A Dash of Class: The war-time Dashiel Hammett

Dashiell Hammett is known largely today for his blockbuster hardboiled novels: The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man. Outside of loyal hardboiled mystery writers, his lesser-known fiction is rarely read. Novels such as The Creeping Siamese, A Man Called Spade or Woman in the Dark, or his numerous short stories and novellas like The Big Knockover or the Continental Op would most assuredly draw blank stares and noncommittal murmurs if casually mentioned at a cocktail party. Even The Red Harvest, Hammett’s first great novel, is rarely read or discussed.
Hammett in uniform
Equally unknown is Dash’s wartime work as founder, publisher, editor and writer for the U.S. Army newspaper The Adakian, considered by many as the best military service newspaper produced during World War II.

Corporal Hammett, no yellow-bellied slacker, was 49 going on 50-years-of-age when he landed in the Aleutians in the late summer of 1943. Dash had been famous for a decade and a half and financially well-off due to the popularity of his novels, his short stories and his work as a Hollywood screen writer. Then came World War II and he set his fame and fortune aside and decided to do his bit. Despite being a World War I veteran who had survived the Flu Epidemic of 1918 and had contracted a severe case of tuberculosis, which left him with emphysema aggravated by heavy smoking and drinking, and despite being a notorious left-wing “subversive,” as was his lover, the playwright Lillian Hellman, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army after Pearl Harbor. He was first rejected as too old according to one version or because he had teeth ruined by his heavy alcohol intake, according to another.

When the Army lifted its age restrictions on enlistments, he was finally inducted and sent to Fort Monmouth in New Jersey for Signals Corps training. Deemed a political subversive, after training he was sent to the Army “containment center” for subversives at Fort Shenango in Pennsylvania. When Eleanor Roosevelt objected to the Army’s policy of political segregation, the restrictions were lifted somewhat and Dash volunteered for overseas duty. For his élan, he was instead sent to the remote Aleutian Islands in the north Pacific.

Assigned as a cryptanalyst on the Aleutian island of Umnak, his superior officers were uncomfortable with him because of his radical political views. Deemed untrustworthy, he was transferred to Adak and assigned to the Headquarters Company.1

By the time Dash, now called Sam by his fellow enlisted men, had arrived on the 275-square mile volcanic rock, with its moss, snow, fog and the Williwaw, that treacherous hurricane force wind that blows across the Bering Sea, there were five thousand U.S. servicemen already there. Among them were several hundred African-American servicemen from the segregated 372nd and 373rd port battalions. Like Hammett, they had been sent there for political reasons.

The head of the Army’s Alaska command, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, was an avowed and outspoken racist (that he was named after a Latin-American revolutionary who was a quadroon who led a mixed-race army adds a certain irony to this story). Buckner had objected to “colored” troops assigned to port duty on the Alaska mainland, fearful they would remain there after the war ended and would intermarry with the Aleuts and other Native-Americans and “produce an astonishingly objectionable race of mongrels.”2 If African-American soldiers could be utilized “far away from the settlements and kept busy,” then Buckner would tolerate their presence in his theatre of operations.3

At that time, the Japanese Army had occupied the two western-most Aleutian Islands, Attu and Sitka, and it was decided to build an airbase at Adak in preparation for the retaking of the occupied islands. Adak was deemed the perfect spot for the 372nd and the 373rd. It quickly turned out that the Adak commander, Gen. Harry Thompson, was as happy to have them under his command as Buckner was to be rid of them. Gen. Thompson removed the white troops from port duty and replaced them with men from the 372nd and 373rd because the black troops were “more efficient” and careful with cargo and equipment.4

It is at this point that the reported facts about Dash and the founding of The Adakian radically differ.
According to one version by E.E. Spitzer, a fellow soldier who worked for him on The Adakian, Hammett, while assigned to the Headquarters Company, was given no duties and bored and frustrated, approached Gen. Thompson with the idea for a base newspaper.

Yet another version by Spitzer has Hammett first working on a pamphlet entitled The Battle of the Aleutians. When the pamphlet was completed in October, 1943, Gen. Thompson, who was an avid reader of mysteries, already had the idea of a newspaper to serve the Aleutians and chose Hammett to edit it.5 Spitzer recounted the following conversation between Sam and Gen. Thompson:

“I’ll want a free hand,” said Hammett. “No restrictions.”
“No restrictions,” agreed Thompson.
“And I’ll need some men to help.”
“How many?”
“Five at least, plus cartoonists, to liven up the thing.”
“Okay, you’ve got it. Pick your staff.”6

Thus, The Adakian was born.

The integrated Adakian staff in 1944: Seated below, left to right are staff writer Bernard Kalb, Hammett, and movie reviewer Hal Sykes. Above left to right are Alba Morris, printer; assistant editor Bill Glackin; cartoonist Bernard Anastasia, printer Al Loefler; typist Dick Jak; cartoonist Oliver Pedigo, and cartoonist and illustrator Don Miller.

The integrated Adakian staff in 1944: Seated below, left to right are staff writer Bernard Kalb, Hammett, and movie reviewer Hal Sykes. Above left to right are Alba Morris, printer; assistant editor Bill Glackin; cartoonist Bernard Anastasia, printer Al Loefler; typist Dick Jak; cartoonist Oliver Pedigo, and cartoonist and illustrator Don Miller.


Hammett selected eight men, including Bernard Kalb, who after the war would spend three decades covering international relations for CBS News, NBC News and the New York Times; Bill Glackin, who would go on to cover the arts for the Sacramento Bee for over 55 years; and more importantly, two black soldiers, Alba Morris, who served as the newspaper’s printer, and Don Miller, a Jamaican-American, as one of the paper’s three illustrators. Miller, who had studied at Cooper Union and the Art Students League, went on to have a long career as an artist, culminating with his 1986 opus, the “King Mural” which dominates the main lobby of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.

While General Simon Bolivar Buckner sat stewing in his racist juices back on the Alaska mainland, Corporal “Sam” Hammett had quietly integrated the U.S. Army, four years before President Harry S. Truman did so officially. As a result of Hammett’s move, there would soon be more integrated activities on the Adak base.

The Arctic Antics Show of 1944

The integrated Arctic Antics Show of 1944

The Adak integrated Christmas Beer Party, Dec. 23, 1944

The integrated Adak Christmas Beer Party, Dec. 23, 1944

On January 19, 1944, seventy years ago today, the first issue rolled off the press. The staff was installed in a Quonset hut; the paper was only four pages and done on a mimeograph machine. But no one cared; the troops loved it and right away it became a daily.

As Kalb recounted, “we were on the job from before midnight to breakfast, assembling the incoming news, monitoring shortwave broadcasts, typing our copy, cutting cartoon stencils—and running six thousand copies through a mimeograph machine.”7

Page 1

Page 1


Under Hammett’s editorship, the paper strove to cover an eclectic assortment of stories, running the gamut from wire dispatches about the Allied invasion of Italy to a daily boxing story, either local or from Stateside. While the editorial staff scrambled to rewrite wire stories, clippings from magazines Hammett subscribed to; clippings Hellman sent him from New York, news gleaned from their listening to short wave radio broadcasts from Japan, Russia and Germany, all interspersed with local news they covered themselves, he could be found lying atop a sleeping bag on a desk, his head propped up against the mimeograph machine, and with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He had the editor-in-chief job down pat.
Dash (Sam) Hammett copy editing on Adak

Dash (Sam) Hammett copy editing on Adak


On Sunday, December 10 of that year,The Adakian printed its first issue on its new multilith press; containing articles about Moscow attacking American journalist William Allen White, Jr., son of the famous Kansas muckraking editor, for allegedly travelling to Russia “for the purpose of spreading calumny;” bloody riots in El Salvador; and the Sixth War Loan goal being met. The obligatory boxing story was that of Willie Brown of Adak winning the Alaskan Theatre heavyweight title and was accompanied by a Don Miller illustration of Brown holding the championship trophy.

During this period, the hard-drinking Hammett had managed to stay on the wagon. But soon the Alaskan boxing championships were to be held in Anchorage. When he accompanied the Adak team to the Alaskan capitol, his sobriety ended…and ended sharply. Flush with money to burn from sales of his stories which were being turned into radio plays and script writing fees for movies now being made, he hit every watering hole in town, even buying one—the Carolina Moon—and hired a black woman to run it for him. After the war, he signed over the title to her.

Next, Hammett was picked to head a four-man team that toured the entire Aleutian chain on a “Why We Fight” campaign, duty that he took so seriously that he turned sober again. After that, he was back at the helm of The Adakian, where he again stamped his individualism on the paper. After one story used the phrase “God damn,” the base chaplain complained to Hammett who told him that with the paper shortage “It’s lucky God gets his name in the paper at all.”

Promoted to master sergeant and transferred to Canada, Sam quickly became bored and with his lungs further weakened while on duty, he had enough. Now 51, he returned to Anchorage and applied for discharge in August, 1945 on an age ruling. In September, the soldier Sam was now again the civilian Dash and back in New York with Hellman, the Stork Club and a slew of new left-wing causes to immerse himself in. Adak and The Adakian were only memories. In 1961, he died of lung cancer and was buried at his request in Arlington National Cemetery.

Dash (Sam) Hammett's Gravesite

Dash (Sam) Hammett’s Gravesite


1. Hardboiled Mystery Writers: A Literary Reference, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Richard Layman, Carrol & Graf, NY, 1989.
2. Letter from Buckner to Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, 3 November 1941; cited in Alaska at War, 1941-45: The Forgotten War Remembered, edited by Fern Chardonnet, U. of Alaska, 2008.
3. Ibid.
4. Letter from Thompson to Lt. Gen. Delos Emmons, 28 June 1945, Ibid.
Hammett, a Life at the Edge, William F. Nolan, Congdon & Weed, NY, 1983.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.

Comments

  1. I came across your posting by accident while researching my uncle’s military service in the Aleutians.Thanks for posting this on your blog. My uncle recently passed away at age 100. He was stationed in Aleutians. Many of the names I found associated with my uncle’s time in the service were also mentioned in your writing.

    To be honest, before my research, if you mentioned the name Samuel Dashiell Hammett I would be clueless to the guy’s background. I regret not knowing this information when my uncle was alive. I would have made a pest of myself and asked a lot more questions.

    When I was in the service I was stationed with a guy whose mother, at one time, was married to Ernest Hemingway. LOL! How many degrees of separation is that?

    • Stan Trybulski says:

      Joe, great piece of info! The Hemingway wife angle is truly something. Trust you are now reading some Dash Hammett.
      Stan Trybulski

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