War continued in Europe, America joined, and a call went out for Americans to volunteer as ambulance drivers for the American Red Cross. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, "fired by patriotic fervor, bent on helping to make the world safe for democracy," (16) young Henry Villard, a freshman at Harvard College, signed on. So did the eighteen-year-old Hemingway in Kansas City. Hemingway went because "I wanted to go. . . . My country needed me, and I went and did whatever I was told." (17) They were both sent to Italy, where they later met in a hospital in Milan.
Hemingway, Villard, and others of their generation had a further reason to enlist. "Not for anything," Villard recalled, "would I have missed the opportunity for a ringside view of the greatest spectacle to unfold in our time. To many of us the war in Europe resembled a gigantic stage on which the most exciting drama ever produced was being played out; as the poet Archibald MacLeish described it, it was something you 'went to' from a place called Paris." (18)
Hemingway's publisher and friend, Charles Scribner, Jr., described Hemingway's journey to Milan: "After a stint of more or less routine ambulance driving, [Hemingway] contrived to be assigned to an emergency canteen at Fossalta on the front facing the Austrians. There, only a month after his arrival in Italy, he was badly wounded in both legs at a forward post one night; first by an Austrian mortar shell and almost immediately afterwards by machine-gun fire while he was in the act of carrying a wounded Italian soldier to safety. [Then] a temporary operation on his legs at a distribution center, five days in a field hospital, and a grueling train trip to Milan, where he was taken to an American Red Cross hospital for further treatment.
In Milan things took a turn for the better." (19) Surgery was successful. Hemingway was an admired hero, nominated for the Italian medal of valor, and touted in newspapers and newsreels at home as the first American wounded in Italy.
He may or may not have been the first American wounded in Italy--the debate continues--but Hemingway was enjoying himself. He amused his friends--and everyone seemed to like the eager young man with the ready grin--with his great stories. He had just turned nineteen, and he was in love.
She was the tall, beautiful Agnes von Kurowsky--an older, very independent American nurse. Two weeks after Hemingway's arrival in Milan, Henry Villard was brought in with a bad case of jaundice and malaria. Using his memories, his journal, Agnes's diary, and correspondence between Hemingway and Agnes and Hemingway's family, Villard told the story of the romance in Hemingway in Love and War (1989). Hemingway and Agnes were clearly in love. Were they lovers? Villard felt they were not.
After five months of hospitalization, surgery, recuperation, and physical therapy, Hemingway returned to the United States a celebrity and a hero, and he loved it--the newspaper articles, testimonials, and admiring young ladies. His exploits grew with every telling. "Newspaper Man Survives 200 Battle Wounds," "Wounded 227 Times," "Oak Park Boy Shot to Pieces Jokes about It," "Yankee Punctured by 227 pieces of Austrian Shrapnel," and "Hero Back Loaded with Medals" proclaimed the newspaper announcements of his lecture tours, which his Hemingway grandparents pasted in scrapbooks. (20) Limping along in his uniform, he looked the hero, and he could tell a good story. Now that he had broader experiences, he could tell really great stories. And the mysteries of Hemingway's life and Hemingway's writings begin to deepen. Which stories actually happened? Which did he invent? Did he come to believe the fiction as fact as many of his family, friends, and admirers did? Hemingway, the ultimate storyteller, was not only telling stories, he was reinventing himself.