Interviewing Winston Groom is not really an interview. It is a genial conversation filled with witty asides and delicious anecdotes delivered in a honeyed Southern accent by a master storyteller from his home in Point Clear, Alabama.
Celebrated for his iconic novel, Forrest Gump, the 72-year-old author, historian, and journalist talks about his 20th book, The Generals, a compelling work of nonfiction encompassing the lives of three extraordinary men: Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, and George C. Marshall.
Groom’s exhaustive account takes this legendary trio from their early years at military academies, through the gruesome battlefields of two world wars and the Korean War, and then into later life. Along the way, the author takes time to reveal his subjects’ egos and peccadilloes—there are amusing stories about various mistresses and petty jealousies—as well as their all-consuming drive to fight a war and win. Groom chronicles MacArthur’s flamboyance and skyscraping vanity, “Blood and Guts” Patton’s paranoia and bombastic style, and the reserve and self-discipline of Marshall, the nation’s top military strategist, who planned and oversaw the campaigns in both the Atlantic and Pacific.
Their lives were intertwined and, as the author notes, “They were the most colorful, interesting characters to come out of the Second World War.”
In the book you seem to have a special affection for the Pacific. Does that stem from your years in Vietnam?
I expect it does. I went over there on a troopship like they did in World War II, and I was in the Army, and I was in a war.
I first was interested in fiction in the great war novels of WWII, and I had the distinct honor to know those guys—James Jones, who wrote From Here to Eternity, Irwin Shaw, who wrote The Young Lions, Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote several pieces, Joseph Heller, who wrote Catch-22. They were neighbors of mine in the Hamptons, and friends.
They inspired you?
They sure did. I had read their books long before I met them, and to know these guys on a very personal level was a real treat for a young novelist who was trying to collect his thoughts for his first book.
Were any of them your mentors?
Well, Jim Jones, actually a couple of times I went to him with just stylistic questions. He really was probably the best craftsman, and he taught me some literary devices and things that I probably would have picked up sooner or later but I picked them up sooner with him.
I had undying appreciation, but we’d meet every day for lunch at Bobby Van’s restaurant out there. Truman Capote and Willy Morris and Irwin, it was a regular crowd.
Sounds very liquid.
Sometimes it could be, but I had to go back and write. I’d save that part for the evenings.
In The Generals you have written three narratives in one. How did you pull it together?
When I wrote The Aviators, I had three characters [Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, and Charles Lindbergh], and there’s a certain literary balance to that I found interesting. In this case I wanted to do the best-known generals, and of course that would have included Eisenhower. And that would have left me in kind of a pickle, because I also wanted to do George Marshall, who was behind the whole thing and had spent a great deal of time during the war trying to keep the other two characters, Patton and MacArthur, out of trouble. I needed somebody in the Pacific. That was obviously MacArthur. And somebody in Europe and North Africa, and that was Patton, and Marshall in between trying to keep them from imploding. They all knew each other. They were all WWI hero soldiers who went on to do their greatest things in WWII.
Of the three, Marshall seems the most commendable, because he was in Washington overseeing everything.
I agree. Marshall had no great ego like Patton and MacArthur, but he certainly wanted to be in the actual fighting. But all his career his organizational skills had kept him away from that—he could have appointed himself to the European war but he didn’t do it.
He made a great personal sacrifice for that. Being a professional soldier, your job is to kill people and fight. I don’t mean that in an ugly way. But it’s what you train for, it’s like a racehorse, you put him out to pasture, you know he doesn’t know what to do.
You seem to admire MacArthur.
Well, yes, but of all three of them, the guy I’d like to sit down and have a beer with would be Patton. On the other hand, MacArthur would have been fascinating, as would George Marshall. They were, I hate to use words like larger than life because I think that’s overused, but they were big, stirring figures. I don’t really think that there’s a favorite.
Why would you like to sit down with Patton?
He was a great student of history, both ancient and modern, and he was a great warrior. He was fearless, absolutely fearless. Because of his insecurities, what you saw with Patton was this great facade of a warrior—underneath he thought he was a cowardly lion. He’s not really cowardly, but he liked to prove himself and he almost got himself killed proving it at the start of WWI.
One time he and MacArthur met on the battlefield in the midst of a battle in WWI and it was a rolling barrage from his own guns, it was headed towards them and both of them stood there talking to each other because neither of them wanted to be the first to duck.
One story you tell that really stood out dealt with one of the most famous men in the world—Charles Lindbergh. He was an extreme isolationist before the war who was decorated by the Germans, yet he was flying missions in the Pacific. No one had told MacArthur, and he had no idea Lindbergh was there.
Lindbergh had been a colonel in the Army before the war, and because of his isolationism Roosevelt would not give him his commission back. So Lindbergh wound up being a technician for Henry Ford, who was the only person Roosevelt couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stand up to. At some point Lindbergh says to Ford, “Look, I can’t test these planes anymore sitting here in Detroit. I need to go out and see what they are like in battle.” So that’s what he did. By the time MacArthur found out, Lindbergh had figured out a way to add another 600 miles by fooling with the fuel mixture for P-38 fighter planes, which was a godsend.
Didn’t he also fly combat missions?
He did. He shot down a Jap Zero. He shot up a bunch of enemy barges. He flew more combat missions than were required by the army pilots—close to 50 missions.
To prove that he was a patriot?
When the war broke out, all isolationism goes away. That was his attitude. He wanted to get into the fight immediately.
It does seem like a dichotomy, but Lindbergh was always a patriot.
What was the cruelest battle you’ve written about?
The cruelest thing I ever came across was the Bataan Death March, the treatment of the prisoners of war by the Japanese, that was just a most horrific thing that has happened in any war, for sheer bestiality. I mean, when you take prisoners, at least the way we were taught about it, they become your charges, you have to take care of them. And these Japanese just killed them, they enjoyed it, laughed at it, so much there is no doubt about the horror of it.
Let’s talk about Forrest Gump, your fifth book.
I’m pretty sure it was my fifth book.
I wrote it in a very short period of time. I think it was like four months, five months—novels take at least a year. I sent it to Willy Morris, who at that time was the writer in residence at Ole Miss, and about two weeks later I got a phone call about 2:30 in the morning, which is his favorite time to talk. I picked up the phone and said, “Hello Willy.” He said, “Don’t change a word.” I sent it to my agent, he loved it and sold it to the movies.
You’ve said you were flabbergasted by the reaction to the movie.
Well, yeah, everybody was, including the studio. Everybody knew it was going to be big. But even Tom Hanks said nobody knew it was going to be this big. For its time it was a very big show.
It still is.
Yes, they just re-released it this past year to these IMAX theaters.
Every writer hopes to have a big profitable best-seller, but very few do. I was very comfortable going on as I was, but this was just a bolt out of the blue. Astonishing and very welcome.
Over the years it must have been a real money machine.
Oh yes, it’s like having an annuity.
I’m a remittance man—the old expression for people who had annuities.
Did you go out and buy a Ferrari or anything?
No, I bought a place up in the mountains of North Carolina, which was sort of extravagant, and as I like to tell people, I needed a new suit and I wanted a Winchester Grand American double barrel shotgun, and I got both of them.
Believe it or not, The Admirals—William “Bull” Halsey, Raymond Spruance, and Clifton Sprague, who was probably the bravest of all of them. He almost single-handedly won the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which is the biggest naval engagement in history.
Your nonfiction is mostly military history.
Yes, I’ve done the Civil War, I’ve done World War I, I’ve done World War II, I’ve done the Mexican-American War, which was just bought for the movies.
What I try to do is to write about the personalities and the whole scene back in those days. That to me is what history is about. I try to—for want of a better word—educate people, make them enthusiastic about learning about these things. I think I bring a kind of freshness to it because I’m not a professional academic historian who’s been teaching these things for 40 years. I’m coming to it fairly cold, and I do that on purpose so that I learn it and get enthusiastic about it. I can impart it to readers with the background of a novelist. I can put in pictures comfortably.
Are you still a journalist?
Yes, you never lose that. My godfather had been the city editor at the Washington Star many years ago and he told me, “Once you get it in your blood, if you see a fire you’ll stop.”
You still stop for fires?