The mostly forgotten Hurtgen forest battles marked the end of WW2 for many GIs.
The fight was so fierce and horrible that many American soldiers returned home deeply traumatised, "changed men," one being J.D. Salinger. For the rest of his life, much of Salinger's legendary bouts of sullenness and ill-temper, and his penchant for reclusiveness, could perhaps be traced to his experiences in WW2, especially when dodging death in the Hurtgen forest.
Unlike many soldiers who had been impatient for the invasion, Salinger was far from naïve about war. In short stories he had already written while in the army, such as “Soft-Boiled Sergeant” and “Last Day of the Last Furlough,” he expressed disgust with the false idealism applied to combat, and attempted to explain that war was a bloody, inglorious affair. But no amount of theoretical insight could have prepared him for what was to come. Salinger would count among his most treasured belongings a small casket containing his five battle stars and the Presidential Unit Citation for valor.
Salinger wrote much that has not survived—there are tantalizing references in his letters—and he also produced much work that never appeared in print. A week after D-day, he sent a three-sentence postcard to (college mentor) Whit Burnett saying that he was O.K., but also explaining that, under the circumstances, he was “too busy to go on with the book right now.” The truth, however, is that Salinger never stopped writing. Of all the Salinger stories to remain unpublished, perhaps none is finer than “The Magic Foxhole,” the first story he wrote while actually fighting on the front line, and the only work in which he ever depicted active combat. “The Magic Foxhole” is angry, verging on the subversive.
The story opens days after D-day on a slow-moving convoy. It casts the reader as an anonymous hitchhiking G.I. picked up by the narrator, a soldier named Garrity. Addressing the G.I. only as “Mac,” Garrity recounts the events of a battle fought by his battalion right after the invasion. His tale focuses on the company point man, Lewis Gardner, and the experiences that cause him to lose his mind. The most powerful portion of “The Magic Foxhole” is the opening scene, which describes the landings at Normandy. Among the dead bodies on the beach is a solitary living figure—a chaplain crawling around in the sand, frantically searching for his glasses. The narrator, as his transport nears the beach, watches the surreal scene in amazement, until the chaplain, too, is killed. It was no accident that Salinger chose a chaplain to be the only living man among the dead in the heat of war. It was also no accident that the chaplain should be desperate for the clarity his glasses would provide. A man who believed he held the answer to life’s great questions suddenly discovers that he doesn’t—just when he needs an answer most. It is a critical moment in Salinger’s writing. For the first time, he asks the question: Where is God?
A Nightmare World
On August 25, 1944, the Germans surrendered Paris. The 12th Regiment was ordered to flush out resistance from one quadrant of the city. As an intelligence officer, Salinger was also designated to identify Nazi collaborators among the French. According to John Keenan, his C.I.C. partner and best friend throughout the war, they had captured such a collaborator when a nearby crowd caught wind of the arrest and descended on them. After wresting the prisoner away from Salinger and Keenan, who were unwilling to shoot into the throng, the crowd beat the man to death. Salinger and Keenan could do nothing but watch.
Salinger was in Paris for only a few days, but they were the happiest days he would experience during the war. His recollection of them is contained in a letter to Whit Burnett. The high point was a meeting with Ernest Hemingway, who was a war correspondent for Collier’s. There was no question in Salinger’s mind where Hemingway would be found. He jumped into his jeep and made for the Ritz. Hemingway greeted Salinger like an old friend. He claimed to be familiar with his writing, and asked if he had any new stories on him. Salinger managed to locate a copy of The Saturday Evening Post containing “Last Day of the Last Furlough,” which had been published that summer. Hemingway read it and was impressed. The two men talked shop over drinks.
Salinger was relieved to find that Hemingway was not at all pretentious or overly macho, as he had feared he might be. Rather, he found him to be gentle and well grounded: overall, a “really good guy.” Salinger tended to separate Hemingway’s professional persona from his personal one. He told one friend that Hemingway was essentially kind by nature but had been posturing for so many years that it now came naturally to him. Salinger disagreed with the underlying philosophy of Hemingway’s work. He said that he hated Hemingway’s “overestimation of sheer physical courage, commonly called ‘guts,’ as a virtue. Probably because I’m short on it myself.”
As time went on, Salinger derived great personal strength from his relationship with Hemingway, and knew him by his nickname, “Papa.” The warmth did not necessarily transfer to Hemingway’s writing—at least not if one goes by Holden Caulfield’s later condemnation of A Farewell to Arms. But during the war, Salinger was grateful for Hemingway’s friendship.
After the liberation of Paris, General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s chief of staff declared that “militarily, the war is over.” Salinger’s division would have the honor of being the first to enter Germany. Once it had crossed into the Third Reich and breached the Siegfried line, its orders were to sweep away any resistance from the area of the Hürtgen Forest and take up a position to protect the flank of the First Army.
When Salinger entered Hürtgen, he crossed into a nightmare world. The forest was more heavily fortified than anyone had guessed. The Germans employed tree bursts, which exploded well above the soldiers’ heads, resulting in a shower of shrapnel and shredded tree limbs. Then there was the weather—either drenching wet or burning cold. Nearly half of the 2,517 casualties suffered by the 12th Infantry in Hürtgen were due to the elements. Hürtgen is viewed by historians as among the greatest Allied debacles of the war.
Salinger did manage to find one moment of solace. During the battle for the forest, Hemingway was briefly stationed as a correspondent with the 22nd Regiment, just a mile from Salinger’s encampment. One night, during a lull in the fighting, Salinger turned to a fellow soldier, Werner Kleeman, a translator he had befriended while training in England. “Let’s go,” Salinger urged. “Let’s go see Hemingway.” The two men made their way through the forest to Hemingway’s quarters, a small cabin lit by the extraordinary luxury of its own generator. The visit lasted two or three hours. They drank celebratory champagne from aluminum canteen cups.
Salinger’s choice of companion was perhaps an expression of gratitude. Among his commanders in the Hürtgen Forest was an officer whom Kleeman later described as having been “a heavy drinker” and cruel to his troops. The officer had once ordered Salinger to remain in a frozen foxhole overnight, despite knowing that he was without proper supplies. Kleeman secretly delivered two items from Salinger’s belongings that helped him survive: a blanket and a pair of his mother’s ubiquitous woolen socks.
Hürtgen changed everyone who experienced it. Most survivors never spoke of Hürtgen again. The sufferings that Salinger endured are essential to understanding his later work. They gave rise, for instance, to the nightmares suffered by Sergeant X in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor.”
Editor's recommendation: When watching this video, do not miss the words of US veteran Tony Vaccaro (@ 40:15).
If you are still intrigued (as you should) about this great battle, with all the suffering that it entailed, be sure to click on the ORANGE BUTTON below, "Show More", for materials prepared by the editors of War History Online.
Biography of the life of Reinhard Heydrich—
"THE BUTCHER OF PRAGUE"