WWII Vets JFK and J.D. Salinger Schooled Us in Dignity
These very different men both came home from the war convinced that true courage had nothing to do with battle histrionics or bellicose military parades.
When John Kennedy and J.D. Salinger returned from World War II, it didn’t occur to them to make a display of their campaign ribbons or to look upon their military service as different from that of millions of others. But Kennedy and Salinger never put aside their personal memories of combat. Long before they achieved fame, they wrote about those memories in a way that is relevant for us this Memorial Day.
Fifty-five years after Kennedy’s death, in a year in which President Trump is planning a massive military parade in Washington for Veterans Day, Kennedy’s and Salinger’s wartime memories are worth recalling for the contrast they provide with the president’s views on how best to honor those who have fought our wars.
Kennedy and Salinger, just two years different in age, belonged to a generation that, as Kennedy observed in his Inaugural Address, was “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” Their wartime experiences shaped them in ways that transcended the separate paths their lives took.
Once back in the states, Kennedy and Salinger were sure that the country—not its vets—needed to change. Their minds were not on military parades. Salinger, as he confided to a friend, was “delighted” to miss the celebrations in America that occurred with Germany’s surrender.
Thanks to a June 17, 1944, article, “Survival,” by John Hersey that appeared in the New Yorker, John Kennedy’s heroics as the commander of PT-109, a torpedo boat that was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer during fighting in the Pacific, were widely known before he returned home. But in campaigning for Congress in 1946, Kennedy never emphasized the role he had played in helping to rescue his men from disaster. When he spoke about the sinking of PT-109, Kennedy focused on the valor of the boat’s engineer, Patrick McMahon, a 41-year-old former school teacher with a wife and son, who had volunteered for the Navy when he could have sat out the war.
What worried Kennedy, he told voters in his Boston congressional district, was that the kind of sacrifice McMahon had made in wartime was missing in peace time. “I have noticed among many friends I know who have come home—and I am sure you have, too,” Kennedy went on to say, “the realization that home is not what it was ‘cracked up to be.’” That was a state of affairs Kennedy believed could be changed.
“Most people feel that heroic acts are done in the heat of passion,” Kennedy observed, “but I have always felt that the greatest and the most common courage was the courage that came from men’s understanding of their interdependence on one another.” Kennedy was convinced that battlefield courage had its equivalent in how people treated each other in their day-to-day civilian lives. “If fact, if we only recognized it, we are in time of peace as interdependent as soldiers were in time of war,” he declared. What made PT-109 so important in Kennedy’s mind was that in their greatest crisis the boat’s crew refused to adopt an every-man-for-himself ethic.
Salinger, who landed on Utah Beach on D-Day and fought with the Fourth Infantry Division until the end of the war in Europe, minimized his own part in combat even more than Kennedy. “I dig my fox-holes down to a cowardly depth,” Salinger wrote a friend in the summer of 1944. But Salinger was no coward. After the war ended, he did not return home when he had the chance. As his biographer Kenneth Slawenski has pointed out, Salinger stayed in Europe until April 1946, working in counter intelligence as part of the effort to de-Nazify Germany. Salinger could not forget what he had seen of the German concentration camps. Years later, his daughter remembered him telling her, “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live.”
For Salinger, turning out fiction while still doing his job as a sergeant in the Counter Intelligence Corps was a challenge. “Am still writing whenever I can find the time and an unoccupied foxhole,” Salinger assured his readers during the war. He kept his word. The breakdown of a D-Day soldier, the loneliness of men who had never fired a gun in peacetime, the struggle of a G.I. to talk about how his buddy died, were the kinds of wartime stories Salinger thought important to tell. He wanted readers on the home front to know that the vets returning to them would not be the same people they said goodbye to.
In taking such an approach to the war in Europe, Salinger was, he knew, limiting the audience for his writing, but he never regretted leaving the blood-and-guts stories of combat for the movies and the hardboiled novelists of his generation. As he observed in the fall of 1945, when the fighting in Europe and the Pacific was over, “The men who have been in this war deserve some sort of trembling melody rendered without embarrassment or regret.” For Salinger, as for Kennedy, the music of heroism was contemplative.