Saturday, June 26, 2010

Lest the nation forget: Ernie Pyle (1900-1945)


I'm saddened to read that the Ernie Pyle Home in Dana, IN, is threatened with closure due to financial difficulties. They're not huge - the home, run as a museum, only needs $14,000 per year to cover its costs - but for a small town, and for the budget-strapped State of Indiana, that's just too much. Unless sufficient funds can be raised by August 1st this year, the doors will shut and the building will be sold.

Ernie Pyle is a monumentally important figure in US history, in the context of both warfare and journalism. Along with Bill Mauldin (of whom I've written before), he's an indispensable voice documenting what our forefathers went through to purchase for us the freedom we enjoy today. His tragic death in combat set the seal on his record of achievement, and cemented his iconic reputation.

Ernie Pyle's wartime home in Albuquerque, NM is preserved by the public library there.




Many artifacts relating to his life are held by the Indiana State Museum and the School of Journalism at Indiana University. However, the only museum dedicated to his life, work and memory is housed in his boyhood home in Dana, IN.




I think it would be an absolute tragedy if his home and its associated museum were to be closed, and lost to future generations.

Mr. Pyle's genius was to describe the experiences of the combat soldier in a way to which those who had never seen combat could relate. I'm a combat veteran myself. I promise you, I can recognize myself and my comrades in his writing, even though our war was a couple of generations later and a continent away. Any combat veteran, reading an Ernie Pyle column, will be able to instantly identify with it, and with the soldiers he portrays. It's an almost unique gift, one shared by very few other correspondents.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this, and to demonstrate why Ernie Pyle is so vital to America's history, is to let you read some extracts from his wartime columns for yourself. All of these have been published online, so I'm presuming that I can quote from them for the purposes of this blog post, and to honor his memory. You can find more of his columns at the Web site of the School of Journalism at Indiana University.

FT. BLISS, TEX., APRIL, 1941

Maybe I wasn't raised to be a soldier - but I'm being one for a little while. Well, kind of a soldier.

Since I'm approximately 80 years old and 145 pounds underweight, they had to create a special branch to fit my special talents. It is called America's First Line of Defense. I am its bulwark. As long as l'm here, the country is safe.

They gave me a private's uniform. and contrary to Army tradition the thing fits.

This uniform business came about because I've drifted in here for a few days to write about the new soldiers. They decided to put me through the regular routine just as though I were a genuine incoming selectee. However, it didn't work out in all details. The doctors shuddered and turned away at the first sight of me. And the interviewers found me unqualified for any of the 275 types of Army employment.

So it was finally decided to let me do it my own way, which is to stand around sleepy-like for three or four days and just look and listen.

. . .

I was given a cot in a tent with three privates and a Regular Army corporal. One of the boys had just discovered the futility of explaining in the Army. He learned it on his first day when a sergeant asked him something, and every time he'd try to answer, the sergeant would yell: "Shut your mouth!"


####


ON THE NORTH AFRICAN DESERT, MARCH 23, 1943

When our Sahara salvage expedition finally found the wrecked airplanes far out on the endless desert, the mechanics went to work taking off usable parts, and four others of us appointed ourselves the official ditchdiggers of the day.

We were all afraid of being strafed if the Germans came over and saw men working around the planes, and we wanted a nice ditch handy for diving into. The way to have a nice ditch is to dig one. We wasted no time.

. . .

One sweating soldier said: "Five years ago you couldn’t a got me to dig a ditch for five dollars an hour. Now look at me.

"You can’t stop me digging ditches. I don’t even want pay for it; I just dig for love. And I sure do hope this digging today is all wasted effort; I never wanted to do useless work so bad in my life.

"Any time I get fifty feet from my home ditch you’ll find me digging a new ditch, and brother I ain’t joking. I love to dig ditches."

Digging out here in the soft desert sand was paradise compared with the claylike digging back at our base. The ditch went forward like a prairie fire. We measured it with our eyes to see if it would hold everybody.

"Throw up some more right here," one of the boys said, indicating a low spot in the bank on either side. "Do you think we’ve got it deep enough?"

"It don’t have to be so deep," another one said. "A bullet won’t go through more than three inches of sand. Sand is the best thing there is for stopping bullets."

A growth of sagebrush hung over the ditch on one side. "Let’s leave it right there," one of the boys said. "It’s good for the imagination. Makes you think you’re covered up even when you ain’t."

That’s the new outlook, the new type of conversation, among thousands of American boys today. It’s hard for you to realize, but there are certain moments when a plain old ditch can be dearer to you than any possession on earth. For all bombs, no matter where they may land eventually, do all their falling right straight at your head. Only those of you who know about that can ever know all about ditches.


####


IN THE FRONT LINES BEFORE MATEUR, NORTHERN TUNISIA, MAY 2, 1943

Now to the infantry – the God-damned infantry, as they like to call themselves.

I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.

I wish you could see just one of the ineradicable pictures I have in my mind today. In this particular picture I am sitting among clumps of sword-grass on a steep and rocky hillside that we have just taken. We are looking out over a vast rolling country to the rear.

A narrow path comes like a ribbon over a hill miles away, down a long slope, across a creek, up a slope and over another hill.

All along the length of this ribbon there is now a thin line of men. For four days and nights they have fought hard, eaten little, washed none, and slept hardly at all. Their nights have been violent with attack, fright, butchery, and their days sleepless and miserable with the crash of artillery.

The men are walking. They are fifty feet apart, for dispersal. Their walk is slow, for they are dead weary, as you can tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies speaks their inhuman exhaustion.

On their shoulders and backs they carry heavy steel tripods, machine-gun barrels, leaden boxes of ammunition. Their feet seem to sink into the ground from the overload they are bearing.

They don’t slouch. It is the terrible deliberation of each step that spells out their appalling tiredness. Their faces are black and unshaven. They are young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion make them look middle-aged.

In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory – there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.

The line moves on, but it never ends. All afternoon men keep coming round the hill and vanishing eventually over the horizon. It is one long tired line of antlike men.

There is an agony in your heart and you almost feel ashamed to look at them. They are just guys from Broadway and Main Street, but you wouldn’t remember them. They are too far away now. They are too tired. Their world can never be known to you, but if you could see them just once, just for an instant, you would know that no matter how hard people work back home they are not keeping pace with these infantrymen in Tunisia.


####


SOMEWHERE IN SICILY, SEPTEMBER 2, 1943

I met a bulldozer driver who operates his huge, clumsy machine with such utter skill that it is like watching a magician do card tricks. The driver is Joseph Campagnone of Newton, Massachusetts. He is an Italian who came to America several years ago, when he was sixteen. He is all American now. He has a brother in the Italian army who was captured by the British in Egypt.

His mother and sisters live near Naples, and he hopes to see them before this is over. I asked Joe if he had a funny feeling about fighting his own people and he said, "No, I guess we’ve got to fight somebody and it might as well be them as anybody else."

Campagnone has been a cat driver ever since he started working. I sat and watched him for two hours one afternoon while he ate away a rocky bank overhanging a blown road, and worked it into a huge hole until it was ready for traffic. He is so astonishingly adept at manipulating the big machine that groups of soldiers and officers gathered at the crater’s edge to admire and comment.

Joe has had one close shave. He was bulldozing a by-pass around a blown bridge when the blade of his machine hit a mine. The explosion blew him off and stunned him, but he was not wounded. The driverless dozer continued to run and drove itself over a fifty-foot cliff and turned a somersault as it fell. It landed right side up with the engine still going.


####


AT THE FRONT LINES IN ITALY, JANUARY 10, 1944


Capt. Waskow was a company commander in the 36th Division. He had led his company since long before it left the States. He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.

"After my own father, he came next," a sergeant told me.

"He always looked after us," a soldier said. "He’d go to bat for us every time."

"I’ve never knowed him to do anything unfair," another one said.

I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow’s body down. The moon was nearly full at the time, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley below. Soldiers made shadows in the moonlight as they walked.

Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack-saddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.

The Italian mule-skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies at the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself, and ask others to help.

The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment, while they got a new grip. In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road.

I don’t know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don’t ask silly questions.

We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.

Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about it. We talked soldier talk for an hour or more. The dead man lay all alone outside in the shadow of the low stone wall.

Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there, in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting. "This one is Captain Waskow," one of them said quietly.

Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the low stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally there were five lying end to end in a long row, alongside the road. You don’t cover up dead men in the combat zone. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.

The unburdened mules moved off to their olive orchard. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually one by one I could sense them moving close to Capt. Waskow’s body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him, and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.

One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, "God damn it." That’s all he said, and then he walked away. Another one came. He said, "God damn it to hell anyway." He looked down for a few last moments, and then he turned and left.

Another man came; I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the half light, for all were bearded and grimy dirty. The man looked down into the dead captain’s face, and then he spoke directly to him, as though he were alive. He said: "I’m sorry, old man."

Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said:

"I sure am sorry, sir."

Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.

And finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.


####


NORMANDY BEACHHEAD, JUNE 1944

The strong, swirling tides of the Normandy coastline shift the contours of the sandy beach as they move in and out. They carry soldiers’ bodies out to sea, and later they return them. They cover the corpses of heroes with sand, and then in their whims they uncover them.

As I plowed out over the wet sand of the beach on that first day ashore, I walked around what seemed to be a couple of pieces of driftwood sticking out of the sand. But they weren’t driftwood.

They were a soldier’s two feet. He was completely covered by the shifting sands except for his feet. The toes of his GI shoes pointed toward the land he had come so far to see, and which he saw so briefly.


####


BARNEVILLE, NORMANDY, JUNE 24, 1944

When we finally started away from the crowd a little old fellow in faded blue overalls ran up and asked us, in sign language, to come to his cafe for a drink. Since we didn't dare violate the spirit of hands-across-the-sea that was then wafting about the town, we had to sacrifice ourselves and accept.

So we sat on wooden benches at a long bare table while the little Frenchman puttered and sputtered around. He left two policemen and his own family in, and then took the handle out of the front door so nobody else could get in.

The Germans had drunk up all his stock except for some wine and some Eau de Vie. In case you don't know, Eau de Vie is a savage liquid made by boiling barbed wire, soapsuds, watch springs and old tent pegs together. The better brands have a touch of nitroglycerine for flavor.

So the little Frenchman filled our tiny glasses. We raised them, touched glasses all around, and Vivied La France all over the place, and good-will-toward-men rang out through the air and tears ran down our cheeks.

In this case, however, the tears were largely induced by our violent efforts to refrain from clutching at our throats and crying out in anguish. This good-will business is a tough life, and I think every American who connects with a glass of Eau de Vie should get a Purple Heart.


####


NORMANDY, FRANCE, JUNE 29, 1944

I heard a funny story of one of our young fighter pilots who had to bail out one day recently, high over the English Channel.

It seems the pilots carry a small bottle of brandy in their first-aid kits, for use if they are in the water a long time or have been hurt in landing.

Well, this young pilot, once he was safely out of his plane and floating down, figured he might as well drink his before he hit the water. So he fished it out of his pocket and drained her down while still many thousands of feet in the air.

At high altitudes liquor hits you harder than at sea level. Furthermore, this kid wasn't accustomed to drinking. The combination of the two had him tighter than a goat by the time he floated down into the Channel.

A destroyer had spotted him coming down, and it fished him out almost as soon as he hit the water. Even the cold plunge didn't sober him up. He was giddy and staggering around and they couldn't keep him in one spot long enough to dry him off.

The captain of the destroyer sensed what had happened, and being afraid the kid would take cold wandering around the deck, he came up and said with affected harshness: "What the hell are you doing here ? Get below where you belong."

Whereupon the wet young lieutenant drew- himself up in indignation and, with all the thick-tongued haughtiness of a plastered guest who's been insulted by his host, replied: "I assure you I don't propose to remain where I'm not wanted."

And forthwith he jumped overboard. The destroyer had to rescue him again.


####


PARIS, AUGUST 28, 1944

I had thought that for me there could never again be any elation in war. But I had reckoned without the liberation of Paris – I had reckoned without remembering that I might be a part of this richly historic day.

We are in Paris – on the first day – one of the great days of all time. This is being written, as other correspondents are writing their pieces, under an emotional tension, a pent-up semi-delirium.

. . .

The streets were lined as by Fourth of July parade crowds at home, only this crowd was almost hysterical. The streets of Paris are very wide, and they were packed on each side. The women were all brightly dressed in white or red blouses and colorful peasant skirts, with flowers in their hair and big flashy earrings. Everybody was throwing flowers, and even serpentine.

As our jeep eased through the crowds, thousands of people crowded up, leaving only a narrow corridor, and frantic men, women and children grabbed us and kissed us and shook our hands and beat on our shoulders and slapped our backs and shouted their joy as we passed.

I was in a jeep with Henry Gorrell of the United Press, Capt. Carl Pergler of Washington, D.C., and Corp. Alexander Belon of Amherst, Massachusetts. We all got kissed until we were literally red in face, and I must say we enjoyed it.

Once when the jeep was simply swamped in human traffic and had to stop, we were swarmed over and hugged and kissed and torn at. Everybody, even beautiful girls, insisted on kissing you on both cheeks. Somehow I got started kissing babies that were held up by their parents, and for a while I looked like a baby-kissing politician going down the street. The fact that I hadn’t shaved for days, and was gray-bearded as well as bald-headed, made no difference.

. . .

The farthest we got in our first hour in Paris was near the Senate building, where some Germans were holed up and firing desperately. So we took a hotel room nearby and decided to write while the others fought. By the time you read this I’m sure Paris will once again be free for Frenchmen, and I’ll be out all over town getting my bald head kissed. Of all the days of national joy I’ve ever witnessed this is the biggest.


####


SEPTEMBER 4, 1944

By the time you read this, the old man will be on his way back to America. After that will come a long, long rest. And after the rest, well, you never can tell.

Undoubtebly this seems to be a funny time for a fellow to be quitting the war. It is a funny time. But I'm not leaving because of a whim, or even especially because I'm homesick. I'm leaving for one reason only - because I have just got to stop. "I've had it," as they say in the Army. I have had all I can take for a while.

I've been 29 months overseas since this war started; have written about 700,000 words about it; have totalled nearly a year in the front lines.

I do hate terribly to leave right now, but I have given out. I've been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused. The hurt has finally become too great.

All of a sudden it seemed to me that if I heard one more shot or saw one more dead man, I would go off my nut. And if I had to write one more column, I'd collapse. So I'm on my way.

It may be that a few months of peace will restore some vim in my spirit, and I can go war-horsing off to the Pacific. We'll see what a little New Mexico sunshine does along that line.


####


IN THE WESTERN PACIFIC, MARCH 15, 1945

My carrier is a proud one. She’s small, and you have never heard of her unless you have a son or husband on her, but still she’s proud, and deservedly so.

She has been at sea, without returning home, longer than any other carrier in the Pacific, with one exception. She left home in November 1943.

She is a little thing, yet her planes have shot two hundred thirty-eight of the enemy out of the sky in air battles, and her guns have knocked down five Jap planes in defending herself.

She is too proud to keep track of little ships she destroys, but she has sent to the bottom twenty-nine big Japanese ships. Her bombs and aerial torpedoes have smashed into everything from the greatest Jap battleships to the tiniest coastal schooners.

She has weathered five typhoons. Her men have not set foot on any soil bigger than a farm-sized uninhabited atoll for a solid year. They have not seen a woman, white or otherwise, for nearly ten months. In a year and a quarter out of America, she has steamed a total of one hundred forty-nine thousand miles!

Four different air squadrons have used her as their flying field, flown their allotted missions, and returned to America. But the ship’s crew stays on – and on, and on.

She is known in the fleet as "The Iron Woman," because she has fought in every battle in the Pacific in the years 1944 and 1945.

Her battle record sounds like a train-caller on the Lackawanna Railroad. Listen – Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Truk, Palau, Hollandia, Saipan, Chichi Jima, Mindanao, Luzon, Formosa, Nansei Shoto, Hong Kong, Iwo Jima, Tokyo . . . and many others.

She has known disaster. Her fliers who have perished could not be counted on both hands, yet the ratio is about as it always is – about one American lost for every ten of the Exalted Race sent to the Exalted Heaven.

She has been hit twice by Jap bombs. She has had mass burials at sea . . . with her dry-eyed crew sewing 40-mm shells to the corpses of their friends, as weights to take them to the bottom of the sea.

Yet she has never even returned to Pearl Harbor to patch her wounds. She slaps on some patches on the run, and is ready for the next battle.


####


This column was never completed. Ernie was preparing it in anticipation of the final victory in Europe, which would be proclaimed just 20 days after his death. The rough draft was found in his pocket after he was shot and killed.


ON VICTORY IN EUROPE

And so it is over. The catastrophe on one side of the world has run its course. The day that it had so long seemed would never come has come at last.

I suppose emotions here in the Pacific are the same as they were among the Allies all over the world. First a shouting of the good news with such joyous surprise that you would think the shouter himself had brought it about.

And then an unspoken sense of gigantic relief – and then a hope that the collapse in Europe would hasten the end in the Pacific.

It has been seven months since I heard my last shot in the European war. Now I am as far away from it as it is possible to get on this globe.

This is written on a little ship lying off the coast of the Island of Okinawa, just south of Japan, on the other side of the world from Ardennes.

But my heart is still in Europe, and that’s why I am writing this column.

It is to the boys who were my friends for so long. My one regret of the war is that I was not with them when it ended.

For the companionship of two and a half years of death and misery is a spouse that tolerates no divorce. Such companionship finally becomes a part of one’s soul, and it cannot be obliterated.

True, I am with American boys in the other war not yet ended, but I am old-fashioned and my sentiment runs to old things.

To me the European war is old, and the Pacific war is new.

Last summer I wrote that I hoped the end of the war could be a gigantic relief, but not an elation. In the joyousness of high spirits it is easy for us to forget the dead. Those who are gone would not wish themselves to be a millstone of gloom around our necks.

But there are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.

Dead men by mass production – in one country after another – month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.

Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.

Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.

These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.

We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference. . . .


Ernie Pyle was shot in the left side of the head and killed instantly on Ie Shima, an island off the coast of Okinawa, on April 18, 1945. The photograph below shows his body immediately afterward, laid out by the soldiers who were with him when he died.




The New York Times wrote in its obituary:

Ernie Pyle was haunted all his life by an obsession. He said over and over again, "I suffer agony in anticipation of meeting people for fear they won't like me."

No man could have been less justified in such a fear. Word of Pyle's death started tears in the eyes of millions, from the White House to the poorest dwellings in the country.

President Truman and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt followed his writings as avidly as any farmer's wife or city tenement mother with sons in service.

Mrs. Roosevelt once wrote in her column "I have read everything he has sent from overseas," and recommended his writings to all Americans.

For three years these writings had entered some 14,000,000 homes almost as personal letters from the front. Soldiers' kin prayed for Ernie Pyle as they prayed for their own sons.

In the Eighth Avenue subway yesterday a gray-haired woman looked up, wet-eyed, from the headline "Ernie Pyle Killed in Action" and murmured "May God rest his soul" and other women, and men, around her took up the words. This was typical.

It was rather curious that a nation should have worked up such affection for a timid little man whose greatest fear was "Maybe they won't like me."





Rest in peace, Mr. Pyle.

I'd like to appeal to all my readers to support the Ernie Pyle Home and museum. Donations may be sent to:

The Friends of Ernie Pyle
P.O. Box 338
Dana, IN 47847

I'll challenge all of you. My $10 donation is on its way. How about matching or beating it? If all of us do so, we should be able to send enough to cover at least a year's operating costs.

I'd also like to appeal to all fellow bloggers who read this. Please consider posting your own article about Ernie Pyle, or linking to this one, and helping to raise funds to keep the museum open. I think it's a cause worthy of our support.

Thanks in advance, friends.

Peter

10 comments:

Keads said...

I will send a donation and I will cross link right now, thanks!

stopsign said...

Such greatness from 1 man...Thank you so much for sharing..You can also expect a donation from me as well..

George said...

Sent my donation and will link your post.

Your post is a great tribute.

Borepatch said...

Lawdog, reading his dispatches seems almost a rebuke to the degenerate journalists of today. And that last picture is probably the last time that our soldiers put up a sign saying they were sorry a journalist was shot.

I'm sorry to be so negative, but it's hard not to compare today's scribblers with him. They're not in the same league.

Borepatch said...

Sorry, I meant Peter. I came here from Lawdog's place.

Been a long day, and I'm clearly a buncha IQ points down. :-p

Anonymous said...

My wife and I shipped off a few bucks yesterday.
I hope enough people take up the challenge to save the museum.
I read some of Pyle's collected work when I was in high school.

Brandy said...

My check will be in the mail tomorrow. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I already passed the link along on my social networking site of choice, which is where I saw it. The word is spreading.

Miguel said...

My donation sent and I am posting everywhere I can. I even sent an email to Michael Yon. Hopefully it doesn;t get lost and he can post something in his Facebook Page.

Anonymous said...

Miguel - your email worked. I just found this page from Michael Yon's FB notice.

Miguel said...

Sweet!!!!!

I knew he would feel the issue close to him.