Ernest Hemingway with sons (Patrick, Jack “Bumby”, and Gregory “Gigi”), at Club de Cazadores del Cerro, Cuba. Photo courtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
The Aletti Hotel bar was reserved for field-grade officers. The bartender served drinks to an out-of-place group of muscular soldiers; one had a pair of jump boots slung over his shoulder by the laces. Their antics over the next hour grew too much for the other bar patrons to handle, and they were asked to leave, not the proper send-off for their last Saturday in Algiers before they would receive new assignments in war-torn Europe.
Jim Russell — an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Jedburgh who had three combat jumps into North Africa, Italy, and Sardinia to his name — hopped into the driver’s seat of their three-quarter-ton truck. A pair of jump boots sat next to his leg. John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway had purchased them earlier in the evening at the Allied Forces Headquarters PX. Hemingway, simply known as “Jack,” was the eldest son of Ernest Hemingway, widely proclaimed as one of the greatest American literary figures of the 20th century. He was leaving for jump school in the coming days and had managed to convince Russell to grab a nightcap at a civilian sidewalk cafe located on the outskirts of town.
The rumbustious group of OSS commandos funneled into the cafe. Hemingway would bring his jump boots with him everywhere but decided to leave them within his view on the truck’s dashboard. The commandos were soon engulfed by curious “threadbare urchins” who begged to shine and polish their footwear, in a clever diversion. Hemingway’s prized jump boots were snatched from his sight, and the thief disappeared around the corner of a back alley. Hemingway, Russell, and the others gave chase and watched as the Arab thief threw the jump boots over a wall and into a courtyard.
Now the commandos were furious, as their drunken night turned from a celebration into a violent encounter. Three of the thief’s friends arrived holding knives. In an instant, all of the thieves were disarmed, sprawled flat on their backs, and on the receiving end of a well-choreographed lesson in hand-to-hand combat. The thieves had picked the wrong set of American soldiers that night because despite their heavy drinking, all were unarmed combat instructors for the OSS.
Hemingway never found his beloved jump boots, and he ended his night with a court-martial. An Arab workman threw a rock at their truck while they were returning to the OSS training base in Chréa. The commandos jumped out and beat the man senseless. The man reported the incident, and although Hemingway and Russell didn’t take part, they were threatened with being thrown out of the OSS.
An upcoming airborne operation was their saving grace because the planning stages were moving forward and they couldn’t be replaced. Hemingway’s orders to jump school were canceled, and he reported to a colonel leading a Jedburgh mission.
Jim Russell had experience as a seasoned radio operator. Hemingway described Russell as “the complete antithesis of an OSS staff person.” The OSS had gained two reputations since its inception in 1942, one as an extremely competent paramilitary force and another as “Oh So Social” for its staff officers’ participation in diplomatic cocktail outings.
Russell and Hemingway, however, wouldn’t be handling the radios on this mission. Two French noncommissioned officers named Julien and Henri were tasked with the job. Their mission was to parachute into occupied France, take over existing information networks, and support the local resistance forces in their insurgency against the Germans.
France wasn’t some foreign land to Hemingway. His boyhood infatuation with fly-fishing materialized as he explored the rivers and streams around Paris with his father. His childhood was spent surrounded by his famous father’s friends: Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. His first words were spoken in French, then English, Austrian, and German. The joys of running through the French countryside as a boy and fighting imaginary battles had become a devastating reality.
Their four-man team spent hours in their safe house studying maps, memorizing drop zones and names of contacts, and identifying intelligence on German troop movements. Hemingway had also assisted in previous planning phases to become familiarized with the process of how agents, including a woman and a one-armed man, were dropped into occupied France.
On the airfield’s tarmac, a British officer approached Hemingway before their jump and said, “You can’t take THAT with you, you know?” He was referring to Hemingway’s fly rod, which he deliberately packed in his gear wherever he went. “Oh, it’s only a special antenna,” he lied. “Just looks like a fly rod.”
Two B-17s took to the air. They were loaded with containers filled with weapons, ammunition, explosives, and radio equipment. One B-17’s belly gun turret had been removed, and the commandos used the hole in the floor to parachute safely to the ground. Hemingway’s first jump from a perfectly good airplane was during a real-world Jedburgh mission over France with zero training, and towing along his fly-fishing rod.
On the ground they linked up with the French resistance. While Russell and the French commandos were preoccupied with jury-rigging a radio transmitter, Hemingway ventured to a nearby water hole. “Limestone means rich aquatic life and healthy, well-fed trout,” Hemingway wrote in his autobiography. “I was in khaki, civilian garb not uncommon at the time, but wore no cap and there was a U.S. flag sewn to my right shoulder, but no insignia on the left.”
An overwhelming emotion of glee swept over him as he skipped down the mountainside with his fly rod, reel, and box of flies. As he entered the water, he didn’t study the flow of the stream as he normally would have and was oblivious of the world around him. A German patrol with their rifles and machine pistols marched toward him.
“They were all looking toward me and making what sounded like derisive, joking comments as they went along,” Hemingway wrote. “For the first time in my life I made a silent wish that came as close to a real prayer as I had ever come.”
He wished to not catch a fish because if he had, the German patrol would have stopped to watch and, under closer inspection, realized the fisherman had a US flag on his arm. They had mistakenly assumed he was the professional fly fisherman who fished for the local inn at Avesnes and continued their patrol.
This close call wasn’t the fly-fishing commando’s only brush with potential violence.
In October 1944, Hemingway took another assignment to recruit, infiltrate, and train allied resistance forces. While he traveled to his safe house with Capt. Justin Greene, who commanded the OSS team with the 36th Infantry Division, they stepped past a dead tank and into a German hornet’s nest. Greene walked up the slope and then immediately turned around and dove for cover, as if he had seen a ghost. Small arms fire and explosions followed close behind, and two German alpine soldiers appeared in Hemingway’s field of fire.
Another German opened fire from above Hemingway’s position, and he was hit with a single round. He dropped to the ground and tried to hide in a ditch as two more bullets ripped through his right arm and shoulder; grenade fragments peppered his side. He called out in German, surrendered, and immediately told them his cover story while they attended to his wounds. A German surgeon later threatened to amputate his arm, but he refused because, he reasoned, it was his casting arm.
Hemingway and Greene boarded the Luft Bandit en route for a German hospital prisoner of war (POW) camp. German civilians called their passenger train the Luft Bandit because it stopped often in tunnels and dense forests to escape American planes.
While in the POW camp, the commandos prepared for their escape. On March 29, 1945, US Army tank divisions broke 50 miles behind enemy lines to free US officers held in POW camps. Their intelligence, however, anticipated only 300 soldiers were being held in these camps — instead, the number averaged close to 3,000. Hemingway hitched a ride on one of these tanks as they rolled through an area the Germans used for army maneuvers and artillery practice.
From a distance of no farther than 3 yards, Hemingway was knocked off the tank’s turret by a Panzerschreck bazooka. He jumped onto another tank as American infantrymen decimated the hedgerow with their rifles and automatic weapons. Instead of staying with his rescuers, Hemingway decided to leave the tanks and travel on foot with another soldier. The next morning, six German Tiger tanks surprised and destroyed all 57 armored vehicles of the American tank division with overwhelming firepower.
Hemingway evaded German patrols for two days, surviving off raw rabbit and gardens of abandoned homes. He was nearly shot by a patrol of German teenagers who nervously trained their weapons on the unknown Americans. Hemingway spoke slowly in lousy German and was captured unharmed. For 10 more arduous days he and other prisoners death marched away from the evacuated Nürnberg POW camp to Bavaria. After a P-51 Mustang mistakenly strafed their position, they were forced to spell “US POW” on the ground. Once they arrived at their new home, which Hemingway called the biggest POW camp he had ever seen, they spent the next six months as POWs before being liberated on April 29, 1945. His once fit and healthy 210-pound body at the beginning of the war was a gaunt 140 pounds by war’s end.
After World War II, Hemingway debriefed with X2, the OSS counterintelligence section, and took a commanding officer position at a German POW camp in Camp Pickett, Virginia. Hemingway kept alive his passion for fly-fishing after his service. He wrote for National Wildlife Magazine, describing his adventures hunting in Africa and trolling a fly behind a deep-sea fishing boat off the coast of Tanzania.
“All together, while trolling and casting from shore and around a small atoll on the edge of the Pemba Channel, I caught twenty-seven different species of fish on the fly, including everything from small, brightly-colored reef species to dolphin in the blue water, and I had one big shark for a short while which had swallowed a tuna I was fighting,” he wrote in his autobiography.
In his 40s, Hemingway became the Northwest field editor for Field & Stream, “which meant contributing an annual roundup of fishing prospects in my region and any other pieces I could produce that might fit,” he wrote in his autobiography. Hemingway also influenced decision making through the Federation of Fly Fishermen. As the commissioner of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission, he successfully swayed the state to adopt a catch-and-release fishing law.
Jack Hemingway was the son of a famous writer and the father to famous children, but he was also a legend in his own right. The former OSS commando, American POW, fly fisherman, conservationist, editor, author, husband, and father died of heart complications in 2000 at age 77.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.