Eric's Reviews > Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's Odyssey in World War II

Crossing the Line by Alvin Kernan
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's review
Nov 18, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: malick-should-film-it, war, favorites
Read in December, 2010

There’s a subgenre of memoirs produced by elderly emeriti, stars of the crew cuts-and-close reading postwar English departments, who in late career attracted general readers with personal recollections of they and the other terrified teenagers who mostly fought World War Two. Alvin Kernan (Shakespeare editor, torpedo bomber crewman) is like Paul Fussell (Johnsonian, infantry officer) and Samuel Hynes (Auden biographer, Marine aviator). Seventeen year-old Kernan joined the Navy before the war, to escape the bleakness of Depression Wyoming: Ma and Pa down on the ranch, hard winters and harder times. Kernan’s mother had a particularly difficult life. She killed herself while he was at sea. Home on leave, he inspects her grave “already collapsing and pocked with gopher holes”:

The World War I generation to which she, born in 1900, belonged was the first to leave the land, and with a little education, she married a soldier, moved to town, went to Florida, lost the money from the sale of her father’s farm in the land boom, had a child, divorced, and began wandering—Chicago, Memphis, a ranch in Wyoming. She remarried, became a Catholic, and put a determined face on it all, but she was part of the first generation of really rootless modern Americans, moving restlessly by car about the country, emancipated socially and intellectually to a modest degree, but lost, really, without the supporting ethos and family that had protected people in the years when the continent was being settled. Alienation was the familiar state of my generation of Depression and another world war, but the old people had few defenses against it when it appeared.

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos are the favorite writers of young Seaman Kernan. He could be one of their characters. As with Hemingway’s Nick Adams, death-shaded excursions in the American wilds precede and forebode initiation overseas. And Kernan must have recognized his family in Dos Passos’ panorama of the wandering and the unmoored, the war-mobilized, the desperately migratory. The down but not out, bumming the freights, going to sea, following work; displaced but for all that able to dream of landing somewhere better:

Returning from out baseball game, we came alongside the ship and began to send sailors up the gangway. At that moment another landing craft came up carrying officers, including the executive officer of the Suwanee—a small, dark, mean man—who stood up in the bow, dead drunk, shouting in a loud voice to the officer-of-the-deck, “Get those fucking enlisted men out of there and get us aboard.” Protocol was that officers always take precedence in landing, and our boat shoved off immediately, circling while the officers staggered up the gangway after their afternoon drinking in the officers’ club. The gap between enlisted men and officers in the American navy during WWII was medieval. Enlisted men accepted the division as a necessary part of military life, but it never occurred to us that it in any way diminished our status as freeborn citizens who, because of a run of bad luck and some unfortunate circumstances like the Depression, just happened to be down for a brief time. “When we get rich” were still words deep in everybody’s psyche. But the exec’s words, “those fucking enlisted men,” spoke of deep and permanent divisions. He obviously really disliked us, and his words made shockingly clear that he, and maybe the other officers he represented, had no sense that we had shared great danger and won great victories together.

Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers, in a paragraph.

Beyond the charm of the Lost Generation atmosphere, the virtues of Crossing the Line are its swift pace and concision of evocation. No episode lasts longer than is necessary to make the essential impressions—usually Kernan’s fear and awe (at times laced with boyish glee) before the military juggernauts whose savage collisions he is witnessing. Kernan did not set out to reconstruct the birth of his literary consciousness, or find the boy in the vitae. Quite the opposite. Seaman Kernan is a small animal in a world of threats. He thinks with his gut, senses through the soles of his feet. If you’ve ever wanted to know how it feels to flee a sinking aircraft carrier, this may be your book:

We stood there debating whether to stay on the flight deck or take our chances below. Two great heavy thuds raised and then dropped the entire ship, all twenty thousand pounds of it: torpedoes hitting home one after another on the starboard side—the death wounds of the ship, though we didn’t know it at the time. The Hornet, turning at a sharp angle, shook like a dog shaking off water but immediately began to lose speed and list to starboard, which was terrifying, for you were alive only so long as the speed was up and the ship was moving. You sense it in the soles of your feet, and it began to feel noticeably different at once, sluggish and dull, the rhythm off, and then another delay-fused bomb went through the flight deck just aft, through the hangar deck, to explode with a sharp sound somewhere deep below, followed by an acrid smell and smoke curling from up out of a surprisingly small hole. The rudder was now jammed, and the ship began to turn in circles. The lights went out, and the hoses stopped putting water on the fires that now were everywhere…

About 1500 the destroyer USS Hughes stretched cargo nets between the two decks. The Hornet sat heavy and still, but the Hughes rolled and pitched wildly. When she came into the Hornet she crushed the net and everything in it between the sides of the two ships. Trial and error taught us the right way to do it. The trick was to jump just as the Hughes began to roll out, being careful that your foot landed on one of the tightening ropes, and not in the holes between, for there wasn’t time to recover and make your way slowly up the loosening net. If you did it right you landed on the rope and its stretch would pop you like a trampoline onto the deck of the Hughes and into the arms of several of her crew. Carrying my pillowcase filled with my contraband pistol and my liberty whites, I leaped for my life and made it with a great bound of exhilaration. Tricky, but better than going into the oily water where anything could go wrong…

The Battle of Santa Cruz was over, and sitting on the deck of the Hughes, cold and exhausted, looking at the smoking carrier sitting there at an odd, lumpy angle, I considered for the first time the possibility that we might lose the war. The Hornet had been such a big and powerful ship, and yet only a few hits in a brief space of time had been enough to finish it.

The sinking of the USS Hornet in October, 1942, was the beginning of the end of Kernan’s first naval career as one of the dungareed Airedales trundling ordnance and pushing planes around the deck under a crew chief's stopwatch. For the war’s last two years he was in the air, the back-seat gunner on a carrier-based Avenger bomber roaring down canyons on Okinawa to sling 500-lb. bombs into the mouths of Japanese caves, or jousting half-blindly above a blacked-out fleet with nocturnal enemy intruders spookily visible only by the tiny blue flames of their engine exhaust and the bright streams of tracer rounds whiplashing through the blackness at you.


A Navy dive bomber over Wake Island, 1943. I first saw this image some years ago, on an Edward Steichen exhibition poster, and ever since it has stood for the poetry and lonesomeness of the flier’s vantage. “A lonely impulse of delight/Drove this tumult in the clouds,” Yeats and all that. Kernan reminds one that the fliers were often witlessly terrified and usually formation-bound; but passages of his account do seem to authorize my projection of reverie. Returning from a mission: “We made our way back to the ship in a golden-green haze, with rainstorms and bright shafts of sunlight in a dozen different places around the horizon. The scene had a magical quality, intensified by the big lift that came from having survived another run.” And: “One day we flew to Manila, a hundred miles or so to the north, to pick up mail. The flight led across the jungles of Samar where, flying a few hundred feet off the ground, we saw back in the forests high waterfalls and huge flowers, ten or fifteen feet across, and small villages at the end of long dirt trails.”

Putting “odyssey” in the subtitle of your memoir seems overblown but here it isn’t. Kernan was everywhere. He made his way home circuitously by islands, if you really want to be pedantic. His first ship, the carrier Enterprise, missed destruction at Pearl Harbor by just hours. He describes sailing into the burning base. Four years later he toured the irradiated rubble of Nagasaki. Between are iconic battles: the Doolittle Raid, Midway, Guadalcanal, Okinawa. I was particularly grateful for a glimpse of the old navy that fought the first year. Until the Cold War, the peacetime services were strange institutions, small, insular, vaguely penal. The crews of 1941 consisted of old hands and salty lifers; jobless kids like Kernan; and a compliment of “incorrigible fuck-ups” whom judges had offered the classic choice: the pen or the service (“healthy but in many respects like a chain-gang” is Kernan’s verdict on navy life during peace).

Joan Didion has said that Honolulu’s red light district belongs to James Jones. That may be true, but Kernan got to me first, and with a story about a hooker who had a tattoo of a mouse disappearing into her public hair. Kernan is no less absorbing on the other naval pastimes, cards and drinking. Poker windfalls could fund quite a spree in port. Kernan’s first crew chief on the Hornet stayed buzzed on “moosemilk”—coffee spiked with the rubbing alcohol used to clean bombsights. One night on Fiji Kernan pulled Shore Patrol (canvas leggings, skullstick, holstered .45 on a web belt) and was ordered to herd a liberty party up a mountain to a run-down old resort hotel whose rumored stock of raw cane whiskey was to be the men’s “first real drink in months of imbibing shaving lotion and paint strained through loaves of bread.” Three shots per man of the raw cane stuff were enough to start mayhem. “The sailors had to be forced away from the bar, and straggling, slipping and falling they made their way cussing down the mountain, stopping from time to time to piss and fight a bit more.”

This is such a lean, punchy little book, the very definition of a successful memoir. Kernan makes his memories memorable, paints them durably.

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Reading Progress

12/06/2010 page 97
47.0% ""A large percentage of the old navy was alcoholic, getting blotto whenever they could, and we were driving some world-class sponges toward a long bar in an old wooden resort hotel that sold some of the rawest popskull on the planet.""

Comments (showing 1-31 of 31) (31 new)

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message 1: by Anna (new)

Anna God, that's terrifying. Thinking of Colonel Blimp moving things round on the tablecloth. Except they're model destroyers on a big map...

message 2: by Eric (last edited Dec 09, 2010 06:08AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric This part, in which Kernan chaperones a group of sailors to an "old hotel up in the hills, about three miles from the shore up a steep dirt road, where cane whiskey was to be had," is almost as terrifying as the sinkings and crashes in the rest of the memoir. And I love encountering "popskull." Best word for raw hooch after the 19th century army camp brew, "Oh, Be Joyful!"

message 3: by Hazel (new) - added it

Hazel Eric, this sounds fabulous! So far, war memoirs have not been my thing, but I'm reconsidering.

Eric [image error]

Huh. It's showing in mine. Can you see this one?

message 5: by Hazel (new) - added it

Hazel Eric wrote: "

Huh. It's showing in mine. Can you see this one?"

Yep. But it doesn't show in the review.

message 6: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 16, 2010 05:35AM) (new)

Oh wow. Nice review.

Have you ever seen the series "Carnivale"? It's what Ron Moore did before he went on to Battlestar Galactica. (Insert Dwight Schrute joke here.) Anyway, takes place is Dust Bowl/Depression California/West. I feel like the Dust Bowl is this weird forgotten part of our history, overshadowed by the War, the one you can still call the War with everyone knowing what you mean. Anyway, the part of the review about the mobile, rootless Americans made me think of that.

Eric this weird forgotten part of our history

Forgotten, exactly. I'm amazed at all the devastating displacements in American history, not just of the slaves and Indians, of course, but of whites one thinks of as more protected. Like all those towns that just dried up when the railroad was rerouted or the interstate built. Our dominant tradition of hopeful movement must overshadow the traumatic kind; like Kernan's mother putting a determined face and optimistic words on what sounds like desperation. I haven't watched any Carnivale. The stills I've seen look beautiful. Thanks for the tip!

Thanks Elizabeth and Hazel! And Hazel, yes, "war memoir" doesn't exactly suggest good writing. Makes one think of a plodding oral history. However, Kernan's storytelling--his framing of episodes--is just brilliant. I'm additionally excited because I'd never heard of Kernan (Fussell and Hynes are on TV, a lot) and came across this book by the dumbest chance.

message 8: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 16, 2010 05:48AM) (new)

Yeah, learning from history, that's going to happen.

I get the impression that Steinbeck isn't taught as much anymore, but maybe that's because I managed to avoid him completely. I mean, I wasn't ducking his calls or anything, and he seems like a stand-up guy.

message 9: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 16, 2010 06:11AM) (new)

Richard likes him, but Richard's read a lot more Americans than I have, because I'm an elitist snob who uses the library.

Random book-related aside: Grandpa was in the Navy during the War, and was on some of the carriers and in several of the battles you mentioned in your review. His Navy anecdotes always ended with that murderous Scandinavian irony though. Yikes.

message 10: by Eric (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric With Steinbeck it's so hard to tell. I never read Grapes, but Henry Fonda-as-Joad and that one famous picture did get burned into my head. Maybe the Dust Bowl just seems forgotten because America always seems to move on and never memorializes historical trauma in predictable or uniform ways. Though I guess a novel and a film adaptation constitute a predictable memorialization. I remember hearing in college that when the Grapes movie was shown in Russia, audiences thought it was about the lives of the affluent, because the Joads had cars in which to flee. Peasants feeling Stalinist collectivization just starved alongside the train tracks. Those Russians, always out to remind us who had the shittier decade.

message 11: by Eric (last edited Dec 16, 2010 06:32AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric Murderous Scandinavian irony? That sounds interesting! Like what? At one point Kernan recounts the death, in a midair collision, of a crewman who'd been buttering him up annoyingly, Dale Carnegie style; says something like, "so, did you think winning friends and influencing people was impoortant when the plane broke apart and you fell into the sea?"

message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

Ha! Maybe murderous was the wrong word - I was going to use deadpan, but Grandpa was not deadpan - he'd laugh about these stories. On one of the islands where they were based - he was a doctor attached to the Marine Raiders - they'd get shelled pretty regularly by the Japanese. I guess the strategy for dealing with the shelling was to run out to the beach and watch for them coming, and then run like hell in the opposite direction when one was coming at you. Like baseball, but don't try to catch the ball. One soldier was so afraid of dying by shelling that he would ball up and couldn't watch for the shells coming. The punchline, of course, was that he ended up blown to bits. Grandpa would be slapping his knee at the end of this story, he'd be laughing so hard.

I don't want to make him sound like a psycho - I think he spent so much time patching up people who were doing everything they could to stay alive that it bugged him when someone couldn't, and then he'd have to pick up the pieces, you know, kind of literally. He didn't laugh about this story when he told it, which I triggered when we started talking about SSRIs - like Prozac and other antidepressants. He was on a large carrier docked in the States, filling it up with new soldiers headed for Australia. He'd already been out and back once. Another soldier who had already been on a tour was standing on deck, and this other guy snapped, just couldn't take the thought of the boat leaving port and going back. He saluted, and then just walked off the side of the ship into the water, with with tack all still on his back. They fished him out somehow, and then had to restrain him in a room in the middle of ship - he was screaming uncontrollably at this point. Grandpa was called in to sedate the man, which he did, but every time the guy came to, he'd just start screaming again. The metal of the ship carried the vibrations of the screams everywhere, and Grandpa got in a good reaction shot of all the kids on the ship and hearing this as they shipped out for the first time. The punchline on this one: Grandpa wished there had been SSRIs back in the day, because, as a doctor, all he had to treat this man's shell-shock was morphine, and that wasn't a solution. It bothered him he couldn't help this man - there was nothing he could do.

message 13: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 16, 2010 07:43AM) (new)

Also, freaking Russians. :)

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)


That's amazing!

message 15: by Eric (last edited Dec 16, 2010 08:39AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric Damn Ceridwen, wow! A doctor's viewpoint on war seems like one of the most fascinating. Elizabeth, Hammett was active in civil rights and labor stuff after the war--did your grandfather run into him again? My mom's dad was an infantryman in the Philippines; his first wife cheated while he was away, met him at the train station heavily pregnant with another's. My dad's dad was in Calcutta, loading trains that took supplies from port to the northeast India, from there flown into China. Just a few weeks ago my dad got his India photo album:


message 16: by Hazel (new) - added it

Hazel Great stories! I hope you guys are passing these on to succeeding generations.

message 17: by [deleted user] (new)

Omg, I love those photos! I love how the sitting row has no idea what to do with their hands.

My mom's dad was an infantryman in the Philippines; his first wife cheated while he was away, met him at the train station heavily pregnant with another's.

So you know that annoying wind-up clock in my dining room? The one that chimes on the half-hour? It was made by a farmhand of a great-uncle of mine, out of a kit. They'd send you the clock, and then you built the box. The farmhand built the box in the late 40s. He had come home from the war to find his wife in a relationship with another man. He ordered her to desist, and she tried to leave him. He got good and drunk and beat her to death, and the other guy almost to death. He did a very little amount of time - very little - the story was really common, and so many returning soldiers were freaky and twitchy. The whole thing broke him though - or maybe he was broken before he ever came back - and he ended up blowing around the Midwest doing odd jobs and living in people's barns. So I have a murderer's clock in my dining room. Weird, right?

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

Yeah, I'll have to ask Dad again how we ended up with the clock. I've ever told the kids that story, and Dad only told me it a couple of years ago. Heirlooms can be seriously scary.

message 19: by Buck (new)

Buck That’s fucked-up, Ceridwen. There’s gotta be a Midwestern Gothic novel in there somewhere, once you finish the current one.

My stories aren’t nearly as dramatic, but the war affected my family pretty deeply. My maternal grandfather drove a cargo truck across France. He came home with a bunch of stuff wrong with him—I don’t know what, exactly—and ended up dying in a veterans’ hospital in the 1950s. By then, his wife was a hopeless alcoholic, and his five kids were put up for adoption. My mom and a sister were adopted by the same family, but she lost touch with her other siblings until she managed to track them down thirty-odd years later.

On my dad’s side, I have a great-uncle who lost a lung somewhere in Italy. But he’s still alive, more or less, minus the lung. He’s the type who’d go to the legion a couple times a week to get drunk and tell lies, but damned if I know how he lost the lung. His war stories never percolated down to my generation.

message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

Elizabeth wrote: "Buck wrote: "My stories aren’t nearly as dramatic,"

The one about everybody dying and the kids being split up for adoption only to find each other 30 years later isn't dramatic? That's an Oprah bo..."

No kidding.

I'm struggling to remember an O'Connor quote my mother would always say in conversations like this. Something about God being another D.P.? I cannot google for shit this am.

message 21: by Eric (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric Yeah, Buck, wow. Elizabeth is right--that's an Oprah pick, get to it. And Ceridwen I'm glad your kids don't know the story of Death Clock.

Heirlooms can be seriously scary.

Somehow on the journey back my grandfather got his hands on a German Mauser rifle, and then gave it to my dad when he came of deer hunting age. As a kid I used to examine breathlessly the swastika stamped on the bolt. Eee-vil! Nazi Gun, Death Clock...

message 22: by Buck (new)

Buck Nah, that’s my mom’s material. She’s been pecking away at a memoir for years now. That’s one book I won’t be reviewing on goodreads. But I’ll be happy to ride the gravy train if Oprah picks it up.

I’m always taken aback when I see color photos from WWII, like that vibrant one you included in your review. Like many people, I think of WWII as a black-and-white war. In fact, the whole period from about 1840 to 1945 is black and white in my imagination. And everything before 1840 is grey with brownish splotches. For me, the modern world is synchronous with color photography. Not very logical, but it’s an inescapable fallacy, I think.

message 23: by Eric (last edited Dec 17, 2010 11:47PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric Color is especially startling, and its absence distorting, in images of the Pacific. What a gaudy, magically hued Wallace Stevens backdrop for grim industrial collisons! The image I included is from a series Carl Mydans did for Life Magazine in 1941. They're simply amazing.



message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

Holy shit!

I saw a special on the history channel, back when it was only about WWII and Rome, that had color footage from the war. The freakiest footage was from people I know from b&w photos - the big guys like Hitler & Churchill. Can you imagine how much more brutally effective "Triumph of the Will" would be in color, with all of those red banners? *shudders*

message 25: by Eric (last edited Dec 18, 2010 12:08AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric description

"I know, right?" Scarier in color.

message 26: by [deleted user] (new)

Works on my computer, but not on my phone.

Also, I can hear you making fun of me, Eric. :P

message 27: by Eric (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric Haha no, not making fun. Quoting. It's a useful phrase. I was just thinking, above I've posted about childish entrancement with Nazi Gun, and then a pic of Nazis. Hope you guys aren't spooked.

message 28: by [deleted user] (new)

Eeeeeeeek! No, I've admitted I have a death clock, so nothing scares me.

Oh! I forgot to ask, did your Dad and Grandpa actually go deer hunting with a Nazi rifle????? That is seriously badass.

message 29: by Eric (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric My grandpa may have, but he wasn't an avid hunter. My dad did once, but rabbits and squirrels were more his things as a teen. I've shot it a few times, and it has a vicious kick. My grandmother has probably used it the most: my dad said she would take it down to the fishing hole and blast away at the snapping turtles competing with her for fish.

message 30: by [deleted user] (new)

Hahahaha! That's totally sweet and charming, in a really weird way: Grandma shooting snapping turtles with a Nazi rifle. Hahahaha!

A friend of mine took me skeet shooting for the first time this summer, and I ended up all bruised up from the recoil. I will not be surviving the zombie apocalypse.

message 31: by Eric (last edited Dec 18, 2010 10:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eric My grandma is sweet, and farm-callous. I still remember seeing her clean a fish out she plucked out the weakly pulsing heart and threw it to the cats creeping around the table.

Oh well, zombies can also be destroyed with hedge clippers and shovels. Garden much?

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