They were Expendable was a bestselling book by William Lindsay White, published with lightning speed, in January, 1942, about the dark early days of The War. In December, 1941, White was able to interview a group of four young naval officers who had just escaped the Philippines, or what White called “America’s little Dunkirk,” and rescued General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, at a Motor Torpedo Boat (“P.T. Boat”) Station in Melville, Rhode Island. Their stories, those of some of their comrades, alive and dead, and that of a pretty, green-eyed nurse named Peggy, became the book, which was published with lightning speed by Harcourt, Brace and Company, and which almost as quickly became a bestseller, whose rights were purchased by MGM to be made into a picture by John Ford. However, W.L. White’s book would be of historical and journalistic significance, even if it had never been filmed. That picture would bomb at the box office, but it would be a classic, all the same, and greatly significant in the history of pictures, and in the lives of the people who made it. This is Part II of a series about the book, the picture, and the back story.
One incident that is only mentioned in passing in the 1942 book, They were Expendable, and completely cut from the 1945 picture, I suspect found its way into the screenplay of Ken Annakin’s great, glorious mess of a picture, The Battle of the Bulge (1965), written by Philip Yordan, Milton Sperling, and John Melson.
The incident from Expendable concerned an unnamed, young lieutenant who, although not empowered to do so, gives the orders to blow up a fuel depot in the Philippines, in order to keep it out of the Japs’ hands.
“A curious thing happened during those closing hours [before the Japanese invasion]; nobody had given orders to blow up the oil reserves. Maybe some of them belonged to private companies; it would go against a businessman’s grain to blow up good oil. Finally a little junior-grade naval lieutenant noticed it. He had no authority, but he gave orders he had no right to give, and presently the oil was blazing. I hear he got a Navy Cross for doing it.”
One of the most moving subplots of Bulge concerns the coming of age of a spoiled, callow, young officer, (surely Second) Lieutenant Weaver (James MacArthur), who has a personal minder, Sgt. Duquesne, played by George Montgomery.
Not only was George Montgomery (1916-2000) a WWII combat veteran (U.S. Army Air Forces), but although he was old enough to be James MacArthur’s (1937-2010) father, he looked and sounded like he was ready, willing, and able to sign up and fight another war!
Sgt. Duquesne’s role, as he tells Lt. Weaver, is to keep him alive. Duquesne dies on that mission, due to Weaver’s poor judgment, and yet the effect of the older man’s sacrifice forever changes the younger man’s life (think Saving Private Ryan). He realizes that he is responsible for his enlisted men’s lives, and starts carrying himself like an officer in the best sense.
In the climactic scene, he finds himself at a fuel depot, with German Panzer Colonel Robert Shaw bearing down, at the head of a column of Panzers, desperate for the fuel. Lt. Weaver orders the enlisted men guarding the depot to light it up. “But who’s giving the orders?” one of the GIs asks. “I’m giving the orders,” replies Weaver, with firm, calm assurance.
In R.G. Collingwood’s 1937 work, The Principles of Art, he observed that artists are all thieves, constantly stealing from each other.
This is certainly apparent in the history of pictures, and especially war pictures and TV shows.
In a classic episode of the WWII-set series, Combat!, guest starring Lee Marvin, “The Bridge at Chalons,” Marvin’s character, Sgt. Turk, a miserable cuss of a munitions expert sergeant, goes on a mission with series co-star, Sgt. Saunders (Vic Morrow). Although Saunders has no use for the arrogant, superior Turk, he almost gets killed saving his life and the mission. Marvin mocks him, early on, as “a mother hen looking after her chicks,” but the show ends with the wounded man chasing away the “mother hen,” and then grudgingly telling a corpsman from his hospital bed, “You know something? I’m going to have to put him up for the Silver Star”—and making it believable.
Several years later, during a TCM Memorial Day marathon, I caught a 1950s B-picture, in which one infantry sergeant referred to a colleague as a “mother hen...”
Nurse Peggy is juggling two lovers at the same time. Each afternoon for weeks, she takes “a long walk” with Lt. Robert Bolling Kelly. To help the healing process. And each night, when her medical officer official boyfriend is on the island, she sees him. How she managed to keep her “beau” from learning about Kelly, we never learn. Indeed, William L. White keeps a straight face about the whole thing, as if nothing untoward were going on, and as if Peggy and Robert had never so much as kissed.
Kelly emphasizes the complete lack of privacy on the entire island, I believe, as a cover story for his love affair with Peggy. Healthy, passionate, young lovers will find a way to make love, whether it’s in a hospital supply closet, an unused office, or up against a tree in the woods.
Kelly, as an officer and a gentleman, never uses any language about Peggy stronger than that he “liked” her.
Recalling her steady hand with a flashlight, in an otherwise dark operating room, while under Japanese bombardment, Kelly observes, “Hell of a fine, nervy girl to have in a war. Or any other time.”
Lt. John D. Bulkeley, for his part in personally shepherding General of the Army Douglas MacArthur from the Philippines to Australia in Bulkeley’s PT boat, in an area swarming with Japanese fighter planes, bombers, reconnaissance planes, cruisers, destroyers, and other warships, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and kicked all the way up to lieutenant commander, the same rank that Robert Montgomery, the matinee idol/PT boat skipper who would play him in the picture, ultimately attained. (Bulkeley was escorted by Kelly’s PT boat, and one other boat that had to be ditched.)
Bulkeley was convinced that MacArthur had to be secreted out safely to Australia, because he was the only Army general brilliant enough to get us back in the Philippines as victors. Meanwhile, Bulkeley, 30, was the only PT boat skipper whom MacArthur was confident could safely get him, his family, and his servants out of there.
MacArthur’s escape from the Philippines takes up a large part of the book, and is also the occasion for Kelly and Peggy’s farewell. Peggy, over a field telephone to Kelly: “Well, it’s been awfully nice, hasn’t it?”
“And her voice had sounded clear and brave, but seemed to come from far away.”
Harcourt, Brace, and Company published White’s work very quickly, it became a bestseller, and MGM purchased the movie rights for John Ford.
Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.