Benét And The Ensign From Alabama


THE BOOK reached me in Argentia, Newfoundland, where my squadron, VP-84, was on antisubmarine patrol. The inscription, “To Ev—this incontestable evidence of performance,” had a special impact, as my brother knew it would. Aircraft performance, along with flying ability and luck, are what a pilot lives by in war. But it was a different performance, the kind evident on every page of Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body , that my brother was referring to in his gift marking my twenty-sixth birthday.

Argentia, in 1942, was a remote naval sea-and-air base with a pier, a cluster of Quonset huts, a salmon stream for diversion—and not a woman within forty miles. It was a good place from which to hunt sub-marines, to catch salmon—and to read. That spring and summer I logged three hundred hours flying over convoys and that many hours, or more, reading Stephen Benét. In September, when the submarines struck farther north in packs, VP-84 was hurriedly transferred to Iceland. By then I had learned pages of John Brown’s Body by heart, and the Civil War was more immediate to me than the Battle of the Atlantic I was engaged in.

Compared with Argentia, Reykjavík was Paris by the sea: snug homes with groomed gardens, a city park, a hotel, a theater, shops selling flowers and books (in five languages), and—most wonderful of all—pretty girls on every street. But the prevailing peace in Reykjavík did not extend beyond shore. Two hundred miles south, on the shipping routes between Amer- ica and England, Allied convoys were under devastating attack, and the outcome of the war hung in the balance.

We were not long in Iceland when our ranks were increased by four ensigns, all from the South. As our roster already included twelve pilots from Georgia and Alabama, plus a Virginian, there was much jocund talk about VP-84, the “rebel squadron, operating 20 degrees north of the Union Lines.” No Yankee among us was the least offended; if anything, the joking raised morale. I am a “Yankee myself, but I had known a good many Southerners. Almost to a man they appealed to me. In the other war I was engrossed in, I could see them in gray, gracing Wingate Hall, in Pickett’s brigades, or riding in the saddles of the Black Horse Troop.

There was only one puzzling exception among them. Until the squadron had acquired new aircraft in San Diego the year before, I had never imagined that a Southerner born in this century, and with any perspective at all, could still hold Appomattox against the North. But that was before a flier I will call Roy Logan joined us, along with our new PBYs.

Outwardly Ensign Logan was a fine representative of Pensacola, where he had just won his wings as a naval aviator. Slender, dark-haired, with all Alabama in his voice, he was a good pilot, keen on celestial navigation, wellmannered, and considerate to all hands. We were glad to have him on board. Inwardly—and it took me some while to discover this—he was a haunted and bitter young man. He believed Lee’s surrender to Grant was an aberration of history, that the North still abused the former Confederate states, that the Mason-Dixon line divided home country from enemy terrain, and that no Northerner could know the true worth and character of the Old South.

If such convictions seem too absurd to discuss, we discussed them anyway, at length and to no avail. Neither of us changed the other’s view an iota. By the time VP-84 reached Argentia, I had given up on Ensign Logan. If Rhode Island, where I came from, was still enemy terrain to him, let him think so! Our relationship in the squadron remained correct but cool. Until one night in Iceland, we never mentioned again the war in which his grandfather had been killed on the losing side.

The subject came up by accident. Logon had the duty. I was alone in my Quonset hut, due to fly early the next day. Shortly after nine he looked in to see if I was in bed. Instead he found me with the lights on, reading Benét. In a friendly enough way he used the phrase designed to announce anything in the Navy: “ Now hear this : It’s after nine, Ev. Better douse the lights.”

“Okay, Roy. But I’ve got something almost memorized.”

“Almost memorized ? What are you reading, poetry?”

“That’s right: John Browns Body by Stephen Benét. It’s great. I wish you’d read it sometime.”

Me read a book about John Brown ! You’re out of your mind, man. Where I come from we don’t read insults to the South. Now lights out, or I’ll have to put you on report.”

Suddenly I had reached my limit with Ensign Logan.

“God damn it, Roy, you sit down and listen; not to me, but to Stephen Benét. As your superior officer I order you to listen. And when I’m through you tell me if John Brown’s Body is an insult to the South.”