Ernie Pyle, born in Dana, Indiana on August 3, 1900, was one of the great American journalists of the twentieth century. He is one of the most famous correspondents of the Second World War, a man who riveted readers with his simple and direct accounts of life in the war zones and his skill at capturing the human essence of the servicemen he encountered. Pyle began his career in Indiana with the La Porte Herald in La Porte, Indiana after several years at Indiana University, then left that position for a job with the Washington Times. Pyle eventually began writing a daily column on aviation, the first one in the nation, and later became aviation editor for the Scripps-Howard chain. Pyle made a name for himself with the column and later acquired a position as a roving columnist for Scripps-Howard traveling all over the country writing stories about the places he visited and people he encountered. Pyle had a gift for writing in such a way that readers felt he was speaking directly to them.
Pyle’s career as a war correspondent began with the Battle of Britain. Later he was in North Africa, Sicily and France. After returning from Europe, Pyle had no intention of going back to cover the war, but later decided to cover the Pacific theater. He was killed on the island of Ie Shima near Okinawa by Japanese machine gun fire on April 18, 1945.
The following column appeared in June 1944 after the D-Day invasion. I read this for the first time during a recent visit to the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site in Indiana. This site, while off the beaten track, is more than well worth a visit and will be the subject of an upcoming profile here on Buckeyemuse. The column featured below was part of a display at the site, which is pictured here in this post. It is a haunting portrait of the cost of war, and it well illustrates Pyle’s ability to convey to readers, in this case through the depiction of objects, the devastating loss of so many young lives rich with potential.
A Long Thin Line of Personal Anguish
Normandy Beachhead, June 17, 1944—In the preceding column we told about the D-Day wreckage among our machines of war that were expended in taking one of the Normandy beaches.
But there is another and more human litter. It extends in a thin little line, just like a high water mark, for miles along the beach. This is the strewn personal gear, gear that will never be needed again, of those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe.
Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out—one of the security precautions enforced before the boys embarked.
Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand. Here are pocketbooks, metal mirrors, extra trousers, and bloody, abandoned shoes. Here are broken-handled shovels, and portable radios smashed almost beyond recognition, and mine detectors twisted and ruined. Here are torn pistol belts and canvas water buckets, first aid kits and jumbled heaps of lifebelts. I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier’s name in it, and put it in my jacket. I carried it a half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach. I don’t know why I picked it up, or why I put it back down.
Soldiers carry strange things ashore with them. In every invasion you’ll find at least one soldier hitting the beach at H-hour with a banjo slung over his shoulder. The most ironic piece of equipment marking our beach—this beach of first despair, then victory—is a tennis racket that some soldier had brought along. It lies lonesomely on the sand, clamped in its rack, not a string broken.
Two of the most dominant items in the beach refuse are cigarets and writing paper. Each soldier was issued a carton of cigarets just before we started. Today these cartons by the thousand, water-soaked and spilled out, mark the line of our first savage blow.
Writing paper and air-mail envelopes come second. The boys had intended to do a lot of writing in France. Letters that would have filled those blank, abandoned pages.
Always there are dogs in every invasion. There is a dog still on the beach today, still pitifully looking for his masters. He stays at the water’s edge, near a boat that lies twisted and half sunk at the water line. He barks appealingly to every soldier who approaches, trots eagerly along with him for a few feet, and then, sensing himself unwanted in all this haste, runs back to wait in vain for his own people at his own empty boat.
Over and around this long thin line of personal anguish, fresh men today are rushing vast supplies to keep our armies pushing on into France. Other squads of men pick amidst the wreckage to salvage ammunition and equipment that are still usable.
Men worked and slept on the beach for days before the last D-Day victim was taken away for burial. I stepped over the form of one youngster whom I thought dead. But when I looked down I saw he was only sleeping. He was very young, and very tired. He lay on one elbow, his hand suspended in the air about six inches from the ground. And in the palm of his hand he held a large, smooth rock.
I stood and looked at him a long time. He seemed in his sleep to hold that rock lovingly, as though it were his last link with a vanishing world. I have no idea at all why he went to sleep with the rock in his hand, or what kept him from dropping it once he was asleep. It was just one of those things without explanation that a person remembers for a long time.
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 towards the land he had come so far to see, and which he saw so briefly.
Ernie’s War: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches. Edited with a biographical essay by David Nichols. Foreword by Studs Terkel. A Touchstone Edition—Simon & Schuster Inc., New York, 1986.