Friday, September 09, 2005


by Sidney Allinson.

Famed novelist Hemingway yearned to get into World War Two,
and with his "Crook Factory" he managed to succeed.

Soldier, war-correspondent, bull-fighter, big-game-hunter and dedicated womanizer – famous novelist Ernest Hemingway managed to live out many macho fantasies in real life. Less well-known is his brief career as an amateur spy-catcher and submarine chaser in World War Two.
In the summer of 1942, America's best-selling and most celebrated author was frustrated. Pacing the grounds of his Cuban villa, 'Finca Vigia,' he often drank wildly as he chafed at his inability to secure an acceptable assignment covering action in a combat area. It did not help matters that his wife, Martha Gellhorn, was already a successful war-correspondent in Europe. While trying repeatedly to land a reporting contract overseas, Hemingway decided there could be plenty for him to do locally to combat American enemies on land and sea.
He began to organize his own private counter-spy ring in Cuba, intending to assassinate Nazi agents there and take the even more aggressive role of U-boat hunter. Ignoring proper US counter-intelligence channels -- then controlled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- "Papa" Hemingway used some high-level connections to quickly launch his private war. He approached the American Embassy in Havana, asking for discreet support and funding. As qualifications, Hemingway claimed he had organized a fifth column resistance network in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.
In August, 1942, Hemingway was given backing by US Ambassador Spruille Braden, an admirer of his books. Braden publicly criticized the fascist sympathies among some Cuban nationals, being such an unusually out-spoken diplomat he was known as "Cowboy." On his own initiative, he began to advance government funds to Hemingway to finance personnel, weapons, and equipment for covert operations.
Delighted, the burly, bearded novelist jumped into the spy business, and code-named his operation, the "Crook Factory." He quickly hired a diverse crew of 26 unlikely recruits – smugglers, fishermen, gamblers, prostitutes, priests, playboys, and sundry drinking buddies – and put them to work as counter-espionage agents to scour the island for German spies.
At the time, though Cuba was nominally an ally of America, the island nation was still curiously lenient towards Axis citizens resident there. Tempted by the close proximity to US oil shipping ports, numerous agents of German intelligence services operated in Cuba, using forged Spanish passports. Wartime Havana was a strident tropical city of cha-cha music and laughter, yet with widespread grinding poverty for most amid incredible wealth of a pampered few at the top, all brutally controlled by dictator General Fulgencio Batista.
Hordes of US citizens visited Havana to sample the flesh-pots that catered to every vice – cheap drugs and booze, no-limit gambling dens run by the Mafia, and thousands of pathetic five-dollar streetwalkers available everywhere. More elegant tourists jammed luxury nightclubs like the lush 'Tropicana', where 50 scantily-clad chorines danced to erotic rumbas. This was the rowdy hunting-ground for Papa's Crook Factory operatives; often directed by Hemingway from atop a stool in his favorite Floradita Bar, on Calle Obisco near Morro Castle.
Information about the would-be Nazi-hunters quickly reached FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in Washington. Angrily, he ordered that his 16 special agents in Cuba keep an eye on "these dangerous amateurs." He wrote an irate memo to Raymond G. Leddy, Special Agent In Charge in Havana, instructing him to thoroughly investigate and, if possible, discredit the bon vivant novelist, "whose sobriety is certainly questionable." Hemingway had earlier incurred Hoover's accusations of being a Communist because of his support of leftist causes in Spain, about which he wrote in his best-selling novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls.
The SAC sent regular reports to his fuming boss, and in April, 1943, stated that Hemingway was "receiving in excess of $1,000 monthly paid direct from the embassy here." Hardly lavish financing, and Hemingway had to add a good deal extra to the secret fund from his own pocket. Under-financed or not, his agents claimed to have tracked down and silenced a half-dozen clandestine radios being operated by Nazi sympathizers on the island. That was allegedly done by simply passing the word that anyone signaling to U-boats would have his throat slit.
Even a proverbial "beautiful Russian spy" fell into their net. Consuelo Radom was a Russo-Mexican call-girl who pandered exclusively to Allied naval officers. She was suspected of passing pillow-talk tidbits about convoys to agents of the German Naval Intelligence Service. Within days, Consuelo was so effectively silenced by Crook Factory threats she fled Cuba in fear of her life.
These and other melodramatic events were reported weekly by Hemingway to the US Embassy, which passed them along to G2 Intelligence in Washington. Though they likely included some exaggerations, there must have been enough useful wheat among the chaff to be taken seriously, as G2 over-ruled Hoover's attempts to have the Crook Factory shut down.
The infuriated FBI Director retaliated by instructing Leddy: "Any information you may have relating to the unreliability of Ernest Hemingway as an informant may be discreetly brought to the attention of Ambassador Braden." But Hoover's man in Havana could only reply on October 8, 1942, that "Hemingway has received authorization to patrol certain areas where submarine activity has been reported." It allowed Hemingway to convert his own 40-foot sport-fishing boat, El Pilar to a well-armed "Q-ship" – a disguised submarine decoy.
The Caribbean Sea was then swarming with German U-boats preying on Allied shipping carrying oil and supplies across the Atlantic to Britain. For a time, these undersea wolf-packs roamed virtually unchecked, lurking in the Gulf of Mexico to destroy their prey of unarmed merchant ships. Waiting until fuel-laden tankers were silhouetted against brightly lit cities along the American coast, U-boats could launch torpedoes at point-blank range. Some nights, as many as four tankers were hit just a few miles offshore, so common that crowds of beer-drinking spectators gathered along Florida beaches every evening. The tragic scene of doomed blazing ships so moved Hemingway that he used it later in his novel, Islands In The Stream.
A skilled deep-sea fisherman, Hemingway's plan was to cruise along routes where U-boats had the habit of surfacing alongside small vessels to pirate fresh food and water. He relished the idea of luring such an attack then suddenly machine-gunning the unprepared Nazi sailors on deck and sinking the submarine with explosives. He sold the idea to Ambassador Braden to authorize having Pilar secretly armed at the US Navy Base at Guantanamo. The tiny vessel took on a powerful radio, a brace of machine guns, automatic rifles, and grenades, plus a US Marine volunteer from the embassy guard section.
Each time it went to sea, it was shadowed by a boatload of binocular-wielding G-men who then told Mr. Hoover the purported anti-submarine patrols looked more like leisurely marlin-fishing trips. Hence, skepticism ran high when Hemingway proudly claimed to have interrupted a U-Boat that surfaced close to a Spanish liner on December 9, 1942. FBI agents checked out the claim so thoroughly, they interviewed 100 passengers and crew when the ship docked in Miami. Their findings were that Hemingway's claim was mainly false, and Hoover triumphantly presented this news to the embassy in Cuba.
The ambassador was so embarrassed, he abruptly cut off government funding from Hemingway's counter-espionage activities. However, Braden later officially stated, "So worthwhile was Ernest's information on the location of German subs that I have strongly recommended him for a decoration." Despite that, Hemingway never received any public recognition for his Cuban efforts, though later he was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery while a war correspondent in France.
Hemingway carried on financing his anti-submarine patrols himself for another four months, until mid-August, 1943, when he had to quit. The next year, he was heartened by an offer from Collier's Magazine to report on the coming Allied liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe. Papa took Pilar out for a final marlin-fishing cruise, perhaps already mulling over the story line of his future Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Old Man And The Sea. Grandly, he closed Finca Vigia, found homes for his 18 cats, and threw a huge three-day drinking party to say farewell to his Crook Factory comrades. Then, in May, 1944, Ernest Hemingway sailed away from Havana, eager to join a larger war.

No comments: