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D-Day Through the Eyes of Ernie Pyle

Portrait of journalist Ernie Pyle
War correspondent Ernie Pyle landed in Normandy a day after the initial battles and in his distinctive style brought the cost of the massive undertaking back to the home folks.

2024 marks the 80th anniversary of the most famous D-Day in WWII, the storming of the Nazi’s Atlantic Wall on the French coast of Normandy (the late Stephen Ambrose notes the first day of other U.S. Army offensives since 1918 were also called D day.). I pondered something “different” to write about for this historical marker. All warhistorybuffs have seen the movies “The Longest Day,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers,” which all do a fairly accurate job of portraying the tragedy and triumph of the invasion so I didn’t want to be redundant. The National WWII Museum in New Orleans happened to post on Facebook Ernie Pyle’s initial three D-Day columns, which immediately hit me as a fresh and interesting angle to honor the anniversary.

Ernest T. Pyle was an Indiana boy who had newspaper ink running through his veins. He quit Indiana University with just a semester to go so he could take a low-paying reporter’s job. He was already nationally known before the war as a roving reporter for the Scripps-Howard newspaper syndicate writing human interest pieces about ordinary Americans. He took his unique style to the European Theater in 1942 and followed his beloved dogfaced infantrymen from North Africa to Sicily to Italy and finally to Western Europe. Just a few weeks before the end of the European war, Pyle headed to the Pacific just as the invasion of Okinawa was beginning. He was killed when his jeep was ambushed by a Japanese machine gun on the island of le Shima just off the coast of Okinawa on April 18, 1945. He was 44. Today a monument marks the spot on the island where he was killed whose plaque reads “on this spot the 77th Division lost a buddy.”

A Pure Miracle published Monday, June 12, 1944

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.

Pyle sounds apologetic, but he was lucky he wasn’t in the first wave to hit the section called Omaha Beach attacked by the 1st and 29th divisions. Casualties (killed, wounded, missing) amounted to 3,000 soldiers, more than any other sector of Normandy. Famed war photographer Robert Capa was in the first wave. He took several blurry photos and then retreated in shock to the boats. Pyle described submerged tanks and overturned boats and burned trucks and shell-shattered jeeps and sad little personal belongs were strewn 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.

Pyle details the elaborate German defenses. 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.

Normandy beach strewn with equipment during D-Day.
A tiny sample of the massive amounts of material left on the beaches of Normandy. Many of the bunkers and even some mostly buried armored vehicles remain there today for the tourists.

In this column Pyle gave credit to the brave U.S. Navy destroyers that risked running aground to cruise in close to shore so they could blast gun emplacements that were pinning down soldiers on Omaha Beach. This is a remarkable observation. I didn’t start reading about the naval factor until recently, and none of those D-Day movies I mentioned showed the close-in naval gunfire that was so helpful.

Still, soldiers got up off the sand and moved off the beach and destroyed German foxholes, trenches, and emplacements. Pyle noted a cockiness by the survivors. We’ve done it again, they say. They figure that the rest of the army isn’t needed at all. Which proves that, while their judgment in this regard is bad, they certainly have the spirit that wins battles and eventually wars.

The Horrible Waste of War published June 16, 1944

Pyle continued to be amazed by the leftovers from the D-Day fighting. It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. (I think he was being ironic) Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead. The water was full of squishy little jellyfish about the size of your hand. Millions of them. In the center each of them had a green design exactly like a four-leaf clover. The good luck emblem. Sure. Hell yes.

Pyle went on about the wastage, or as he put it the shoreline museum of carnage. 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.

But Pyle noted what would eventually overwhelm the Germans. And yet we could afford it. We could afford it because we were on, we had our toehold, and behind us there were such enormous replacements for this wreckage on the beach that you could hardly conceive of their sum total. Men and equipment were flowing from England in such a gigantic stream that it made the waste on the beachhead seem like nothing at all, really nothing at all.

A Long Thin Line of Personal Anguish published June 17, 1944

Ernie Pyle visiting with G.I.s
Ernie Pyle was so beloved because he wrote about the everyday G.I. Privates, sergeants, junior officers got top billing in his columns, not generals or admirals. He not only included names, but hometowns and even street addresses.

In his last of these D-Day columns, Ernie Pyle turned from the wall of beached equipment to the human toll. There were no names attached to the soldiers here, just sorrow. But there is another and more human litter. It extends in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark, for miles along the beach. This the strewn personal gear, gear that will never be needed again, of those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe.

Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here the latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out. Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand. Here are pocketbooks, metal mirrors, extra trousers, and bloody abandoned shoes.

I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier’s name in it, and put it in my jacket. I carried it half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach. I don’t know why I picked it up, or why I put it back down.

Over and around this long thin line of personal anguish, fresh men today are rushing vast supplies to keep our armies pushing on into France. Other squads of men pick amidst the wreckage to salvage ammunition and equipment that are still usable. Men worked and slept on the beach for days before the last D-day victim was taken away for burial.

The strong, swirling tides of the Normandy coastline shift the contours of the sandy beach as thy move in and out. They carry soldiers’ bodies out to sea, and later they return them. They cover the corpses of heroes with sand, and then in their whims they uncover them.

I guess it was fitting Pyle, who suffered some health issues, later died much like his heroes. He would have hated spending his last days in a hospital.

Final Note: I looked it up. Some 73,000 Americans participated in Operation Overload, D-Day. There are approximately 100,000 WW II veterans from all theaters and branches alive today but if you think about it, most of them must be in their 90s, IF they joined the military when they were teenagers. Hard telling how many survivors are D-Day veterans. Officials say 130 WW II vets die every day.

I found an interesting 2023 article in an Oklahoma newspaper during my browsing. A WWII veteran from that state by the name of Bill Parker was reportedly the last man still alive to survive the bloody first wave on Omaha Beach. He told the interviewer he was happy with his ranch, horse and a pretty gal and the army didn’t sound so inviting, but he was drafted. He spent the next 200 days after D-Day fighting his way to Germany. Bill Parker died last September at the age of 98.

Posted in Media, U.S. Army, veterans, U.S. Navy, France, D-Day, Nazis, WW II, military, War History, War Movie

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