In early 1917, with the United States still having not yet formally declared war on Germany, my grandfather, Emmett H. Shaw, an upperclassman at Harvard at the time, decided to join the American Field Service to drive an ambulance for the French army fighting at the Italian Front. He was promised a full degree from Harvard by joining the war effort when he did. First day on the job was April 21, 1917, only fifteen days after the U.S declared war.
It so happened that at approximately the same time, Ernest Hemingway was also driving ambulance at the Italian Front. He had enlisted with the American Red Cross in early 1918 and had joined regional Italian units. The paths of my grandfather and Hemingway had crossed at ambulance headquarters which were shared by the American Field Service units and the American Red Cross. “We were acquaintances. I never got to know him well,” Emmett explained. In Carlos Baker’s biography Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, the name Emmett Shaw receives two lines and an entry in the index.
It was Emmett’s custom to tell his war stories around our family kitchen table prior to dinner. The one I remember most was the story of Emmett driving up a long valley when suddenly the left front tire blew out. Emmett and his co-driver had just started changing the tire when a shell exploded twenty yards off the road a few hundred yards behind them. “It sounded like a howitzer shell, more firepower than they needed for us.” Frantically they raced for time as the next shell hit directly on the road one hundred yards closer. The final shell, with its whine before impact, hit directly on the road just as they finished with the tire change. They felt the percussion wave and dust on their skin before speeding away. So the story goes.
On July 8, 1918, Ernest Hemingway got injured by enemy mortar fire at the Front. After receiving stabilizing surgery at a field unit, he was transferred to the Red Cross Hospital in Milan. Back at ambulance headquarters, no one thought Hemingway would be able to drive again. He had received serious shrapnel wounds to both legs. Rumors were that he would be lucky to walk.
Unexpectedly, after six months of rehab, Hemingway did return, walking, albeit with a cane. He came to visit the boys, say his goodbyes and gather his belongings before returning to the United States. A ceasefire had been negotiated November 11th but many drivers remained at the Front, having not yet been redeployed. Emmett told it this way: “Hemingway came back to an empty locker: his locker had been cleaned out and he was hopping mad about it! I ran into him that afternoon. All he said, looking down at my khakis, was “Shaw, those are my pants.”
“All I could say was, “Yes, sir, they are.” I apologized and returned the pants the next day, freshly laundered. That’s the last time I saw Ernest Hemingway. No handshake. Nothing. C’est la guerre.” And so the story goes.