Oral History Program includes Norman Mailer's war time remembrances

Thursday, November 15, 2007

On Sept. 2, 1945, members of the 112th Cavalry of the Texas National Guard gathered on the USS Lavaca in Tokyo Bay to listen to a radio play-by-play of the Japanese surrender. The ship was anchored less than a mile from the USS Missouri, which Gen. Douglas MacArthur boarded to sign the conditions of surrender with Japanese foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu.

Among the members of the 112th was a recent Harvard University graduate who had been drafted into the Army after receiving a degree in aerospace engineering, but ultimately wanted to become a writer. Norman Mailer fulfilled that dream three years after World War II ended, when he published his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead." Mailer's tour of duty with the 112th was the basis for the book.

The University of North Texas has preserved Mailer's wartime experiences beyond what readers will find in the novel. In August 2004, the outspoken author, who died recently at age 84, gave an interview to the university's Oral History Program. The program, which has the largest collection of oral history interviews at a public Texas college or university, includes more than 1,000 interviews with World War II veterans. The 47-page transcript of Mailer's interview with the Oral History Program is available to the public for review.

"You get great details about a cultural clash between a Jewish kid from New York and Texans. Mailer went through basic Army training with a large contingent of New Yorkers and was trained as an artillery observer, but by the luck of the draw, was thrown in among all the Texans of the 112th as a replacement." said Dr. Todd Moye, UNT assistant professor of history and director of the Oral History Program. "It became clear later that when he went into the Army, he wanted the life experiences of the soldiers for future writing, since others recall him as always taking notes and even asking about their sex lives."

Moye notes that the 112th, which was based in San Antonio, had been converted to an infantry force, and many of the men in Mailer's unit had seen more than two years' worth of heavy combat in the Pacific Theater by the time Mailer and a few other transfers joined them in the Philippines.

Mailer described the 112th as "still very much a Texas outfit" to Oral History Program interviewer Glenn Johnston, then a doctoral student at UNT.

The well-educated and urbane Jew seemed awed by the Texans, Moye said.

"It comes across that he was almost more scared of the Texans than he was of the Japanese," he said.

Mailer recalled the Texans as being "tough men" and "bitter."

"Many had lost friends in the fighting, and some had lost their wives, what with having spent their last two and a half years in the Pacific," he told Johnston. "They were allowed to have their own personal weapons. We would watch as they would sit on the deck of the ship honing their bayonets or knives. They would sit on the deck honing their bayonets for hour after hour with a dull glaze over their eyes. They were cold, hard men."

Although he said these men ignored the newcomers to the 112th, Mailer added that he didn't believe discrimination against his religion was a factor for his being ignored.

"I never received any notions of anti-Semitism directly. I did hear about it indirectly. But that was not a big factor for me," he told Johnston. "The main thing was that we were like boys entering a new school in a different state in a different condition. It wasn't that it was nasty or mean so much as it was with many of them that they just had no interest in you. A lot of them had had their old buddies go home, and they were still there. They wondered why they still were there. We were coming in, and it was just too much work to make friends."

On the day of the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay, however, all members of the 112th stood together on a

"very cloudy day, close to rain" to listen to the radio broadcast, Mailer recalled in the Oral History interview.

"It was an international hook-up as a special plum to us, to let us be in on the surrender," he said. "I remember that this announcer was a very smarmy guy. We didn't see him, of course. He was broadcasting probably from the Missouri, and he said, ‘And now, as General MacArthur steps up to sign the surrender document, the sun breaks out over Tokyo Bay!' This was one of the largest…lies I'd ever heard in my life because there was no sun at all! It gave me a great preparation for what the worst American media was going to be like before it was all over."

Criticized for using profanity in "The Naked and the Dead," Mailer also peppered his Oral History Program interview with four-letter words, Moye said, but adds that the author describes himself as modest when he talks about how his war experience influenced his writing.

Mailer described his tour of duty as both the worst experience in his life and the most valuable.

"When I say, ‘the worst,' I don't mean...I don't know how to put it. It wasn't that I suffered personal indignities. The humiliations were that I just realized that I was not a good soldier, and that took its toll on my ego. I had to learn how to do simple things," he told Johnston. "People that I'd never taken seriously before could do many simple things so much better than I could. It probably made me modest for life. When you start with a big ego and you're reduced in ego, that is always a terrible experience. I do think, absolutely, that those two years were the most valuable in my life in making me a better writer than I would have been without it."

"Suffice to say, ‘modest' is not a word that those who knew Mailer most often used to describe him," Moye said. "This is what makes his interview so interesting."

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