Tuesday, June 06, 2023

'Those Both Dead and Alive Who Did It for You'

“Now that it is over it seems to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all. For some of our units it was easy, but in this special sector where I am now our troops faced such odds that our getting ashore was like my whipping Joe Louis down to a pulp. . .” 

Note Ernie Pyle’s use of the first-person plural – “we” took the beach, “our units,” “our troops.” Pyle could assume his readers – tens of thousands of them back home --  shared a unanimity of purpose with the troops on June 6, 1944 -- D-Day. At a symbolic though not trivial level, Pyle and his readers were invading France, retaking Europe, defeating Hitler. Such a consensus – call it reflexive patriotism – seems impossible today. On June 6, an estimated 4,414 Allied soldiers were killed, of whom 2,501 were Americans. The rest were from the United Kingdom and Canada. Pyle continues his thought:


“In this column I want to tell you what the opening of the second front in this one sector entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.”


Note the absence of a dry institutional voice in Pyle’s reporting. He addresses his readers directly, as in a conversation. His dispatches are conventionally described as “human interest” stories – a label he (and I) detested as condescending. In his syndicated column, carried in more than three-hundred American newspapers, he wrote not about armies and tactics but about the lives of ordinary Americans who happened to be soldiers. That was Pyle’s innovative specialty as a war correspondent. In 1944, he received the Pulitzer Prize, at a time when that award still occasionally meant something. His wartime columns were collected in four books: Ernie Pyle in England (1941), Here Is Your War (1943), Brave Men (1944) and Last Chapter (1946). My father, an Army Air Corps veteran of the war, had a beat-up copy of Brave Men.


Pyle covered the war from December 1940 until April 1945. He filed dispatches from Great Britain, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and the Pacific. On April 18, 1945, he was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire on the island of Ie Shima near Okinawa. In a 1950 tribute in The New Yorker, fellow war correspondent A.J. Liebling (who also was present off the Normandy coast on D-Day) credited Pyle with creating the mythic figure of “G. I. Joe, the suffering but triumphant infantryman.” Liebling would write of him five years after his death: “As of today, however, Pyle is the most imitated writer in America, just as he was in 1945.”


[Pyle’s D-Day column is collected in Ernie’s War: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches (Random House, 1986). Liebling’s “Pyle Set the Style” is collected in World War II Writings (Library of America, 2008).]


[As a footnote, here is Victor Davis Hanson writing in The Second World Wars (Basic Books, 2017): “The D-Day invasion of Normandy (Operation Overlord) was the largest combined land and sea operation conducted since the invasion of Greece by King Xerxes of Persia in spring 480 BC. It dwarfed all of history’s star-crossed beach landings from Marathon to Gallipoli (April 1915). Normandy would serve as a model for large subsequent American seaborne operations from Iwo Jima (February 1945) and Okinawa (April 1945) to Inchon (September 1950). It made all prior iconic cross-Channel invasions in either direction—Caesar’s (55 BC), William the Conqueror’s (1066), Henry V’s (1415) or the British landing in Flanders—seem minor amphibious operations in comparison.”]


Richard Zuelch said...

My father knew a man who survived D-Day. He told my dad that he survived it because he was in the third wave to go up the beach. The first wave had something like 80% casualties, and wave two was nearly as bad.

I've seen a photo of Pyle taken after he was killed. In an obviously posed photo, his body is lying on its back, the hands peacefully folded across his chest, and his glasses are still on.

Faze said...

I read my Dad’s Ernie Pyle book when I was a kid, and have the same fascination and knowledge of WWII as the rest of us whose fathers served in that conflict. I am in awe of the men who went ashore in the first wave at D-Day and I honor our service men past and present. At the same time, I think WWII was an insane murder-fest, just like all other wars. It was not “the good war”, but a monstrous sin against God and morality.