Ernie Pyle, still telling the stories of soldiers, 70 years on
“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 toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand.”
The words appeared in American newspapers on June 17, 1944, contained in the last of three reports war correspondent Ernie Pyle filed depicting the aftermath of D-day.
In his signature style, detailed and deceptively simple, Pyle described the “human litter” that extended in “a thin little line, like a high-water mark” along the beaches of Normandy after the June 6 landing.
Writing paper and air mail envelopes constituted the most common debris, after cigarettes.
“The boys had intended to do a lot of writing in France. Letters that would have filled those blank, abandoned pages.”
You see these words, and many others by Pyle, as you read, watch and sometimes weep while touring the “Road to Berlin” galleries at the National WWII Museum here in New Orleans.
The museum displays all manner of artifacts — maps and telegrams, rifles and dog tags — and the hardware of war, including a B-29 bomber and P-51 Mustang fighter. There are photos, films and documentaries; with a click you can play videos of veterans recounting the war.
There are Pyle artifacts too, copies of two of his books, “Brave Men” and “Here Is Your War,” and a Zippo lighter Pyle gave to a friend who helped him answer fan mail. “For Reed Switzer in gratefulness for everything you’ve done for me,” he wrote. “Ernie Pyle. Sept. 7, 1944. London.”
He’s not the focus of the exhibits, but his presence, heartfelt and melancholy, seems everywhere here.
His description of litter following D-day, that “long thin line of anguish,” inspired one of the museum’s most moving displays. Next to excerpts from that dispatch stands a rectangular glass box lined with a few inches of gray sand.
There are no high-tech graphics, just the sand studded with objects of the kind Pyle recorded — among them two helmets, packs of Old Gold and Lucky Strike cigarettes, a safety razor, Vaseline, a bar of soap.
“We added that relatively late,” said Owen Glendening, the museum’s associate vice president of education and access.
At a staff meeting, he recalled, someone mentioned that they had buckets of sand brought back from Normandy. Could the sand be used in some way?
Then someone remembered Pyle’s June 17 column.
You come across the glass box after viewing dramatic displays about the invasion. Museum staff wondered, after designing such harrowing exhibits, “how we were going to mark, to sanctify, the sacrifice of the day,” Glendening said.
They found their answer in Pyle’s words.
Pyle had already reported on the North African and Italian campaigns when he prepared to cover the Allied invasion of France.
Rick Atkinson, in his masterful history, “The Guns at Last Light,” tallies Pyle’s gear: “His kit bag carried 11 liquor bottles, assorted good luck trinkets, a Remington portable and notice of the Pulitzer Prize he had won a month earlier for brilliant reporting in the Mediterranean.”
Atkinson also shows how the war shattered Pyle, quoting a letter he wrote to a friend: “Instead of growing stronger and hard as good veterans do, I’ve become weaker and more frightened.... I don’t sleep well, and have half-awake hideous dreams about the war.”
He was 45 but his thin face, narrow shoulders and balding pate made him look old enough to be the grandfather of the GIs he wrote about.
Telling a friend that “the hurt has finally become too great,” he left Europe for home in September 1944.
But he still had stories to write and after a brief rest, headed to the Pacific.
That spring, the front page of the Los Angeles Times carried a story filed by Associated Press writer Grant MacDonald from Okinawa, dated April 18, 1945. It began: “Ernie Pyle, war correspondent beloved by his co-workers, GIs and generals alike, was killed by a Japanese machine-gun bullet through his left temple this morning.”
Lt. Col. Joseph B. Coolidge, who was with Pyle when he was hit, said that enlisted men had “lost their best friend.”
Pyle had told their story unflinchingly and with compassion. Elsewhere at the museum, another line by Pyle appears mounted on a wall: “Dead men have been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed on to the backs of mules.”
The line comes from “The Death of Capt. Waskow,” the heartbreaking account of men seeing the body of Capt. Henry T. Waskow.
“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 into the moonlight, all alone.”
When you walk through the museum and read the line about the mules bringing bodies down the mountain, and the line about the blank writing paper, and the line about razors in the sand, it hits you.
Seventy years after his death, Ernie Pyle is still at work, still telling the stories of soldiers.
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