- Historic Sites
Chronicler of “The Men Who Do the Dying”
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Whitehead’s praise failed to lift Ernie’s spirits, however, and on Christmas Eve he began a prolonged drunk. Sometimes he drank in the officers’ bar in the palace, where on one occasion he shed his normal mild demeanor long enough to insult a huffy colonel who apparently was offended by Pyle’s casual attitude toward uniform regulations. Other times he drank in his room, which was a gathering place for the press corps. “Usually he would be huddled in his bedding roll with only his head sticking out, looking like a pixie in that knit cap,” said Whitehead. One night after he had been drinking steadily for about a week, Ernie announced to the correspondents assembled in his room that he was stopping. As the others left, he asked Whitehead to stay. “If you’ll just look under my cot you’ll find a bottle,” he said. “Now, let’s have just one more drink.” The following night an Army doctor knocked him out with sleeping pills, and the morning after that he was ready to resume work, which was lucky because his backlog of columns had dwindled to almost nothing during the binge.
Pyle inevitably wondered about his own prospects for coming through the war alive. He said he avoided needless risks. Several times, for example, he declined invitations from bomber crews to accompany them on missions, explaining that other reporters had already done the story and that he would simply be in the way. But, he wrote Lee Miller, “there’s just no way to play it completely safe and still do your job.”
Diving in foxholes and slit trenches at the approach of German shells and planes became routine for him in North Africk Once a dud shell landed thirty feet from his hole and bounced by him. At Anzio a bomb demolished his room on the top floor of a waterfront villa. He had just awakened and was standing at the window wearing slippers and a helmet. The blast flung him back into the room, a wall collapsed on his bed, and debris covered his typewriter. But Ernie merely got a scratch on cheek, and the typewriter still worked.
He was particularly apprehensive before the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. He was one of twenty-eight American correspondents—out of five hundred on hand in England—picked to accompany the early stages of the assault. As things worked out, he played gin rummy aboard an LST on D-Day and didn’t go ashore until the second day, when he took a walk on Omaha Beach and produced a memorable column about the young soldiers lying dead on the sand and floating in the water and the awesome wreckage of mighty war machines. But in the next few weeks he saw considerable fighting, including the capture of the heavily fortified port of Cherbourg. And then on July 25 he had an experience that totally unnerved him.
He had joined a regiment near Saint-Lô that was part of the force charged with breaking out of the Normandy beachhead. Dug in among the hedgerows, Ernie and the soldiers waited while eighteen hundred American bombers began softening up the enemy before the attack. But despite red smoke shells and strips of colored cloth marking the forward limit of the U.S. troops, bombs started falling short. More than a hundred Americans, including a general, were killed. Ernie and an officer he didn’t know squirmed under a farm wagon parked in a shed, where they lay with their heads slightly up, “like two snakes—staring at each other.” Bombs crashed around them. “The air struck us in hundreds of continuing flutters. Our ears drummed and rang. We could feel quick little waves of concussion on the chest and in the eyes.”
When it was over, Ernie had had enough. He hung on at the front for a few more days until the breakthrough was completed, and then he worked out of a press camp behind the lines for a while. In late August he joined the Free French for their joyful entry into Paris. But he was ready to go home. “All of a sudden it seemed to me that if I heard one more shot or saw one more dead man, I would go off my nut.”
Ernie was now a full-blown public figure. GI’s in Europe, who received clippings of his columns in the mail and read him in Stars and Stripes , crowded around wherever he went. They shouted “Hi-ya, Ernie” when they passed him on the road in France. He was also the object of flattering attentions from generals, including Eisenhower and Bradley. Bradley, whose homespun manner Ernie found congenial, was one of the few high-ranking officers he wrote about at length. The general once said of Pyle: “My men always fought better when Ernie was around.”
He had made one earlier visit home. That was in the fall of 1943, when he flew to the United States by Clipper for a two-month break between Sicily and Italy. He had undergone his initial experience of being lionized then, and he frankly admitted that celebrity status had some advantages. By the time he returned home in the fall of 1944, traveling this time on the Queen Elizabeth , then serving as a hospital ship, the acclaim and interest were overwhelming.
Everybody wanted to see him. John Steinbeck dropped by his hotel in New York, and a soldier’s widow poured out her heart to him for five hours in San Francisco. Magazine, lecture, and radio offers flooded in; all were declined, including requests for radio appearances from Bob Hope and Eddie Cantor that came on the same day. An anthology of his African columns was a best seller, and a new collection of columns from Europe received enthusiastic reviews. In Hollywood, which he visited, The Story of GI Joe , based on his columns, was being filmed. He had approved the project, but now he was uneasy that he would be glamorized.