“Maline! You die!”

Leon Uris (1924-2003) maybe needed a father-figure and a community he could respect in order to grow up.[1]  The son of Russian Jews who had immigrated to the United States, Uris was no great shakes in school.  He dropped out to enlist in the Marines soon after Pearl Harbor.  Maybe he found some of what he had been missing in the Marines.  He went to Camp Pendleton for basic training, and then to the Second Battalion, 6th Marines.  After that came New Zealand, late-stage Guadalcanal, and Tarawa.  The South Pacific of the 1940s wasn’t the Hawaii of modern vacationers: he caught dengue (“break-bone”) fever and malaria.  In hospital, he missed out on Saipan.[2]  After the war the guy who had flunked high school English three times decided to try writing.  He had a story he wanted to tell.  It was the story not of himself, but of the 2/6. 

He didn’t have an easy time getting it published.  By the early 1950s, many novels about the war had been published.  Some of them remain powerful stories.[3]  Interests were turning toward new conflicts[4] or back to the familiar.  A dozen publishers rejected the book before Putnam’s took it.  It came out as Battle Cry (1953).  It became a best-seller (and a so-so movie). 

            The story and the writing is pretty simplistic, even rough-and-ready.  It’s not the worse for that.  A disparate (even diverse and inclusive by the standards of the time) group of young men fired by patriotism enlist after Pearl Harbor.  They endure the extended rigors of boot camp at Camp Pendleton.  Shared harsh experience forges a shared identity.  They are Marines and always will be.  There are also their experiences with women and drink.  For some of them it is there first time away from parental supervision and conventional morality.  Nobody seems the worse for what follows.  Plenty of time for hypocrisy later in life—if you survive. 

            Then they ship out.  First to New Zealand for more training and acclimatization.  Then to Guadalcanal, although they arrive after the heroic period in the second half of 1942.  Here they get their first taste of combat with the Japanese.  Then back to New Zealand for rest and refit in preparation for Tarawa.  The unit is in a support role in the battle of Tarawa (November 1943).  Then to Hawaii for another round of rest and refit.  This time they are preparing for Saipan (June-July 1944).  Sam Huxley, the battalion commander, and his men all “want a beach.”  They didn’t do all this just to mop-up after others.  They want to be in the first wave at Saipan. 

            They get their wish.  Huxley and many others are killed; Max Shapiro, a peace time reprobate, but a ferocious warrior, leads the 2/6 in defeating a huge banzai attack.  The book ends with the survivors sorting out who they have become in the furnace of war.  Men, better men. 

            Many American men owe their colonic good health to Leon Uris.  He wrote a string of books that were good for reading on the head.  This was the first. 

[1] “He was basically a failure”, Uris later said of his father. “I think his personality was formed by the harsh realities of being a Jew in Czarist Russia.  I think failure formed his character, made him bitter.”  On the other hand, maybe he didn’t entirely grow up. 

[2] Which is where Lee Marvin got shot “in the wallet” (as he decorously phrased it during a television interview).    

[3] Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead (1948); Irwin Shaw, The Young Lions (1948); James Jones, From Here to Eternity (1951); Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny (1951); Nicholas Monsarrat, The Cruel Sea (1951).   

[4] For example, Robert Ruark, Something of Value (1955) on Mau Mau in Kenya; Nicholas Monsarrat, The Tribe That Lost Its Head (1956) on decolonization in Africa; Nevil Shute, On the Beach (1957) about nuclear war; Leon Uris, Exodus (1959) about the foundation of Israel; and Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, The Ugly American (1959) about American engagement in Southeast Asia.  Curiously, no best-selling novels on the Korean War. 

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