War's legacy of unfinished tales
Sixty years ago this month, an American author was allowed to accompany soldiers of the US 88th Division on a night attack in Italy. He was a man who believed that truth could be found only through direct experience, and also was determined to write about war truthfully.
The correspondent was approaching 52 years old, and at least one officer tried to dissuade him from taking such a huge risk.
The cautionary suggestions were rejected.
"I feel the only way to get the reactions of the men is to go in with them - take part in the assault," the writer said. "By my own feelings, my reactions, my thoughts - I'll know theirs."
The GIs were striking at enemy positions near the village of Santa Maria Infante. In the early morning hours of May 12, 1944, amid gunfire and exploding artillery shells, a small fragment of steel struck and killed the writer, whose name was Frederick Schiller Faust.
Most Americans had never heard of him. That's because Faust used a number of pseudonyms during his career. One of those pen names was, and still is, well known to readers who enjoy fiction about the Old West: Max Brand.
Titles by Max Brand continue to sell by the hundreds of thousands each year. You can find them on book racks in airports, supermarkets, and newsstands in every city. Perhaps the most famous is "Destry Rides Again," which rolled off the presses in 1930 and has never been out of print.
Faust also wrote successfully in other genres, including crime, science fiction, and espionage. In 1936 Cosmopolitan magazine bought a story featuring a young physician named Dr. Kildare.
As a writer who sometimes has difficulty putting a single paragraph on paper, I'm amazed by Faust's prolific career and his ability to create memorable stories at top speed. Ideas poured out of his imagination. It wasn't unusual for him to produce 25 to 40 typed pages a day. It's been estimated that from 1917 to 1938, Faust produced enough writing to fill about 500 books.
When he arrived overseas in early 1944, Faust's arrangement of living side by side with the infantry may have been one of the first official cases of "embedding" a war correspondent with a combat unit.
Why did he insist on putting himself in such a dangerous situation? Faust's biographer, the late Robert Easton, suggested a possible answer during a 1994 interview. "If you read his work," Easton told me, "you find again and again it deals with cowards and heroes and brave men, and the uncertain or cowardly man or timid man who finds, in the pinch, that he is a brave man."
Would Faust have gone on to write a great novel about the Italian campaign if he hadn't been killed that night?
Every war leaves behind mysteries, milestones that never were reached, and stories that will never be told.