The Pittsburgh Press (February 10, 1943)
By Ernie Pyle
At the frontline in Tunisia – (Feb. 9)
The afternoon sun went over the hill and the evening chill began to come down. We were sitting on a busy hillside – just a small bunch of American officers forming what is called a forward command post.
Officers who had been in the battle for Ousseltia Pass all day started wandering in through the brush on foot, to report. They were dirty and tired but the day had gone well, and they were cheerful in a quiet and unexpressed way.
A Medical Corps major came up the hill and said:
Those blankety-blanks! They’ve knocked out two of my ambulances that were trying to get the wounded back. A hell of a lot a Red Cross means to them!
Nobody said anything. He went back down the hill, as mad as a hornet.
The officers kept talking about three fellow officers who had been killed during the day, and a fourth one who was missing. One of the dead men apparently had been a special favorite. An officer who had been beside him when it happened came up with blood on his clothes. He said:
We hit the ground together. But when I got up, he couldn’t. It took him right in the head. He felt no pain.
An officer told an enlisted man:
Raise up that tent and pack his stuff.
Another one said:
The hell of it is his wife’s due to have a baby anytime now.
Just then a sergeant walked up. He had left the post that morning with the officer who was now missing. They all asked:
Where’s Captain So-and-so?
The sergeant said he didn’t know. Then he said he himself had been captured. “Captured?” the officers asked.
Yes. The Italians captured me and then turned me loose.
The sergeant was Vernon Gery, 305 West Navarre St., South Bend, Indiana. He is a married man, and was a lawyer before the war. He is a young and husky fellow. He didn’t appear to be very much shaken by his experience, but he said he never was so scared in his life.
Sitting there on the ground he told me his experience. He and the missing captain and a jeep driver had gone forward at 9:30 in the morning to hunt for the body of a popular officer who had been killed. They parked the jeep, and the captain told them to stay there till he returned. They covered the jeep with brush and then hid in the bushes to wait while the captain went on alone. As they were lying there the driver yelled to Sgt. Gery:
Look, they’re retreating!
He saw eight soldiers coming toward them. He thought they were French, but actually they were an Italian patrol. The driver’s shout attracted their attention and they began shooting. The two Americans fired back. The jeep driver was hit and killed instantly. Gery said the driver yelled just once when he was hit. He said:
I’ll be hearing that yell for a long time.
In a moment the Italians had Gery. Apparently, they were on a definite mission, for seven of them went on, leaving one guard to watch Gery. They had taken his rifle, searched him, and given back his identification cards, but they kept his cigarettes, pipe, tobacco, chewing gum, and message book.
Did they take your money?
I didn’t have any. I haven’t been paid in three months. I haven’t had a cent in my pocket for weeks.
For an hour the Italian sat 10 feet from Gery with his rifle pointed at him. Gery says the Italian must have been well-acquainted with the American rifle, for he passed the time taking it apart and putting it together, and did it rapidly and correctly. The Italian didn’t try to talk to Gery.
Suddenly our artillery began dropping shells close to where they sat. That was too much for the Italian. He just got up and disappeared into the bushes. And Gery started home.
As Gery finished his story, the commanding colonel came back from his afternoon’s tour. He sat down on the ground, and the officers gathered around to hear his reports and get their instructions for the night. There was still gunfire around. The colonel, a tall, middle-aged man, wore glasses and had a schoolteacherly look. But he cussed a blue streak and made his decisions crisply. You could tell he was loved and respected. He called all his men by their first names. He wore a brown canvas cap, without any insignia at all. Officers at the front tried to look as little like officers as possible, for the enemy liked to pick them off first.
Somebody asked if the colonel would like a cup of tea. He said he would. Somebody yelled, and out of the bushes came a Chinese boy in uniform and helmet, carrying a teapot covered with a rag.
Planes came over again, and several officers ran to foxholes, but the colonel acted as if he didn’t see them. The rest of us stayed and continued the conversation. The officers told him about the three members of his staff who had been killed.
Christ! Well, we’re in a war. We’ve got to expect it. We must try not to feel too bad about it.
And then he went on:
Here’s the way it is. We are being relieved at 11:30 tonight. Jim, you start taking up your phone wire, but nothing else moves a foot before daylight. Joe, you keep on firing up to leaving time, so they won’t know we are pulling out. We’ve got ‘em on the run, and I wish we could stay, but we’ve got our orders.
Then everybody left to carry out his new duties, and we went back down the hill to our jeep.
That is the way war looks from a forward command post.