Americans observe Memorial Day this year on May 27, a time set aside to remember U.S. soldiers who died in battle. Author and journalist James Brady experienced combat first hand as a U.S. Marine in the Korean War. He's drawn on that experience to write both fiction and non-fiction about the Marine Corps, including a best selling novel called The Marines of Autumn. He recently visited the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Virginia to talk about his latest book,Warning of War.
James Brady was a 19-year-old getting ready to go off to war when he first arrived at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. He returned half a century later as the best selling author of fourteen books, including three about the Marines. How did it feel to be back?
"Coming to Quantico is like coming home," he said. "I was a kid here, a college boy, and it prepared me to go to war. I'd love to be able to spend a couple of days not signing books and making speeches but just wandering around and seeing how many places I remember: the old barracks, the rifle range and the places out in the boondocks where we carried packs and rifles and ran around sweating and being bitten by mosquitoes. Oh, it was wonderful fun. It was all that good stuff that Marines do."
James Brady was invited to Quantico by Walt Ford, who edits Leatherneck, the Marine Corps magazine. He says James Brady's writing captures what it's really like to be a Marine. "It's real because he was a Marine," he explained. "He uses terms that we use, that we understand, that we recognize, and he describes his characters so well. He can really spin a yarn."
While James Brady's two earlier Marine Corps books are set in Korea, Warning of War is a World War II era story about the Fourth Marine Regiment in China. But James Brady emphasized it too grew out of his service in the Korean War.
"When I was in Korea in 1951-52, there were a lot of Marines around who had served in North China and Shanghai in the 1930s," he recalled. "And they told these wonderful stories. The Marines had been in China since the Boxer Rebellion. They protected the legations and the consulates and the American Embassy at what was then Peking. And they had a cool but at least avery respectful relationship with the Japanese who were occupying those Chinese coastal cities at that time. There were still a thousand Marines there when we got into World War II, and they were ordered by President Roosevelt to get out. And so the Marines did pull out, and this is the story of the few Marines who got left behind, and what happened to them."
Mixing historical and imaginary characters, Warning of War describes how a fictitious Marine captain named Billy Port engineers a daring escape through the Great Wall of China, across the Gobi Desert and into Siberia. He leads a small group that includes not only Marines, but an exiled Russian general and a former French race car driver. With the Japanese in pursuit, they overcome a host of challenges.
"You had Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist army that was fighting the Japanese," said James Brady. "And Chiang was also fighting Mao Tse Tung's army which was the Communist force, and the Communists were also fighting the Japanese, and here in the middle of it we have a handful of American Marines trying desperately to get out. And they encounter war lords and brigands and gangs. They have to cross terrible country, mountains and desert, and the snow starts falling, and the winter wind out of Siberia starts howling. And these poor guys are traveling across country by truck. But Marines are very inventive fellows, and they did okay."
James Brady drew on his own memories of combat during the cold Korean winters to write his story. He also relied on histories of the Marines in China and on first person accounts.
"A lot of it came from China-side Marines who knew I was working on the book and wrote me these long, wonderful, rambling letters [saying'] 'I'll never forget when I first went ashore in China - the smell, I can smell that smell now, part manure, part sweet honey, part this, part that.' Well you can't get that of history books. You've got to get it from people who were actually there and lived that life."
James Brady is now working on another book about the Marines in Korea. It will be published next year, which marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Korean War armistice. He hopes his books help fill what he sees as a gap in America's war literature:
"World War I gave us Ernest Hemingway and All Quiet on the Western Front and What Price Glory. World War II gave us hundreds of movies and it gave us Mister Roberts and From Here to Eternity, explained Mr. Brady. " And Vietnam is a cottage industry with books and television shows and movies. There's very little about Korea, and I think there is an appetite out there for people to know more about Korea, so that it won't be as forgotten a war as is sometimes said."
James Brady's stories have gotten an enthusiastic response from Korean War veterans. Retired Marine Roger Barnard came to Quantico to hear the author talk about his books, and relive part of his own past. "Jim Brady was a staff platoon commander in our basics school and he's very accurate in the re-telling of these stories," he said. "And he writes about folks that I either remember or they're like people I remember. And that's what makes it enjoyable."
James Brady has written books on a range of other topics, and he's a columnist for Parade magazine and Advertising Age. But he says the Marine Corps remains a favorite subject for him: "I was formed by the Marines. It was a second education after going to college," he said. "The wonderful settings, and the travel, and the gloriously colorful characters that populate the Marine Corps, and the strong bond between Marines - all of those corny things, they really exist in the Marine Corps. And so it's marvelous grist for the mill if you're a writer, and I happen to have lived it."
James Brady is the author of Warning of War, a new novel about the U.S. Marines in China during the early days of World War II.
Warning of War was published by Dunne Books.