Fighting Nazis with musical comedy

Special to The Times

The men and women who came of age during the Great Depression and served in World War II have only recently been given the accolade “The Greatest Generation.” That they did not give themselves such a name is itself an indication of how modest and matter-of-fact they had been about their sacrifices and heroism. But even in the midst of an all-out war, not everyone gets to be a hero.

A.E. Hotchner was an entry-level lawyer in a St. Louis law firm when American men between 21 and 36 were ordered to register for the draft. It was 1940 when Hotchner received his draft number. Hitler’s armies had been battering their way across Europe, and London was being bombed heavily each night.

Yet, as Hotchner recalls, neither he nor most of his fellow Midwesterners really believed they would be called to take part in a war. Isolationism was strong in this part of the country, and its most potent spokesman was none other than their “very own St. Louis hero, Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh,” whom Hotchner had worshiped ever since the second grade.


Appalled by the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews and by their brutal conquests of other countries, young Hotchner was nonetheless resigned to the supposed “fact” that nothing could be done against such overwhelming military might.

He also considered himself a pacifist. Yet to his own surprise, he found himself strangely excited by the advent of war: It gave him a sense of being present at the unfolding of history. And when the U.S. came under attack, he, like the great majority of his fellow citizens, was eager to do whatever was required of him.

Combat pilot? Bombardier? Deck officer on a destroyer? Hotchner had seen a lot of Hollywood movies, and his head was filled with dreams of glory. Reality turned out to be nothing like the movies, although, in a very different way, it involved movies. In the four years that Hotchner served in the Air Force, whenever it seemed likely that he was about to be sent on a combat mission, he would instead be called on to stage a musical comedy (to boost morale and to raise funds for servicemen’s widows and orphans) or make a film about Air Force operations against German U-boats (to boost morale and to stop the Navy from taking credit for the accomplishment). And just when he thought he might finally be assigned to a bomber, he found himself working for the Air Force’s official magazine in New York.

For Hotchner, life in the U.S. military was full of the unexpected. During his cadet training in Miami, he had a poignant encounter with Clark Gable, who, at 41 and recently devastated by the death of wife Carole Lombard, had eschewed the easy way out and was doggedly sweating through the same grueling course as Hotchner and other GIs. Later, Hotchner did a stint in Hollywood, where he ended up having to fire actor Alan Ladd for his uninspired narration of the documentary Hotchner was making for the Air Force.

Having been thrown willy-nilly into the role of musical comedy writer by the Air Force, Hotchner ditched his law career after the war and became a real writer, known best for his memoir “Papa Hemingway” but also for books on film stars, including Doris Day and Sophia Loren. Indeed, he had already had a number of interesting encounters with celebrities, as described in this crisply written, highly enjoyable memoir of his unorthodox military experiences.

Hotchner’s accounts of the more quotidian aspects of military life are just as colorful and eye-opening. This was also a time, he reminds us, when women suddenly got to play a more active, independent, “liberated” role in the workplace and the bedroom. Oddly, he does not discuss the fact that the military was still racially segregated in those days. Or was segregation such a fact of civilian life in St. Louis then that it never occurred to him?


But the war gave almost everyone a chance to try the unaccustomed. For Hotchner and his two assistants, none of whom had even handled a movie camera before, making a film was indeed what we now call a “growth opportunity.”

Hotchner describes his experiences of some 60 years ago with an uncanny sense of immediacy and a nicely understated sense of humor, which should make this memoir appealing to his fellow veterans and to later generations trying to make sense of what it was like to be part of such a great -- and incredibly diverse -- war effort.

“All of America seemed to be pulling oars in the same boat,” he recalls, likening the spirit of patriotism, sacrifice and unity to the Revolutionary War and to our current moment of truth in the wake of Sept. 11. Atypical as Hotchner’s wartime duties may have been, he too was able to display in these unchosen, unheroic assignments some of that resiliency and “can-do” attitude that helped win the war.