Ernie Pyle’s war dispatches cast light on D-Day’s human toll
DANA, Ind. (AP) — When Phil Hess first read Ernie Pyle’s work “Brave Men” in grade school as part of a book-of-the-month club, he said he once put it down feeling like he wasn’t learning much at all about World War II or the men who fought it.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Pyle had a penchant for covering WWII through an infantrymen’s perspective, sparing no detail of the mental and physical toll of war. And to the untrained eye, the ground-level, grunts-eye view Pyle took in his dispatches from the front may seem to forsake the grand narrative of a noble war spun in history classes.
But as Hess read more of his fellow Dana, Indiana, native’s book, he realized he might be learning more about the war and its heroes than he’d previously realized.
“When I started I felt like I wasn’t learning anything about the war,” Hess said.
“But when I’d finished I knew I was learning everything about the war. What it looked like, what it felt like, what they saw, what they were doing.
“A lot of it isn’t spectacular or glamorous, but Pyle and his stories of the men who fought that war are necessary to really understanding it all.”
And while Hess’ book-of-the-month-club revelation is now some years behind him, the western Indiana farmer is still enamored with Pyle’s being America’s window to WWII and serves as vice president of the Friends of Ernie Pyle group that operates the Ernie Pyle WWII Museum in Dana.
Hess can tell the story of every display and piece of memorabilia in the museum, but with the 75th anniversary of D-Day coming up, he is especially fond of sharing with museum visitors the trio of dispatches Pyle filed from Omaha Beach in Normandy.
Other correspondents at the time may have focused on the strategy used by Allied forces or on what’s next following the invasion, Hess said. But Pyle, he was astounded by the magnitude of the invasion and the indescribable toll it took on America’s young men.
“Now that it’s over it seems to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all,” Pyle wrote in his first of three dispatches, “A Pure Miracle.”
“For some of our units it was easy, but in this special sector where I am now our troops face such odds that our getting ashore was like my whipping Joe Louis down to a pulp.”
Omaha Beach was the largest of the five beaches invaded on D-Day and was assaulted by 34,000 U.S. troops on June 6, 1944. Pyle was standing on that blood-soaked beach the next morning, looking over a battlefield where thousands of casualties lay wounded or dead.
“Our men simply could not get past the beach,” Pyle wrote. “They were pinned down right on the water’s edge by an inhuman wall of fire from the bluff. Our first waves were on the beach for hours, instead of a few minutes, before they could begin working inland.”
In his third dispatch from the beaches of Normandy, “A Long Thin Line of Personal Anguish,” Pyle expounded on the human toll of D-Day and the litter left behind by men who ditched worldly possessions in their mad dash to survive.
“Soldiers carry strange things ashore with them,” Pyle wrote. “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.”
This dispatch is one of Hess’ favorites, as made evident by the passion he exudes when explaining all the pieces of gear gone into making the museum’s exhibit on the piece.
Situated in a bed of sand and in front of a backdrop featuring a picture of Omaha Beach as it was the day Pyle landed, the exhibit is a mess of spilled ammunition, discarded packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes, German tank traps and the figure of a dog.
“Always there are dogs in every invasion,” Pyle wrote. “There is a dog still on the beach today, still pitifully looking for his masters.”
Hess says he loves the D-Day exhibit because of its being representative of Pyle’s ability to capture powerful detail while war rages on around him.
“Ernie just went for a stroll and wrote of all the sad things he came upon,” Hess said. “He saw the buddies of heroes washing out to sea and then brought back. He went to step over some driftwood on his walk before realizing it was the feet of a soldier half buried in sand.”
Hess could hardly help himself in the museum and was in “curator mode” as he recounted Pyle’s stories of D-Day, of Capt. Henry T. Waskow, of the men in Italy and Tunisia and of the war’s “fabulous infantry,” as he moved from exhibit to exhibit.
But what he didn’t talk so much about was the grand strategy of the war, of the movements of this unit or that across the global battle space.
So while Hess may have initially put down Pyle’s work thinking there wasn’t much too it, he hasn’t since and has learned the lesson that Pyle seemed so hell-bent on relaying in his dispatches; the men who fought in America’s last romantic war were “just guys from Broadway and Main Street.” And that each of those guys, be they in Africa, Italy, France or any god-forsaken island in the Pacific, had a story worth noting.
Because, as Hess said, to understand those men’s stories as Pyle chronicled them is to know, “what it looked like, what it felt like, what they saw, what they were doing.”
Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com