Listening to Ernie Pyle
I was looking through my bookshelf for a book to read (as if I didn’t have enough already) when I found a book written by Ernie Pyle, titled Brave Men. I had not previously paid any attention to it, much less read it. I knew Ernie Pyle was a war correspondent of some note during World War II but that’s all. Reading the introduction, Brave Men consolidates some of his newspaper columns from the invasion of Sicily, through the invasion of Italy, then during a break when he returned to England, and then on D-Day Plus One (he was on the beach the day after the first wave of soldiers went in), followed by the invasion of France up to the liberation of Paris.
I was immediately captivated by the text. The way Ernie wrote and what he wrote about has opened up new insights into World War II. I sent off for Ernie’s War, a broader biographical treatment that looks at Ernie’s life (during the war, he and his wife had a home in Albuquerque; I took a trip to walk through his house last week. It’s now part of the Albuquerque Library System), and then uses excerpts from his columns to cover his time in England before the United States joined the war, during the invasions of Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, and then what little time he had in the Pacific. He was killed on April 18th, 1945 by a sniper on a small island off Okinawa. He was 45 years old.
Pyle was the most recognized United States war correspondent during the war, writing columns while he was with the frontline combat troops, on board a hospital ship, or sitting in the Savoy in London during the blitz (1940-41). He wrote in a very friendly, down-home way that won him the hearts of readers throughout America and especially with the troops that caught his columns in the various newspapers in which he was published. Dominated by personal talks with individual soldiers (he included their names and addresses in his columns), he gave a down-and-dirty, no-punches-pulled, this-is-the-way-it-is view of what men do during war and how they reacted to its brutality.
What he described wasn’t pretty, but it was truthful. Ernie wrote about the Army, the Navy, the Army Air Corps; tank crews, artillery crews, hospital ships, dive bomber crews; Generals, Colonels, lieutenants, privates; warriors, support personnel, repairmen, doctors, nurses, drivers, and engineers, as well as mule trains, Seabees, and his favorite subject, the men in the infantry. And when he told what they were doing, it was by direct observation – he was there when the bombers flew overhead, the incessant noise of the artillery was going off, and watched as exhausted men came out of combat with their souls hanging by threads. Ernie slept in wet foxholes, in the underground shelters in London, in Italian buildings whose roofs and walls has mostly been knocked down by artillery or bombs; he ate C-rations for weeks, sat around small stoves in the corner of tents while it snowed outside, had coffee with thousands of weary men being continually shot at, bombed, and shelled for days on end, who were getting a couple of days of rest before they returned to the line to do it all over again.
His style of writing is what I enjoy most – simple, straight-forward, good English with correct grammar, honest, full of compassion, and given to the whole truth. He wrote like his readers were his friends and, more importantly, that every reader knew someone just like he was describing and wanted to know how they were getting along.
If you have an opportunity to find one of his books, he opens up the reality of men in combat.
Did You Know.....?
I consider writing fiction books easier than writing non-fiction books; readers don’t expect the same level of “truth” from the first as they do from the second. In fiction, if you need a plot development or a character flaw or a sudden relocation to a different place, you just make it up, right?
That’s about half right, in most respects, but writing a good story still demands authenticity in its characters, locations, and events, even if the “authenticity” is constructed. Science Fiction is a good example – readers are ready to believe anything if you’ve done a good job of creating an environment where it seems real.
My mystery books are true to the geography, the location, and the history preceding the events and, for the most part, succeed in making the stories more relevant, believable, and interesting than if they had arbitrary settings with made-up backgrounds. A side benefit is that any “lessons” in a story are more real because they fit into actual events, people, or cultures that the reader can easily identify with. The “authenticity” works because real history is pretty easy to reimagine, both for me and for the reader.
Ah, those were the good ol’ days.
My current project, currently called Teddy’s War, follows two brothers from 1936 to 1945 and uses World War II as a backdrop. The brothers and their journeys are fictional but the story needs to be accurate in portraying the realities of the war and what would have been the true physical and emotional experiences of typical soldiers.
This is whole new territory for me.
I expected most of my problems would concern names, places, events, and objects involved in the story. That is, I needed to use the real names of guns, armaments, tanks, planes, events, military ranks, fighting unit designations, uniforms, equipment, weather, location, geography, and a few thousand other details that real historians and history buffs would expect (and would likely complain about if I got wrong) and that would give me rock-solid authenticity for the ordinary reader. Basically, I knew that I wouldn’t want want the novel to look amateur from the “facts” point of view and I certainly wouldn’t want to get things wrong.
What I’ve discovered is not the difficulty of being true to the facts but handling all the details that makes writing about World War II interesting in the first place.
Did you know that some of the American dive bombers used in Italy were P-51 Mustangs that had special flaps attached to their wings that, when opened, kept the airplanes from going too fast? The modified wings limited the aircraft speed to less than four hundred miles an hour while flying straight down. Any faster and the pilots would never have been able to pull out of the dive. Even at that speed, the pilots blacked out for several seconds during their recovery from the dive.
Did you know that each Army Division had Grave Registration Units responsible for immediately recovering the bodies of dead soldiers, gathering all of their personal affects, establishing written information archives, including maps, and then burying them in mattress covers in temporary cemeteries until they could be reinterred in permanent locations? They were serious enough that one GRU person jumped into Normandy on D-Day with the 101st Airborne to begin gathering the bodies that he knew would soon appear. From day one, he was negotiating with local farmers to buy fields that could be used for permanent cemeteries. He carried quite a lot of cash.
Did you know that, to get fuel to vehicles as fast as possible, the Allies, immediately after the port was captured, laid three pipelines along the ocean floor that went from the coast of England to the port of Cherbourg, France? Establishing a fuel depot was faster than shipping fuel in containers on ships.
Did you know that the “invasion of Europe” occurred not just along the Normandy coast, but also along the southern border of France, in the Mediterranean? That’s where the Seventh Army came ashore. Imagine truckloads of soldiers riding across the beaches of the French Riviera.
I’ve read a dozen or so books, looked at a few dozen maps, watched Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, other war DVDs, and gone through a number of YouTube videos about the history of the war. The first result was my making a career of irritating friends by quoting obscure facts that they’ve never heard nor cared about. The second result was that I stopped working on my book.
I’ve found so many interesting and fascinating details that people should know that the “backdrop” of my story has swamped the foreground. I’m spending more time reading about the war, finding facts, and understanding strategies, than I am writing, while the overwhelming amount of information that I’m enjoying has nothing to do with the story that I started out to tell.
I expect that I will pull out of my tailspin eventually, but I’m going to have to go back to where I started.
Listening for Paragraphs
I enjoyed reading newspaper columns and books by Erma Bombeck when I was growing up. She was funny, sometimes hilarious, and was always grounded in real life. My mom thought that Erma and Ann Landers should be required reading for teenagers.
I had never heard of Nora Ephron until I read some quotes in a writing magazine. I ordered a couple of books by her and one compendium of her work. At first, I thought she was the successor to Erma, but Nora didn’t have the simple honest amateurism of an Erma. Nora was a long-time professional columnist, her work appearing in a number of newspapers and magazines. She was funny not because she was a comedian, but because of her wit, insight, and identification with the reader. Nora died in 2012 at the age of 72.
I could repeat what I’ve read in the Nora Ephron pages of Wikipedia, but I’ll just recommend reading them yourself. I will, however, entice you with facts: Remember the movies When Harry Met Sally? Sleepless in Seattle? You’ve Got Mail? Julie and Julia? Nora not only wrote or helped write the screenplays for those movies, she directed a couple, earning Academy Award nominations doing it. Her talent was come by naturally: her parents were Hollywood screenwriters of some fame and Nora grew up meeting the movie crowd that surrounded her parents, and, obviously, watched how the craft was done. She knew most of the actors and actresses in Hollywood, and most of the newspaper and magazine elites in New York City; she lived in both places and was definitely in love with big city urbanism.
She was creative, very liberal, witty, funny, and had a definite style when it came to living. She was also well-known as a self-taught chef and many of her columns and books are filled with recipes. The compendium of essays, articles and stories that I read bear witness to the large number of personalities she knew and the decades-long writings that attracted and entertained her readers.
I enjoy her writing. If nothing else, she exudes comfortableness. That is, she’s a person that you might like to find in a booth in some out-of-the-way diner who would share the time with you, excite you, fascinate you, entertain you, all with a laid-back, comfortable way of talking. She was always opinionated, but I get the feeling that, even with a debate level topic, she’d still be a person to whom communication was important – she’d want to say something that would make you want to listen.
As you talked, you’d probably notice that she not only speaks well, but speaks in whole sentences and full paragraphs. Stephen King believes that this skill is vital to writing, that the building block of good writing is not the sentence but the paragraph. That’s where all those words and sentences, the nouns and verbs and linkages, and the fundamental thoughts come together to clearly express what the writer is wanting to say in a nice, concise package.
Listening to someone who talks in paragraphs is very much like listening to someone tell a story – individual words and individual sentences are not enough to draw in a listener. You need full-bodied paragraphs where the words and structure of the language gives you enough time, time, time to get an idea or thought or comment or explanation across.
Nora Ephron knew how to use paragraphs.
That’s the way she wrote and is how we should all learn to write.
A New Book Is Born
My father died in the 1980s. I often wonder what his life would have been like if he’d lived another 30 years or so. I know my mother would have been far happier.
After his death, my mom and I were going through a trunk and discovered a list of dates and place names that chronicled my dad’s World War II experience. It detailed when and where he was located from when he signed up in Ponca City, Oklahoma, until he returned to Ponca City three years later. We also found lists of names of those in his immediate unit and a few photographs of where he had been. He was a ground-based aircraft detection radar operator in the Army Signal Corps, so he was always close to the fighting, but never in it.
My dad was in England for a year then landed on Omaha Beach on July 3rd, 1944, twenty-six days after D-Day. He traveled with the Seventh Army as it progressed through Normandy, and was close to Paris when it was liberated. He went north into Belgium and Holland, and then back down until he was in a little Belgium town call Bastogne. His radar was considered classified, so his radar unit escaped west out of Bastogne as the German army was attacking on the east.
After the Battle of the Bulge, his unit was assigned to Patton’s Third Army and went into Germany. He was in Czechoslovakia when the war ended; he returned home on the Queen Mary in November, 1945.
I was stunned by what the list revealed. I’d never talked to him about the war because, I guess, I never thought to ask. That was a great mistake on my part. I did research on the locations in the list and built a comprehensive map (using Goggle) of his route during the campaign. I also researched the kind of radar he operated and found several on-line sources describing its history and the tactical operations.
From this research, I thought of an idea for a war story.
In January, I started a new novel. It evolved into a love story set against the background of World War II. I never thought I’d write a love story, but the more I got into it, the more it moved that direction. I’ve gotten most of the plot and the scenes mapped out, but I’ve decided that it takes being there to write the realism that the story deserves.
In October, I’m on the way to Normandy. Accompanied by one of my sons, I’m spending time in London to visit the Imperial War Museum and Churchill’s war-time bunkers, and then will ride the train beneath the English Channel to Paris, and then to Bayeux, Normandy for three days. Bayeux is about six miles from Omaha Beach. I’ve scheduled tours to the different beaches, the museums, and the Allied cemetery. We’ll spend another day at Mont Saint Michel, maybe a hundred miles away. Look on the web for pictures; it’s beautiful and unique. Growing up, I had a large poster of Mont Saint Michel on the wall in my bedroom; I never thought I’d see it for real.
From this journey, I hope to find words to describe some of what my dad experienced and that those words will carry over into describing what my characters experience in the story. This is NOT my dad’s story; it is wholly fictional and the characters do not resemble him, but I do want to honor his experience and to portray accurately the substance of being a soldier in war.
The new book should be finished in December and then I’ll start working with my editor to get it into publishable form next year.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.