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Ernest Hemingway Goes U-Boat Hunting 1942

Hemingway's Boat 'Pilar'
By December 1942, just two months after he began, Hemingway's spying activities in Cuba, and in the Gulf of Mexico – paid for with local FBI money -  were coming under scrutiny from J. Edgar Hoover himself. In a confidential memo from Hoover, of December 17th 1942, to FBI Agent D.M. Ladd, the Bureau Chief writes:

“Any information which you may have relating to the unreliability of Ernest Hemingway as an informant may be discreetly brought to the attention of ambassador Braden. In this respect it will be recalled that recently Hemingway gave information concerning the refuelling of submarines in Caribbean waters which has proved unreliable. I desire that you furnish me at an early date results of your conversations with Ambassador Braden concerning Ernest Hemingway and his aides and their activities.”

Agent Ladd replied to J. Edgar Hoover the same day:

“ Hemingway has been accused of being of communist sympathies, although we are advised that he has denied and does vigorously deny any communist affiliation or sympathy. Hemingway is reported to be personally friendly with Ambassador Braden, and he is reported to enjoy the ambassador's
complete confidence.

“ Ambassador Braden, as you will recall, is a very impulsive individual and he apparently has had a bee in his bonnet for some time concerning alleged graft and corruption on the part of certain Cuban officials.

“ Agent Leddy has advised that Hemingway's activities have branched out and that he and his informants are now engaged in reporting to the Embassy various types of information concerning subversive activities generally. Mr Leddy stated that he has become quite concerned with respect to Hemingway's activities and that they are undoubtedly going to be very embarrassing unless something is done to stop them.

“ Mr Leddy has advised that Hemingway is apparently undertaking a rather involved investigation with regard to Cuban officials prominently connected with the Cuban Government, including General Manuel Benitez Valdes, head of the Cuban National Police; that he, Agent Leddy, is sure
that the Cubans are eventually going to find out about this if Hemingway continues operating, and that serious trouble may result.

“ Mr Leddy stated that he can point out to the ambassador that he 'has not checked any reports from Hemingway concerning corruption in the Cuban Government; that he does not feel that Bureau agents should become involved in any such investigations, it being entirely without our jurisdiction and a matter in which the Cubans themselves alone are concerned and something that, if we get involved in it, is going to mean that all of us will be thrown out of Cuba bag and baggage.'

“ Agent Leddy stated he can point out to the ambassador the extreme danger of having some informant like Hemingway given free reign to stir up trouble such as that which will undoubtedly ensure if this situation continues. Mr Leddy stated that despite the fact the ambassador likes Hemingway and apparently has confidence in him, he is of the opinion that he, Leddy, can handle this situation with the ambassador so that Hemingway's services as an informant will be completely discontinued.

“ Mr Leddy stated that he can point out to the ambassador that Hemingway is going further than just an informant; that he is actually branching out into an investigative organization of his own which is not subject to any control whatsoever.”

As with his activities in the late summer of 1944, where he created his own private army that 'fought' alongside the regular US Army - eventually causing it huge embarrassment - it would seem that Hemingway was, in December 1942, already creating his own private spy network that he felt was already on a par with the FBI. Was it the start of Hemingway's delusions of grandeur, or did he genuinely feel he was following some kind of order?

There can of course be no doubt that Hemingway went off on his own in these matters for the best possible reasons, all tied-up with a peculiar sense of patriotism that had the complete opposite effect to that which he desired, giving him huge publicity, and creating envy in others.

The world of the intelligence services is a world of subterfuge and bluff, and double bluff. Intelligence agents take on a 'cover' and a 'legend' which enables them to become 'grey' and disappear into the very fabric of everyday life. Hemingway, because of his notoriety in the early 1940s, would not have been an ideal candidate for such work. Unless? Unless he was being used in a massive double bluff, in fact using his fame as a cover for other much more clandestine activities? The memos that passed between Hoover and his field agents don't suggest this, but they themselves could be part of the bluff that would, if read, put a potential target off the scent. This is the world of the secret intelligence services. Nothing, absolutely nothing is ever as it seems.

But if we take these memos at face value it would appear that Hemingway was already out of control, as a memo of December 19th 1942 from Hoover to Agents Tamm and Ladd suggest:

“ Concerning the use of Ernest Hemingway by the United States ambassador to Cuba: I of course realize the complete undesirability of this sort of a connection or relationship. Certainly Hemingway is the last man, in my estimation, to be used in any such capacity. His judgement is not of the best, and his sobriety is the same as it was some years ago, that is certainly questionable. However, I do not think there is anything we should do in this matter, nor do I think our representative at Havana should do anything about it with the ambassador. The ambassador is somewhat hot-headed and I haven't the slightest doubt that he would immediately tell Hemingway of the objections being raised by the FBI.
Hemingway has no particular love for the FBI and would no doubt embark upon a campaign of vilification. You will recall that in my conference recently with the president, he indicated that some message had been sent to him by Mr Hemingway through a mutual friend [probably Martha Gellhorn], and Hemingway was insisting that one-half million dollars be granted to the Cuban authorities so that they could take care of internees.

“ I do not see that it is a matter that directly affects our relationship as long as Hemingway does not report directly to us or we deal directly with him. Anything which he gives to the ambassador which the ambassador in turn forwards to us, we can accept without any impropriety.”

If this is a double bluff it is a fine, rare example. If not it is a brilliant script by that master of intrigue, J. Edgar Hoover. If Hemingway was not playing a deeper game of black propaganda on behalf of the FBI (probably against the Cuban leadership, to test their nerve and weaken their resolve so that, when the war was over, revolutionaries such as Castro are encouraged to test the waters of political and military usurpation that will put an enemy on the borders of the US which can be used for all sorts of dirty political ends) he was probably being taken for a ride to hide something else being carried out by another, stronger

Hemingway's antics in Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico, and later in France, convince me that the FBI had it in for Hemingway. Certainly J. Edgar Hoover never trusted Hemingway because of the novelist's brief encounter with such left-wing magazines as the New Masses, and The New Republic, in the mid 1930s - and his short lived political stance in Spain in 1937
- and may have tried, by first employing him, via Braden, in 1942, to then discredit him as a bad operative. And it's entirely possible he even encouraged him to go to France in 1944, knowing full well he would be unable to toe-the-line, and discredit himself even more.

Political intrigue and palace in-fighting was something Hoover was very good at, and if he did encourage Hemingway to go to France he was proven right in that Hemingway did plough his own very dangerous furrow. But what Hoover, and the FBI, had not foreseen was the formation - in the latter stages of the war - of the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS (later the C.I.A) of which Hemingway was a nominal, if strictly unofficial, part in those days and weeks after D-Day. Hemingway's son John ('Bumby') was a serving officer with the OSS, and the OSS needed all the help it could get in 1944. And the agency, via a Colonel Bruce,  used Hemingway's undoubted military knowledge, and his recent intelligence gathering expertise to good affect. Hemingway therefore became a friend of the OSS, and as a consequence an even greater enemy of the FBI, and Hoover. Hemingway was in a no win situation because in
the end both agencies might decide to throw him to the wolves. The interrogation by Colonel Park – with regard Hemingway carrying arms - would prove to Hoover that Hemingway was a loose canon, and therefore must be watched and controlled. The OSS could have done without the publicity the interrogation brought, and as a US Army unit was probably told to gently boot Hemingway back to Cuba as quickly as possible after the interrogation.

After the war the CIA would often find itself at logger-heads with the FBI as to who had responsibility for what. Hemingway would often find himself in the middle of the squabble, and always stated he was being watched by both agencies, an allegation no one believed.

In Denis Brian's superb book, The Faces of Hemingway, published in 1988 we
come across some good first hand accounts of Hemingway's exploits in the Gulf of Mexico, where it soon becomes clear that Hemingway took it all very seriously, as did those working with him, especially the old socialite, Winston Guest, who not only played Polo, owned an airline, was Winston Churchill's cousin (which does suggest the whole thing may have been taken very seriously indeed by some with an even greater influence than Hoover), but also served as Hemingway's second-in-command on the Pilar, Ernest's beloved boat that he'd bought from the proceeds of A Farewell to Arms.

Guest, who had known Hemingway for many years, describes, in Brian's book, how exciting and romantic it all was to patrol the coast of Cuba amongst the hosts of small fishing boats - viveros - that go out to catch grouper and snapper, and then, once caught, put the fish, still alive, into tanks of water in the holds of the boats to keep them fresh for market. According to Guest these boats had been stopped many times by German U-Boats and robbed of fresh food, fuel and water. Hemingway considered it a good idea to disguise Pilar as a vivero in the hope of being stopped. If successful they could then surprise the U-Boat by opening fire with the heavy machine guns bolted to the decks of the
Pilar, and if they were lucky, very lucky, get an armed boarding party on board to capture the vessel.

And U-Boats had been causing havoc in the area ever since the outbreak of war in 1939, sinking thousands of tons of Allied shipping - mainly British - so something had to be done, with, it was hoped, Hemingway's plan having a not unreasonable chance of success.

By 1942, with America now very much in the war, and with Hemingway's plan accepted so quickly does suggest what a parlous state the US Navy was in after the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941. There were obviously not enough US Navy ships available to patrol America's eastern coastal waters.

Although Hemingway never sank or captured a German U-Boat, Winston Guest
assures us they did once see one. Guest describes how they'd been out all morning in dreadfully rough seas and had pulled in behind one of the Keys to have some lunch, leaving a lookout to scan the horizon. Half way through a heap of tuna sandwiches and beer the look-out called from above:

“ Unidentified ship about two miles to the north-west!”

Throwing sandwiches to the wind the crew ran on deck, with Hemingway grabbing the binoculars off the guy who'd spotted the ship.

“ Where? Can't see a damned thing.”

Guest pointed.

“ A bit further to the north, Ernie, low and black in the water, look.”

“ Got it, what do you make of it, Winston?”

“ It's a sub okay, can't make out from here if it's a Jerry, or one of

Hemingway was in no doubt.

“ It's a Jerry, a 740 class, cruising slowly. Get the anchor up and
let's get after the bastard.”

As Guest describes it they pulled out from behind the Key and started what would appear to be a fishing pattern (one of the crew members already had a barracuda hooked so they looked authentic), pulling slowly closer and closer toward the unsuspecting U-Boat. Their plan was to get as close to the U-Boat as possible and then blast it with everything they had. But suddenly they were spotted and the captain - obviously taking no chances - ordered the submarine to dive. Hemingway, disappointed, ordered the Pilar back to Havana at speed. Once there he made a report of the sighting, which was given a DF classification, which, according to Guest, meant 'not credible'.

But a few days later a message came through for Hemingway saying that his report was 100% right. It had indeed been a submarine which had been spotted by several tankers on the course given by Hemingway. Apparently the sub had, after being spotted by Hemingway, landed four men at the mouth of the Mississippi, where, after a bit of a fight, it was captured by an alarmed Coastguard vessel, and taken in tow to New Orleans.

As a result of this episode Ellis O. Briggs, an American 'diplomat' stationed in Havana praised Hemingway and his crew for the work they were doing. And in Briggs' autobiography, Shots Around The World, he describes an encounter between Hemingway and a US Colonel some little time before the incident on the high seas:

“Suppose the German submarine stands off and blows you and the Pilar out of the water? What then Papa?”

“If he does that,” replied Ernest,  then we've had it. But there's a good chance  he won't shoot. Why should a submarine risk attracting attention when the
skipper can send sailors aboard and scuttle us by opening the seacocks? He'll be curious about fishermen in wartime. He'll want to know what kind of profiteers are trying to tag marlin in the Gulf Stream with the war on. If he recognized the Pilar - so much the better. He can then carry enemy sportsman back to Berlin to write dirty limericks about the Fuhrer. Feather in the bonnet for der Kapitain. Fame and promotion for the crew. Why not? Those boys are suckers for publicity.”

“ But even if you get ordered alongside,” asked the Colonel,” your Nazi skipper
 isn't going to pipe you aboard to have a glass of Schnapps with him. He'll have men on deck, and they won't be holding slingshots.”

“ That's right,” Ernest admitted. “Along with the grenades we need a machine  gun. I shoot a machine gun good. Practised on my grandmother, but what I really want to know is, how much damage would grenades do inside a submarine?”

For all the bravado and humour, Hemingway, in the above quote, comes across as a determined man. He took himself very seriously, but like the submariners he jokingly described, he was also a sucker for publicity.

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