THE WEST TEXAS SUN is already harsh and unrelenting, starting to bake the roadway asphalt, making tinder of the scrub grass which passes for lawn in the Fort Bliss National Cemetery. I am forced to squint as I scan the row of bright white marble headstones until I find the one that says:
World War I & II
Jul 18 1900 Dec 17 1977
I am trying hard to remain the reporter as I stand at my grandfather’s grave for the first time, twelve years after his funeral, that elaborate military ceremony attended by everyone in the family. Except me. Now, a raging controversy has brought me here, and so I start to fill my notebook with the details that sixteen years at the journalist’s trade have taught me to gather. I write down the names of the two men buried beside my famous grandfather, note that the flags are hanging at half-staff in the windless air and that the forlorn sound of “Taps” is drifting forth from a distant bugler, amid a small group of mourners, the first funeral of the morning.
My notebook is filling quickly with the look and feel of this place. It is only after I have jotted down these things that I finally
I remember descending into his basement office lair, the bookshelves overflowing, the lighting dim, the air cool, even during those muggy Midwest summers. He would be sitting hunched over his old Underwood, a cloud of cigar smoke encircling his head, as his two fingers produced what sounded like a burst of machine gun fire.
I remember tagging along when my grandfather went to the Detroit News, visiting the editorial page department where he worked, a hushed place with heavy wood paneling, leaded glass windows, bookshelves laden with weighty volumes, and where everyone was contemplating the serious issues of the day. But what I remember more was the roar of the presses in the bowels of the old building, starting slowly at first, then building to an imposing crescendo, and how soon there would be delivered to my grandfather’s desk a copy of today’s paper, smelling of fresh ink and urgency. To then see my grandfather’s byline on the front page—”By S. L. A. Marshall, News Military Analyst”—seemed imbued with such magic that I soon resolved to pursue this career myself.
I remember, too, my grandfather giving the ROTC commissioning speech at the University of Virginia in 1969, the day after the twenty-fifth anniversary of D-Day, and how I was sitting in the crowd among those in freshly pressed uniforms who were about to become officers. My grandfather was speaking to hundreds of people gathered on the magnificent lawn designed by Thomas Jefferson, but it seemed he was speaking just to me. For he was using the occasion in Charlottesville to sum up life’s lessons only weeks before his sixty-ninth birthday.
“True decision-making,” he said, “is the resolution of a dilemma, a leap into the dark where nothing is certain, but some
S. L. A. Marshall, John Marshall, and S. L. A. Marshall, Jr., immediately following the author’s commissioning ceremony for ROTC at University of Virginia, June 1969.
Photograph by S. L. A. Marshall III.
action is requisite. The gamble is there and unavoidable and one must go at it as a gambler. Moreover, when the worst trials come along, one may have to decide altogether in solitude. Facing life, or facing the unknown, a man must be prepared to risk. Remember that always. You may come up a cropper now and then. But if you never risk, you never win.“1
The awarding of commissions followed. Each new officer proceeded to the stage, where S. L. A. Marshall presented the commissioning certificate after the new officer offered a salute. I was wearing Army green that day, but with many conflicting feelings—honored that my grandfather had agreed to preside over the ceremony, but very much aware that I was not the gung-ho ROTC stalwart expected of S. L. A. Marshall’s grandson.
I was only a middling student of what was called “military science,” having joined ROTC during my first year of college to fulfill a
Twenty years later, I look down at my grandfather’s grave and wonder what he would think if he knew that I had come here on a research mission to discover whether S. L. A. Marshall, probably the nation’s foremost military historian, was indeed “a fraud” and “a fabricator,” as was now being alleged in national publications. Me a reporter on his trail trying to determine the truth about his life and work. Me of all people.
For I had done something my grandfather could not abide—I had taken a stand against the Army. I had finally come to a point where I could no longer uphold family tradition when faced with all-but-certain assignment to Vietnam. I had become convinced the war was wrong, for both moral and political reasons. That I would not go to Vietnam was something I had decided during my time in the Army. And that left me with just two options: I could try to win an honorable discharge from the Army as a conscientious objector, following the complex process in place then; or I could go to Canada or Sweden with my wife and try to create a new life there. Either course seemed sure to incur family wrath and rupture, with my grandfather and probably my father as well.
I had decided to seek discharge as a conscientious objector; I preferred taking a stand to taking flight. But my options were so limited that what I was doing did not seem courageous to me. Like so many men of my generation, I was trying to resolve the Hamlet
dilemma presented by Vietnam—To be, or not to be, a part of the war? After much agonizing and months of study, I had completed a voluminous application for discharge as a C.O.
“My commitment to Unitarian Universalism is fixed and I can no longer deny the calling of my conscience,” I wrote. “I must now submit this application—regardless of my family heritage or tradition. I can no longer hide my true beliefs beneath my uniform.”
I had tried to explain this to my grandfather in a letter after my C.O. application was approved. I do not have a copy of that letter anymore, but I am certain it began with “Dear Poppy,” as my letters to him always did. A letter from him came back soon afterward. It began: “Dear Mr. Marshall.”
Even twenty years later, after all the times that I have read his letter, I take those two pages of paper into my hands and almost expect them to burst into flames, so incendiary is the language, so intense the emotions. It went well beyond the worst that I had imagined from him. I was staggered as I read:
“That the Army seemingly prefers to give you an honorable separation means nothing to this part of what was once your family, means nothing either that the Army will ship you back home free. You are not entitled to an honorable and you are simply playing the freeloader on the taxpayer. We know why you quit. It wasn’t conscience. You simply chickened out. You didn’t have the guts it takes. Vietnam or any point of danger was unacceptable to you. You may fool the Army but you cannot fool and fail your Family at the same time. No male among us has ever been like that and the women, too, thank heaven, are stronger. That means you don’t belong. So go on the course that you have chosen for yourself, that of comfort and convenience, all sweetness, love and lollipops. I would not push the Army to change its course with you, nor would I counsel you to reconsider. Neither is worth doing. You will not be welcome here again and you are herewith constrained not to use our name as family in any connection. Truly, S. L. A. Marshall. Cate Marshall.”
These words reverberate through my brain as I stand at my grandfather’s grave. Our once-close relationship had become a casualty of the Vietnam War, never reported in any weekly body count, but a casualty of the war just the same. Our relationship might as well have been inscribed with the names of the dead on the Wall of
It was no such thing, contended Sarah Lawrence historian Fredric Smoler in his American Heritage article largely based on the research of two other men—Harold Leinbaugh, a World War II company commander and later an FBI agent who was incensed when he finally happened upon Marshall’s assertion; and Roger Spiller, an Air Force enlisted man who became a civilian historian at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The American Heritage article asserted there was no proof that Marshall did “company level interviews” during World War II and that his finding on firing came about because “Marshall made the whole thing up.” This was, the article concluded, “a peculiar hoax.”4
The magazine did not stop there, not in this accusatory age. Marshall’s own background was riddled with similar deceits, according to American Heritage. He never received a battlefield commission in World War I, as he had long claimed, and he was “lying” when he said he had commanded troops in combat. Marshall, the article asserted, was a maker of myths.
And yet when the controversy first broke, I felt no urge to use my reporting skills to investigate the charges against my grandfather. My father and my younger brother reacted with far more outrage than I did—perhaps because they share his name. The two of them blistered the long-distance lines with invective and threats of lawsuits, even though I said the law makes it impossible to libel a dead person. They remained insistent, my brother playing on my sense of family loyalty when he urged, “You’ve got to look into this; you’re the only one who can clear grampa’s name.” I was indeed the only family member who followed “Poppy” into writing, yet I had also been given a large framed portrait of the man, a truly remarkable likeness, and for years I had kept this portrait in a closet. S. L. A. Marshall’s steely gaze was not something I cared to see staring down from any wall in my home. About the kindest way to describe how I felt about my grandfather was “ambivalent.”
Days went by, with my brother’s words echoing in my mind. I still had little interest in clearing the name of a man who excommunicated me from the family. But maybe there was another way to approach this, it slowly dawned on me. Maybe I could go after the “truth” about S. L. A. Marshall in much the same way I would go after any other news story, with careful research, thorough interviews, the concern for fairness that had guided me during my years on newspapers.
I did not know what I hoped to find. I had a hard time sorting that out. Would I feel heartened somehow if S. L. A. Marshall turned out to be far less than he had claimed? Or relieved if I discovered that the charges against him were dead wrong?
I did know this, though. I knew that if I found that S. L. A. Marshall was indeed a fraud, then that is what I would write. I had to. To be true to myself.
I KNEW HIM, or I thought I knew him back then. My grandfather was famous, I certainly knew that, and that had a tremendous hold on me when I was a child. I was not just John Marshall, I was the grandson of S. L. A. Marshall and that made me more important, truly special, at least in my own mind. I did not go around bragging about my grandfather exactly, but I was never that hesitant about mentioning the connection to teachers especially, or others I wanted to impress. A child’s adulation is such a simple thing, so pure, so undemanding, even stronger than love in a way. I did not truly know my grandfather back then, nor did I need to. What little I knew was powerful enough. I knew he was a newspaperman, I knew he was a general, I knew he wrote books about wars, including Pork Chop Hill, which had been made into a movie starring Gregory Peck. And I knew my grandfather traveled all over the world to places I could scarcely imagine; he was always departing for somewhere like Korea, or Israel, or South Africa. And other famous people always met with him overseas, I remember hearing. Often-told family tales further increased my grandfather’s stature in my eyes. He was supposed to have played semi-pro baseball, supposed to have been interested once in a singing career, supposed to have survived numerous plane crashes and other perils. And he often appeared on television—what more could a kid ask of his hero? Until I was twelve, we lived just a few miles from my grandfather’s house in Birmingham, Michigan. We visited there often,
S. L. A. Marshall feeding infant John Marshall, 1947
always on holidays, but also just to play in his big backyard, or maybe have Sunday dinner. Those 1950s times seem so innocent now, so Ozzie and Harriet and so distant, especially after all the dislocations that came afterward.
Relatives in those days were not just people who sent cards at Christmas and maybe birthdays. They were part of our daily lives, they were our neighbors, they were our friends. Everyone on both sides of my family lived in the Birmingham area; my mother and her two sisters lived less than a mile apart. I remember playing for hours in my cousins’ rooms, eating my gramma Povah’s steak-and-kidney pie and feeling the crush of my grampa Marshall’s bear hug every
The two families of Marshalls even had our own private club back in those days. Our club was called the Phuzzant Buddies, a club that somehow came into being after my younger brother mispronounced “pheasants.” We had special cloth patches made with our Phuzzant Buddy emblem, although we never got around to having them affixed to blazers, as we always said we would. And we had annual Phuzzant Buddy meetings convened around my grandfather’s dining room table, very official meetings with minutes taken and actual agenda items discussed, most often who else in the world might possibly be worthy of Phuzzant Buddy membership. It was not an honor we casually dispensed.
We still had our Phuzzant Buddy meetings on Thanksgivings after we moved to Cleveland when I was in the sixth grade. I remember the trek back to grandfather’s house, the crowded Country Squire station wagon speeding along the Ohio Turnpike, everyone in such a holiday mood, our anticipation growing about the times we would share again.
But the two hundred miles that now stood between us bred a new distance. Our family visits were far less frequent, and were sometimes strained from our trying to do too much; we wanted to reclaim the way things were, but they usually fell short. The past, it seemed, had passed.
My grandfather, who had been such a strong presence in my childhood, became instead a distant relation who sent presents on special occasions, including a check and a leather-bound Webster’s dictionary when I graduated from high school in 1965. Along with it came a note that is still pasted inside the cover today:
“Dear Johnny, I do not think I can make it for your graduation.
Cate is still away and driving that far with the two gals by myself would just take too much out of me.
“I want you to know that I am proud of you. You have performed well in your scholastics, without ever letting your studies interfere with your education (a comment, it turned out, borrowed from Mark Twain). Having fun as you go along is an important part of life, and so is keeping your sense of humor. You tend to be serious enough. Do not overdo it. The effect on others is unimportant. What counts is that you would finally bore yourself. That should be avoided like grim death. I maintain that a man should always be interesting to himself no matter how dull he seems to everyone else. And one can do that without ever really working at it.
“Work hard, but not too hard. Love well, but not desperately. Sleep sound, but keep one ear cocked for the alarm bell.
“I was going to buy you a piece of luggage; you will be traveling soon. Then I decided, what the hell, you should have some spending money and maybe you do not need any bags anyway. (PS: Try to keep them away from under your eyes.) As ever, SLAM (Poppy).”
I, the dutiful grandson, wrote back:
“Dear Poppy, As always, you were too generous in your gift to me. I can only offer my deepest thanks and say that I banked the money-though that certainly does not mean that it won’t soon be spending money. By the way, your hunch about the luggage was correct; Mom and Dad gave me a tremendous American Tourister 1-suit. I greatly appreciated the advice you offer in the letter; in the long run, it will be far more valuable than the money. Thanks again for both. It would be great if our two families could get together soon. Your loving grandson, John.”
A year later, I spent three months living at my grandfather’s. He had landed me a summer job as a copy boy on the Detroit News. It was the lowliest position in the newsroom. It paid seventy dollars a week. It put me in heaven.
For years, people had been telling me that “you’re going to be just like your grandfather” and I had beamed back, the special connection between us further cemented by each repetition of the phrase. People first started saying that when I developed a chunky physique and they saw the traces of my grandfather’s prominent
I do remember my grandfather was writing a Vietnam book in his basement office that summer, and how he would finally emerge upstairs around 6:00 P.M., exhausted but triumphant, a gimlet mixed by Cate soon raised in toast to another day’s writing well done. I remember how he took an interest in what I was doing at the newspaper, solicited my observations on what was going on there, although he did keep his distance, not wanting to put undue pressure on me. I remember, too, how he treated me like one of his family, but also an adult, with few restrictions on when I could come or go, which I appreciated at nineteen. And I remember sitting in his book-lined study when he was gone and working on some of my own writing, pained love poems as I recall, although what I wrote mattered far less than the chance to sit in his place and imagine myself as a real writer, imagine myself as him.
When I left to go back to college at the end of the summer, I was flush with what seemed to have been built between us—a new and closer relationship, more mature, with a real affection and respect for each other that seemed sure to last. And that was reinforced the following spring when he sent Battles in the Monsoon, which he had inscribed: “To John Marshall goes this first copy of the new book—and Johnny, I hope you like it.”
But college brought distance between us. I saw my grandfather only once or twice more before we were reunited on the stage in Charlottesville. By then, he was well-known as one of the country’s staunchest defenders of American intervention in Vietnam, and one of the most outspoken critics of the press’ performance there (“The most wretchedly reported war,” he wrote in his much-noticed foreword
to Battles in the Monsoon. “Never before have men and women in such numbers contributed so little to so many.”)1 S. L. A. Marshall had become The Unrepentant Hawk. My own views were starting to turn in the opposite direction, although I had no interest in debating such matters with him. I still hoped our relationship could avoid being poisoned by the war, as was happening across the generations in so many families.
My grandfather and I were reunited again at Fort Benning. He was the graduation speaker for my officer class at the Infantry School, doing a reprise of the role he had played at Virginia five months before. Again, the close connection between us was underscored in a public ceremony, the famous general and his grandson, now the Infantry lieutenant. In private, though, I found my grandfather distracted by other matters, not as interested in what I was doing in the Army as I had thought he would be. I remember being disappointed about that back then, but wonder now if my grandfather shared my sense of the growing differences between us, and how some things in those divisive days were better left unsaid.
Nineteen months later, little was left unsaid. My letter explaining my decision to become a conscientious objector was followed by my grandfather’s letter disowning me and that was followed by years of silence, stony silence.
When my grandfather died six years later, no one in the family suggested I might attend his funeral in El Paso. So I remained in Oregon and sent an arrangement of red roses in my place, roses that my brother later reported had been displayed at the head of my grandfather’s casket.
What I felt at the time was mostly regret, regret that no dramatic gesture across the gulf between us, no healing passage of time, nothing would ever bring about our reconciliation. And I suppose I felt some grief about my grandfather’s passing. But the truth was—he had been dead for me for many years.
Setting out in September
MY COPIES OF MY GRANDFATHER’S OBITUARIES from national publications had long remained buried in a folder marked “SLAM.” I seldom removed the folder from my file cabinet over the years; there seemed no point in dredging up such bad memories. But now, in the wake of the controversy about my grandfather’s life and work, I retrieved the obituaries, searching for any hint of fraud, things that might be suspect. There did not seem to be much, other than the notation he was “the youngest officer in the United States Army in World War I,” the sort of sweeping claim that the controversy is calling into question. Otherwise, the obituaries were prominently displayed, lengthy and full of praise. S. L. A. Marshall, who stood 5 feet five, was described by Time magazine as “a towering military historian who analyzed all the wars of modern America.” It noted that he was “seldom far from the sound of gunfire,” then continued, “Out of his experiences in the Korean War came his most esteemed books, The River and the Gauntlet and Pork Chop Hill. His writing was distinguished by narrative drive, a gritty attention to the details of combat and a plain-spoken sympathy for the men who suffered and triumphed on the front lines. He could not agree with people, he said, who thought that ‘war is a game in which the soul of man no longer counts.’ ” 1
Could this be the same man who was now being accused of “maligning American infantrymen with Men Against Fire?” Could
this be the same man who was even being castigated by his harshest critic, Leinbaugh, for “knowing nothing about combat?”
The Washington Post used “noted military historian” to describe Marshall in its headline. “As a lieutenant colonel assigned to the Pacific in World War II,” the Post said, “he developed the technique of doing battlefield history by assembling survivors soon after an encounter and interviewing the group about its operations. He used this method later with American troops in Europe, Korea and Vietnam, and with the Israeli army after the Sinai War of 1956.” The Army’s then-chief of military history was quoted next: “Marshall specialized in small unit type of action where he would talk to the people involved and elicit the details of what had happened. He was very good at putting it down in a vivid way, and he made people read things that professional historians might make dry as dust.”2
The New York Times obituary on Marshall started on the front page, that sign of a person’s national importance. Marshall was described as “one of the nation’s best-known military historians and a prominent figure on American and other war fronts for half a century.” Again, his books were saluted for their “critical acclaim” and their “visceral” realism. A cited review of The River and the Gauntlet described it as “by far the finest book that has come out of the Korean War.”
But the Times also said, “Though his detailed reporting of World War II and the Korean conflict won praise, similar efforts in five books on the war in Vietnam encountered some criticism from writers who said he had lost the larger meanings of the war in a concentration on the minutiae of it. Some critics, moreover, called him a hawk.”3
Now, twelve years later, Marshall was being called much worse. “A liar.” “A fraud.” An instigator of a “peculiar hoax.” I try to investigate these allegations while researching a three-part series about the Marshall controversy for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where I have worked for years as a columnist. I hear “genius” used to describe my grandfather by both friends and historians. I hear “charlatan” used to describe my grandfather by his critics. I hear very few descriptions in between.
The only way to sort this out, I finally conclude, is to take to the road around the United States. I must complete much more research,
Writing for the first time about my grandfather and what had happened between us had also forced me to confront the pain of my estrangement from my family and my past. Too long, I had kept it a secret that I had been a conscientious objector. Too long, I had kept it a secret that I was disowned by my own family as a result. And I had let this fester, this wound to my soul. I am not alone in this predicament in late twentieth-century America. Many families are scattered across the country, going about our separate lives, isolated from loved ones at great cost that we may not acknowledge. As writer Norman Mailer has observed, “Very few of us know really where we have come from….We have lost our past, we live in that airless no man’s land of the perpetual present, and so suffer double as we strike into the future because we have no roots by which to protect ourselves forward, and judge our trip.”4
My own journey had seemed so frightfully predictable at one time. I was Wally on “Leave It to Beaver,” right down to the varsity jacket and burr-head flattop, the product of Republican parents in the suburbs and Midwestern public schools, president of the Junior Council on World Affairs, in no way a rebel. Then, I had gone to Virginia, a southern gentleman’s school steeped in tradition, no caldron of student activism in the 1960s. Yet somehow I had forsaken my family tradition and refused to fight my country’s war.
Was it only those tumultuous times, I wondered now. Was the split with my grandfather an inevitable result of Vietnam and the 1960s? Or was it because of his personality, and maybe my own? Is
there a strange gene among us Marshall men ticking like a time bomb through our lives until it inevitably causes our adult relationships to self-destruct? Or could that painful rupture have been avoided, or lessened, or something? And wasn’t it time to finally find answers, learn lessons from past mistakes, especially before they are repeated. By me. As a husband and father myself.
But driving one lap around America in search of such answers is no easy step taken with little forethought. I will have to take an unpaid leave of absence from my job and family savings will be drained at a frightening rate. Illnesses and emergencies will have to be dealt with long-distance. And there is no way to figure how long the trip may take, two months, three months, perhaps more.
Anne is the key to this trip. She is the one who will be left home with our two-year-old son, while also trying to start her own business in a new field after leaving TV news. Yet even in my own times of doubt about the journey, Anne keeps encouraging me to set out: “You’ve got to do it. If you don’t, you’ll always wish you had.”
Her support surprises me, although it should not. There have been so many surprises in our life together, so many things so different from the way they were in my first marriage. I was married for thirteen years before and I was so sure that I never wanted children. I wanted my life to be devoted to my wife and the kind of life we created for ourselves. Freedom. Travel. A career. A nice house in a special part of the country. I wanted just us—until our divorce.
Two years later, I met Anne when we were both covering a weird story and we soon fell in love and it was such a consuming passion, all that I had longed to find but doubted I would ever share. I wanted to marry Anne and Anne wanted to marry me, but she was adamant on one point: She wanted to have children. Her first husband had said he wanted to have children, until after they were married, and she was not about to make the same mistake with me.
I trotted out all my best rationales for not having children, but Anne was unmoved. We would try to have children, she said, or we would not be married; it was that simple. So, after a time, I gave in. Anne was too special to lose.
We had gotten to know each other better before we tried to have children. We had traveled to memorable places, twice to Europe, once to Hawaii, once even to Tahiti. We had bought our
We named our son Thatcher Scott Marshall. Thatcher is a family last name from my mother’s side of the family. I wanted no first name or middle name with even a hint of Marshall. All our endless discussions of names had finally forced me to recognize the real reason I did not want children before was what had happened between the generations of Marshall men, and how I did not want any part of that as a parent.
But now I am a parent and I am amazed every day by what I might have missed, the discoveries, the tenderness. I cannot imagine my life without Thatcher, this amazing little bundle of love and life, the Big Guy, the T Man. He is another reason to undertake this trip. There will come a time when Thatcher will wonder about his famous great grandfather and I hope to be able to respond with some knowledge and maybe some insights. I do not want my son to be as cut off from his family past as I have been.
Thatcher has become an important part of my life. Anne is absolutely essential. And she is so steadfast that I had not anticipated seeing her crying, crying for one of the few times in the years I have known her, as I finally back my car out of the driveway at the start of my journey. She had always insisted we would make this trip work somehow, so I had given little thought to the moment of my departure. But now it is upon us and streams of tears are rolling down her cheeks and all her remarkable optimism seems drained not just from her face, but from her whole body. She points the camera at me; I force a smile, let go with a wave, a self, conscious gesture, silly, looking, dumb. I then drive away, my stomach churning.
The route is familiar, at least at first. The towering skyscrapers of downtown Seattle, this once-distant city now discovered with a vengeance. The Eastside suburbs with their gleaming office parks. The foothills of the Cascade Mountains up ahead on Interstate 90.
By late afternoon, I leave Washington behind, after dense
I feel a kinship with Nesmith. My mind has been filled with questions this first day of travel. What will I find by the end of my trip, will it be worth all the effort, and in what way? Nesmith had written similar thoughts about his own journey, but despairs about providing “any rational answer.” I hope to do better than that, but who knows?
I stop for the night in La Grande, a college town of 11,354 in the Grande Ronde Valley, ringed by mountain ranges and jagged peaks. The sky is tall here, the air clear, so thoroughly West. I check into the Pony Soldier motel within sight of the Interstate and fight off the first pangs of loneliness after talking to Anne and Thatcher on the telephone.
The task ahead seems daunting now. The driving alone an immense challenge. I have put only 160 miles behind me today; ahead is one brief stop in Oregon, then 1,500 more miles on the highway until my first layover in Arizona, where I will spend time with John Westover, my grandfather’s aide in World War II. I am counting on Westover to provide some crucial answers for me, but will he?
I take to pacing the motel room, trying to kill out such thoughts. Finally, I stand at the picture window and stare across the deserted motel courtyard to the tall Interstate signs looming above in the darkness. One sign says, “Texaco.” One says, “Denny’s.” And another says, “Best Western.”
Welcome, I think, to life on the road.
OREGON GIVES WAY TO IDAHO, Idaho to Utah, Utah to Arizona, the trip picking up definite momentum, 342 miles one day, 559 miles the next, 329 miles the day after that. The vastness of the West fills the windshield, all these cowboy movie panoramas of broad blue skies, brute mountains, red buttes, barren hills, scrub desert. The only sound often heard out here is the whoosh of traffic along the superhighway; otherwise, a profound silence lies across the land, broken only by sudden gusts of harsh wind. I pass through places which already look and smell of fall, with trees turned shades of gold and rust, peaks dusted with snow, this season’s apples for sale at roadside stands. I pass through other places where summer still lingers, hot and insistent, these late September days. Zion National Park is a natural cathedral encountered at the end of the five-hundred-mile day on the road, the evening sun striking rock formations of imposing shapes and impossible hues, bright reds, pale pinks, burnt oranges, producing feelings of reverence in places called Angels Landing and The Great White Throne. The Grand Canyon comes the next day in the first cloudy weather of the trip, the dull light turning the canyon’s colors to muted tones of salmon and cement, the disappointed tourists in full vacation regalia. The sun blazes down again by the time I reach Phoenix, cross Dead Man Wash, watch the temperature keep climbing to 106 degrees, hear a matter-of-fact voice on the radio point out that this is the 134th day of the year to top 100 in the Valley of the Sun. It is
I do not have to wait long to see evidence of my grandfather here. Westover admits “S. L. A. Marshall had a greater impact on my life than almost anyone” and a memento of their relationship is prominently displayed on what the Westovers jokingly refer to as “our bragging wall,” a wall in the kitchen covered with framed photographs, citations, diplomas and awards, including Westover’s Silver Star, won for valor in combat against the Nazis in North Africa, and a Bronze Star as well. Also included on the bragging wall is a letter which S. L. A. Marshall had written on Westover’s behalf in 1972, a letter to the commander of U.S. Forces in Europe.
“Dear General Davison,” the letter begins, “John Westover is on a quick trip to Europe, where he has been many times. To make a long story short, John was my personal assistant and companion in all of my experiences in ETO [European Theater of Operations in World War II], and as great a soldier as I have known. In his sphere, he is a man of unusual influence. I have urged him to detour and see you. His integrity and confidence are to be trusted absolutely. Your consideration will be appreciated. All best wishes, Slam Marshall.”
I had read many similar letters in Marshall’s correspondence files in the library of the University of Texas at El Paso, letters offering favors, pulling levers, proposing honors, little acts of kindness that softened my view of my grandfather. And Westover is soon
Westover readily acknowledges his debt to Marshall, but he makes no attempt to repay it with adulation. He has his criticisms, sometimes harsh criticisms, of S. L. A. Marshall. A year of shared foxholes and jeeps and occasional close scrapes gave Westover many glimpses of the flaws of the man, so many of them stemming from Marshall’s resounding self-confidence and the way he confronted the world. As Westover says, “He was a cocky bastard; he never expressed any self-doubts.”
Westover makes this comment as we sit across from each other in his living room. He is settled into his favorite lounge chair and I am on a couch ten feet away and the walls echo with Westover’s recollections of my grandfather. I must have asked some question to set off this monologue, but that question has long since been lost, buried under an avalanche of reminiscence. A half hour passes, then an hour, then another hour, and still Westover keeps it up, as my mind grows numb. I dare not interrupt, I keep reminding myself, something important may come of this, something I must not miss. Only later do I discover that Westover has replayed his standard repertoire of Marshall memories, the well-traveled stuff of countless party chats, public speeches, published articles.
I hear how the first words which Westover ever heard about Marshall had come from one of his former professors at the University of Missouri, who had traded his cap and gown for a major’s uniform and was working in the new Army military history section in the Pentagon. He warned Westover, then about to depart for the Continent: “There’s a crazy man running around Europe with wide-open orders. His name is Marshall. He’s no good—don’t have anything to do with him!”
I hear how, three weeks later, Westover had not only encountered
that “crazy man,” he had somehow become his assistant, his jeep driver, his fellow toiler in the historical section of the European Theater, where Marshall was deputy chief. This prompted Westover to write Eloise: “Colonel Marshall and I are going on a roving job. I am not sure just what my part will be, but it’s going to be work. The Colonel is a slave driver—I’m probably going to be a slave.”
And I hear how Westover, under Marshall’s tutelage, soon became a proficient practitioner of Marshall’s pioneering historical research technique, what he liked to call “The Post-Combat Group Critique.” Discovered by accident during his participation in campaigns in the South Pacific, this technique became Marshall’s way of lifting “the fog of war” and revealing “the truth of battle.” Marshall became convinced that military history should no longer be left to the hazy recollections of commanders many years after a war. Military history must be gathered while soldiers’ memories are still fresh—what worked and what did not, all those gritty and sometimes grim details that time would soon obscure. And the best way to discover this, Marshall found, was to gather all of the surviving men of a unit, from privates to officers, and then have them piece together the details and chronology of what had happened. Everyone in the assembly was free to correct or contradict everyone else, regardless of rank, with the historian orchestrating the discussion, using his questions to keep things flowing. And time was absolutely crucial to the success of Marshall’s technique; the group critique should take place within hours or days after a battle. That often required the historian to work near the front lines, which Marshall often did, contrary to American Heritage’s intimation that he usually remained at headquarters in the rear. “I came as close to being killed as a historian,” emphasizes Westover, “as I did as an artillery forward observer.”
Westover tells me how he was accustomed to doing historical research in library archives and was initially skeptical about Marshall’s approach. But Westover soon came to see its worth, as the two of them conducted group critiques, sometimes together, sometimes thirty yards apart, with the survivors of the D-Day assaults on Utah and Omaha beaches. Their resulting reports often revealed tragic flaws in American operations but, as Westover reported home to Eloise, there were “no kickbacks on the veracity of even the smallest details.” “The general [Maj. Gen. Charles H. Gearhardt,
Or so S. L. A. Marshall wrote eighteen years later in an article called “How Papa Liberated Paris” published in, of all places, American Heritage. But Westover cautions me, “Some of what your grandfather relates there, I don’t remember in the least. Slam’s point of view was that his memory was infallible. At times, though, I think your grandfather’s memory was not as accurate as he thought it was.”
What Westover recounts about the Liberation of Paris becomes a telling lesson in the malleability of history, how history is shaped by the memories of those who witness it and the intentions of those who record it. For Marshall’s magazine article, written soon after Hemingway’s death, was clearly intended as a corrective to the legend of the Liberation of Paris, a way to replace Hemingway Myth with Marshall Truth. As Marshall wrote, “Many tall tales have been written about Force Hemingway. The real story is good enough. As a war writer, Hemingway spun fantastic romance out of common yarn.”1 But Westover’s first reading of the American Heritage article convinced him that Marshall was making some myths of his own.
Before he wrote the article, Marshall had asked Westover if he would mind sharing his own recollections of the Liberation of Paris and Westover, ever the good soldier, had responded with an eight-thousand-word account gleaned from his letters to Eloise. Westover was a diligent writer of long letters home filled with detailed observations,
In this photograph taken by Ernest Hemingway, John Westover (left) and S. L. A. Marshall are shown with their jeep during the drive toward Paris along with the Spanish woman who accompanied them in the mad dash to liberate the City of Light. Courtesy S. L. A. Marshall Military History Collection, University of Texas at El Paso.
and Eloise saved more than a thousand letters from her new husband by war’s end. Westover still retains great faith in the accuracy of his letters, and that is why he was so surprised and shaken by Marshall’s “How Papa Liberated Paris.”
The accounts of Marshall and Westover do share some similarities. Most of the places they mention seem to mesh, as do the times when events took place. And the mood of the advance toward Paris and inside the city itself seems the same in both accounts—a chaotic mix of fear and euphoria. The jeep that carried Marshall and Westover kept filling with gifts of flowers and champagne, while kisses and embraces were being showered on the two Americans and most of the other men in the advancing column, as if they were cinema stars. “I came the closest to being drunk,” recalls Westover of that joyous time, “that I ever did in my life.”
But the differences between the accounts of Westover and Marshall are far more striking. Carlos Baker, author of the definitive Hemingway: A Life Story, had read both accounts, along with that of Hemingway’s driver. Baker wrote to Westover: “I’ve got your account, I’ve got Marshall’s account. I’ve got the driver Pelkey’s account. Are you sure you were in the same war?”
For it was not just in the minor details where the accounts differ, although there were plenty of those. Marshall and Westover do not agree on how many people were present at the legendary Liberation dinner they attended at the Ritz with Hemingway; do not agree on whether correspondent Ernie Pyle made it to Paris; do not even agree on the name of the Spanish woman who rode in their jeep for days during the advance. “Irene,” says Westover. “Elena,” says Marshall.
The recollections of Marshall and Westover really diverge when danger lurks. Westover recounts a hazardous encounter with a burning German ammunition truck, “a rather difficult obstacle for our party in the open jeep.” He writes, “We would have to pass that exploding vehicle and cross a bridge. The tankers merely pulled their heads down into the turrets, but we had no such protection. We would have pulled off the road, but we were living an impossible escapade and were not willing to pull back. I dropped back and allowed a fifty-foot gap to develop between our jeep and the tank ahead. When there was no longer any chance that he would stop while we were alongside the blaze, I gunned the jeep and roared past. Instinctively, the Colonel, Irene, and I pulled our heads low, but there was no protection in that vehicle. Fortunately, there was no explosion as we passed and the searing heat was too brief to make any difference.”
Westover’s burning ammunition truck is, in Marshall’s account, a burning ammunition dump, the length of a block. And Marshall recalls: “The stacked shells were already blowing sky-high, and even at a distance, the smoke, blast and flame seemed like an inferno….Metal showered the roadway, and the heat was like a blast from molten slag….
“I yelled: ‘We can’t make that run.’ ‘We’ve got to,’ Westover yelled back, ‘or the tanks will crush us. They’re not stopping for anything.’
“That’s how it was. The jeep-borne people spliced into the tank column were held feet-to-the-fire by their own friends. That Mazeppa ride lasted not more than forty or fifty seconds by the clock, but the clock lied. There was no protection against either the flying metal or the infernal heat….
“We pulled out of it whole-skinned. One shard had smashed through the hood of the jeep. Another had smacked the metal panel next to the jump seat, missing Elena’s bottom by inches. The quarter-ton still perked. It was hellishly hot, and we were horribly thirsty.”2
The Liberation of Paris appeared to have given Marshall his own case of Hemingway-itis, that well-known affliction characterized by an exaggerated sense of high drama and personal import. I had always thought that there were some similarities between Papa Hemingway and Poppy Marshall, two men born only 362 days apart at the turn of the century. Both seemed better to encounter on the page than in the family. I had talked to my grandfather about Hemingway on several occasions and found a begrudging admiration that often tipped toward antipathy. Because, I had long suspected, the two were too much alike and played the same game of magna persona. So when I read my grandfather’s descriptions of Hemingway during the Liberation of Paris, I was struck by how he could also have been describing himself: “The excitement and danger of battle were his meat and drink, just as the unremitting obligation to carry on was his poison.”
I am disturbed by the excesses of my grandfather’s account of the Liberation of Paris. So is Westover. His voice is pained when he says, “Did he have notes on that? Slam said, time and again, ‘when I look at my notes.’ But what was he referring to? I don’t know if he kept a personal log.”
“I don’t know either,” I say. “I hope I will manage to uncover some of his notebooks on this trip, although no one seems to know where they are.”
Westover presses on, getting a second wind. Out come clipped articles, old scrapbooks, letters in a ring binder, combat reports bound in leather, and many black-and-white photographs. I see glimpses of my grandfather during World War II, at an age close to mine now, my grandfather obviously invigorated by all the
Westover had vehemently contradicted American Heritage’s assertions when I interviewed him over the telephone from Seattle. He stated flatly that he and Marshall had discussed firing problems during their time together—what seemed solid proof that Marshall was pursuing the matter. But now in Tucson, I must try to determine if Westover, blind-sided by the Marshall controversy, has taken to stretching the truth. To protect the reputation of his old boss.
THE SUN COMES UP hot and intense in Tucson and the Westovers are early risers, full of cheer and purpose. John has already dispatched some bills and letters by the time I return from a half-hour run. Eloise, a University of Missouri journalism graduate, is all set to perform the duties of a short-order cook. “Pancakes, eggs, toast—what can I make you?” she calls out when I take my first step into the kitchen. “Toast and coffee would be great.” John Westover and I soon depart on the sixty-five-mile drive south to Fort Huachuca, the last of the Southwest frontier posts still in use, where we have an appointment with an Army historian interested in the Marshall controversy. Westover is at the wheel and I am in the passenger seat, this reprise of the role he played for my grandfather four decades ago. I am asking questions about my grandfather, getting Westover to share his insights into the kind of person he was and the forces that shaped him, especially before I knew him. What I am coming to believe is that my grandfather struggled mightily to overcome his lack of height and his lack of education, so I try that thesis out with Westover, who towered over his boss and had a doctorate. “Slam would not come out and say he was sensitive about being short, in so many words, but I felt it all along; height was a factor with him,” Westover says. “And not only his height, or lack of height, but also his lack of formal education. It was very clear that he had a feeling that he needed to prove himself, although he was
I move on to ask Westover about one of the more annoying points in the Marshall controversy—the assertion by some of his critics, Leinbaugh particularly, that Marshall had “never been under fire” or had “never been in combat.” I think both contentions are probably wrong and are tangential anyway. The worth of Marshall’s great volume of work is not going to be changed by whether he had fired a weapon in anger or dodged a bullet. Westover had been with Marshall when they went to interview combat units at the front, so I still feel compelled to ask about whether they were “under fire” and how Marshall had reacted then.
“The Colonel wasn’t cautious; he took a business-like approach,” Westover says. “Sometimes they would pull a unit right out of the line to talk to us, and this didn’t bother him at all. He had tremendous concentration.”
“But how did he act?” I continue. “Was he cocky in those situations, did he strut about?”
“He displayed not bravado—just a sense that this is what we have got to do. And we were under fire actively, particularly on that trip into Paris, in Brittany, in Brest, and at various division headquarters. He got down in his hole and snuggled in as close as anyone. He was not the type who stood there and said, ‘They can’t hit me.’
S. L. A. Marshall, kneeling in center, writing on map, during group critique in Brest, France, September 1944. Courtesy S. L. A. Marshall Military History Collection, University of Texas at El Paso.
He had none of that. He had a healthy respect for fire. Hemingway, on the other hand, was a show-off. Slam did what was necessary; there was none of that striding about.”
We are on the approach to Fort Huachuca now, passing the traditional outskirts of a military post—instant apartment complexes, used car lots stocked with hot Camaros, pawn shops ready to buy or sell anything. Bruce Saunders is waiting for us on the sidewalk outside the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School. Saunders, outfitted in a historian’s wool tweed sportcoat despite the heat, escorts us to his basement office.
Westover and Saunders continue to chat. I find myself reflecting on how the “Green Series” and Army historians like Saunders are part of my grandfather’s lingering legacy. Most of us die and leave behind little more than dust and memories; S. L. A. Marshall left behind far more. His life had such an impact that Saunders and Westover talk about him as if he were still alive today.
We adjourn for lunch, my first visit to an officers’ club in two decades, yet just as I remember it—the ageless decor, the harried service, the monthly calendar of festivities still featuring surf ‘n turf night.
The conversation at our table soon centers on the Marshall controversy. I ask Saunders if he attended the annual meeting of Army historians earlier in the year when one of his compatriots, then historian at Fort Benning, had presented his research paper on Marshall. It is a paper which, I have been told, went after Marshall with a blunderbuss.
“I heard Charlie White’s paper on Marshall,” replies Saunders, without elaboration. “Well, what did you think of it?” I ask. “And what did the other historians think of it?”
“The guys I hang around with thought it was a terrible cheap shot, but it was not terribly unexpected from Charlie White; he fires first, thinks later,” says Saunders.
Saunders’ comment seems to hang in the air, at least to me. In the past months, I have read and heard so much criticism of S. L. A. Marshall, some of it highly personal, even savage, a chorus of angry voices that seemed to drown out any dispassionate assessment of the man’s work. Now, Saunders manages to cut through that with phrases like “a barnacle on the Queen Mary.” Whether many others share his estimation is something I must determine on my journey. For I cannot be satisfied listening only to those who scream loudest, players in the controversy with their own grudges and agendas, the kind of people relied upon by American Heritage. I want insight, not just invective, and will take the time to find it.
On the return trip to Tucson, I begin to ask Westover about his discussions with Marshall about firing problems, but he begs off and I do not press him further, knowing full well that I can ask those questions tomorrow.
In the evening, I treat the Westovers to dinner at El Corral, a Tucson steak house in the true Western tradition, a raucous place where seldom is heard that cholesterol word. We have a fine time. The Westovers spend much of the dinner reminiscing about their long life together, and treating me as if I am a longtime family friend.
The next morning, the mood at the kitchen table is entirely different, brisk, businesslike. I have a list of questions in front of me and Westover sits opposite, prepared for this interview, what our time together these past few days has been building toward, as we both seem to sense.
I take out copies of after-action interviews I discovered in El Paso on my brief research trip for the newspaper, accounts of units in action during D-Day which carry no notation of the interviewer. Westover immediately recognizes the first critique as his own. He is all-but-certain that the second critique was done by Marshall, a conclusion based on when it was conducted and how it is spaced
(“‘The Colonel’ had intense concentration, thought in complete thoughts and seldom made corrections, so he usually single-spaced.”)
These critiques could be crucial to the Marshall controversy. Their narrative provides direct evidence that firing problems did hamper some D-Day units, a phenomenon noted by the interviewing Army historian, either Marshall or Westover. As one of these critiques recounts, “Some of the men froze on the beach, wretched with seasickness and fear, refusing to move. Most of the survivors toiled painfully to the foot of the hill where the enemy might well have found and destroyed them, since they had no fire power.”
One of the critiques also contains the signatures of twenty-two men, soldiers of every rank from private to second lieutenant, probably as many men of Company M, 116th Infantry, as could be assembled three months after D-Day. “This is important,” I say to Westover, “because American Heritage staked its credibility on the research of Roger Spiller, the Army historian at Fort Leavenworth. Yet the magazine quotes Spiller as saying, ‘I just haven’t found any suggestion that he [Marshall] did company-level interviews anywhere.”’2
“This is a company-level interview,” Westover says triumphantly. “The signatures would have been used by Marshall to make sure he got the spelling of the names right. THIS IS ABSOLUTE PROOF THAT MARSHALL DlD COMPANY-LEVEL INTERVIEWS.”
A broad smile washes across Westover’s face, with the recognition of this dent in the armor of Marshall’s critics.
S. L. A. Marshall’s own credibility in Men Against Fire came from his position first as deputy, then chief Army historian in Europe and his assertion that he conducted “approximately 400” group critiques of combat companies during World War II. Westover has doubts about the four-hundred-company figure—he believes that Marshall probably did one hundred critiques himself and read five hundred critiques of the historians under him-but Westover has absolutely no doubt that Marshall did conduct many such critiques.
American Heritage, on the other hand, takes Spiller’s “not finding any suggestion” that Marshall did company-level interviews and then tries to build a case that Marshall’s “systematic collection of data…appears to have been an invention.” Since Spiller did not find company-level reports, the magazine’s reasoning goes, there
Westover is positively gleeful at my reasoning: “I’m with you 100 percent! I think American Heritage got the wrong man; it was not good scholarship. A word like ‘hoax’ is a loaded word, one you use when you’re trying to pin something on someone. American Heritage has gone from being a publication for historians to being a profitmaking operation. I’ve been disappointed in the magazine for six or seven years. It went from a history magazine to an issues magazine. It moved away from real scholarship.”
“But I have a problem,” I say.
“Whether you and Marshall ever did discuss the failure of infantryman to fire their weapons in combat.”
Westover’s smile evaporates, as I recount how back in April he had told me that “hell we did discuss such matters,” which is what I had written in my newspaper series. Then Spiller wrote me, saying Westover had told him just the opposite—he could not recall Marshall discussing his ratio-of-fire findings with him.
I hand over Spiller’s letter and Westover seems to blanch noticeably, especially when he reads: “I don’t mind that he [Westover] changed his story for his American Heritage rebuttal, and I won’t speculate on his motives for doing so, but as I think I told you when you were here, had Westover said something different, my article would have been different.”
Westover immediately seizes on the telephone interview as the cause of the problem. Spiller had called unannounced, and he had not been feeling well and there followed a long interview for which he had no time to prepare. Questions may have been misunderstood over the phone, Westover suggests, answers may have been misinterpreted.
But the real problem, I tell Westover, goes beyond the telephone interview. For Spiller later sent him a copy of his upcoming
“Then why didn’t you tell Spiller that was a misstatement? And why didn’t you tell him then that you and Marshall certainly had discussed firing problems. Your failure to correct him makes it appear you did change your story once the controversy broke.”
“I’m perfectly willing to agree that I misled Spiller, but he may have misled me, too. I wouldn’t rule out that Marshall and I talked about the Queen of Sheba. I can’t give you specifics about what we were talking about, but we must have discussed firing problems. I’m not perfectly sure when, but that’s looking back forty-five years. I can’t say on such and such a day, we discussed this.”
“Or,” I add, “that you definitely discussed it at all.”
“I can say that firing problems did not sound improbable to me. In my own combat experience in North Africa and Italy, a hell of a lot of people didn’t fire their guns in order to avoid confronting the enemy. Slam clearly should have called his finding a ‘generalization.’ He tried to quantify something that you simply can’t quantify. I know I talked about such broad things myself, but I doubt I would ever have come up with a specific percentage, as Slam did. I do remember, too, that after Men Against Fire came out, I said to Eloise, ‘A lot of the ideas in this book are very familiar to me.’ Now, you come here and you are asking me, ‘Did you talk about this?’ But I don’t remember. I can’t remember.”
Every word out of Westover’s mouth now seems to detonate doubts in my mind. So many doubts that I almost do not hear when Westover makes an important point: that Marshall would not have had to ask troops point-blank, “Did you fire your weapons?” There are much better ways to pursue that line of inquiry.
But as soon as Westover makes a trenchant point, he proceeds to say something troubling again. He keeps explaining himself over and over, as if he hopes the sheer weight of assembled verbiage will somehow produce the magic rationale that will dispel all doubt.
”Not recalling a specific conversation forty-five years ago doesn’t mean such a conversation did not occur,” he continues. “I feel caught in the middle here….I don’t know, I’m really concerned, I’m sort of shook up, John. I’ve been as honest and consistent as I know how to be. If I’ve been given different questions, I’m going to make different answers. But now my own validity comes into question.
“I’ve been a friend of Slam’s, a driver, a booster, but I have never been two-faced. I have never been uncritical of him; I have tried to be as forthright as I could, and consistent. When I’ve said that Slam was ‘an intuitive thinker,’ I meant by that that he read so much, he talked to so many people, he had been mulling over this in his mind for months and years. That is what Men Against Fire was; it was a crystallization of his thoughts. If he didn’t write his research down, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right. It just means that it doesn’t satisfy those who are used to working with documents—historians. Because in conventional history, you deal with documents.
Westover’s face is drawn now, his voice is raspy, his mood subdued. He seems spent after three hours of answering questions about Marshall’s integrity and his own. There is silence across the table. We stare at each other. Then, suddenly, out of Westover’s mouth comes a plaintive cry that echoes off the kitchen walls.
“Who’s the guy,” he shouts, “who’s done any study that’s better than Marshall’s?”