Saturday, 21 June 2014

Leonard H. Nason - Soldier, Writer

Leonard H. Nason c. 1921
Leonard H. Nason c. 1921
(Courtesy the Digital Collections of the Norwich University Archives)

Allan Leonard Hastings Nason (his full birth name) was an untamed spirit, and it shows in his writing. He wrote about war and soldiers, and his characters are not respectful of authority. Typically, they are trying to find a way to come out ahead, though not at the expense of the war effort. His accounts of war focus on an individual in relation to the whole war machine, and the way the machine grinds all down.

He was born on September 28, 1895 to Francis L. H. Nason and Jennie C. Allan in Somverville, Massachusetts. His father was a travelling salesman. Somerville was a factory town with two main industries – brickmaking and meatpacking, and must have been an interesting place to grow up in.

He joined the Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst. The sedate life must not have suited him because he switched to the Norwich University Military College in Northfield, Vermont. He was suspended and expelled multiple times from this college and took part in two wars before he graduated. In 1916 he saw service with General Pershing along the Mexican border, as part of the action against Pancho Villa.

In 1917, he enlisted in the American army in World War 1 and fought in France (taking part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive), again under General Pershing. He was cited for gallantry and won a Purple Heart in combat after becoming wounded at Mont St. Pere and transported to the 68th field hospital in Nevers. It was here that he met Douglas H. Eadie, a doctor from Staten Island, NY whose name he used for one of his books’ protagonists.

Still a patient, he was transported back to the US on board a hospital ship, the U.S.S. Northern Pacific, which ran aground off Fire Island, NY in 1919. After this eventful war, he came back to Norwich college and graduated as a Bachelor of Science in June 1920. In August 1920, he married Lucia, the daughter of Dr. Charles S. Millett. Dr. Millett ran a tuberculosis sanatorium in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

He took up a job as an insurance adjuster with the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company in Chicago. He took up writing while still at this job.

"I had got married, you see," he said, by way of explanation. ''There was a baby coming, and we just had to be able to pay for it. It was extra work I wanted," he explained, "'something that would add to what I was paid as claim-adjuster. But there was not much I could do. I could learn to 'jerk soda,' and the job looked pretty good to me. But it meant I would have to stay on the job evenings, and my insurance work meant that I must be ready, night as well as day, to go out on call."

So he had to quit visualizing himself in a starched white coat and a perky white cap, set at a rakish angle over his reddish eyebrows, shaking up frothy concoctions for Chicago's aftermovie parties. It was an alluring picture, but it had to go.

"My side job had to be something I could do at home, some sort of work like woman's work in the home that could be dropped at any interruption and picked up again when I got around to it. Was there anything of that sort that a man could do? Suddenly it came to me that about the only thing a man could do in his off hours was write. But if a man wrote he must have something to write about, something on which he was an authority, or knew well enough to make it the background for entertaining stories. What did I know?”

"The only thing I knew well enough to write about was the war," he said. "True, millions had been to the war, but many more millions hadn't, and those who had been in the big fight liked to talk about it, and to hear others talk about it. I had noticed that wherever two or three overseas men got together they invariably began yarning about the war. I had heard some good stories from some of these men, and I had told a few myself that seemed to go over pretty well."

So he sat down one evening and wrote a story about the war. "The Patrol," he called it. "I had no trouble at all writing it, possibly because it was a real story, ready made and right to my hand. I knew every incident in it, and, every character. I did not bother to try to put a plot into it. I just set it down as I remembered it, with very little padding. Nothing I have written since has come any easier than that first story."

When it was finished he read it over to Mrs. Nason. She knew it was a good story, but neither of them knew where to send it.

"It kicked around our little place there in Chicago for a week or two," said Mr. Nason. "Then I noticed in Adventure, in the back of the magazine where the boys gathered around the camp fire, a note to the effect that the editor would read any manuscript that reached him provided it was typed, on one side of the paper only, double-spaced, and had with it a self addressed, stamped envelope for its return. I was careful about that self return envelope, but if that first story had come back I hardly think it would ever have gone out again. If it had come back I’d have just thought I wasn't cut out for a writer, and I’d have got something else to do on the side to pay for the baby."

"The story had been out of the house ten days or two weeks," said Mr. Nason, "when I called Mrs. Nason one afternoon to see if there was anything she wanted me to take out to the house on my way home. Before I could ask her she said: 'There's a letter here for you from Adventure. They want your story.' I told her I’d be right out, and hung up and started. It sounded like big news to me. I saw a whole new career opening up for me. If they wanted that story, they'd want more — and that one had been no trouble at all to do."

On the way home he began thinking.

"Now you mustn't get all het up about this thing," he reminded himself. "It's money you need. It's all right for them to want this story, but what are they going to pay you for it? Suppose they think you're just writing for the honor and glory. Suppose they offer you just twenty dollars for it.

"There were four stories I knew I could write, but four stories at twenty dollars apiece, that wouldn't help much. Suppose they offered me just ten, or five or two dollars and fifty cents."

When he got down to two fifty he was so low in his mind he could not think any further in that direction so he popped up to fifty. He decided that fifty dollars was as little as he could afford to accept for his story. And when the check came it was for fifty, but it brought with it the disquieting statement that Adventure wanted no more war stories for the time.

Mr. Nason then tried his hand at several other kinds of stories. He wrote about pirates and buried treasure and cowboys and Chicago gunmen. These stories went out to various magazines and promptly came back from all of them. "Which was just and right — they were crimes against good story-writing," said their perpetrator. "I was writing of things I knew little about, and cared less. Cooked up scenes, characters, incidents, plots, they were, a hash of other men's yarns I'd read when I was a boy and later. None of them carried conviction — the first essential for the making of a story is sincerity, conviction on the part of the story-teller that he has a story to tell and honesty in the telling. I did not believe what I was writing myself.

"I wasted about two months before I had the sense to realize that my card, at least for a while, was war stories. But Adventure had said they wanted no more war stories. That was all right, but I had to write war stories, so I sat down and wrote an account of my first battle."

But he did not write it as quickly and easily as he had written his first story. A funny thing had happened to him in his first battle, but when he tried to make a story of it he found himself swamped. "I could not see at first what was the matter with the thing," he said. "When I had told that story to other men who had been in battles they were interested, but the stuff I was writing was dull and flat. I could see that. Mrs. Nason could see it too. It seemed to me that a story to be a story, that is, a written story, must have a plot. Still, when I tried to put a plot into this yarn of mine, I spoiled it. At last I decided to set it down just as it had happened, and then it sounded all right. In other words, it was sincere. The incidents fell naturally into place and the story rang true."

"Anyway," he continued, "I had learned something else. I had to write about the war as I knew it, or not at all. I couldn't doctor my stories, color them, fix 'em up to read the way I might have wished they had happened. I had to write them just as they were, maybe adding a little here and taking out a little there, but leaving the essential truth and incidents just as they had come to me."

"The mistake ninety-nine out of a hundred writers about the war make," he interpolated, "is that they write of the war, not as it was, not as they know it was, but as they think it should have been, might have been, or as they wish to have the world believe it was. Therefore, their stuff does not ring true. Of course, they may fool that part of the reading public that wants to believe the war was what it was not, but they don't really put anything over on anybody who was really in the war himself. Old soldiers, from the recruit to the general, spot the false lights immediately."

And although Mr. Hoffman had warned him that Adventure would take no more war stories, he kept on writing war stories and sending them to Adventure until that magazine had five unpublished Nason war stories: "Can of Jam," "Happy Birthday," Five Hundred Francs," "Breeches" and "Three Lights from a Match." The last named story has since been included in a book by that title. It was two years before one of them was published, although "The Patrol" had been published very soon after its receipt.

Every one of those stories was a success. In the first of the five, the story of the battle, he introduced Sergeant Eadie, who later was the hero of "Chevrons," the book that delighted thousands of overseas men, and thousands more who wish they had been overseas men.

When he had been writing a year to a day, Mr. Nason decided to give up his insurance work and give all his time to his literary endeavors. "It was a ticklish proposition," he said. "I had a wife and child to think about. Everybody, including Hoffman of Adventure, advised me against giving up my job. 'Don't do it now,' said Hoffman. 'Wait five or ten years.' I did wait a while, and I think I would have waited still longer, but my chief down in the office hinted that I must give up either my job or my writing. I couldn't do both, he said. He got so snooty about it I told him it was all right with me for him and me to part then and there. So we parted."

But not, however, until Steamer Nason, who has a reputation among those who know him of never laying down on a job or leaving a man in the lurch, could break another man in to do his work for the insurance com' pany. And he still has a soft spot in his heart for accident insurance work.

"I could not have had better preliminary training as a writer," he said. "For one thing, it helped me to know men, showed me how to read character. Showed me the way a man looks, or acts, or talks, or gestures when he wants to get something. Say I'd be called to see a man who had a broken leg. He wants to put in a stiff claim. I let him talk. I watch his eyes, I watch his mouth, I watch his hands. They may be telling you one thing and his words another. Sometimes they emphasize, and make much stronger, what his words are saying. I have a figure in my mind. I know how much money the company ought to pay, how much it will pay. We talk and talk, but for the most part I let the man talk, and all the time I keep the figure I’ve decided upon in my mind. The first thing we know, the claim is settled."

Incidentally, this training has helped him a lot in acting as his own literary agent. He thinks he knows about what his work is worth; how much he can get for it if he shops around for an editor or publisher. He keeps that figure in mind when he is talking to an editor.

"You do that," he advised, "if you’ve taken something to an editor. Let him talk and watch his hands and his eyes. Finally, mention a sum you think you ought to have. If he wants your story, his hands will move a little, or he will make some sign that shows he is a little nervous. That means he doesn't want to pay as much as you have asked for it. He thinks he can get it for less. (All editors think writers are damned fools). He picks up a pencil. Watch what he is doing with that pencil. He is figuring out in his mind whether or not the sum you have mentioned will be worth that amount to his publication. That's the time for you to let him know that he has a competitor for the story."

The 1920s were his most prolific period, with over a hundred stories published mostly in Adventure and the Saturday Evening Post. From 1926 to 1930, five books of his were published in hardcover, most of them collecting what he had written earlier for Adventure.

He moved on from Adventure by 1929, barely a year after Hoffman’s departure in late 1927, and would not reappear in the magazine till 1944. In the 1930s, his output reduced and he published over 60 stories in the decade, with the majority in the Saturday Evening Post.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, he returned to active service in the Mediterranean theater and participated in the Moroccan and Tunisian campaigns. His armored unit was the first to enter Morocco and he was the Military Governor of Rabat in 1942.He was also a trainer at the Fort Knox school of armored combat during this time.

Leonard H. Nason c. 1946
Leonard H. Nason c. 1946
After this, the old warhorse came home to rest, and did not write much more. From 1944 to 1949, five more stories of his appeared – one in Adventure, and two each in the Saturday Evening Post and the Blue Book magazines.

Leonard H. Nason c. 1948
Leonard H. Nason c. 1948
(Courtesy the Digital Collections of the Norwich University Archives)
After that, he didn’t write any more till his death on July 25, 1970. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetry.


  1. This is an excellent piece on one of my favorite writers. Leonard Nason really captured what it was like to be an enlisted man in WW I. There are very few so called heroes in his stories. They are mainly privates and Sgts. who are trying to survive the war. Often they are goof offs, gold brickers, and men who just want to avoid duty. When I served two years in the army I found my friends were like this, they just wanted to survive somehow. The stories are often black comedies with Nason finding humor in the horrors of war and destruction. Many of the stories were reprinted in hardcover during the 1920's and I've managed to track them down.

    I used to have all the Sat Eve Posts from the 1920's and 1930's and Nason was one of the few pulp writers to make the transition from pulp to slick, but still retain the power and strength of the pulp writing. Often slicks ruined stories by trying to stress the romantic elements but Nason managed to avoid this formula. The main audience for many slicks were women readers and often the editors felt that they had to cater to this audience by including a love story in the plot.

    Nason is an example of a good writer that has been unjustly forgotten. His work is just not about WW I but about men and how they deal with the horrors of war. Certainly a universal subject that does not deserve to be out of print.

    1. I lucked out with Nason. I knew his name from having read a couple of stories from Adventure. When a seller on EBay had a lot of 8 books from Nason (all without covers), I got them and added them to the ever growing to be read pile.

      What I've read so far, I've enjoyed.

  2. What a wonderful writer! I read his "Three Lights from a Match" as a boy in the Sixties and have never forgotten it. I just ordered another copy online and can't wait to read more by this man.

    John Horn, Author, "The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864"

    1. His writing had a quality which I really like: His stories were written as if you were hearing it from someone. Enjoy reading.

  3. Nason is a must read in my Artillery unit, Bravo Battery 1-119FA. When a soldier gets promoted to Sergeant they are expected to read and be able to discuss SGT Eadie.
    I even used SGT Eadie (the name) in a book that I wrote, as a tribute to Nason.

    1. Hi,

      I didn't realize that Leonard Nason was still being read, i thought most people had forgotten him. I'm happy to hear from you, and if any books are favorites in your unit, leave a note.


  4. Nason is a must read in my Artillery unit, Bravo Battery 1-119FA. When a soldier gets promoted to Sergeant they are expected to read and be able to discuss SGT Eadie.
    I even used SGT Eadie (the name) in a book that I wrote, as a tribute to Nason.