Monday, August 30, 2021

Indispensable: The Book (1942), Movie (1945), and Back Story to They were Expendable

By Nicholas Stix

They were Expendable was the title of W.L. White’s bestselling, 1942 non-fiction book about the earliest days of The War in the Pacific Theater of Operations, and of John Ford’s classic picture of 1945.

The Book, Part I

The book proper opens,

“‘You don’t understand,’ said the young naval officer, ‘we were expendable.’ He was very earnest as he lolled on the bunk in the officers’ quarters of the torpedo station at Newport [R.I.], along with the other three officers who had also just got out of the Philippines.

“I admitted I didn’t understand.

“‘Well, it’s like this. Suppose you’re a sergeant machine-gunner, and your army is retreating and the enemy advancing. The captain takes you to a machine gun covering the road. ‘You’re to stay here and hold your position,’ he tells you. ‘For how long?’ you ask. ‘Never mind,’ he answers, ‘just hold it’ Then you know you’re expendable. In a war, anything can be expendable—money or gasoline or equipment or most usually men. They are expending you and that machine gun to get time. They don’t expect to see either one again. They expect you to stay there and spray that road with steel until you’re killed or captured, holding up the enemy for a few minutes or even a precious quarter of an hour.

“‘You know the situation—that those few minutes gained are worth the life of a man to your army. So you don’t mind it until you come back here where people waste hours and days and sometimes weeks, when you’ve seen your friends give their lives to save minutes—”

The word “expendable” comes up again and again over the next 205 pages.

There are three main figures, all real people with real names: Lieutenant John D. Bulkeley, Lieutenant Junior Grade Robert B. Kelly, and a pretty, green-eyed, resourceful Army nurse named Peggy. Just Peggy. We never get her full name or her rank, but she would have been a second lieutenant.

We meet Peggy in an Army hospital on Corregidor, in Manila Bay, just days after the Japs’ sneak attack. There we also meet Ensign Anthony B. Akers and Ensign George E. Cox, Jr.

Bulkeley, et. al. are the survivors, along with Henry J. Brantingham, who had been separated from them, of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three. The squad started out with six plywood P.T. boats, each outfitted with four torpedo tubes, four 50-caliber machine guns and approximately 12 men (70 in all), and but a few days later, was left with five men and no boats. Most of the men died in battles with the Japs, starting the day after Pearl, and the P.T. boats that the Japs didn’t sink, had to be sunk by us, so they didn’t fall into their hands. (The book’s last pages list all of the men of MTBS3.)


Bulkeley is the commander of MTBS3, while Kelly is his second-in-command, and commands a P.T. boat within it.

Almost all paragraphs begin with quotation marks, because William L. White is taking dictation, or at least seeks to give that impression. He surely spent weeks editing the text, but makes minimal comments.

Kelly repeatedly mentions his feeling of betrayal at the hands of what he and the others alternately call the “Air Force” and the “Air Corps.”

(The War Department had just re-named the U.S. Army Air Corps the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1941.)

Kelly has to find out what happened to the “Air Force.” Some wounded fighter pilots have arrived. Peggy suggests he visit with and listen to them, in a different ward in the huge hospital. (In other words, she turns him into a combination intelligence operative/reporter.) That is how he learns that the Japs had virtually wiped out our Pacific fighter group.

The wounded pilots reported that on December 8th, one day after the Japs had wiped out most of our Pacific fighter squadrons on the ground at Pearl, the Jap fighter pilots had laid back in the clouds near airfields, waiting for our boys to land to refuel, at which point the Japs destroyed their planes.

Kelly got one of his hands shot by a Jap fighter plane on December 8th, tried to keep fighting, but was ordered to sick bay by Bulkeley, in order to keep from losing his entire arm to blood poisoning. It is while he’s in the U.S. Army hospital on Corregidor that he meets Peggy.

Kelly and Peggy fall in love, but (according to the text) there is nothing they can do to act on their love. Actually, according to the text, they didn’t even fall in love. No, he “liked” her, and she thought their time together was “awfully nice.” And they went for long daily afternoon walks, to help him “heal.” And Kelly couldn’t stop talking about her to White, about every time they’d spoken on a field telephone, about every little gift she’d given him, or favor she’d done for him. Everything reminds him of her.

Like the song says, “If that isn’t love, it’ll have to do, until the real thing comes along.”

There’s no privacy anywhere on Corregidor and little time, and she’s cheating on her medical officer beau to be with him. She and her 13 nursing colleagues are responsible for the health and morale of 11,000 convalescing fighting men, unbeknownst to whom each nurse has a medical officer or doctor boyfriend.

A couple of times an interviewee will observe that most of the 11,000 men getting their wounds treated by the 14 nurses on Corregidor “would have given an ear just to talk to a white girl.”

That sort of talk was cut from the picture for obvious reasons, but also, I surmise, because it would have suggested that “talking to Filipino girls” would have largely entailed contracting with prostitutes.

(Even depicting interactions between G.I.s and White girls was tricky, under the Production Code. In adapting James Jones’ epic, “unfilmable,” 1951 novel, From Here to Eternity, screenwriter Daniel Taradash had to turn the aristocratic prostitute played in Fred Zinnemann’s 1953 masterpiece by Donna Reed—Alma/Lorene—into a “hostess,” and the bordello that employed her into a “social club.” The grown-ups would have understood, regardless of whether they’d read the book.)

To be continued.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"the Jap fighter pilots had laid back in the clouds near airfields, waiting for our boys to land to refuel, at which point the Japs destroyed their planes."

The Japs already had a lotta war experience in China and knew what they were doing.