when the big hurricane killed 400 vets

key-largo-poster-282-by-365I keep wondering why, as Hurricane Irma’s storm surge barreled toward the Florida Keys, no one has thought to mention the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 — if only for the Humphrey Bogart clip, or the Ernest Hemingway article,’Who Killed the Vets?”

A new bridge between two of  Florida’s Upper Keys, Lower Matecumbe and Windley Key,  employed 700 veterans,  most encamped on the margins in the then-sleepy beach.  “Some of them were punch drunk and some of them were smart; some had been on the bum since the Argonne almost and some had lost their jobs the year  before last Christmas; some had wives and some couldn’t remember; some were good guys and others put their pay checks in the Postal  Savings and then came over to cadge in on the drinks when better men were drunk; some  liked to fight and others liked to walk around the town; and they were all what you get after a war.” In Islamorada, the closest thing to a nearby town, children being told to stay away from the strange men.  Then came 1935, and the worst hurricane anyone had ever seen.

The Labor Day Hurricane, still the most devastating in American history, took Key West by surprise, after forecasts predicted  an ocean landfall. Instead, it erased most of Matecumbe’s trees and buildings, and a train sent to rescue the veterans was crushed in its winds. The veterans were left alone.

“Panicked men flailed blindly, their limbs tangling with those of others clawing just as wildly in return.” Ernest Hemingway, who now owned a home in Key West, was outraged, convinced that the train for the vets had been ordered too late. He got the lefty magazine New Masses to underwrite a reporting trip, and to publish the result, entitled “Who Murdered the Vets?”

A few years later, Maxwell Anderson’s hit play Key Largo featured the hurricane in its narrative about the Spanish Civil War, a project then seized by John Huston for a movie starring Humphrey Bogart,

Huston turned the Maxwell Anderson project into a troubled veteran’s story.

We weren’t making all the sacrifice of human effort and lives.. .to return to the kind of a world we had after the last world war. We were fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils. Ancient ills.

Huston was trying, like  Bogart’s character, not to give in to cynicism and fear. That wasn’t easy: 1947 was full of both.

While Huston was turning a Hollywood sound stage into Key Largo’s Florida, a “Loyalty Program” began in Washington, with government-mandated “loyalty oaths” and FBI investigation of anyone suspected of Communist ties.  And the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), including a California freshman named Richard Nixon, had decided to investigate Hollywood. That summer  Ayn Rand and Gary Cooper testified at HUAC hearings about pro-Communist themes in movies like Robert Benchley’s “Song of Russia.” Back in  Hollywood, gossip queen Hedda Hopper took up the cause of forcing every studio to require such oaths of their writers and stars.

Huston’s answer, along with Signal Corps peer William Wyler, was the Committee for the First Amendment, whose members included Humphrey Bogart,  Albert Einstein and Lewis Milestone, who’d followed his Signal Corps tour by making All Quiet on the Western Front.  Wyler told reporters that the “current climate” would have precluded his 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives,  whose soldier-protagonists come home with shattered limbs, marriages and psyches (one, played by Dana Andrews, screams in his sleep every night).    In October, during the trial of the Hollywood Ten, Huston borrowed Howard Hughes’ plane to take a raft of  celebrities to Washington, D.C. with great fanfare. Fur-clad Hollywood stars in their own TWA jet nearly overshadowed the committee’s own theatrics.

But  the Committee was deflated after that trial, in which member after member of the Ten refused to speak. (Bogar even disowned the project on the cover of Photoplay: I’m No Commie”). HUAC raged on with help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation,  destroying the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP), accusing  it sheltering commies” in Hollywood.  

By 1948,  FBI attention was also focused on another group of young veterans, far beyond the movies:  returning African-American soldiers who found themselves resisting Jim Crow laws. This  included Medgar Evers, who’d come home remembering that Europeans “treated him just like he was one of the people,” his sister said later. “Not black or white.” Evers and his brother Charles Evers had both returned believing their father, who said that their service would make society “treat them with dignity. My children will be able to vote. ” It also included Lt. Jack Robinson, court-martialed in 1944 for refusing to go to the back of an interstate bus. Robinson’s action occurred  two years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Morgan decision declared such segregation unconstitutional– and three years before Robinson first took the plate at Ebbets Field, breaking the major leagues’ color barrier.

Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

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