Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Hell to Eternity

Edward S. Aarons started his writing career cranking out short stories for the pulps under the name Edward Ronns. The popularity of men’s paperback original novels in the 1950s gave Aarons a market to spread his wings with his stand-alone men’s crime and adventure books. His most successful venture was the Sam Durrell 'Assignment' series of spy novels that spanned over 40 installments between 1955 and 1970.

“Hell to Eternity” is an anomaly in Aarons’ body of work. It’s a 1960 Fawcett Gold Medal novelization of a screenplay (written by someone else) based on a true story from World War II. Although the events in the book ostensibly happened, the story has been filtered through the meat grinder of time and fictionalization: events occurred in 1944 that were recounted to a screenwriter 15 years later that were adapted for a book by the successful action novelist. This is good news for a reader who wants to enjoy a kick-ass war novel that reads nothing like a high school history textbook. The fact that the hero was a real guy is just an added bonus.

“Hell to Eternity” is the story of Hispanic USMC Private Guy Gabaldon and his experience at the Battle of Saipan during the war. For those without a deep knowledge of history, here’s what you need to know: Saipan is a small island in the Pacific about 135 miles from Guam and 1500 miles from Tokyo. The island was taken over by the Japanese during World War I and liberated by American troops during the sequel war. The isolated nature of this event allows the reader to enjoy the story of this battle without taking a deep dive into all the war’s machinations. It’s a bite-size story in a super-size war.

The reader is in good hands with Aarons as the storyteller. He introduces us to Gabaldon as he and his fellow Marines are positively terrified at the prospect of fighting the Japanese on the heavily-fortified island of Saipan. Flashbacks to Gabaldon’s childhood give us insight into his humble beginnings and the circumstances that taught a poor Los Angeles kid to speak fluent Japanese after he developed close relations in that immigrant community. As always, Aaron’s writing is superb, and the reader really comes to know young Gabaldon as a person while creating a rooting interest in his survival and success on this important mission.

For his part, Gabaldon is an understandable and imperfect hero. Fresh out of boot camp and scared out of his wits, he is far from a typical action star as he storms the beach on Saipan under enemy fire. He’s also conflicted as he sees Japanese soldiers dying at his feet because the immigrant community meant so much to him growing up. Flashbacks to Gabaldon’s life following Pearl Harbor and the internment of his Japanese-American friends add additional moral nuance to this exciting adventure story.

The interior of Saipan is a mountainous jungle pocked with caves deep into the woods. Those caves became fortifications and hiding places for the Japanese soldiers during the U.S. invasion. These hideouts serve as a great set-piece for Aarons to show us the way Gabaldon uses his language skills to coax enemy soldiers from the safety of their hiding places into surrender and interrogation. Meanwhile, there are plenty of bloody battles as the Marines fight Japanese Imperial soldiers armed with both guns and samurai swords. Aarons knows his way around a good action scene, and “Hell to Eternity” has plenty.

Later in life, Gabaldon went on to become a losing candidate for the U.S. Congress and the owner of a seafood business on Saipan where he lived as a civilian for 20 years before relocating to Florida for his final years. Before his 2006 death, Gabaldon wrote a non-fiction account of his war experiences called “Saipan: Suicide Island.” I don’t know much about Gabaldon’s own book, but there’s no way it’s more entertaining and exciting than Aaron’s fictionalized version of the story. “Hell to Eternity” is essential reading for fans of pulpy WW2 adventures. It will fit perfectly on the shelf next to Len Levinson’s 'Rat Bastards' series. Highly recommended.