Thursday, August 16, 2012

What In The Hell Is "The Rat Bastards?" By Len Levinson

As I mentioned in my review of The Last Buffoon, Len Levinson's WWII series The Rat Bastards has been released in Ebook format, and all 16 novels in the series are available on Amazon. Back in April Len sent me the below essay, all about the creation of the series and his thoughts on it. As he mentions, the essay was for a Rat Bastards blog that Premier publishing was going to launch, but here we are four months later and the blog has not materialized.

So, with Len’s permission, it’s my pleasure to post the article here. Enjoy!

by Len Levinson

THE RAT BASTARDS is the overall title of a series of 16 novels by John Mackie (one of my 22 pseudonyms), originally published in paperback by Jove beginning 1983, and describing the progress and regress of a U.S. Army platoon of oddballs and badasses in the South Pacific during World War Two, starting with the landings on Guadalcanal, and continuing to Bougainville and New Guinea.

A few weeks ago my literary agent Barbara Lowenstein requested that I write a blog about THE RAT BASTARDS, which recently got resurrected thanks to her efforts, published by Premier as e-books under my real name, Len Levinson, available at Amazon.

Barbara said e-books sell better when authors go on the internet and hustle. So get ready, ladies and gentlemen - here's comes my digitized cyberspace hustle:

Actually, I could never in a million years hustle THE RAT BASTARDS as well as paperback jacket copy on #1:

Start with an insane sergeant with a genius for leadership and a lust for blood. Add a bank robber. A racketeer. A guy who goes berserk on the battlefield. A gun-happy Texan. A silent Apache. A movie stuntman who swings from trees. Put them all together and you have the killing machine known as:


You can't kill 'em, and you can't take 'em alive

How did a mild-mannered, philosophical dude, namely me, get involved with such a savage, bloody project?

I confess that I created and wrote THE RAT BASTARDS because I'm fascinated by war, probably because I was raised on it, only four years old in Massachusetts when Germany invaded Poland, and six when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

As my mind formed, it filled with news of war, including regular reports of local men killed and wounded. Often it seemed that the Allies were losing, and America would become occupied by fanatical Nazi murderers and/or diehard Japanese head-choppers.

The home front was not disconnected from the war. Metal and paper collections were common, ration books issued, air raid drills regularly occurring in schools, women working in munitions factories, and victory by no means certain. An atmosphere of desperation pervaded the land, intensified by many serious reversals, including one-third of the U.S. battle fleet demolished at Pearl Harbor.

Not only was World War Two impacting me daily, my father was a World War One veteran, having served with the famed Second Division in six major battle engagements, and wounded at Chateau-Thierry. A two-inch diameter sunburst scar on the left side of his forehead near his temple was obvious to his dying day.

We lived together alone, my mother having passed on. Pops managed our apartment like a barracks, he the sergeant and I the private. As I grew older, I read many articles and books about war, trying to make sense of how and why nations went to war, and how and why soldiers could bring themselves to kill total strangers.

I enlisted in the Army at age 19, during the Korean War, because I wanted the G.I. Bill for college. Peace talks were underway at Panmunjon, so I assumed the war would end officially soon, and I'd enjoy a peaceful military career in some exotic post like Tokyo, wearing my snazzy Ike jacket, surrounded by beautiful women.

Instead, we 'cruits were taught that North Koreans and Chicoms were treacherous, the ceasefire wouldn't last, and we'd better pay attention to instructors because our next assignments probably would be the front line in Korea, with actual bullets whizzing through the air, and artillery shells exploding nearby.

Bayonet attacks had been fairly common in Korea. During bayonet practice, it occurred to me that physically stronger soldiers probably would prevail. Not very muscular myself, I concluded with dismay that I'd almost certainly get killed by a bayonet in the guts, instead of attending college.

During training I fired .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, threw live hand grenades, became semi-deafened occasionally by artillery blasts, followed huge, lumbering tanks into mock attacks, and crawled across the muddy infiltration course at night, live machine gun fire overhead. I learned that war was not at all glorious, but dirty, noisy, bloody, brutal and grotesque for frontline soldiers.

Sergeants thoroughly indoctrinated us in the combat mentality. Often I fantasized about killing people, or about me getting machine gunned, or blown to smithereens by an artillery shell. Soldiers were indoctrinated to follow orders instantly, without thinking. I fell in line like virtually all 'cruits, because hellhole stockades seemed far worse.

I'm convinced that the threat of harsh punishment actually deters crime, because it firmly controlled us young men pumped to our eyeballs with hormones, trained to excel in mayhem. I lived in fear of going to the stockade, where a newcomer would be warmly welcomed with a blanket party, in which a blanket would be thrown over him, and everybody beat and kicked the blanket, while guards looked the other way. I personally met soldiers who'd been in stockades and confirmed these practices.

After training I was assigned to the 53rd Infantry Regiment in Alaska. Around six months later, I got transferred to the 4th Engineers, who were combat engineers, constantly training to build and blow up bridges in hotspots, and laying and detecting minefields, often at night. The British call such soldiers sappers.

Soldiers in Alaska constantly were reminded forcefully that we sat only 20 minutes jet time from Siberia, therefore a Russian parachute division or two could drop on us at any moment, so we'd better stay ready to ride trucks into the tundra and fight.

Incessant frenzied preparation for imminent conflict produced lots of anxious young guys with rifles running about the landscape. I too became highly stressed, and one evening got involved in an argument with a soldier from Buffalo, New York, who was built like a buffalo, and getting on my nerves, leading to an actual fistfight in a quonset hut at Fort Richardson.

I landed the first hard punch, which rocked him on his heels. If I had possessed the true killer instinct, I would have zeroed in for the kill, but as half-baked intellectual, became amazed at the sight of him backpedaling, trying to clear his head. I thought: Wow - did I really hit him that hard?

As I marvelled at my own strength, the buffalo regained full consciousness and proceeded to knock me out, causing headaches for around a month.

During my three-year enlistment, I met many veterans of World War Two still on active duty. One of my sergeants had survived the Bataan Death March. After a few beers, or during chow while on maneuvers, sometimes old sergeants told stories. All were very tough guys. Many actually had killed people. I admired them greatly and still do.

After mustering out, I continued reading about war. When I became a novelist, naturally I wanted to write a war novel. My first was DOOM PLATOON by Richard Gallagher, published by Belmont-Tower, set during the Battle of the Bulge, which led to THE SERGEANT by Gordon Davis, six novels published by Zebra and Bantam, about a sergeant in the European Theater of Operations, based on memories of my former sergeants and of Walter Zacharius, President of Zebra, who'd been a sergeant himself and participated in the liberation of Paris.

After THE SERGEANT, I felt inspired to write THE RAT BASTARDS, which became a massive cauldron of jungle fighting, swamps, malaria, snakes and leeches, told from viewpoints of both American and Japanese soldiers and officers, including guest appearances by historical figures such as Major General Alexander Vandegrift and Lieutenant General Harakuchi Hyakatuke. I tried to be fair to all sides and true to history, while recognizing that history fundamentally is a succession of ironies and black comedies illustrating the laws of karma.

My editor was classy Damaris Rowland, only woman I ever met who truly understood male-oriented action-adventure fiction, perhaps because her father had been an officer on General George Patton's staff, and she grew up on army posts all over the world.

As I scan THE RAT BASTARDS now, the novels seem incredibly ferocious, gory and profane, but I persist in believing that's the truth of war for ordinary soldiers at the front. No matter how mild-mannered a soldier, regardless of background, he soon learns that he needs to become extremely vicious ASAP if he wants to remain alive. Nice guys cannot possibly survive hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, knives, axes, shovels, rocks, and anything else lying around.

Consequently, THE RAT BASTARDS continually presents blood, guts and curses flying through the air, along with occasional heads and other body parts, amidst deafening artillery explosions, and machine gun and small arms fire, and many Japanese night-time suicide attacks.

I never wanted to sanitize or glamorize war, but still believe that unheralded acts of heroism are common at the front, because soldiers tend to look out for each other. They also develop sardonic senses of humor, rather than go bonkers.

Sometimes G.I. Joes get wounded and land in hospitals, where they encounter women nurses who themselves are traumatized to varying degrees by never-ending streams of mutilated men. Close contact among lonely young guys and gals under pressure inevitably explodes into occasional fleeting, bittersweet romance amidst the horrors of war, probably better than no romance at all.

During World War Two, Americans didn't refer to the Japanese as the Japanese. We referred to them as Japs and hated them intensely for Pearl Harbor, the Rape of Nanking and the Bataan Death March, among other atrocities. Meanwhile, the Japanese considered Americans weaklings, cowards and fiends, while viewing themselves as honorable warriors in the service of their Emperor, whom they believed was an actual god.

For the sake of accuracy, wrathful attitudes are reproduced faithfully in THE RAT BASTARDS, which might jolt sensibilities of gentle souls who believe everyone should love everyone.

Be advised: these are not bedtime stories for little girls. They're rough and raw as the Pacific War itself, and represent my supreme effort as a World War II novelist. I received many fan letters, but paperback sales weren't exactly terrific, perhaps because no advertising or PR campaign at all.

I'm very grateful to Premier for republishing all 16 of THE RAT BASTARDS. I hope these novels will go viral and make me a millionaire, so I can relocate to Paris and date dancers from the Follies Bergere.

Individual titles:


According to original jacket copy:

Tanks can't stop them. Malaria only slows them down. The enemy fears them. Their own army hates them. A stockade can't keep them penned up. They steal, lie, kill, never respect the rules. On the battlefield, you'd better steer clear of ...


Jack Badelaire said...

Great little essay by Len. Premier was kind enough to comment on my PMP blog and inform me of their free ebook days, so now I've got all of the RB titles. I've read the first three, and they are a ton of fun. I hope to eventually get through them all, but it's going to take a while...

Len, if you see this comment, thank you for giving us some insight into the genesis of this series.

Hank Brown said...

Thanks for sharing this!

I was really looking forward to it. Of course, now that I've read it I only want to know more, more, more.

It was The Sergeant by Gordon Davis that introduced me to men's adventure fiction, and the war subgenre, and I miss Levinson's books very much. Well, I actually own the entire Sergeant series and most of The Ratbastards...but I miss reading new (to me) fiction from him. I will eventually review every book from both series on my blog, if I live long enough.

I wonder, if a few of us collaborated on a cover image for Len, if the publisher would be willing to replace the existing one with it. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

I read most of the early Rat Bastards titles as a kid (Books 1-10 or 12.I would have read more but I couldn't find them.I still have Hit the Beach.

They reminded me at first of Lou Cameron's Corporal Marvin stories,which were never billed as such (The First Blood;The Big Red Ball etc.)but The Rat Bastards quickly stood out as something more.To put it simply: these Bastards FOUGHT!

It seemed that in the frequent blade and e-tool wielding hand to hand combats the main move (repeated ad nauseum by all participants) was to try to nail the other guy in the balls so as to be in a position to kill them as quickly and safely as possible.I'm dead serious,almost all of the fights went that way,although in practice something often went wrong for one or both (or more) of the combatants before the nut shot was administered.

I had always planned as a kid to be an Army officer so I thought about these fights in a critical manner and I had to agree that kicking the enemy in the Jewels would be the smartest and most logical thing to do in hand to hand combat,and as such would be the attack of choice for almost all involved,especially when their sidearms had run out ammunition.

I cannot recommend these books more highly,and I'm glad that I learned your real name Mr. Levinson.Thanks.

Joe Kenney said...

Tolchoks, thanks for the comment. Wanted to let you know I passed it on to Len, who said it lifted his spirits!

Chris L Adams said...

Frak me running, this is awesome.

The Rat Bastards!

Gads that series has haunted me since my house burned in '91 and I lost everything I possessed except a Fender Katana, a Marshall JCM800 and a Metallica t-shirt I was wearing.

I absolutely loved these novels. As another posted, I only read the first handful, having like 1-6 or 1-8 because in BFE, WV they were hard to find.
I've always wanted to run these raggedy-a$$3d, filthy, gut-strewing, brain-soaked, jap-hacked and tank-torn books to earth but had looked with dismay at some of the prices of the original paperbacks in good condition on Ebay. I'll definitely have to get these eBooks so I can see to the further adventures of Sgt. Busko and Lt. Franny Divers (or something like that - it's been 30+ years since I read these), Frankie La Barbara, yeah, the names are coming back to me.

Wow, so thrilled to run across this blog.

I have a buddy of mine who brings them up sometimes - not because he's read them, but because I talked about them so much. Dang it, that scene when some of the guys were holed up by the japs, and they were luggin' grenades at them while they clubbed their rifles and batted them like baseballs! And onetime the preacher got a hold of a samurai sword and commenced to lop off more limbs than a Civil War era saw-bones! Man I loved the old blood and guts action in those novels.

Well done, John/Len!

And what a thrill to learn that John Mackie was a pen-name. As a writer with a humdrum run-o-the-mill name I'd love to be able to come up with such a memorable moniker - and it is, too, because I've never forgotten it.


Joe Kenney said...

Chris, thanks a lot for the comment, I'll be sure to share it with Len. And as irony would have it, I too grew up in "BFE," WV! But it was right on the Maryland border, so it wasn't as nowheresville as other parts of the state. Pretty damn close, though.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your gift to us of this series of wonderful novels.

Unknown said...

I've never read this series, but my dad actually modeled for the original covers! I found the series on amazon and my dad was so excited to see them after so long! I'll definitely have to give them a read!

Chris L Adams said...

Those were done of the coolest covers ever. The artist really studied the uniforms and equipment because it all looked spot on, from what I recall. I lost all mine in a house Fire.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for sharing, Unknown! I let Len know about your dad. And Chris, sorry to hear about that house fire!


This is Len Levinson a/k/a John Mackie speaking. I just read all the above comments, and don't think I ever read them before but my memory is not 100% now that I'm 83. I'm absolutely thrilled that so many guys enjoyed this series. Well, I enjoyed writing all those novels. It was almost like being there, except that I was sitting at my desk in my rundown apartment in a crumbling building at the edge of Hell's Kitchen in NYC. What a ride they were.

Chris L Adams said...

Len, your vivid, detailed manner of writing made an indelible mark on my own style. Many of my favorite authors disdained to dive into much detail in their battle scenes, so when I wrapped my mind around what you were doing -- and it was so different -- it blew me away. And such memorable characters! There are entire books by other authors I've forgotten I read back in the 80s and 90s, so why do I still remember PFC Frankie LaBarbara and Sgt Butsko? I recall scenes of pure, kinetic energy - the guys batting Jap grenades with their rifle stocks, like playing baseball back home. Fantastic, energetic writing. My thanks for sharing your life story, your experiences in the service and about your dad. All the best,