- Historic Sites
Chronicler of “The Men Who Do the Dying”
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Pyle felt that the people at home could never fully grasp what life at the front was like, but he did his best to tell them. It wasn’t so much the constant fear of bombing and shelling that undid men as the unremitting discomfort and weariness. He described his own life. In North Africa and Italy his skinny frame suffered miseries from the cold, despite layers of sweaters, coveralls, a mackinaw, a knit cap, and overshoes. His breakfast one dripping dawn in a muddy foxhole was cold C-ration hash from a can. He went as long as two months without a bath and “discovered I was a guy who could take baths or leave them alone.”
A. J. Liebling, who as a correspondent for The New Yorker encountered Pyle in North Africa and France, thought that he indulged in self-pity at times but acknowledged the vividness of his accounts. “You could have been sleeping on the ground for a fortnight without thinking much about it, but when you read that he had slept on the ground, your bones ached.” And while Ernie sometimes may have dwelt on his own discomforts, he never pretended that a correspondent’s lot was comparable to the soldiers’. A correspondent could always retire behind the lines for a good night’s rest and a hot meal. Even at the front, sleeping on the ground was bliss compared to the plight of one GI Ernie heard about at Anzio. He was trying to sleep sitting up in a foxhole partly filled with water, but every time he dozed off he fell over into the water. Finally he tied a rope around his chest and attached the other end to a log, so that he was held upright as he sat sleeping.
In Sicily the weather was warm, but there was still the grinding fatigue of prolonged combat. “It’s the perpetual, choking dust, the muscle-racking hard ground, the snatched food sitting ill on the stomach, and heat and flies and dirty feet and the constant roar of engines and the perpetual moving and the never settling down and the go, go, go, night and day, and on through the night again. Eventually it all works itself into an emotional tapestry of one dull, dead pattern—yesterday is tomorrow and Troina is Randazzo and when will we ever stop and, God, I’m so tired.”
And then there was the dying. In Sicily Pyle landed in a tent hospital with a fever, and a badly wounded soldier was brought in: “The wounded man was still semiconscious. The chaplain knelt beside him and two wardboys squatted nearby. The chaplain said, ‘John, I’m going to say a prayer for you.’
“Somehow this stark announcement hit me like a hammer. He didn’t say, Tm going to pray for you to get well,’ he just said he was going to say a prayer, and it was obvious to me that he meant the final prayer. It was as though he had said ‘Brother, you may not know it, but your goose is cooked’ Anyhow, he voiced the prayer, and the weak, gaspir tried vainly to repeat the words after him. When he finished, the chaplain added, ‘John, you’re doing fine, ybu’re doing fine.’ Then he rose and dashed off on some othencall, and the wardboys went about their duties.
“The dying man was left utterly alone, just lying there on his litter on the ground, lying in an aisle, because the tent was full. Of course it couldn’t be otherwise, but the alonenessW that man as he went through the last few minutes of his IiF was what tormented me. I felt like going over and at least holding his hand while he died, but it would have been out of order and I didn’t do it. I wish now I had.”
Pyle found the front lines particularly miserable in Italy in late 1943 and early 1944. Mud was knee deep in the valleys. Ernie reported that the GI’s often lacked overshoes, which they desperately needed to keep their feet dry, but were inundated with Life Savers and brushless shaving cream. In December he joined some of the troops who were clawing their way from one stony mountain ridge to another on the long road to Rome. At night many of the men slept in the open in freezing temperatures with “the thin snow sifting over them.” Water, K-rations, and ammunition had to be packed part way up the mountains on mules and then transferred to soldiers’ backs for the final and steepest ascent. One night Ernie made such a climb with a private first class who had to walk on his toes because his heels were blistered. Another night he watched at the bottom of a mountain as mules came down with dead Americans lashed across their backs. Among the dead was a popular young captain from Belton, Texas, Henry T. Waskow, and Pyle’s account of men approaching his body to pay their last respects was one of the most moving columns he ever wrote (see opposite page).
Shortly before Christmas he withdrew to Caserta, fifteen miles north of Naples, where the correspondents were billeted in the vast palace that served as Allied’headquarters. He was depressed by what he had seen, and he was also in one of those periods when he was convinced he had lost his writing touch. After laboring over some columns, he said, “This stuff stinks,” and tossed several to Don Whitehead of the Associated Press for comment. The first column Whitehead read was the one about the death of Captain Waskow. “The simplicity and beauty of that description brought tears to my eyes,” Whitehead said later.