A Conversation with Rachel S. Cox
author of Into Dust and Fire
What inspired you to look back at your family history and write the story of your uncle Rob Cox and the four other young Americans who joined the British army in 1941?
My father was one of five remarkable brothers in a large, tight-knit family. They were kind and funny and smart and enjoyed children, and I grew up half in love with all of them. The most famous was the Watergate Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, whom we called Uncle Bill. The most fascinating was the one I never met, my Uncle Robbie, who had been killed in the war. My grandmother’s house contained mementos and photographs that amounted, I suppose, to a modest sort of household shrine. The largest photograph, taken when he was training in England, made him look like a movie star—every girl’s dream of heroic manhood.
In 2007 I had been working on a food memoir, and while I like to think I was at the forefront of a publishing trend, the agents and editors I met with couldn’t quite grasp the importance of a WASP food memoir. Most assumed it would be a hilarious satire, but the situation wasn’t really that funny. It dawned on me that I might find richer material by looking just a tiny bit further afield, and when I floated the idea of a World War II saga about the first Americans to fight the Nazis, I met with much greater encouragement.
When did you know that you had a book on your hands?
Growing up, we all knew that Uncle Robbie had gone to war ahead of the other Americans, and that he’d been killed in 1943 in North Africa, but not much more than that. At first I poked around fairly casually, just trying to determine whether he was in fact “first,” to learn more about the other volunteers, and to see if enough information existed to reconstruct an interesting story. In journalism, one eventually gains an instinct for knowing when a story will be hard to wrangle into meaningful shape. In this case, the way forward just kept opening and opening. The story went well beyond the young Americans’ firstness. Three of the five had thought of themselves as writers, and they left behind a detailed written record. Not just a war saga, theirs is also a dramatic kind of coming-of-age story, and the five Yanks, as they were known in England, proved hugely engaging as they told their own story in their letters and diaries.
Were they indeed the first to fight?
I can’t say that they were the first Americans to fight the Nazi Wehrmacht; that honor belongs to the brave American flyers who joined in the Battle of Britain. Nor were they the very first to encounter German ground forces; fifty US Rangers took part in the disastrous Dieppe raid on the French coast in August 1942. But they certainly went first in that they joined, more than six months before their own country went to war, the only military forces actively engaged at that time in combat. In May 1941, when the five Yanks joined up, Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations stood alone against the Axis.
This must have been quite an unusual arrangement. How was it possible?
By May 1941 the U. S. Government had backed away from enforcing the Neutrality Act that made it illegal to fight under a foreign flag, but there still existed the risk of sacrificing American citizenship, and the set-up was indeed unusual, especially as the American volunteers would be commissioned as officers.
What made it possible was a coincidence of personalities. The British powers-that-be were at that time all but desperate to bring Americans onto the battlefield. In early 1941 a colonel commandant of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, a gentleman partial to jodhpurs named Sir Hereward Wake, met a Bostonian named Kenneth Howard who was in England investigating the establishment of a Home Guard with a Massachusetts delegation. I believe they came up with the idea, justifying it on the grounds that the KRRC originally was raised in the American colonies and called the Royal Americans. Wake found sympathetic support from the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, who served with the regiment in World War I, and from his good friend the American Ambassador, John Gilbert Winant. Between the two of them, they were able to grease the skids, so to speak, and make it happen. Winant became a great friend of the Yanks, whom he called his five musketeers. In time, a total of eighteen Americans would serve as officers of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
What impressed you most about your five characters—Cox, Bolté, Brister, Durkee, and Cutting?
They had a great many admirable traits, beginning of course with their courage. But they also were self-aware in a very modern way. They very consciously put their lives on the line for their convictions. They were intelligent, well read, articulate, charming, and funny, and they had a deep and open curiosity about the world.
What I admired most, though, was their seriousness of purpose. With the exception of Heyward Cutting, who was only nineteen, they all were about to graduate from college—Bolté, Brister, and Durkee from Dartmouth and Cox from Harvard, where Cutting was a sophomore. They could expect to lead comfortable and successful lives if they stayed home, but they took it for granted not only that their lives should matter, but also that if they chose wisely, they could make a difference. They were not governed by self-interest, nor discouraged by cynicism; the point of life was to improve the world, not to feather their own nests. It’s a kind of altruism that we hear about frequently but don’t often see put into practice so dramatically.
What else motivated them to take such drastic action?
This question is, of course, at the heart of my book. Each young man’s situation and personality were different, so apart from their shared patriotism and determination to do what was right, their motives varied. My uncle felt sure he was about to be drafted, but America still hung back from the war, and he wanted to see action. I would argue, too, that he was accustomed to being a leader, happy to live among men, and happiest when he was part of a team. It may sound trite, but he also had a strong need for physical activity. Chuck Bolté had led the interventionist movement at Dartmouth and, as an editor of the college newspaper had committed himself to joining up as soon as possible. Jack Brister, who also intended to be a professional writer, was fascinated by every aspect of the human experience and wanted to learn all he could. Bill Durkee was an incisive thinker about economics, politics, and history and, perhaps more than any of them, foresaw the disaster that an Axis victory would have entailed. Heyward Cutting had been born in New York but he was raised in England. He surely felt compelled to join his beleaguered friends in their hour of peril. This is not to say that there wasn’t an element of adventure-seeking, too. I think they all sensed that the war in Europe would be the defining event of their generation, and they wanted to be part of it.
How did their ideas about war change after they experienced the discomforts and cruelties of combat?
In my uncle’s early letters, he talks about war as if it were the most wonderfully amusing of boys’ games. When they are training in England, this makes some sense. They got to chase each other around the countryside in trucks, radioing commands to each other. They rode motorcycles. They camped out. But that all changed when they reached the front line in Egypt and began to see their comrades being wounded and killed. That experience strengthened their resolve to fight on and reinforced their sense of mutual responsibility, even love. Remarkably, they never lost their idealism.
The library of books about World War II is already very large. What does Into Dust and Fire contribute that’s new?
For starters, it’s “boots on the ground” in a way that I haven’t encountered elsewhere except in novels. I consider the great historical figures—Prime Minister Churchill, General Montgomery, Field Marshal Rommel—only as their actions and motivations affected the fighting men. What’s more, the quantity and quality of primary sources allowed an unusually intimate view of how young men become soldiers, of what it was like to cross the Atlantic in convoy, to discover England just after the Blitz in summer 1941, to endure the trials and savor the rewards of military training, to worry about your girl back home or find new love in England or Cape Town, to travel by sea around all of Africa to Egypt because the Nazis controlled the Med, to adapt to the rigors and savor the camaraderie of life in the desert, and to confront at last the true meaning of military action. I could go on and on.
In America, the North African campaign is less well known than it is in Britain, except perhaps among aficionados of tank warfare. Yet the seesawing struggle between Rommel’s panzerarmee and the British Desert Rats was crucial to the war’s overall progress. Here the Brits finally began to learn the lessons of all-forces, mobilized warfare, and the five Yanks were right there as they did. The Battle of El Alamein, where the five American British soldiers first saw serious combat, was a turning point of the war. Winston Churchill said, “Before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.” This isn’t true, but it reflects the sea change that occurred in British morale and momentum, and the five Yanks were part of that. Without denigrating the crucial importance of American and Soviet contributions to the ultimate triumph, their experience illuminates how the British army turned defeat into victory. How they learned from their mistakes, recalibrated their tactics, and turned the tide in North Africa is an important, fascinating, and often overlooked part of the story.
You describe yourself in the acknowledgments as a journalist, not a military historian. How do you think that affected your work?
I discovered how thrilling it is to pursue a trail of historical evidence, and I hope that excitement comes through in the writing. The moment when I found the first trace of my uncle in the public record, the first piece of historical evidence validating my family story, was utterly thrilling. From the computer files of The Times of London, 1941, emerged a photo of my uncle in conversation with the American Ambassador, Gil Winant, and British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. I was amazed. For a moment he seemed alive again. Then came the excitement of revelation. I had imagined my uncle’s journey as one long, arduous struggle to do the right thing. But the man in the picture was clearly having the time of his life!
I came to this project as a child of the Sixties, skeptical about the necessity of war, cynical about national motives, and fairly certain that the pain and misery involved outweighed in importance almost any other elements—all colored by a predisposition, common to the Cox family, for moral outrage. I remembered Doris Lessing’s eye-opening assertion in one of her science fiction novels that men in fact enjoy going to war. That at least explained why we keep fighting wars. I read quite a lot on war and culture—what purposes it serves beyond just the political gains that go along with winning battles and the ways that society recasts the reality of war to support those purposes, using notions of heroism, American exceptionalism, moral necessity to make palatable the personal catastrophes that war entails. World War II was of course a necessary war, so I was eager to test my pacifist tendencies against the historical realities.
That said, I had a great deal to learn—military history has its own vocabulary and, like any academic discipline, many unarticulated assumptions. I had to master those in order to descry my real subject: the day-to-day experience of five American officers as they trained and fought with a foreign army at a critical moment in history. I was less interested in strategy and tactics than in what it was like for them day to day. So many war books dwell on the what-ifs and should-haves of tactics and strategy. I wanted to illuminate what happened and why by examining in detail the experiences of five particular individuals who, to borrow Christopher Hitchens’s words, yoked themselves to the great steam engine of history.
Fortunately, in addition to reading a great many of the other books in the library, I found patient, well-informed guides to the arcana of military history. And it helped a great deal to be able to see for myself the scenes of the action in England, South Africa, Egypt, and Tunisia. I became the first member of my family to visit my uncle’s grave.
Do you think these young men still have something to tell us?
I think often about the great hopes that sustained not only the five “Yanks,” but also many of their British comrades as they trained and fought—hopes for a more equitable and peaceful world. Charles Bolté devoted his life to promoting that vision, as did Bill Durkee in a different way. That after the war these hopes would be so often overwhelmed and displaced by fear of communism is, to me, one of the fascinating tragedies of post-war history.