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THE LAST WORD: Ernie Pyle’s reporting brought D-Day to life

Kerry Hubartt

What I like about reading good fiction is that the best authors create stories that put you into the book – description, voice, emotion and all the senses combine to make you experience what you read.

In my career as a journalist I sought, not always successfully, to try to bring my stories to life in a similar way – by use of description whenever possible, storytelling, trying to put the reader “there” in my reporting.

Perhaps that’s why I appreciate the work of World War II journalist Ernie Pyle. Born in Dana, Ind., in 1900, he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent before he was killed by a Japanese machine-gunner on the small island of Iejima, northwest of Okinawa in 1945.

While Pyle had been a journalist since 1923, he became known for the human-interest columns he wrote as a traveling reporter for the Scripps-Howard newspaper syndicate from 1935 to 1941. Readers were attracted to his straightforward accounts of ordinary people across America.

So when the U.S. entered World War II, so did he, bringing that same reporting and writing style in covering the European theater from 1942 to 1944, then to the Pacific theater in 1945. His dispatches to newspapers through Scripps-Howard back home were widely followed across the country by eager Americans attracted to his folksy style in telling what was going on in the war from the perspective of a soldier.

When Pyle was killed, his columns were appearing in 400 daily and 300 weekly newspapers. It was his singular style of storytelling developed first at Indiana University’s school of journalism and then during his early years as a human-interest reporter that served well to bring to life the everyday stories of the common soldier.

When the U.S. recognized the 75th anniversary of D-Day last week, there were many stories that came to light from survivors of the invasion of Allied forces landing on the beaches in France. And among the most detailed and close-up were three dispatches from war correspondent Ernie Pyle, filed from Omaha Beach in Normandy after he landed with American troops aboard an LST (landing ship, tank).

In his first dispatch from Normandy, dated June 12, 1944, Pyle wrote, “In this column I want to tell you what the opening of the second front in this one sector entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.” Part of that dispatch follows:

“Due to a last-minute alteration in the arrangements, I didn’t arrive on the beachhead until the morning after D-day, after our first wave of assault troops had hit the shore. By the time we got here the beaches had been taken and the fighting had moved a couple of miles inland. All that remained on the beach was some sniping and artillery fire, and the occasional startling blast of a mine geysering brown sand into the air. That plus a gigantic and pitiful litter of wreckage along miles of shoreline.

Submerged tanks and overturned boats and burned trucks and shell-shattered jeeps and sad little personal belongings were strewn all over these bitter sands. That plus the bodies of soldiers lying in rows covered with blankets, the toes of their shoes sticking up in a line as though on drill. And other bodies, uncollected, still sprawling grotesquely in the sand or half hidden by the high grass beyond the beach … Now that it is over it seems to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all. For some of our units it was easy, but in this special sector where I am now our troops faced such odds that our getting ashore was like my whipping Joe Louis down to a pulp.”

And from a dispatch dated June 16, 1944:

“I walked for a mile and a half along the water’s edge of our many-miled invasion beach. You wanted to walk slowly, for the detail on that beach was infinite. The wreckage was vast and startling. The awful waste and destruction of war, even aside from the loss of human life, has always been one of its outstanding features to those who are in it. Anything and everything is expendable. And we did expend on our beachhead in Normandy during those first few hours. For a mile out from the beach there were scores of tanks and trucks and boats that you could no longer see, for they were at the bottom of the water – swamped by overloading, or hit by shells, or sunk by mines. Most of their crews were lost.”

Pyle’s accounts help us all better recognize the true face of war and the essence of what our military’s service and bravery have really entailed.

– Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.

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