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Hobart’s Slaughterhouse-Five Connection

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’s spotlight on Kurt Vonnegut’s celebrated novel highlights the Hobart grad who inspired its main character.

More than 50 years ago Kurt Vonnegut Litt.D. ’74 published his seminal novel Slaughterhouse Five, based in part on the life of Edward “Joe” Crone Jr. ’45. Imprisoned with Vonnegut during World War II, Crone inspired the novel’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim, as a recent article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle recounts. In 2001, The Pulteney Street Survey featured their story in “Dresden Bombing.”

Crone was captured by the Germans after the Battle of the Bulge and held in captivity with Vonnegut and Private First Class Gifford Doxsee ’46 during the infamous Dresden Bombings. Although he survived the Allied bombings, Crone died a few weeks later from starvation and what a fellow Dresden prisoner called his “thousand-mile stare.”

Vonnegut, the author of more than a dozen books including Breakfast of Champions and Cat’s Cradle, delivered the HWS Commencement address in 1974 and that year received an honorary degree from the Colleges.

The full D&C story is reprinted below.

What’s Kurt Vonnegut’s connection to Rochester? Bet you didn’t know this

By Marcia Greenwood

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle USA TODAY NETWORK

Mt. Hope Cemetery has long been known as the final resting place of such renowned figures as Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Rochester, John Jacob Bausch, Henry Lomb, Frank Gannett and Margaret Woodbury Strong.

But in May 1995, for the first time it was identified as the burial site of a Brighton native who inspired a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s most celebrated work, the semi-autobiographical anti-war novel “Slaughterhouse-Five,” published in 1969.

In advance of speaking here at the Rochester Arts & Lecture Series, Vonnegut told a Democrat and Chronicle reporter that he modeled hapless World War II soldier Billy Pilgrim, who becomes “unstuck in time,” on Edward R. Crone Jr.

Crone and Vonnegut met while serving in the 106th infantry division during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.

Both young men became prisoners of war and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, in 1945 that killed as many as 25,000 people.

‘I’m glad they brought you back’

Rochester “is very much on my mind these days,” Vonnegut told the reporter, John Reinan, before revealing the Pilgrim- Crone connection, a major scoop.

Also known as Joe, Crone graduated from Brighton High School in 1941. In the D& C story, people who knew him then described him as awkward, shy and sweet.

In the fall of 1941, he enrolled at Hobart College in Geneva. Within months, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America was at war with Japan and Germany.

In the fall of 1942, military recruiters told Hobart students if they enrolled in the reserves, they could finish their current academic years. Crone enlisted in the Army in the spring of 1943 and was sent to advanced engineering school at the University of Alabama.

A year later, needing additional manpower for one last push, the military ended the training and sent all the students into the infantry. Crone’s unit was deployed to Europe in October 1944.

He was captured within two months and sent to Dresden. He and Vonnegut were among 150 soldiers being held in a vacant slaughterhouse when allied forces reduced the city to smoking rubble in retaliation for the Nazi bombing of British cities.

Vonnegut and Crone survived Dresden’s destruction, but Crone succumbed to its grim aftermath on April 11, 1945, at the age of 21. “He died there of the so called 5,000-mile stare,” Vonnegut told Reinan. He stopped eating what scraps the POWs were given, he “wouldn’t talk to anybody and died there of malnutrition and general despair.”

Five years later, his remains were returned to Rochester and he was buried with full military honors in the family plot.

“Joe was deeply religious and kind and childlike,” Vonnegut said. “The war was utterly incomprehensible to him, as it should have been.”

After picking up Vonnegut at the airport in 1995, Arts & Lectures Series producers Susan Feinstein and Rosemary Mancini asked the author if he wanted to visit Crone’s grave, the D& C later reported.

“Could I?” he replied.

They drove to Mt. Hope Cemetery, and in a powerful and poignant scene, Vonnegut stood before the tombstone of his fallen comrade and spoke to him.

“Hello, Joe,” he said. “I’m glad they brought you back. You never belonged over there anyway.”

Later, during his talk, an emotional Vonnegut said of his Mt. Hope experience, “I was deeply moved, and it finally closed out the Second World War for me completely.”

Afterward, at a reception, he said he withheld the information about Crone for so long out of respect for his parents. In the book, Pilgrim is portrayed as weak and inept, and Vonnegut didn’t want to offend them with the comparison.

By the time Vonnegut spoke to Reinan, both of Crone’s parents had long since died — his mother in 1985, and his father in 1966.

Vonnegut was 84 when he died on April 11, 2007, 62 years to the day of Crone’s death.

There’s always a Rochester connection, or at least it seems that way. This story is part of an ongoing series recognizing that phenomenon. Do you know of a Rochester connection we should highlight? Send tips to mgreenwo@rocheste.gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaGreenwood.