On Alvin Kernan

by Eric Byrd

9780300123159There's a subgenre of military memoirs produced by elderly emeriti, the crew-cut close readers of postwar English departments, who in late career published personal recollections of they and the other terrified teenagers who mostly fought World War Two. Alvin Kernan (Shakespeare editor, torpedo bomber crewman) is like Paul Fussell (Johnsonian, infantry officer) and Samuel Hynes (Auden biographer, Marine aviator). Seventeen year-old Kernan joined the Navy before the war, to escape the bleakness of Depression Wyoming: Ma and Pa down on the ranch, hard winters and harder times. Kernan's mother had a representatively difficult life. She killed herself while he was at sea. Home on leave, he inspects her grave “already collapsing and pocked with gopher holes”:

The World War I generation to which she, born in 1900, belonged was the first to leave the land, and with a little education, she married a soldier, moved to town, went to Florida, lost the money from the sale of her father's farm in the land boom, had a child, divorced, and began wandering—Chicago, Memphis, a ranch in Wyoming. She remarried, became a Catholic, and put a determined face on it all, but she was part of the first generation of really rootless modern Americans, moving restlessly by car about the country, emancipated socially and intellectually to a modest degree, but lost, really, without the supporting ethos and family that had protected people in the years when the continent was being settled. Alienation was the familiar state of my generation of Depression and another world war, but the old people had few defenses against it when it appeared.

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos are the favorite writers of young Seaman Kernan. He could be one of their characters. As with Hemingway's Nick Adams, death-shaded excursions in the American wilds precede and forebode initiation overseas. And Kernan must have recognized his family in Dos Passos' panorama of the wandering and the unmoored, the war-mobilized, the desperately migratory. The down but not out, bumming the freights, going to sea, following work; displaced but for all that able to dream of landing somewhere better:

Returning from out baseball game, we came alongside the ship and began to send sailors up the gangway. At that moment another landing craft came up carrying officers, including the executive officer of the Suwanee—a small, dark, mean man—who stood up in the bow, dead drunk, shouting in a loud voice to the officer-of-the-deck, “Get those fucking enlisted men out of there and get us aboard.” Protocol was that officers always take precedence in landing, and our boat shoved off immediately, circling while the officers staggered up the gangway after their afternoon drinking in the officers' club. The gap between enlisted men and officers in the American navy during WWII was medieval. Enlisted men accepted the division as a necessary part of military life, but it never occurred to us that it in any way diminished our status as freeborn citizens who, because of a run of bad luck and some unfortunate circumstances like the Depression, just happened to be down for a brief time. “When we get rich” were still words deep in everybody's psyche. But the exec's words, “those fucking enlisted men,” spoke of deep and permanent divisions. He obviously really disliked us, and his words made shockingly clear that he, and maybe the other officers he represented, had no sense that we had shared great danger and won great victories together.

Dos Passos' Three Soldiers, in a paragraph.

Beyond the charm of the Lost Generation atmosphere, the virtues of Crossing the Line are its swift pace and concision of evocation. No episode lasts longer than is necessary to make the essential impressions—usually Kernan's fear and awe (at times laced with boyish glee) before the military juggernauts whose savage collisions he is witnessing. Kernan did not set out to reconstruct the birth of his literary consciousness, or find the boy in the vitae. Quite the opposite. Seaman Kernan is a small animal in a world of threats. He thinks with his gut, senses through the soles of his feet.

If you've ever wanted to know how it feels to flee a sinking aircraft carrier, this may be your book:

We stood there debating whether to stay on the flight deck or take our chances below. Two great heavy thuds raised and then dropped the entire ship, all twenty thousand pounds of it: torpedoes hitting home one after another on the starboard side—the death wounds of the ship, though we didn't know it at the time. The Hornet, turning at a sharp angle, shook like a dog shaking off water but immediately began to lose speed and list to starboard, which was terrifying, for you were alive only so long as the speed was up and the ship was moving. You sense it in the soles of your feet, and it began to feel noticeably different at once, sluggish and dull, the rhythm off, and then another delay-fused bomb went through the flight deck just aft, through the hangar deck, to explode with a sharp sound somewhere deep below, followed by an acrid smell and smoke curling from up out of a surprisingly small hole. The rudder was now jammed, and the ship began to turn in circles. The lights went out, and the hoses stopped putting water on the fires that now were everywhere…

About 1500 the destroyer USS Hughes stretched cargo nets between the two decks. The Hornet sat heavy and still, but the Hughes rolled and pitched wildly. When she came into the Hornet she crushed the net and everything in it between the sides of the two ships. Trial and error taught us the right way to do it. The trick was to jump just as the Hughes began to roll out, being careful that your foot landed on one of the tightening ropes, and not in the holes between, for there wasn't time to recover and make your way slowly up the loosening net. If you did it right you landed on the rope and its stretch would pop you like a trampoline onto the deck of the Hughes and into the arms of several of her crew. Carrying my pillowcase filled with my contraband pistol and my liberty whites, I leaped for my life and made it with a great bound of exhilaration. Tricky, but better than going into the oily water where anything could go wrong…

The Battle of Santa Cruz was over, and sitting on the deck of the Hughes, cold and exhausted, looking at the smoking carrier sitting there at an odd, lumpy angle, I considered for the first time the possibility that we might lose the war. The Hornet had been such a big and powerful ship, and yet only a few hits in a brief space of time had been enough to finish it.

The sinking of the USS Hornet in October, 1942, was the beginning of the end of Kernan's first naval career as one of the dungareed Airedales trundling ordnance and pushing planes around the deck under a crew chief's stopwatch. For the war's last two years he was in the air, the back-seat gunner on a carrier-based Avenger bomber roaring down canyons on Okinawa to sling 500-lb. bombs into the mouths of Japanese caves, or jousting half-blindly above a blacked-out fleet with nocturnal enemy intruders spookily visible only by the tiny blue flames of their engine exhaust and the bright streams of tracer rounds whiplashing through the blackness at you.

A_Douglas_SBD_Dive_Bomber_over_Wake_Island,_1943

A Navy dive-bomber over Wake Island, 1943. I first saw this image some years ago, on an Edward Steichen exhibition poster, and ever since it has stood for the poetry and lonesomeness of the flier's vantage. “A lonely impulse of delight/Drove this tumult in the clouds,” Yeats and all that. Kernan reminds one that the fliers were often witlessly terrified and usually formation-bound; but passages of his account do seem to authorize my projection of reverie. Returning from a mission: “We made our way back to the ship in a golden-green haze, with rainstorms and bright shafts of sunlight in a dozen different places around the horizon. The scene had a magical quality, intensified by the big lift that came from having survived another run.” And: “One day we flew to Manila, a hundred miles or so to the north, to pick up mail. The flight led across the jungles of Samar where, flying a few hundred feet off the ground, we saw back in the forests high waterfalls and huge flowers, ten or fifteen feet across, and small villages at the end of long dirt trails.”

Putting “odyssey” in the subtitle of your memoir might seem overblown but here it isn't. Kernan was everywhere. He made his way home circuitously by islands, if you really want to be pedantic. His first ship, the carrier Enterprise, missed destruction at Pearl Harbor by just hours. He describes sailing into the burning base. Four years later he toured the irradiated rubble of Nagasaki. Between are iconic battles: the Doolittle Raid, Midway, Guadalcanal, Okinawa. I was particularly grateful for a glimpse of the old navy that fought the first year. Until the Cold War, the peacetime services were strange institutions, small, insular, vaguely penal. The crews of 1941 consisted of old hands and salty lifers; jobless kids like Kernan; and a compliment of “incorrigible fuck-ups” whom judges had offered the classic choice: the pen or the service. “Healthy but in many respects like a chain-gang” is Kernan's verdict on navy life during peace.

Joan Didion said that Honolulu's red light district belongs to James Jones. That may be true, but Kernan got to me first, and with a story about a hooker who had a tattoo of a mouse disappearing into her public hair. Kernan is no less absorbing on the other naval pastimes, cards and drinking. Poker windfalls could fund quite a spree in port. Kernan's first crew chief on the Hornet stayed buzzed on “moosemilk”—coffee spiked with the rubbing alcohol used to clean bombsights. One night on Fiji Kernan pulled Shore Patrol (canvas leggings, skullstick, holstered .45 on a web belt) and was ordered to herd a liberty party up a mountain to a run-down old resort hotel whose rumored stock of raw cane whiskey was to be the men's “first real drink in months of imbibing shaving lotion and paint strained through loaves of bread.” Three shots per man of the raw cane stuff were enough to start mayhem. “The sailors had to be forced away from the bar, and straggling, slipping and falling they made their way cussing down the mountain, stopping from time to time to piss and fight a bit more.”

This is such a lean, punchy little book, the very definition of a successful memoir. Kernan makes his memories memorable, paints them durably.

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