him experience of hospitals, hospital ships and fellow wounded veterans. This experience as a patient found its way into his novel Whistle (1978) which deals with soldiers recovering from wounds. Fourth, as noted earlier, he was there for the actual beginning of American involvement in World War Two with the attacks on Wheeler Field and Pearl Harbor. Finally, much of Jones’ fictional work involved the war. He also wrote a nonfiction account simply called WWII (1975) and served as a war correspondent during the Vietnam War, producing a book entitled Viet Journal (1974).
James Jones was born in Robinson, Illinois on November 6, 1921 to Ramon and Ada Jones. The economy was still sluggish from years of depression when Jones graduated high school, so his father encouraged him to consider joining the Army. He enlisted in November of 1939 and received basic training at Fort Slocum, New York before being posted to Hawaii in early 1940. He was assigned to a military police unit at Hickham Field near Honolulu, then transferred later to F Company, Second Battalion in the Twenty-Seventh Infantry (“Wolfhound”) Regiment within the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, located near Wheeler Field. Here he served as a company clerk and took some courses at the University of Hawaii.
A different kind of education occurred also during this period of garrison life. Like many other servicemen, he saw firsthand the world of vice and dissipation in a red light section of Honolulu near Hotel Street, much of it geared towards the population of soldiers and sailors. The original text of From Here To Eternity addresses the issue of otherwise straight but underpaid U.S. soldiers prostituting themselves to homosexuals in this part of Honolulu. One character who does so in the novel is Maggio, portrayed by Frank Sinatra in the famous film version. This material was too raw for the time and was cut from the novel. (Not surprising considering the fact that in Norman Mailer’s classic World War II novel The Naked and the Dead (1948), Mailer had to change the word “fuck” to “fug”). An unexpurgated version of From Here To Eternity was released digitally in 2011 with the help of Jones’ daughter Kaylie.
Jones was having breakfast along with other personnel on the morning of December 7, 1941. He was assigned to run messages for the Regimental Headquarters after the attack occurred, but later in that day Jones and his company were assigned to an area called Makapu Head to build and man five pillboxes. They would remain here until the following September when they were recalled to Schofield Barracks. Here his unit joined others in combat training. By November the Wolfhounds were beginning the process of transport to Guadalcanal. Jones sailed out on December 6, 1942. By New Year’s Day of 1943 he and the other members of F Company stood on the shores of Guadalcanal.
Jones was on Guadalcanal for a month-long battle known as The Battle of Mount Austen, the Galloping Horse, and the Sea Horse or the Battle of Gifu. This engagement lasted from December 15, 1942 to January 23, 1943. During this time the American forces battled the Japanese along a series of hills called Mount Austen, the Galloping Horse and the Sea Horse near the Mantanikau River. Jones was originally attached to headquarters but still suffered minor injuries during a mortar attack. He spent some time in the hospital, then returned to his unit and was assigned to an infantry squad, participating in attacks that concluded this battle.
An incident occurred during this time that has been the subject of scholarly debate about the connection between his own war experience and the events in his novel The Thin Red Line. In The Thin Red Line, there is a character named Private Bead who leaves his foxhole and goes a short distance into the jungle to defecate. He is literally caught with his pants down by a starving Japanese solider who attacks him. They fight hand to hand until Bead is able to kill the soldier with a bayonet. The incident has long been believed to have been autobiographical and is often cited in scholarship and general literary discussion related to Jones and this particular novel. Recent scholarship (see the link below this post) seems to indicate that Jones did kill two Japanese soldiers with his bayonet during an assault on a fortified position, but there was apparently no incident like Private Bead’s.
Jones’ regiment was sent to New Georgia after the fighting on Guadalcanal, but Jones severely injured his ankle and spent time in hospitals in the New Hebrides and New Zealand. He returned home on a hospital ship and was transported to Letterman General Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee for surgery on his ankle. James Jones was discharged from the U.S. Army on July 6, 1944.
Jones wrote several novels dealing directly with World War II. From Here To Eternity is a story of the pre-war American army and the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Thin Red Line deals with fighting on an island similar to Guadalcanal, and Whistle concerns American soldiers dealing with the aftermath of war. Whistle was a posthumous work completed by his friend Willie Morris thanks to Jones’ extensive notes and other draft material. Jones also wrote a novella called The Pistol (1959) about a young enlisted man on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. He wrote a number of other works as well, some of which have the WWII conflict as background material. One such work is his novel Some Came Running (1957). James Jones died on May 9, 1977.
James Jones is also known to the public through the film and television adaptations of his books. The movie version of From Here To Eternity is a 1950s film classic, and played a part in reviving Frank Sinatra’s career. The book was later made into a television series. There are two film versions of The Thin Red Line: one from 1964 and one from 1998.
Interest in Jones has increased in recent years. There have been two biographies and assorted critical studies. During his career Jones was both praised and derided. Some critics took aim at Jones for being a kind of romantic primitive too much under the influence of authors such as Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. That’s certainly a view I reject. Based on recent scholarship I have examined, there seems to be a greater appreciation for what he accomplished. He has often been admired by other writers. As for myself, I would say Jones created a powerful and memorable body of work, and his novels of World War Two in particular are sure to stand the test of time.
I also appreciate Jones for another reason. I think there’s some truth to the notion that in the United States our collective historical memory tends to focus more on our involvement in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) to the detriment of what happened elsewhere. My father is a Marine veteran who saw firsthand the combat on Bougainville and Iwo Jima, so I appreciate Jones’ works as well for their treatment of the American soldier fighting his way through the hellish jungles and treacherous beaches of the south Pacific—where death is close at hand and eternity just a bullet away.
American Literary Almanac–From 1608 To The Present: An Original Compendium Of Facts And Anecdotes About Literary Life In The United States of America. Edited by Karen L. Rood. Bruccoli, Clark, Layman (Facts on File), New York and Oxford, 1988.
Wikipedia articles on James Jones, Wheeler Field, Schofield Barracks, Battle of Mount Austen, the Galloping Horse, and the Sea Horse. 27th Infantry Division, 25th Infantry Regiment.
A good treatment of the issue of Jones and the attack of the Japanese soldier:http://wlajournal.com/20_1-2/275-292%20Blaskiewicz.pdf
Another good article on Jones by a scholar who has done a lot of work on Norman Mailer: https://medium.com/world-literature/overview-of-james-jones-s-trilogy-on-world-war-ii-and-soldiering-f50ede48713f
A recent appreciation: James Ellroy on From Here To Eternity: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112212197