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.
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.