Ernie Pyle Essays

NORMANDY BEACHHEAD, June 16, 1944 – I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France.

It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead.

The water was full of squishy little jellyfish about the size of your hand. Millions of them. In the center each of them had a green design exactly like a four-leaf clover. The good-luck emblem. Sure. Hell yes.

I walked for a mile and a half along the water’s edge of our many-miled invasion beach. You wanted to walk slowly, for the detail on that beach was infinite.

The wreckage was vast and startling. The awful waste and destruction of war, even aside from the loss of human life, has always been one of its outstanding features to those who are in it. Anything and everything is expendable. And we did expend on our beachhead in Normandy during those first few hours.

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For a mile out from the beach there were scores of tanks and trucks and boats that you could no longer see, for they were at the bottom of the water – swamped by overloading, or hit by shells, or sunk by mines. Most of their crews were lost.

 

You could see trucks tipped half over and swamped. You could see partly sunken barges, and the angled-up corners of jeeps, and small landing craft half submerged. And at low tide you could still see those vicious six-pronged iron snares that helped snag and wreck them.

On the beach itself, high and dry, were all kinds of wrecked vehicles. There were tanks that had only just made the beach before being knocked out. There were jeeps that had been burned to a dull gray. There were big derricks on caterpillar treads that didn’t quite make it. There were half-tracks carrying office equipment that had been made into a shambles by a single shell hit, their interiors still holding their useless equipage of smashed typewriters, telephones, office files.

There were LCT’s turned completely upside down, and lying on their backs, and how they got that way I don’t know. There were boats stacked on top of each other, their sides caved in, their suspension doors knocked off.

In this shoreline museum of carnage there were abandoned rolls of barbed wire and smashed bulldozers and big stacks of thrown-away lifebelts and piles of shells still waiting to be moved.

In the water floated empty life rafts and soldiers’ packs and ration boxes, and mysterious oranges.

On the beach lay snarled rolls of telephone wire and big rolls of steel matting and stacks of broken, rusting rifles.

On the beach lay, expended, sufficient men and mechanism for a small war. They were gone forever now. And yet we could afford it.

We could afford it because we were on, we had our toehold, and behind us there were such enormous replacements for this wreckage on the beach that you could hardly conceive of their sum total. Men and equipment were flowing from England in such a gigantic stream that it made the waste on the beachhead seem like nothing at all, really nothing at all.

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A few hundred yards back on the beach is a high bluff. Up there we had a tent hospital, and a barbed-wire enclosure for prisoners of war. From up there you could see far up and down the beach, in a spectacular crow’s-nest view, and far out to sea.

And standing out there on the water beyond all this wreckage was the greatest armada man has ever seen. You simply could not believe the gigantic collection of ships that lay out there waiting to unload.

Looking from the bluff, it lay thick and clear to the far horizon of the sea and beyond, and it spread out to the sides and was miles wide. Its utter enormity would move the hardest man.

As I stood up there I noticed a group of freshly taken German prisoners standing nearby. They had not yet been put in the prison cage. They were just standing there, a couple of doughboys leisurely guarding them with tommy guns.

The prisoners too were looking out to sea – the same bit of sea that for months and years had been so safely empty before their gaze. Now they stood staring almost as if in a trance.

They didn’t say a word to each other. They didn’t need to. The expression on their faces was something forever unforgettable. In it was the final horrified acceptance of their doom.

If only all Germans could have had the rich experience of standing on the bluff and looking out across the water and seeing what their compatriots saw.

Source:Ernie's War: The Best of Ernie Pyle's World War II Dispatches, edited by David Nichols, pp. 280-82. Pictures courtesy of The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

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Ernie Pyle 1900-1945

(Full name Ernest Taylor Pyle) American journalist.

A career newspaper man, Pyle is best remembered as a populist war correspondent who documented the experiences of the regular soldier. Unlike his contemporaries, who reported the war in terms of broad strategic events, or by profiling generals and political leaders, Pyle focused on the many small struggles of infantrymen and tried to give the war a human face. His compassion earned him great popularity in the United States, and his death in battle elevated him to the status of war hero.

Biographical Information

Pyle was born on his parents' small farm outside Dana, Indiana, on August 3, 1900. He enlisted in the navy immediately after graduating from Helt Township High School in 1918, but he was never sent overseas. The following year he enrolled at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, where he took his first post as a reporter, working for the school newspaper, The Student. He eventually rose to become editor-in-chief of both The Student and the campus humor magazine, The Smokeup. Without completing his senior year, Pyle left college to take a job reporting for the La Porte Herald. During his three-month tenure there he placed an article in the paper describing a Ku Klux Klan rally, despite attempts to intimidate him. Pyle left Indiana to work for the Washington Daily News, first as a reporter and later at the copy desk. In 1925, Pyle married Geraldine Siebolds. They settled briefly in New York, but Pyle was back at the Washington Daily News by 1927. He was made a full-time aviation columnist in 1929, and managing editor three years later. Pyle wrote a popular column about his travels throughout America, criss-crossing the country a number of times in the process, and in 1939 Scripps-Howard syndicated the column. By this time, Pyle determined to go to Europe to cover the war first-hand. He left for London in late 1940 and his dispatches were a great success back in the United States. The columns were collected and published by Scripps-Howard in 1941 after Pyle had returned. During his absence, Geraldine had become increasingly depressed and alcoholic, and they divorced in 1942. Pyle returned to Europe, then moved on to North Africa, but he remained in contact with Geraldine and eventually remarried her by proxy in 1943. In the months that followed, Pyle traveled to Italy and then back to England. He was one of the twenty-eight correspondents who covered the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944 and followed the Allied armies to Paris. His distinguished correspondence during this period won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1944, as well as two honorary degrees. After a brief sojourn in the United States, during which Geraldine suffered a relapse and was hospitalized, Pyle went to cover the war in the Pacific in 1945, landing with the troops at Okinawa. There, on the island of Ie Shima, he was shot in the head by a Japanese sniper. President Truman awarded him the Medal of Merit posthumously, and his remains were moved from Ie Shima to the National Memorial Cemetery in Punchbowl Crater, Hawaii.

Major Works

Pyle's most famous single column, describing the death of Captain Henry T. Waskow at San Pietro, appeared on front pages across the country in 1943, filling the entire front page of the Washington Daily News. Scripps-Howard released a number of compilations of his columns; his London visit is documented in Ernie Pyle in England; the collection of his African correspondence, Here is Your War, became a bestseller and was adapted for the screen as "The Story of G.I. Joe." Around this time the U. S. Congress passed "The Ernie Pyle Bill," raising combat pay by ten dollars a month. His account of D Day and the European war was released in 1944 under the title Brave Men. Pyle's Pacific dispatches were posthumously collected in Last Chapter. His prewar writings were assembled and published by Scripps-Howard in the 1947 collection, Home Country.

Critical Reception

Pyle wrote columns that met with popular approval. One of his earliest columns, reporting the death of pilot Floyd Cox in a plane crash, brought in a flood of letters from readers across the country; this was the type of success Pyle enjoyed. He avoided polarizing political questions, and he did no historical evaluation of the events he covered. Modern historians regard him more as a contemporary source of information about public opinion than as a critical observer.

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