April 18, 2011

On This Date in 1945

Ernie Pyle was perhaps America’s most famous war correspondent.

No war correspondent was more able to depict the day-to-day life of the ordinary World War II foot soldier than Ernie Pyle, whose columns, at their peak, appeared in some 400 daily and 300 weekly newspapers. Both warfare and journalism have changed since Pyle’s day, but Pyle’s heartfelt accounts of destroyed cities, realities of army life, and fronts read as if they were written only yesterday. Here’s Pyle reporting on fighting in Tunisia:
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.
On the Invasion of Italy:
Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly — but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.
On the day he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Pyle was reporting on the preparations for the D-Day:
The best way I can describe this vast armada and the frantic urgency of the traffic is to suggest that you visualize New York city on its busiest day of the year and then just enlarge that scene until it takes in all the ocean the human eye can reach clear around the horizon and over the horizon. There are dozens of times that many.
His accounts of the D-Day would later form the basis for the opening scenes in Saving Private Ryan.

Soon, the bloody fighting he witnessed came to haunt Pyle; he transferred himself to the Pacific Theatre, where at least from the ships where he posited him, the war seemed distant and impersonal. On April 18th 1945, Pyle came ashore on the small island of Ie Shima, where a Japanese machine gun fired on the jeep in which Pyle was riding. He was hit in the head and died instantly. An army photographer, Alexander Roberts, crept forward in the dirt to take this image. He withheld it from publication, “out of decency,” until 1979.

Pyle’s death came just six days after that of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In both cases, many Americans felt they had lost an old friend. Both civilians and soldiers alike mourned Pyle’s death. Inside his pocket was found some material that he hoped to publish when the war ends in Europe. The most poignant excerpt read:
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…
Many have come close, but there will never be another Erie Pyle.

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