Nearly fifty years old and already famous for his hard-boiled detective stories, Dashiell Hammett enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942. He was a disabled veteran of WWII and suffered from tuberculosis, but chose to serve anyway. Due to his membership in the Communist Party, it took some “string pulling” to get admitted. A sergeant, he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands where he edited an Army newspaper, The Adakian.
The Aleutian Islands, a chain of fourteen large and fifty five small volcanic islands, are a mere 1,750 miles from Tokyo. Owned by both the U.S. and Russian, they are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire where the weather is extreme and the wildlife diverse. According to Hammett “There was a gauge to measure the wind, but it only measured up to 110 miles an hour, and that was not always enough.”
In June 1942, the Japanese attacked a U.S. military base in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island and went on to occupy two far western islands in the chain. The U.S. responded to the attack, and the battle raged for over a year-in the air and on land and sea. Conditions were brutal and the fighting was fierce, and the Japanese were finally defeated in July 1943.
Hammett’s assignment was to keep the troops informed of current events, and his articles sometimes read like one of his novels as seen in the following passage:
“And then trouble came, a williwaw, the sudden wild wind of the Aleutians. Nobody knows how hard the wind can blow along these islands where the Bering meets the Pacific…the first morning the wind stopped landing operations with only a portion of our force ashore and by noon, had piled many of the landing boats on the beach. The men ashore had no tents, no shelters of any kind. They dug holes in the ground and crawled into them for protection against wind and rain and cold. When the wind had quieted enough to let the others come ashore, they too dug holes and lived like that while the cold, wet and backbreaking work of unloading ships by means of small boats went on. And they did what they had to do. They built an airfield. They built and airfield in twelve days.”
While in Alaska, Hammett co-authored The Battle of the Aleutians and composed myriad letters to his girlfriend, Lillian Hellman, in which he wrote detailed descriptions of life and living conditions on the island. Fresh food was scarce, and the conditions harsh, but he seemed to enjoy the opportunity to live among the troops. In addition to his newspaper work, he worked at the radio station and delivered evening lectures.
He remained stationed in Adak until the summer of 1945 when he was discharged. He never wrote another novel again.