SF Writers At War

Heinlein, De Camp, and Asimov in 1944 at the Navy Yard

In 1942  three of the country’s leading SF writers – Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Sprague De Camp – all started working together at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.    The US had just entered WW II, and everyone wanted to contribute.  Heinlein and De Camp were too old and too unfit to fight, and Asimov hated the getting-shot-and-dying part, but they still wanted to chip in.   They were three of the most imaginative people in the country, so what did the Navy actually have them doing?

Paul Malmont has just written a fun novel exploring just that question: “The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown”.   It centers on these three, but throws in the unpleasant L. Ron Hubbard, the actively nasty John Whitesides Parsons (a rocket pioneer and satanist), the mysterious Walter Gibson (creator of The Shadow), and an extremely elderly Nikola Tesla.    There’s a secret that Tesla has been hiding for decades, a secret involving his last great effort,  the Wardenclyffe Tower, an aborted beam-energy system that he built at Shoreham, Long Island.  Our heroes will learn the truth of it, and get involved with the Philadelphia Experiment, the Japanese attack on the Aleutians, and the one Nazi landing in the US.  It’s a ripping yarn, and nicely blends together most of what’s known about these people and their time.

But what did these three actually do during the war?  I couldn’t find anything about this on-line, and so looked at the autobiographies of Asimov (“In Memory Yet Green”) and De Camp (“Time and Chance”), and a detailed bio “Robert A. Heinlein” by William Patterson.   The reality of their activities is pretty mundane, of course.  The only one who got close to adventure was Asimov, and he managed to wriggle out of it in time.  As best as I can tell, here’s what they each did during the war:

Heinlein – had graduated from Annapolis and been an officer, but was forced by tuberculosis to leave his beloved Navy in 1934.   He started writing SF in 1939, and by 1942 was the leading SF writer in the country, with stories like “Life-line”, “Requiem”, “Waldo” and “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.”  Ignore his later odd and cranky novels – this was prime stuff.  He was desperate to get involved in the war, but couldn’t get back into the Navy.  He settled for managing a materials testing laboratory at the Naval Air Experimental Station at the Yard.  His most direct contribution was in discussions of how to merge data from sonar, radar, and visual sightings with his friend Cal Laning, who captained a destroyer in the Pacific and was later a rear admiral.  Laning used those ideas to good effect in the battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the largest naval battle ever fought.  As described in the novel, Heinlein did head something called the Kamikaze Group, but it was informal and didn’t get anywhere.  That’s not surprising – to this day no one knows how to stop guided missiles, be they human or robot-directed.   He did come out with a report on plexiglas radome covers (which tend to shatter when hit with bullets), but it was too late to affect production.  The war in the US only lasted for about 3 ½ years, which was hardly time to fix anything.  The biggest consequence to him of his war work was meeting the love of his life, Virgina Gerstenfeld, who was a rare female engineer at the lab.  He divorced his second wife, Leslyn MacDonald, in 1947, and married her a year later.

Asimov – was also already a significant author by 1942, even though he was only 22.  He had already published “Nightfall”, which the SFWA voted as the best short story published before the existence of the Nebulas in 1965.  He was doing graduate work in chemistry at Columbia when the war came to the US, and was dragooned into the Navy work by Heinlein.  That and a quick and unsuitable marriage were a good way to avoid the draft.   He was mainly involved in testing materials.  E.g. he would test how waterproof a plastic was by filling a bowl with a water-absorbing chemical like calcium carbonate, sealing the bowl with the plastic film to be tested, and then placing it in a heated, high-humidity oven.  He would then weigh it to see if any vapor had gotten through the film and been absorbed.    He also looked at sealants for aircraft joints, testing if they maintained elasticity under heat, cold, and sunlight, and at dye markers for airmen downed at sea.  These were tubes of fluorescent chemicals that would form a big green patch on the water around the guy in his life jacket.  The patch could be seen by searching aircraft.  He did actually go up in a plane to test their efficacy, which was one of  two times in his life that he ever flew.

He did finally get drafted in 1945.  He did the usual basic training, and then he and some other chemists were sent to the Pacific to take part in Operation Crossroads, the first post-war test of an atomic bomb.  This terrified him.  Even though tens of thousands of other people would also be observing the test, and they’d be watching from at least ten miles away, he wanted nothing to do with it.  He wrote a letter to the American Chemical Society and managed to get himself excused.  Myself, I would have wanted to see the device that was likely to destroy the world.   I’m rather disappointed that Asimov, a man who was interested in everything, wasn’t curious about this, dangerous though it might have been.   He returned to New York after that, and took up his dual career of writing and biochemistry.

De Camp – may not be as familiar a name as the other two, but he was a writer of great charm.   His best known work is “Lest Darkness Fall” (1939), where a 20th century man manages goes back in time to prevent the fall of Rome.  My favorite is “The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate” (1968) where a Persian warrior and a Greek philosopher attempt to find the heart of a dragon at the head of the Nile in the time of King Xerxes.

He actually got degrees in aeronautical engineering from Caltech and Stevens.   Of the three, he came closest to actually doing something useful.  He was ordered to find out why the trimtab controls on the new Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter planes tended to lock up at high altitude.   He found that the lubricant on the universal joints between the cockpit control and the trimtabs got sticky at low temperature.  The answer was to use a bigger handwheel with more mechanical advantage to drive the control.   It’s not clear, though, that this simple fix ever made it back to the factory – again, the war just wasn’t long enough.  In 1944 he was taken off of engineering and put on a committee that was supposed to act on employee suggestions.  It turned out to be a waste of time, and he managed to get it abolished.  He quite proud of that, since it’s a rare bureaucrat who organizes his own job out of existence.

Of the three of them, I think he had the best post-war life.   He maintained a steady output of fun novels and histories, traveled and socialized extensively, became an expert in interesting subjects like Greco-Roman technology, and had a successful family.  Much of the credit goes to his wife, Catherine Crook De Camp, who was also a collaborator on many of his books.   Heinlein and Asimov had better careers, but they both had bad divorces, and I doubt they were as happy.

In any event, here they all are, including Catherine, 30 years later at a Nebula Awards banquet in 1975:

Heinlein, Sprague and Catherine De Camp, Asimov in 1975. Photo by Jay Klein

In spite of wildly different politics, styles, and careers, their war work together seems to have kept them on great terms.  Maybe they didn’t make destroyers disappear or recreate the Tunguska Event, as in Malmont’s novel, but they did some good stuff.

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4 Responses to SF Writers At War

  1. JJ Brannon says:

    I ordered the novel in August with high hopes and experienced such an anti-WSoD whiplash by the end of the subterranean river sequence that it remains one of the few novels I have not finished.

    Then again, I’d met Asimov, the de Camps, and communicated with Virginia Heinlein [in fact, my letter to her upon Robert’s death inspired the dedication to Grumbles from the Grave.

    Likely someone unfamiliar with the protagonists or could persuade oneself that it was an alternative universe could enjoy the book, but for me it just pealed of sloppy writing.

    **General** Buddy Scoles?? In charge of a Naval installation? Who seemed to barely know and was slightly dismissive of Heinlein? Or a Heinlein who was bothered by Campbell’s smoking when RAH himself smoked? Or Sprague, that Compleat Gentleman, ragging Asimov with “Ike”? Even the Walter Gibson character seemed to be more pessimistic than the actual man.

    Almost every paragraph displayed such infelicities. I know I won’t ever be buying another Malmont.


    • jlredford says:

      How wonderful that you actually met all these giants! The closest I ever came was when Heinlein was the GOH at MidAmericaCon in 1976. He was constantly surrounded by a 5-deep crowd of fans, so I didn’t get to shake his hand. He had just come off of a difficult surgery, so he established a firm rule – he would only talk to people who could prove they had given blood by showing a donor card. That still didn’t thin out the crowd!

      It’s too bad that you didn’t like the Malmont book. He may have been inaccurate, but he was generous to these characters, especially to Asimov. I also found his earlier one, “The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril”, to be a lot of pulpish fun.

  2. JJ Brannon says:

    The strangest thing was that was one of three Tesla-Tunguska novels I read recently, the others being Hard Magic by Larry Correia [Book 1 of the Grimoire Chronicles] and Goliath by Scott Westerfeld, Book 3 of the Leviathan Trilogy].

    Something must’ve been in the air last year.

    Anti-Willing-Suspension-of-Disbelief events tumbling one out of a book can be for any personal reason. I nearly gave up on Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking because of the ban on geneticists due to the Tomato Plague before I gleaned her ulterior motive. I told her in an email that she almost snookered me except for the surreptitious mention of a Nobel Laureates photo of Crick, Watson & Franklin together. When I insisted she ‘fess up that she had been a bio major, she did. No one who went out of her way to sneak in a fix for the historic Nobel oversight of Franklin could have been otherwise.

    I did finish David Wiltse’s The Wedding Guest thriller, urged on me by his fan my aunt, despite the prologue where the Minister of Finance of Iran is murdered toward the close of the Iranian Revolution in 1978/9, but my skepticism dogged every page. The Minister of Finance of Iran safely escaped to US. I believe he was an uncle of a classmate of mine.


  3. Pingback: L. Ron Hubbard, Robert Heinlein and the Kamikaze Group Think Tank – Not So “Nothing” After All? | The McClaughry's Blog

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