By George Hendrick
Dr. Hendrick is a retired University of Illinois English professor and department chair who served as the first president of the James Jones Literary Society. He has edited two books regarding Jones: To Reach Eternity: The Letters of James Jones and To the End of the War.
Wounded on Guadalcanal in January 1943 and suffering from an injured ankle, the psychologically distressed James Jones (1921-1977) was sent to a hospital near Memphis, Tennessee. Once able to move about, Jones was given passes to go into Memphis. He took a suite of rooms in the Peabody Hotel, where there was non-stop drinking and casual sex. Jones soon grew tired of the sexual scene but his heavy drinking continued. He felt guilty about being alive when many of his comrades were dead on Guadalcanal. He feared his luck had run out, that he would be found fit for duty and be sent to England in anticipation of D-day. He was angry, filled with rage, and deeply depressed. He was not receiving any psychological help for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Examined again, he was declared to be fit for duty. Because of his psychological state and his weak ankle, he had expected to be discharged. His reaction was to get drunk. He appealed for a reexamination, and this time he was classified as fit for noncombat duty. When his orders came in November 1943, he was assigned to the combat unit 26th Division, K Company, 101st Infantry Regiment preparing to be sent to England and then the invasion of France.
Angry and rejected, James went over the hill, taking an overnight train to Robinson, making his first visit since 1939. He stayed with his Uncle Charles and Charles’ wife Sadie. James Jones was obnoxious and drunk most of the time. Charles Jones believed that his drunken nephew was besmirching the Jones family name, just as the suicide of James Jones’s father, Dr. Ramon Jones, had dishonored the family. Aunt Sadie, afraid the two men would quarrel, decided to seek help for her nephew from Lowney Handy, an unofficial social worker in Robinson, who helpg pregnant girls, the down-and-out and troubled soldiers.
Married to Harry Handy, superintendent of the oil refinery there, Lowney was an unconventional free spirit who was interested in the Hindu religion, Theosophy and its founder, Mme. Helena Blavatsky, an occultist and spiritual medium. Sadie told Lowney, an unpublished writer, that Jones “thinks he wants to write.” Lowney agreed to see him.
Lowney described that meeting: “You should have seen him then. He swaggered; he wore dark glasses; he even asked me to read his poetry aloud. He had obviously come over for a free drink. Then he saw my books.” Lowney continued, “He flipped through them and plopped them back as if he were gulping down what they had in them.” Lost in the books, “The chip on the shoulder is gone,” Lowney said. “The poor guy. The poor lost guy.”
Jones’s poetry convinced Lowney, known for making quick decisions, that he was going to be a great writer. She would be a Pygmalion, helping him chisel his success. She would help him control his anger and erratic behavior. She was a true believer in Jones from the first day, probably November 3, 1943.
Jones returned to Lowney’s house the next day and took her to bed. Jones in some notes wrote that “she subjected herself to me, she made herself my disciple in everything from writing to love.” He was badly mistaken. The authoritarian Lowney had set out to dominate him, to alleviate his psychological problems, to get him discharged from the army, and to get him on the road to being a writer of renown.
At the end of two weeks, Jones returned to Camp Campbell; he was not court-martialed because a warrant officer had marked him “delayed in route.” Within a few weeks he was AWOL again, with Lowney and her husband, who did not object to her relationship with a troubled, aspiring writer. Upon his return to Camp Campbell at Christmas time, he was transferred to the 842nd Quartermaster Gas and Supply Company also stationed at Camp Campbell. He was soon made a company clerk. He was at work on his novel called They Shall Inherit the Laughter.
While he was busy as a clerk, he wrote his brother, “ideas, sentences, whole paragraphs would pop into my head – and I wasn’t able to write them down.” At night, he would write page after page of his novel, then tear them up and throw them away. To get a better environment for his work, he went AWOL again, probably about May 15, and stayed with artist friends in Indianapolis where, relieved from stress, he was able to write 20,000 words in two weeks.
Jones’s commanding officer, Captain Eugene A. Mailloux, inquired of Lowney where her protégé might be. She made telephone calls, located him in Indianapolis, and then went to Indianapolis to convince Jones to return to Camp Campbell. Lowney then wrote this disingenuous letter [her later handwritten marginal notes are in brackets]:
June 2, 1944 [4 days on D Day]
Captain Eugene A. Mailloux,
842nd Q.M. Gas Supply
Camp Campbell, Kentucky.
In answer to your inquiry concerning the whereabouts of my friend, Sgt. James R. Jones, I regret that I am unable to be of any help to you. I also want it on record that I will not assume responsibility for any of his erratic actions as he is the sort of person whose actions are positively unpredictable. Not that I mean this as derogatory, however, since you say you have checked with the men and studied his record I am certain you understand what I mean. I can furnish all sorts of proof from anyone living here in Robinson, his home town, as to his instability as an ordinary citizen, although harmless if left alone to work at the one thing he cares about.
Jones is an artist. He is very sensitive, and certainly far from conservative in his thinking. Like all artists he is not aware of any law, so cannot predict what he may do, am positive he has never understood the terms ethics as you and I define it. I have heard him say that when he was overseas he meant to kill his commander officer and that the only reason he did not do so was that the opportunity did not occur. [Capt. Mailloux had told me he meant to ship Jim overseas for D. Day This got him out at once – James read this while still in the Lock up was angry with me –.] This of course could have been a form of showing off, but I felt at the time that he spoke the truth.
On the other hand, I am sure, he is a writer of very rare promise. This is not only my own opinion but I have shown samples of his work to a number of people and they have been unusually impressed. Among these was Tom Uzzell, former fiction editor of Collier’s Weekly. All agree that he is brilliant, undoubtedly genius. If he is a poor soldier this will account for it, for genius is almost invariably remarkably astute in one line and utter failures in all others.
You say your aim is to help him. I am glad that he is in the hands of an understanding person who realizes that writers of his ability (my friends agree that he is in a class with Hemmingway [sic], Tom Wolfe, John Dos Passos, the few great develop so in a century.
If you are to check further with people living here in his home town, I suggest you write Bayard E. Heath, maker of the Heath Toffee Bar, who was a boyhood school friend of his father and [he] will confirm my state as to his lifelong instability and his suicide. Judge William B. McCarty will back this information that one of this father’s brothers was a gangster and ‘taken for a ride’ in East Saint Louis a few years ago. Also he will enlarge on the fact that another brother is a shyster lawyer, who had to leave here for a number of years, making his home in Florida because of crooked dealings. Dr. Sam S. Allen will give you medical statistics on the family histories of his parents, having the same instability on the maternal side. Mr. Maxwell Minor, one of his high school teachers, who still resides here will confirm his abnormal brilliance as well as all the trouble he caused the faculty. I have been told that he was son probation at this time, with talk of being sent to the reformatory, however, I cannot verify this and it may be nothing but gossip. But this I am sure, through his conversation to me, that he hates society and feels that he owes them nothing because of all the buffing around he has received. Both of his parents died while he was overseas and not yet twenty.
Again I wish to make it quite clear that I will not be held responsible for any of his notions, although I consider him quite harmless if he is allowed to follow his profession, I might even make it as strong as destiny. But there will never by any stability nor dependability in this character along the line of a good conservative citizen. This is the history of his case and even though I have made a tremendous effort on my part to help him and will do so again, I will not be accountable for anything he may do. I will wire or call you if I should hear of hers whereabouts.
[Mrs. Lowney Handy]
I have not been able to verify that Jones wanted to kill his commanding officer. Jones’s Uncle Charles did not have a sterling reputation in Robinson. Jones’s Uncle Paul walked on the shady side, but I have not seen evidence that he was a gangster. I have seen no evidence that James Jones as a high school student was in serious trouble with the law.
Captain Mailloux responded to Lowney on June 7, 1944. Jones had returned on May 30, 1944: “As soon as he reported to me, I of course, put him under arrest. As I saw he was under some mental strain and in a very depressed mood, I called the Detachment Surgeon and had him placed under observation. They in turn are taking action toward a possible discharge under Section VIII, AR 615-630 (Inaptness or undesirable habits or traits of character).” Lowney and Jones knew the stigma attached to Section VIII discharges and wanted an honorable discharge for Jones. There was a major problem Jones had to overcome: because of his third AWOL he was to be court martialed.
Captain Mailloux assured Lowney that her letter of June 2, 1944, would be an exhibit, “to prove that he is mentally unbalanced.” The captain, however, believed that Jones was not mentally unbalanced and not Section VIII material. Instead, he asserted that Jones “is conceited, egotistical, selfish individual who thinks that he is a genius because a few people have told him so.” Still, the captain had certain sympathies for Jones, who had been wounded on Guadalcanal. Mailloux did say that whatever the medical decision was would also be his decision.
Captain Mailloux told Lowney that Jones should accept army orders “no matter what his personal feelings are. We all have a job to do these days and that personal ideals should be laid to one side until that job is done.” That is to say, Jones should expect to see duty in Europe.
Jones was sent to the stockade for a short time then moved to the neuropsychiatric ward for observation. Dr. Howard E. Roberts of the Medical Corps made these notes on June 1 about his interview with Jones: “Feels he had done his share and wants out to write because of intense desire to express himself. Says if he gets ordered overseas again he will commit suicide but the world will be the loser by missing his writing. Patient feels depressed mostly but has brief spells of elation. Sometimes he feels he stands outside of his body and see himself as an actor in a play. He has disturbed dreams and is bothered by memories of combat, blood, stench of death and hardships. Feels it was valuable to him tho as background for his writing.”
Dr. Roberts at first diagnosed “acute depression,” but after observing Jones’s “mood swings, compulsive behavior and some schizoid characteristics,” he also diagnosed psychoneurosis, mixed anxiety and compulsive types with schizoid trends.
Jones wrote to his brother Jeff on June 3 about his interview with Dr. Roberts. Jones thought he wasn’t believed when he said he would kill himself if ordered overseas again. If I don’t get out of the army, he wrote, “I’ll either go mad or turn into a criminal – which is just next door to a writer anyway; that all I want to do is write and that nobody and no thing means anything to me except writing.”
Lowney played on Captain Mailloux’s sympathy for Jones. She wrote him on June 10, 1944 saying she hoped he would continue to help her: “I agree with your statement that Pvt. Jones would be a tough job for somebody. And since you are convinced that I am the person to undertake it will do everything I possibly can. I am most anxious to work with you, since you are willing to see that he gets every opportunity as long as he is not favored above the group.” Lowney was going to be in Kentucky later in the week and hoped to talk with Captain Mailloux. She probably did see him. She did see Jones, and she undoubtedly gave him advice on how to present himself to Dr. Roberts and the Medical Board.
Captain Mailloux had also written to Jones’s brother, Jeff, and Jeff was then interviewed by a social worker. The social worker reported that Jeff believed his brother was a man of principle and honor but too much the individualist to fit into the army.
Captain Mailloux was away from Camp Campbell for a short time and Lt. Fred F. De Palma wrote Lowney on June 21, 1944, that he had seen Pvt. Jones in the Station Hospital the day before and he was dismissing the court-martial against Jones, allowing the Medical Board of Officers, meeting that night, to review the case and render a decision. De Palma had good news: “It’s almost a certainty that Jones will be discharged.” He continued, “The boy seemed to be relieved.”
Lt. De Palma assured Lowney that Captain Mailloux “probably exhausted every opportunity in helping out Jones.” De Palma had written to the captain the night before to bring him up-to-date on the Jones matter. De Palma wrote, “It’s just as he planned it.” The captain had changed his mind; his original view was that Jones should be sent to Europe.
Captain Mailloux still being absent, Lt. De Palma wrote Lowney on June 26, 1944: “It’s happened. Jones is now Jimmy. The only time he’ll see private is on a swinging door. We got his records completed here as soon as possible and transferred to the casual company that actually does the discharging.” The certificate of disability stated that at the time of enlistment Jones’s psychoneurosis was not in existence, and since it was not fault of his own he should be discharged “for disability in line of duty, and not due to his own misconduct.” Jones received an honorable discharge on July 6, 1944. Lowney claimed credit for the discharge. She did help change the captain’s mind.
For Jones’s wounding & transfer to Memphis, see MacShane, Into Eternity, pp. 54-62.
For Jones’s first AWOL and his meeting with Lowney Handy see A.B.C. Whipple, “James Jones and His Angel,” Life, May 7, 1951, pp. 142, 144, 147, 149, 150, 152, 154, 157. Jones wrote about his going AWOL and meeting Lowney in They Shall Inherit the Laughter; those chapters are included in To the End of War, ed. by George Hendrick. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, pp. 25-107.
For Jones on Lowney as his disciple, see To Reach Eternity, page 37. For Jones’s behavioral problems in Robinson while AWOL, and with his differences with his Uncle Charles, see To the End of the War, pp. 69-107, 147-150 & MacShane, Into Eternity, pp. 61-70.
For Jones’s writing before going AWOL for the 3rd time, see To Reach Eternity, p. 43.
The letter of Lowney Handy to Captain Mailloux, June 2, 1944, is from Archives/Special Collections, University of Illinois at Springfield.
Captain Mailloux to Lowney Handy, June 7, 1944; Mrs. Lowney Handy to Captain Mailloux, June 10, 1944; Lt. Fred F. De Palma to Lowney Handy, June 21, 1944; and Lt. De Palma to Lowney Handy, June 26, 1944, are from Archives/Special Collections, University of Illinois at Springfield. Dr. Roberts’s notes on James Jones are from Frank MacShane, Into Eternity, pp. 68-70.
For Dr. Roberts’s psychiatric report on Jones, see MacShane, Into Eternity, p. 69.