Earlier this summer, we were called to help clean the books out an estate here in York. There were hundreds and hundreds of paperbacks involved; nearly 600 as I recall.
In the heat of battle, as it were, you don’t stop and examine every book in detail. There simply isn’t time. Often we’re one of the last calls, and when we get there we’re informed that everything has got to be out in just a few days, so it is either us or the dumpster. And if the book isn’t falling apart, it goes into the box to be sorted out later.
Such was the case with this estate. When I did finally get around to going through the boxes I came across a rather interesting novel, published in 1965, The Dead Are Mine by James E. Ross.
It is the story of a combat man, a sergeant of the regular army during World War II; specifically during the action at the Anzio beachhead during the early months of 1944. That was a particularly brutal period of the war, and this is a particularly brutal book about the everyday life and duties of a grave registration squad. It was their job to pick-up the bodies, German as well as American, and deliver them to the cemeteries for internment.
The Dead Are Mine is an extremely well written book. Originally published by David McKay Company, Inc. in 1963, the paperback edition from the estate (Cardinal #50075) was published in 1965. As far as I can determine, there was only one printing of each edition.
It tells a bleak and depressing story. And it has the ring of authority, with the sort of detail and color that doesn’t come from sterile research. Unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example (who never saw a plantation nor had met a slave prior to writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin), it was clear to me that Mr. Ross had seen this side of the war.
Which led me to wonder what else he had written. The answer, apparently, is nothing. Searches on various online databases only made reference to this one book. And there is virtually no biographical information available at all. There was one reference, however, to a story about him published in the December 3, 1963 edition of Life magazine.
Finding an old issue of Life isn’t that big a problem, if you happen to be in the used book business. One of the fringe benefits of the business is that I often come in contact with old issues of magazines. And this past Tuesday, while visiting yet another estate, the issue presented itself. And there was the article, buried deep (page 110) within.
It turns out that Mr. Ross wasn’t a particularly nice man. The article was written because the book was just being published. He was 43 at the time, and had spent 20 of those 43 years in prison for a variety of reasons. He was a pool hustler, a con man, a thief and a murderer. As a sideline, he was also an alcoholic and borderline drug addict. He wrote the book in his cell, on a dare.
The book really was his story.
He was in the army, as a sergeant, and he was at Anzio. As punishment for deserting the battlefield, he had been assigned to pick-up bodies and deliver them to the cemetery at the beachhead. There is no black humor here, as there is in Catch 22, or in Bill Mauldin’s Willy and Joe cartoons. There is no we’ll-get-through-this-togetherness, as there is in Audie Murphy’s To Hell And Back. But there is detail and color--the mud and the slime, the bleak occurrences, the descriptions of newly-dead bodies and mangled body parts and wounds and bloody, burned uniforms and the aftermath of sudden and violent death. And the outlook of a short and bleak future with no end, other than the very real probability of adding yet another body to the pile, in sight.
Mr. Ross’ descriptions were accurate because they were real. He had seen and experienced them all firsthand. There was little that came from his imagination; most of it just came from his memory. And the man had a talent for putting it all down on paper in vivid and horrible detail.
I don’t know what happened to Mr. Ross; I can find nothing more recent than that one article. He may be living still, perhaps in a prison cell. If he is, he would be close to 90 now.
Life said an agent was attempting to sell the book to a movie studio, but no movie was ever made. Life also said that Mr. Ross was working on a second novel, but if that was ever finished it was never published.
But I do know that, if he did nothing else, Mr. Ross delivered one truly remarkable book. Maybe that was enough.