When Stanley Kubrick had Major Kong (Slim Pickens) straddle a nuclear bomb in Dr Strangelove (1964) and ride it exuberantly all the way down to its target – surely the most iconic image from the film – he was making an obvious visual point about masculinism, sexuality and military violence that, as the clean-limbed image above shows, takes many other, non-nuclear forms. Here a group of US Army Air Force bombardiers in the Second World War practices calisthenics with 100 lb bombs. A different sort of ‘love-charm of bombs‘, you might think.
Indeed, a contemporary account made much of the ‘hard and rigid training of members of a bomber crew’ – which was supposed to be just like a football or basketball team (‘This is really the Big League in the toughest game we have ever been up against, with the pennant the survival and future of the whole nation’) – and emphasised their collective virility and heteronormativity:
‘They will have played football or basketball, have competed in the field or on the track. Many of them will have been ardent hunters or fishermen. Because they are healthy young men they will like girls very well indeed.’
Hunting was important; readers were told to be thankful that ‘frightened civil authorities and specific Ladies Clubs have not managed to eradicate from the country the tradition of the possession and use of firearms’, which ensured that a young man would enter the Air Force ‘with the whole background of aerial gunnery in him before he starts.’
The author of all this was, astonishingly, John Steinbeck, and the book Bombs Away: the story of a bomber team, published in 1942.
In May 1942 Steinbeck had been summoned to Washington by General Henry A. “Hap” Arnold who explained what he had in mind – an account of the training of a bomber crew that would serve as a recruiting platform – and although Steinbeck was at first reluctant a meeting with President Roosevelt convinced him to accept the assignment. He spent the summer on the road (in fact, much of the time in the air), travelling from airbase to airbase in the United States with Hollywood photographer John Swope, who provided 60 illustrations for Bombs Away. Swope would later be tapped by First World War veteran Edward Steichen for his US Navy photographic unit covering the war in the Pacific, where he produced a remarkable photographic portfolio and the accompanying Letter from Japan in 1945.
Steinbeck was no stranger to working with photographers. In 1937 Horace Bristol, a freelance photographer who regularly contributed to LIFE magazine,
‘proposed a story about migrant farm workers in Calfornia’s Central Valley—a project that would include accompanying text by novelist John Steinbeck. Though LIFE turned down the story, Bristol and Steinbeck agreed to collaborate on a book-length project, and the two men spent several weekends in labor camps during the winter of 1938. Bristol took hundreds of photographs of the suffering farm workers, only to have Steinbeck withdraw from the partnership to write the story as a novel, which became his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath.’
Bristol was also later recruited by Steichen, and some of his war photographs would not been out of place in Bombs Away: the image on the right, ‘RESCUE: PBY Blister Gunner’, was shot in a Catalina Flying Boat at Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, in 1944, which presumably explains the flying kit.
If Steinbeck’s collaboration with Swope turned out to be more congenial than that with Bristol, however, it was markedly less fruitful. Ernest Hemingway disliked Bombs Away so much that he famously observed that ‘I would rather cut off three fingers off my throwing hand than to have written it.’
He wasn’t alone. A review in the New Republic declared that Bombs Away bore ‘about the same relationship to literature that a recruiting poster does to art.’ But of course it was supposed to be a recruiting poster, and it had to be written in double-quick time.
In the book Steinbeck assembles the bomber crew man by man, role by role – the bombardier, the aerial gunner, the navigator, the pilot, the aerial engineer/crew chief and the radio engineer – who together ‘must function like a fine watch’. They are assigned a ‘ship’ – a B-17E Flying Fortress or a B-24 (‘Liberator’) – which will invariably become personalised and almost always feminized. (There’s a considerable literature on the ‘nose art‘ of bombers, and Steinbeck will later declare that ‘Some of the best writing of the war has been on the noses of bombers’). But it is the men that count, that constitute the elaborate clock-mechanism: ‘Men are the true weapons of the Air Force,’ Steinbeck insists, ‘and it is an understanding of this that makes our bomber crews what they are.’ Inevitably, he adds: ‘Living and working together too, they played together too. On the beach in their free time they played football and swam in the warm water of the Gulf.’
Steinbeck knows, of course, that this is a deadly serious ‘game’: and one that, as he also labours to explain, is objective, scientific: ‘They knew the mathematics of destruction.’ Within this embodied, techno-cultural constellation the Norden bombsight (left) occupied a central place.
‘This bombsight has become the symbol of responsibility. It is never left unguarded for a moment. On the ground it is kept in a safe and under constant guard. It is taken out of its safe only by a bombardier on mission and he never leaves it. He is responsible not only for its safety but for its secrecy.’
I’ve noted before how often bombing depends on abstraction: on a technical division of labour within the kill-chain, on a rhetoric of scientificity (and, by extension, precision), and on a calculus that transforms places and people into the co-ordinates of a target. Bombs Away shows this to perfection, but it shows something else even more clearly. For the ability to carry out these deadly missions also depends on an instilled and instinctive sociality (here, naturally, a homosociality) that is far from abstract.
And yet there is something abstract, or at least detached, about Bombs Away, because it ends just before the crew takes off on its first mission. In the concluding chapter, ‘Missions’, Steinbeck explains that the men ‘looked so carefully at the newspapers, and what they found in the newspapers reassured them.’
But this paper knowledge turned out to be less than satisfactory. Less than a year later, in June 1943, his request to become an air force intelligence officer refused by the draft board – a US Army intelligence report, mindful of the sympathies of Steinbeck’s pre-war novels, had concluded that there was ‘substantial doubt’ about his ‘loyalty and discretion’ and recommended that he not be offered a commission – Steinbeck was at RAF Bassingbourn (USAAF Station 121) in Cambridgeshire as a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune.
An old friend of his, in fact a literary agent before the war, Staff Sergeant Henry (“Maurice”) Crain was stationed there, and Steinbeck wrote nine articles centred on the crew of Crain’s ship, the “Mary Ruth: Memoirs of Mobile“, a Flying Fortress of the 91st Bomb Group of VII Bomber Command. ‘The closer you get to the action,’ he reports Crain (the ball-turret gunner) saying, ‘the less you read the papers and war news’:
‘I remember before I joined up I used to know everything that was happening… I even had maps with pins and I drew out campaigns with colored pencils. Now I haven’t looked at a paper in two weeks.’
And when the crew did, as often as not they didn’t recognise what they saw. The waist-gunner had read a newspaper from home:
‘It seems to me that the folks at home are fighting one war and we’re fighting another one. They’ve got theirs nearly won and we’ve just got started on ours. I wish they’d get in the same war we’re in. I wish they’d print the casualties and tell them what it’s like.’
This is a far cry from the brimming, boastful confidence of Bombs Away, and Steinbeck is clearly concerned not only to change the tone but also to surmount the limitations of his new, temporary profession (some of his despatches were republished in 1958 in Once there was a war). He does so by invoking the the technical, instrumental armature of the mission: the precision of the briefing (‘The incredible job of getting so many ships to a given point at a given time means almost split-second timing’), the complicated process of kitting up (‘During the process the men have got bigger and bigger as layer on layer of equipment is put on; they walk stiffly, like artificial men’), and the meticulous work of the ground crews who ‘scurry about like rabbits’ as they prepare the aircraft and load the bombs. But here too it is above all the sociality, the camaraderie that drives and dominates the narrative.
And it’s the end of this that brings Steinbeck’s reports to an abrupt end. He had had in mind a series of 25 articles, but this was cut short when the ‘Mary Ruth’ (shown above) failed to return from a bombing raid on the Ruhr.
But this was not the end of Steinbeck’s interest in (and enthusiasm for) the US military in general and bombing in particular. He was a vocal supporter of the Vietnam War, and in fact visited the South in December 1966-January 1967. In private he wrote that ‘I wish the bombing weren’t necessary, but I suspect our people on the ground know more about that than I do’ , and he refused all requests to sign petitions against President Johnson’s Rolling Thunder campaign. [For more on Steinbeck's involvement in the two wars, see Thomas Barden, 'John Steinbeck and the Vietnam War', Steinbeck Review 5 (1) (2008) 11-24].
Note: Most of the crew of the ‘Mary Ruth’ survived (including Crain) and were taken prisoner of war. The most detailed account describes the ‘Mary Ruth’ being shot down by a fighter aircraft on 22 June 1943; Steinbeck’s reports for the New York Herald Tribune begin to appear on 26 June. The discrepancy is presumably explained by a combination of the time taken for his despatches to cross the Atlantic and wartime censorship. Both Bombs Away and Once there was a war are still available as Penguin editions, the latter with an enthusiastic foreword by Mark Bowden.