Virginia Spencer Carr
Dos Passos, A Life
New York: Doubleday, 1984

[excerpts]

[page 117]

Meanwhile, Dos Passos wasted no time in taking the necessary steps to join the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. He had been back in New York only four days when he submitted his application to Eliot Norton, whose brother Richard was director of the Red Cross Ambulance Service. How soon he could be inducted and trained as an ambulance driver was to depend upon funding for the all-volunteer program. On March 22, the Newport (Rhode Island)News confirmed that a gift of a quarter of a million dollars had been given by Robert W. Goelet of New York City so that two additional sections of the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps might be formed and sent to the European front. More than one hundred motor ambulances were already in operation. Goelet's gift stipulated that the full number-eighty men in all-be recruited, trained, and sent abroad together; moreover, they were to proceed directly to the front upon arrival in France. "We will sail in about a month, "announced Norton, who already had a waiting list of applicants.

Years later, Dos Passos observed to Charles Norman, whose biography of Estlin Cummings (e. e. cummings The Magic Maker, 1964) was in progress, that he "wanted to get into the ambulance service to see what the war was like." As an enthusiastic pacifist, he had "a horror of serving in the army." He also reasoned that with his myopic vision, ambulance duty was the only way he could approach the front. Dos Passos was certain that if he was not notified soon that his application for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps was accepted, he would be drafted.

[page 121]

Dos Passos took pride in being a writer, but knew that it would be years before he could support himself by writing alone and was repelled by the idea of living off his father's estate. He did not want to sail to Europe with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps as a charity case, however, or let his father s friend, Eliot Norton, know how little money was actually available from his inheritance (perhaps a face-saving move to protect his father's image); therefore he decided to sell his maternal home in Washington. Relieving himself of the responsibility of the house was important, too, in keeping his resolution to live "naked and clean " Dos Passos had no difficulty finding a buyer. Mary Lamar Gordon, his aunt, volunteered that her friend, James Brown Scott, [NOTE: author of Robert Bacon, Life and Letters]wanted to buy it. Scott was secretary of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Upon his aunt's advice, Dos Passos met Scott in Washington and agreed to his proposal, to sell the house for six thousand dollars (in three installments over the next three years at 6 percent interest, payable semiannually).He named his aunt his "attorney in fact, " which legally empowered her to act as his agent in subsequent financial transactions (until such power was revoked). He also turned over to her for safekeeping the jewelry he had been left by his mother and father. Once his father's estate was settled, Mrs. Gordon was to care for his portion of it and invest it or do with it as she saw it on his behalf. In effect she had carte blanch to handle every facet of his affairs. "I have just sold part of my poor disputed inheritance. Uncles shake their heads and see the beginning of the process of 'running through'-and they all tremble for fear they'll have to support the black sheep when the process is concluded, " Dos Passos wrote to Dudley Poore on May 8. In addition to buying Dos Passos' house, James Brown Scott offered to assist him by using his influence to help get him into the ambulance corps. Dos Passos never knew the extent of Scott's aid, but when he sailed for France in June, he carried a letter of introduction addressed to the "Diplomatic and Consular Officers of the United States of America in Great Britain and France' and signed by Robert Land, Secretary of State.

Dos Passos' candidacy for the "gentleman's ambulance corps" was also endorsed by his headmaster at Choate, George St. John, who wrote admiringly of his "sterling character, high ideals, and genuine ability." Norton, too, spoke on Dos Passos' behalf. Had Dos Passos remained in the United States for another month he might well have been arrested and prosecuted under the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917, which prohibited any evidence of disloyalty to the government. Speaking out against conscription, discouraging recruitment, or uttering or writing any disloyal or abusive language relative to the President's proclamation of war was a criminal offense.

[pp.127-128]

Wartime Paris was new to Dos Passos. The City of Lights was dark and quiet when the ambulance men detrained at the little station on the Quai d'Orsay. He felt as though he was walking into the pages of a mystery novel when he stepped through black felt blackout curtains to enter the hotel assigned to the Norton-Harjes men. Early the next morning they reported to headquarters at 7 rue François Premier for swearing-in ceremonies led by H. Herman Harjes, the French banker who had donated thousands of dollars and many ambulances to provide French war relief. The millionaire banker had agreed to pool his efforts with Richard Norton, who launched the American Ambulance Corps in 1914 with two cars and four drivers. By the time Dos Passos enlisted with the Norton-Harjes, the service had grown to thirteen sections comprised of six hundred American volunteer drivers and three hundred ambulances.

The Norton-Harjes organization was closely aligned with the American Field Service, established in 1915 by A. Piatt Andrew, a political economics professor at Harvard whose efforts at recruitment there paid off more handsomely than Richard Norton's did. Though their benefits in the field were comparable, the men of the American Field Service prided themselves in their posh headquarters at 21 rue Raynouard atop Passy, a hill in suburban Paris. An enormous château, it served also as post office and clubhouse. The American Field Service had many transport sections, which the Norton-Harjes did not have, and over eight hundred ambulance drivers. Ambulance driving was considered more hazardous duty than camion driving and filled up first. The volunteers of both units worked without pay, though the French government insisted on giving each American driver five cents a day, the equivalent wage of the French military troops. The Norton-Harjes trained its men for two and a half to three weeks before sending them into active duty, whereas American Field Service men trained for a week. Many thought the esprit de corps better in the Norton-Harjes. The men in it were "better disciplined and a more snappily dressed outfit than their competitors, for whom wearing a uniform was sometimes optional. When fatalities were tallied after the two services were disbanded(all American ambulance services in Europe were federalized by the government in 1918), the American Field Service reported twenty-one Harvard students killed and a total of one hundred fifty-one in all. The Norton-Harjes outfit claimed no fatalities. Among the American Field Service drivers who survived and became known later for their distinguished careers in writing were Louis Bromfield, Malcolm Cowley, Harry Crosby, Julian Green, Dashiell Hammett, Sidney Howard, and William Seabrook. Ernest Hemingway was neither in the Norton-Harjes nor the American Field Service, but arrived in Europe after these groups disbanded and served with the American Red Cross in Italy. The most notable Norton-Harjes men in the field of letters were Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hillyer, John Howard Lawson, and William Slater Brown.

The need for ambulance and camion drivers was dire when Dos Passos arrived in France and he wanted to get on with his training and into the field as soon as possible. His first step after registering at the Norton-Harjes headquarters on July 3, 1917, was to report to a fashionable shop on the rue de la Paix to be fitted for a uniform. Each volunteer paid for the materials and tailoring of his outfit-just as he had done for his transportation overseas-and provided whatever sustenance necessary during his interim in Paris. Dos Passos was reminded by Norton-Harjes officials of his gentleman volunteer status and cautioned to avoid any form of public mischief, then given credentials that entitled him to roam the city at will while his uniform was being readied. The French gendarmes had orders to arrest on sight any young man out of uniform unless he had an official pass granting him immunity.

As a Norton-Harjes man, Dos Passos' contract was also with the American Red Cross, in which he agreed to serve for a minimum of six months. Free in Paris at last, he was delighted to come upon three cronies from Harvard: Robert Hillyer, Frederick van den Arend, and Dudley Poore. Poore left shortly after their encounter for his training camp with the American Ambulance Field Service, but Hillyer and Van den Arend were still awaiting uniforms and assignments and had already been in Paris a week. Together they set off to wander the city and began referring to themselves as "Athos, Porthos, and D'Artagnan"---the Three Musketeers---and succeeded in putting out of mind for the time being the grim realities of war

[page 131]

The horror stories of battle he had heard on the train coming up from Bordeaux had gone the rounds of each ambulance section before the men of the Norton-Harjes ever approached the front. "We are too near the front for any damned heroics, thank God," Dos Passos wrote in his diary after returning from a walk in the rain along the Verdun road, where everything was "dank and damp and moldy-smelling like a tomb." Al though he still had seen nothing of combat, he spoke of building a "snail shell o. hysterical laughter against the hideousness of war." His caustic rhetoric became increasingly marked with battlefield images. He wrote of the victims of cant and hypocrisy who lay "choking on a poison" worse than German gas, and of old verities now "putrid and false." All the chatter about the heroics of war, the platitudes alleging allegiance to one' country "right or wrong"---all were the makings of a "rollicking, grotesque dance o death, " he said. Dos Passos had a passion to set it all down in words, then to "banish despair with delirious laughter and thus reveal the stupidity and utter asininity of war." If only he might catch horror on the wing and freeze it for posterity so that distant people might read and be forewarned before they committed others to such slaughter, he lamented. On August 15, 197, the eve of his going to the front, Robert Hillyer and he had decided to collaborate on an antiwar novel. Their creative efforts might be paltry at best, they conceded, but at least they could amuse themselves through them to relieve their boredom. Since each ambulance driver alternated twenty-four hours on duty and twenty-four of, they decided to work separately on alternate chapters on their free days and get together at night to read each other what they had written. With enthusiasm they spoke now of their "G.N.," Their "Great Novel."

[page 134]

On August 15, 1917, Dos Passos noted in his diary that he was going the next day "to a devilish hot section" of the front. Section 60 of the Norton-Harjes had been ordered to replace Section 21 of the American Field Service. Rumor had it that the men they were relieving had suffered such trauma and fatigue that the entire unit had gone yellow and revolted." Dos Passos wrote McComb several days before proceeding to the combat area that none of the French soldiers he had talked with "spoke gibberish about the glories of war.... Of Nagel in France-remember what I told you-there are increasing indications. I've come to firmly believe that the only thing that can save America is Nagel's there." He said that whenever he got drunk with French soldiers, he heard countless stories of "petitions and complaints" protesting gendarmes who had been used to down deserters and who then strung them up on meat hooks in an abattoir. The French soldiers also told him horror stories of the mutinies that swept their ranks during the spring.

Dos Passos had no free time during his first week on the front to write letters, diary jottings, or work on his collaborative venture with Hillyer, whom he barely saw. The men slept in their clothes the eve of their advance. At dawn they proceeded in convoy to town of Brocourt under a barrage of heavy German artillery. For a few moments they had driven along feeling relatively secure; then the bombardment commenced and the men dove frantically into dugouts and shell craters while fragments of men and horses sprayed their vehicles. Dos Passos carried his first casualties that day. The men snaked the. ambulances in and out from the hospital at Brocourt to several first aid stations in f positions. As quickly as they could pull up to an aid post, brancardiers raced out with stretchers of hastily bandaged men. The drivers lifted them aboard and fastened each man into wall cots that let down in stacks on each side. Three couchés and six assis was the official maximum load, but the ambulance men sometimes piled eleven or twelve at one time. It was not unusual to see one or two of the less critically injured soldier hanging from the running boards or sitting on fenders. They also squeezed in beside the driver while his partner crouched in the rear trying to comfort and hold down wounded as the ambulance pitched and jolted over the shell-scooped roads. Before long, a spirit of competition evolved among the drivers and sections as each tried to outperform the others in cases handled in a day's and week's tally.

[pp 137-139]

The Norton-Harjes men of Section 60 spent most of their first week of the Verdun offensive in the dressing stations and field hospitals near the front lines. The abris in which they dozed and rested were dank, smelly, and cold. Even in mid-August the men saw their breaths in the light cast by the acetylene lamp hanging at one end of the dugout Sometimes they went to bed to stay warm if the cots were not already occupied by casualties. Bunks were straw-filled and infested with lice, fleas, and other crawling vermin. Dos Passos complained of "beating back cooties" and of his relief to be washing off the grime and fleas after two nights in a dugout. If there were no beds available in the abris, they spread chicken wire or branches on the floor, covered it with their ponchos, then pulled one or two blankets over themselves. When not under attack they slept for two or three hours, but awoke numb with cold. The men called their dugouts rat holes, but considered themselves fortunate to be there instead of in the trenches, where rodents twelve inches long ranged in abundance. Before settling down at night in their abris, the ambulanciers went gaming for the rats with pitchforks or baseball bats. Despite the cold, infestation, and wretched odors of the mud that oozed in through chinks in the walls, the men managed to maintain an air of warm congeniality. When off duty, they sat around a table near the lamp drinking pinard talking, arguing, writing letters, poring over journals, and playing checkers or cards. Often they entertained themselves by emptying their pockets and displaying their various trophies of the day. Among the collectibles were empty shells, German helmets, maps, signal lights, revolvers, and even unfinished letters found in trenches when they went in to pick up casualties, trenches occupied alternately by the Germans and the French. Other than the men of the Norton-Harjes and the American Field Service, there were no American combat troops in Dos Passos' immediate sector. By the time the men had been in the field two weeks, they looked out from sunken eyes and cheeks, and most suffered dysentery from the gas. Their weight had fallen off fifteen to twenty-five pounds no matter how successful they may have been in foraging for food.

On their days off, Dos Passos and his partner sometimes lay on the hood or roof of their vehicle to sunbathe, but sunny days were infrequent. A special treat was finding a hot shower behind the lines. The French troops went without bathing, observed Dos Passos, except for their monthly forced baths in the river Meuse, a ritual performed with their trousers on. It was not unusual for a man to slip in the cold, fast-moving currents and drown before help could reach him. Perhaps what the men of the Norton-Harjes enjoyed most-in a curiously detached fashion-was watching the Lafayette Escadrille duel with the Imperial German Military Air Service. They sat on boxes outside their dugouts or crawled upon their vehicles to observe with utter fascination the deadly aerogymnastics. Day and night the pilots engaged in combat, but to the observers below their exchanges appeared as innocuous as porpoises at play until a machine plummeted earth wards in a puff of white smoke. At night the planes resembled shooting stars, their port and starboard lights flickering from each wing while searchlights swept the heavens as they dipped and rose and banked for the kill. Punctuating such dogfights were star shells exploding like gigantic fireworks, sending streaks of brilliant whites, reds, and yellows across the sky. The men below sometimes gambled on how long an air duel would last. At night it was impossible to determine whether the victor was a pilot of the Lafayette Escadrille or of the Imperial German Military Air Service.

Dos Passos wrote Rumsey Marvin a few days after the worst of the Verdun offensive was over that nothing had affected him so much as the camion loads of men "grinding through the white dust clouds on the road to the front. . . drunk and desperate, shouting, screaming jokes, spilling wine over each other-or else asleep with ghoulish, dust powdered faces." He said that he brought some of them back later in his ambulance, or else "saw them piled on little two-wheeled carts, tangles of bodies with grey crooked fingers and dirty protruding feet, to be trundled to the cemeteries, where they are always busy making their orderly little grey wood crosses."

After the ambulance men of the Norton-Harjes and the American Field Service had been in France long enough to witness the war firsthand, many tried to defect and join combat outfits. To join the Army, however, they were told they must return home first--- at their own expense---enlist as privates, then train in the States before being allowed to return to Europe in a combat status. The men found, too, that once they had been sworn in as volunteers, the American Red Cross was reluctant to discharge them short of their six-month commitment. Some two months after Dos Passos' arrival in France, the men of Section 60 received a letter from Richard Norton announcing that he and his brother Eliot had resigned their commands. Both the Norton-Harjes and the American Field Service were being taken over by the United States government. Two days after Norton's letter of August 27, 1917, was read to the men, he appeared in person in Dos Passos' encampment, accompanied by an American Red Cross official, an army major, and a prominent newspaperman from Emporia, Kansas, William Allen White, to convey his personal regrets that their service was being terminated. It is America's mistake, " White told them. The first reaction by the men was utter consternation They did not want to abandon their mission while their services were needed. They knew, too, that some six hundred French had been killed in one day alone during the Verdun offensive, and the drivers themselves had conveyed ten times that number of casualties during the same period. As they saw it, the newly conscripted American soldiers would be grossly inadequate for the job. On August 28, the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps was placed under the direction of Colonel J. R. Kean, the organization to be known now as the Medical Corps of the American expeditionary Forces. American Field Service drivers were transferred directly to the United States Army Ambulance Service. On August 30, every man in Dos Passos' section officially resigned as Norton-Harjes men, but agreed to continue working as a part of Colonel Kean's Medical Corps until mid-October, when they were to be processed out. Norton urged the drivers to continue their good work by enlisting in the United States Army. A new ruling permitted them to enlist in Paris so that their service would be continued with little restructuring of original units. The "catch`'-as most of the men saw it-was that upon enlistment they would be army privates. Having to assume the lowest noncommissioned rank after enjoying the relative freedom and quasi-officer status as "gentlemen volunteers" kept many from joining up. The men were also required to commit themselves for the duration of the war. About half the drivers in each of the volunteer services elected to return to the United States, and most of the others became army privates in France. Dos Passos was one of the few who did neither, but elected to find some other nonmilitary organization that would allow him to remain "on the fringes of the great butchery" in Europe.

On September 12 Richard Norton arrived at Remicourt, a village in the Argonne, for his farewell address to the Norton-Harjes men. "As gentlemen volunteers you enlisted in this service, and as gentlemen volunteers I bid you farewell, " he said. "What a wonderful phrase, 'gentlemen volunteers, '"observed Dos Passos in a tongue-in-cheek note to McComb upon Norton's departure. The phrase delighted Dos Passos, punctuated as it was by a shell exploding thirty feet away. He reported that the drivers clapped on their "tin helmets and crouched like scared puppies under a shower of pebbles and dust, "and that the "fat-jowled gentlemen in the uniform of the United States Army" who accompanied Norton "lost their restraint and their expression of tense interest (often seen in people about to be seasick) and bolted for the abris." The drivers had the immense satisfaction of watching Norton, "his monocle gleaming in his eye, " ignore his cowering associates and walk calmly up the ranks shaking hands with every man in turn.

Dos Passos told McComb that he intended to remain a "gentleman volunteer." In pursuit of that ambition his possibilities were to work in some "rear-line ambulance service, " help with a prisoner exchange service being setup, or join an organization rumored being formed in Italy that would carry casualties across the Alps and lakes of northern Italy. He intended to take whatever materialized first, but looked forward to being en repos in Paris for a few days. His official affiliation was now with the American Red Cross, which had sworn him in on July 3, 1917. It also provided him his discharge, dated October 20, which read: "This is to certify that J. R. Dos Passos served under me in the Section Sanitaire Américaine No. 60 for three months." It affirmed that his service was entirely satisfactory and that he left only because the service had been taken over by the United States Army. The document was essential to his being allowed to enlist in the Red Cross for ambulance service in Italy. Dos Passos signed up almost immediately for the newly formed American Red Cross Section 1, which waste proceed in convoy to the Italian front as soon as sufficient ambulances could be acquired.