In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not much of a journalist. I’m just a gun nerd with a laptop. As a writer, I am more mechanic than artist. I just enjoy telling stories.
I have written professionally for more than half of my life. Along the way, it has been my privilege to meet a few real writers. They are indeed typically a fascinating lot.
I have a theory that every normal person is born with about the same amount of raw material. It’s just typically distributed differently. If you know somebody who is handsome, charming, brilliant, and successful then watch out. That guy is likely a serial killer. In the case of truly extraordinary writers, however, they can also be lamentably self-destructive.
Ernest Hemingway—Professional Virile Paragon
The second of six children, Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Dad was a physician, and mom was a musician. Young Ernest excelled at sports and, not unsurprisingly, English. Hemingway had bad eyes and couldn’t pass the physical for enlistment into the US Army.
After six months as a cub reporter for The Kansas City Star, he answered a Red Cross advert to become an ambulance driver during WW1.
Hemingway returned home in 1919 having exchanged his youthful idealism for severe shrapnel wounds to his legs. He ultimately married four times and became the poster child for toxic masculinity. His friends called him Papa.
After a hard-drinking lifetime spent chasing adventure around the globe he took his own life in Ketchum, Idaho. He was 61. From beginning to end, firearms played an outsized role in Hemingway’s amazing trek.
His time in WW1 birthed A Farewell to Arms. The Spanish Civil War spawned For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Hemingway served alongside Allied troops as a war correspondent through the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris, eventually earning the Bronze Star for his trouble. Hemingway explored Europe, the American Rocky Mountains, and Africa. What we will occupy ourselves with today, however, is the nexus between Hemingway’s guns and fishing.
Ernest Hemingway was a compulsive angler. He lived for a time in Cuba and Key West, Florida, and owned a 38-foot fishing boat named Pilar after his second wife. He purchased the vessel new in 1934 for $7,495. His adventures on the Pilar strongly influenced such classics as The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream.
During World War 2 Hemingway had the Pilar outfitted with HF/DF direction-finding equipment and famously set out stalking Nazi U-boats in the Caribbean. His armament included a privately-owned Thompson submachinegun and a case of hand grenades he had scored someplace.
The Type VII was the most-produced German U-Boat of the war. It displaced some 769 tons, was 220 feet long, and carried an 88mm deck gun along with sundry 20mm antiaircraft weapons and a couple of MG34’s.
How exactly Mr. Hemingway planned to take on one of these monsters with a Tommy gun and a few hand grenades is anybody’s guess. Some allege that Hemingway’s antics were really a scheme to obtain extra fuel rations and immunity from the Cuban police for his several drunk driving charges.
Hemingway’s Peculiar Problem
For a time Ernest Hemingway explored the great ocean currents surrounding Bimini, an island chain some fifty miles east of Miami. These islands sport brilliant white sand beaches and were once rumored to host Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth. Papa Hemingway gravitated toward them for the great leviathan fish that populated the surrounding depths.
Marlin, tuna, and swordfish were Hemingway’s perennial favorites, but catching these massive fish came with its own risks. The thrashing of these enormous creatures brought predators. Very frequently sharks would strip his catch before he could get the fish to his boat.
At first Hemingway tried to dissuade the sharks with a Colt Woodsman semiautomatic .22 pistol. He fired on one shark at close range as he attempted to land his catch only to have a round deflect off the boat’s rail and strike him in the shin. This wound just added to all the others. However, this experience convinced Hemingway that he needed a bit more gun.
One version of the story has Hemingway buying his M1921A Thompson submachine gun from a local Bimini fisherman. Another posits that Hemingway won the Thompson in a card game with a millionaire named William Leeds. Regardless, there doesn’t appear to have been any paperwork involved.
Hemingway seems to have acquired his Thompson in 1935, one year after the passage of the infamous National firearms Act of 1934. Prior to 1934 there were no controls over firearms in America. Automatic weapons like Thompsons and BARs were readily available but extremely expensive.
Back then a Thompson cost $200, while a BAR would set you back $300. That’s the modern-day equivalent of $3,782, and $5,673 respectively. Additionally, coming on the heels of the Great Depression very few Americans actually had any money. Regardless, as Bimini was part of the Bahamas US law obviously didn’t apply anyway. At the time the Bahamas were part of the UK.
A Failed Mission
In 1935 Hemingway and a friend named Mike Strater had fished the waters around Bimini for 86 days straight without hooking anything of consequence. Then as the Pilar rocked peacefully along in the current Strater’s line jumped. A mighty struggle later the two men saw that Strater had hooked a massive fourteen-foot giant marlin.
Strater fought the fish mightily, causing the animal to breach repeatedly. As the fish tired, however, the sharks began to circle. Before the two men could land the tremendous billfish the first shark zipped in and snatched a 20-pound chunk of flesh out of the creature’s flank. This precipitated a frenzy.
Sharks swarmed the great fish as Hemingway chugged away with his Thompson at 850 rounds per minute. However, as he connected with the soulless grey predators their blood drew yet more sharks. By the time they got the once-majestic fish on board the back half had been stripped clean.
Once back at Bimini they hoisted the carcass up, measured it at more than fourteen feet from snout to tail, and weighed what remained at greater than 500 pounds. Had the sharks not had their fill the fish would have tipped the scales at more than half a ton and set a new Bimini record.
Papa Hemingway was sufficiently imbittered to write a book about the experience. Most high school students have read it.
Papa’s Tommy gun was an early Auto Ordnance version that he fed from 20-round stick magazines. His gun lacked the familiar Cutts compensator found on many period weapons.
The Cutts was a $25 add-on to those early Thompsons. As $25 back then was $472 in today’s money many private owners just did without.
The Thompson’s inspiration was one BG John Taliaferro Thompson. That middle name is inexplicably pronounced “Toliver.” General Thompson did not technically design the gun that bore his name, but he was indeed the driving force behind it.
Those earliest M1921A Thompsons included the superfluous bronze Blish lock, fired from the open bolt, and featured a ludicrously overdesigned Lyman adjustable rear sight. They came standard with a vertical foregrip and easily-removable buttstock.
Everything about the Thompson’s ergonomics is wrong. The line of recoil is markedly higher than the interface between the buttstock and the firer’s shoulder. This equates out to muzzle climb. However, the gun’s all-up 10.8-pound empty weight combined with its .45ACP pistol cartridge conspired to make the gun controllable anyway.
The Thompson was produced in two major variants. The early M1921/M1928 versions sported top-mounted actuators. The later military M1 and M1A1 versions had their actuators on the right side of the receiver. Total production was around 1.75 million copies between 1921 and 1945.
Ernest Hemingway survived five car wrecks and two plane crashes. He wrote seven novels, six collections of short stories, and two non-fiction works, winning both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. He was a living legend respected the world over. However, throughout it all the man seemed somehow cursed.
Hemingway’s father fell on hard financial times and took his own life when his son was 39. Ernest shot himself to death with his favorite side-by-side 12-bore 22 years later. That gun was subsequently intentionally destroyed at a local machine shop.
Alcoholism, depression, and suicide ran rampant throughout the Hemingway clan. Seven members of the immediate family took their own lives, to include Papa’s granddaughter Margaux Hemingway. Margaux was a successful film actress who killed herself in 1996.
Ernest Hemingway was an extraordinarily gifted writer. Sadly, his personal demons eventually got the better of him. Regardless, whether it was fighting alongside the French Resistance, hunting dangerous game in Africa, or battling hungry sharks with a Tommy gun, Papa Hemingway lived life to the full. He was indeed the archetypal Renaissance Man.