- Historic Sites
Chronicler of “The Men Who Do the Dying”
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
The reports from England gave Pyle his first taste of real attention. A number of newspapers added his column, and the New York World-Telegram ran the blitz stories on page one.
Back home, Pyle’s old beat now seemed trivial even to him. Not long after Pearl Harbor he was off at a ski resort writing pieces about learning to ski. The feeling that he was missing out on the only story that mattered, coupled with a worsening of his wife’s troubles, plunged him into gloom that began to lift only when Scripps-Howard sent him back to the war in June of 1942. In Northern Ireland and England he wrote about the garrison life of the American forces then beginning to arrive. But his career as a war correspondent really dates from late November of 1942, two weeks after the Allied invasion of North Africa, when he arrived by troopship at Mers-el-Kabir near Oran in Algeria.
“Down the gangplank to a long concrete quay went Ernie, lugging a barracks bag, bedroll, musette bag, gas mask, helmet, canteen, and typewriter,” wrote Lee Miller. A fellow correspondent recalled him as looking “wan and miserable,” and, says Miller, “he was still self-conscious in his uniform with its ’C’—for correspondent—armband.” He was beginning a series of campaigns from which he was to have little respite until his death—from North Africa to Sicily, on to Italy and then the Normandy landings, and finally the Pacific.
Pyle’s assignment gave him advantages. “Most war correspondents envied Ernie the freedom his job afforded, and we liked to think that was a major reason why he was more successful than we,” wrote Graham Hovey, who was a wire service reporter in North Africa. “Most of us had daily deadlines to meet. We had to go to the front every day; dip briefly into the war, then drive back to base and file ‘spot’ stories on developments. Ernie could remain in the field with one unit for five days at a time; get to know many soldiers, then come back and write enough columns for a week.” But Hovey and Pyle’s other professional rivals agreed that this hardly began to explain his success.
One of Pyle’s special qualities was that he never lost the ability to stand back and see the incongruity of the whole business. Again and again he was struck by a sort of “what on earth are we all doing here?” feeling. That happened, for example, as he rode in a jeep that was part of a miles-long convoy of hundreds of vehicles and thousands of men feeling its way in the dark across the mountains and deserts of Tunisia. “I couldn’t help feeling the immensity of the catastrophe that had put men all over the world, millions of us, to moving in machinelike precision throughout the long nights—men who should have been comfortably asleep in their warm beds at home. War makes strange giant creatures out of the little routine men who inhabit the earth.”
He never ceased wondering at the way the “little routine men” delivered when called on to do things they had never dreamed of doing. He wrote of the airline clerk from New York City who had proved himself as a fearless, resourceful infantry company commander and the cowboy-turned-platoon sergeant who could fix anything and who felt his responsibility for green replacements so keenly that he suffered terrible pangs of guilt every time one was killed. He speculated on a subchaser captain who brought his little vessel alongside and hailed Pyle’s ship as it headed for the invasion of Sicily: ”… out in the darkness the voice was youthful. I could picture a youngster of a skipper out there with his blown hair and his life jacket and binoculars, rolling to the sea in the Mediterranean dusk. Some young man who shortly before had perhaps been unaware of any sea at all—the bookkeeper in your bank, maybe—and then there he was, a strange new man in command of a ship, suddenly a person with acute responsibilities, carrying out with great intentness his special, small part of the enormous aggregate that is our war on all the lands and seas of the globe.”
Pyle tried to give a measure of recognition to men whose contributions were usually overlooked. Thus he wrote not only about the Flying Fortress pilots but also about the repair crews that could take bombers with washtub-size flak holes and have them flying again in three days. He described the superhuman efforts of a band of Engineers in Sicily to bridge a huge gap blasted by the retreating Germans in a vital road carved into the face of a sheer cliff two hundred feet above the sea; twenty-four hours after they tackled the complex and perilous project jeeps rumbled across the span. On the Anzio beachhead he devoted a column to eighty soldiers who worked under fire baking twenty-seven thousand pounds of bread a day.
But it was the men at the front—“the tiny percentage of our vast Army who are actually up there doing the dying”—that got the most attention from Pyle. As American troops approached Bizerte and the windup of the North African campaign, he wrote an often-quoted tribute to the infantry—“the God-damned infantry as they like to call themselves. I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.”