Ernest Hemingway was roaring drunk when he suffered his war wound. It was May 25, 1944, and America’s most famous novelist was in London, preparing to cover the invasion of France for Collier’s magazine and cheating on his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, with his future fourth wife, Mary Welsh. That night, Hemingway got plastered at a party thrown by photographer Robert Capa and hitched a ride with another drunken reveler, who promptly crashed his car into a water tower. Hemingway’s head smashed the windshield, cutting a deep gash into his scalp that required 57 stitches.
Two weeks later, Hemingway, 44, was out of the hospital and standing aboard a landing craft off the coast of Normandy, staring through binoculars, watching American soldiers invade Omaha Beach. “On the beach on the left where there was no sheltering overhang,” he wrote, “the first, second, third, fourth and fifth waves lay where they had fallen, looking like so many heavily laden bundles on the flat pebbly stretch between the sea and first cover.”
While Hemingway watched the battle—reporters weren’t allowed to go ashore that day—another American writer, Sergeant Jerome David Salinger, scrambled through the water to Normandy’s Utah Beach carrying a rifle and his portable typewriter. Salinger, 25, had sold stories to magazines before the war, and he wrote several more while overseas, including some featuring an alienated youth named Holden Caulfield, who would later become the narrator of J.D. Salinger’s classic 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye.
In Normandy, Salinger’s regiment—part of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division—fought the Germans for the tiny town of Emondeville, encountering fierce artillery and mortar fire. They took the town but lost 300 men. Then they joined the bloody fight for the city of Cherbourg. By the end of June, nearly two-thirds of the 3,000 men in Salinger’s regiment had been killed or wounded.
Hemingway caught up to the 4th Infantry Division as it fought its way toward Paris. General Raymond Barton gave the novelist a captured German motorcycle with a sidecar and assigned a driver to chauffeur him around. Hemingway stuffed the sidecar with machine guns, hand grenades and bottles of whiskey, and rode off, looking for action. One August day, he found it. An exploding shell knocked him out of the sidecar and he sprawled in a ditch while German soldiers fired at him. Capa, photographing the push from Normandy, witnessed the accident, hoping he wouldn’t have to take pictures of his famous friend’s corpse.
“Tracer bullets were hitting the dirt just above his head,” Capa later wrote. “For two hours, he was pinned down until the Germans found a more pressing target.” Hemingway walked away unscathed.
In late August, the Americans paused to give the French army the honor of liberating Paris. On the 25th—the day the German occupiers surrendered to the French—Hemingway sneaked into the city with a ragtag band of French resistance fighters and decided to personally liberate the legendary Ritz Hotel. Arriving at the hotel with his entourage, he quickly searched the building. Finding no Germans, he repaired to the bar and began drinking champagne. He stayed there for several days, drinking and holding court.
Outside the Ritz, Paris exploded in celebration. Crowds filled the streets, swigging wine, hugging strangers and kissing American soldiers as they arrived on tanks and jeeps. Among the soldiers was Sergeant Salinger, who was fluent in French and German and was therefore assigned the job of interrogating German soldiers and French collaborators.
Salinger drove a jeep through the jubilant crowds, accompanied by an American soldier and a collaborator they’d captured. Women kissed Salinger and men handed him bottles of wine. But when the revelers realized that the Frenchman in the jeep was a collaborator, they yanked him into the street and beat him to death while Salinger watched in horror.
Somehow, Salinger learned that Hemingway was ensconced in the Ritz bar, and he drove there to meet the famous novelist. Slightly soused, Hemingway greeted Salinger warmly, saying that he’d read his stories in Esquire. He asked the sergeant if he’d brought along any new stories. Salinger pulled out a recent copy of the Saturday Evening Post and flipped to his story “The Last Day of the Last Furlough.” While Salinger sipped a drink, Hemingway read the story. When he finished, he said he was impressed and offered to write letters touting Salinger’s talent.
“You have a marvelous ear,” he later wrote to Salinger, “and you write tenderly and lovingly without getting wet.”
Needless to say, Salinger was thrilled to meet Hemingway and hear his words of high praise on the day Paris celebrated its liberation. In an ecstatic letter to Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine, Salinger reported that the two men had discussed literature—they both admired William Faulkner—and that Hemingway was far more sensitive and generous than his hard-boiled, macho reputation suggested.
After their encounter, Salinger went back to war while Hemingway remained at the Ritz, drinking and entertaining Mary Welsh, his new girlfriend, who had arrived from London to cover the liberation of Paris for Time magazine.
“I want to marry you,” Hemingway told Welsh, who reminded him that they barely knew each other and that they were, in fact, both married to other people. Hemingway did not seem overly perturbed at those minor inconveniences. (Indeed, the two married in 1946.)
After leaving Paris, Salinger marched into Germany, fighting in the long, cold, bloody battle of Hürtgen Forest, where the U.S. Army suffered more than 30,000 casualties, with many of the dead lying frozen in the snow-covered woods. During a lull in the fighting, Salinger learned that Hemingway had arrived to chronicle the battle.
“Let’s go and look up Hemingway,” Salinger suggested to his friend Werner Kleeman, another Army translator.
The two men walked to a small brick house that served as a headquarters for reporters. “There was Hemingway, stretched out on a couch,” Kleeman later wrote. “A visor on his forehead, he was busy writing on a yellow pad.”
Salinger and Hemingway drank champagne out of aluminum cups and discussed literature for a couple of hours. Then Salinger traipsed back to his foxhole. They never met again.
In December 1944, Salinger fought in the Battle of the Bulge— another long, brutal battle in the snow. In the spring of 1945, as the war in Europe ended, he witnessed the liberation of concentration camps in Germany. War-weary and depressed—and possibly suffering from what is now called posttraumatic stress disorder—he voluntarily checked into a mental hospital in Nuremburg that summer.
“Nothing was wrong with me except that I’ve been in an almost constant state of despondency and I thought it would be good to talk to somebody sane,” he wrote in a letter to Hemingway from the hospital.
The letter was jovial, full of jokes about literature and Army life, but Salinger’s cheerfulness masked a deep wound. He’d been scarred, permanently, by the horrors he’d witnessed on battlefields and in concentration camps.
“You never get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely,” he told his daughter years later, “no matter how long you live.”
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.