Roving Reporter, Ernie Pyle

The Pittsburgh Press (December 15, 1942)


Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

With U.S. forces in Algeria – (Dec. 14)
Our troops are finding the African climate a welcome change, most of the time, from the wet bitterness of England.

The North African winter at this time of year is rather spotty. It has been nice most of the time since we came, but when it isn’t nice, it sure is terrible.

We are now in the first month of their winter season. From now till late March, there are few mosquitoes, and there isn’t much danger of malaria. The hospitals report only an occasional case.

On the average, the nights are quite chilly. It starts getting cold as soon as the sun gets low, around 4 o’clock. By dark, it is usually cold enough for an overcoat. You sleep under all the blankets you can get.

In the morning, the sun isn’t up well until after 8. Usually, the sky is a clear blue before noon. It seems to be a larger sky than ours back home. Maybe that’s because we are out where we can see more sky than ordinarily. Some days, high white clouds cover the sky. Some days go by entirely cloudless, and then the sun is quite warm and it is really like a day in late June at home.

The troops go around most days stripped to the waist, and practically everybody is getting a sun tan. But nobody wears a sun helmet now.

Troops living mostly in fields

Once a week or so comes a bad spell. The last one was thoroughly miserable. For two days, it poured rain, and there was a cold and bitter wind. It was exactly like a bad winter day in England.

Our troops are living mostly in fields. Many company commanders march their men up and down just to keep them warm. I felt sure that half of them would be sick, but there was no such reaction at all. Doctors say the constant living outdoors, even in bad weather, is healthier than living inside. Also, our troops are getting pretty tough now.

Most of the men have abandoned their heavy underwear, but they’re not wearing summer uniforms and won’t till next spring.

They live pretty primitively in their scattered camps. They’re on American rations now and the food is really wonderful. But there is very little water. At some camps, a man ordinarily gets a gallon a day for drinking, shaving and washing his clothes. But at many camps, it’s as little as a quart.

During a cold spell, the men fill their mattress covers with straw, put down one blanket to lie on, and have five spread over them. There is just room in each tent for two men, and the two usually sleep together so they can pile both men’s blankets across them.

Two men rig up Eskimo lamp

There is no room for little niceties and homey touches as in the bigger tents in England. And there are no lights. But two men did rig up an Eskimo lamp. They bought some liquid paraffin in a nearby town, poured it into an empty can, then cut a few inches off one man’s waist belt (which was too big for him) and shoved this through the top of the can for a wick. It really made a serviceable light.

Military police patrol the streets in the cities. Usually, it is quiet as the grave by 10:30. The local people are terrified of air raids and won’t venture out at night. Their fear is so intense I think Germany must have done an extra propaganda job of scaring them before we came.

We Americans actually know less about what is happening throughout North Africa than you do at home. We get the communiqués here daily in the French papers, but there aren’t many details, and anyway most of us can’t read French well enough to get the fine points.

Some listen to the 9 o’clock news from BBC in London, and a few camps have shortwave radios and get hourly news from America. It seems ironic that what happens 200 miles from us must be flashed to America and then back here again before we can hear it. But that’s the way things are in this crazy world.

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The Pittsburgh Press (December 16, 1942)


Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

With U.S. forces in Algeria – (Dec. 15)
A trip by troop transport in convoy is a remarkable experience. I came to Africa that way. We weren’t permitted to tell about it at the time, for security reasons. But enough time has passed now that it can be written without danger.

So, this will be a series on our convoy trip from England to Africa. As you read it, you can apply it any other convoy, for they are essentially the same, and they are sailing all the oceans this very minute.

Convoys are of three types, you might say – the very slow ones of freighters carrying only supplies; the medium-fast troop convoys which run with extremely heavy naval escort; and the small convoys of swift ocean liners which carry vast numbers of troops and depend for safety mainly on their great speed.

Ours was the second type. We were fairly fast; we carried an enormous number of troops; and we had a heavy escort, although no matter how much escort you have, it never seems enough to please you. We had both American and British ships, but our escort was all British.

I still can’t tell you what route we took, or how long we were at sea, but I can say that if we had sailed the same distance due west, we could have been in New York instead of North Africa.

I got the word at noon one day that we were to leave London that night. There were scores of last-minute things to do.

The Army picked up my bedroll at 2 p.m. to take it somewhere for its mystic convoy labelings. I packed everything else in a canvas bag and my Army musette bag. At leaving hour, I put on my Army uniform for the first time, and said goodbye to civilian clothes for goodness knows how long.

My old brown suit, my dirty hat, all my letters – every little personal thing went into a truck which remained in London, and I’ll probably never see it again.

Up all night on train

It was night. I took a taxi to a meeting place designated by the Army. Other correspondents were there. Our British papers were taken away for safekeeping by the Army. We were told to take off our correspondents’ armbands, for they might identify us as a convoy party to lurking spies, if any.

An Army car picked us up, and drove clear across London through the blackout. I lost all track of where we were. Finally, we stopped at a little-used suburban station and were told we’d have two hours to wait before the troop train came.

We paced the station platform, trying to keep warm. It seemed the train would never come. When it did, we piled into two compartments.

We sat up all night on the train, sleeping a little but not much, because it was too cold. We didn’t know what port we were going to, but somebody told us on the way. We were surprised. Some of the boys had never heard of it.

Just after daylight, our train pulled alongside a huge ship. We checked in at an Army desk in the pier-shed, gathered our baggage, and climbed aboard, feeling very grubby and cold but awfully curious.

Train and train of troops

Our party was assigned to two cabins, four men in each. Our staterooms were nice, much better than any of us expected. They were the same as in peacetime, except that an extra bunk had been carpentered over each bed. Many officers were in cabins much more crowded than ours.

We all thought we would sail shortly after getting aboard. But we had forgotten that the ship had to be loaded first. Actually, we didn’t sail for 48 hours.

During that time, one long troop train after another, day and night, pulled alongside and unloaded its human cargo. Time dragged on. Impatience was useless.

We would stand at the rails and watch the troops marching aboard. They came through the rain, heavily laden. In steel helmets, in overcoats, carrying rifles and with huge packs on their backs. It was a thrilling sight, and said, in a way, to see them marching in endless numbers up the steep gangway to be swallowed into the great ship.

One soldier led a big black dog. And one, I found later, carried two little puppies aboard beneath his shirt. Like the Spartan boy in the story, he was almost scratched to death. He had paid $32 for the pups, and he treasured them.

The British (it was a British ship) are finicky about allowing dogs on troop transports. The officers ordered all dogs turned in. They said they’d be sent ashore, and promised that good homes would be found for them.

But somehow the dogs disappeared. They were never found by the officers. And the morning we filed off the boat in North Africa, a black dog and two little puppies from England marched with us up the strange African road.

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The Pittsburgh Press (December 17, 1942)


Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

With U.S. forces in Algeria –
After two days of loading American soldiers aboard our troopship, and of hosting aboard thousands of bedrolls and barracks bags, at last we sailed.

It was a miserable English day, cold with a driving rain. Too miserable to be out on deck to watch the pier slide away. Most of us just lay in our bunks, indifferent even to the traditional last glance at land. Now it was all up to God – and the British Navy.

Our ships carried thousands of officers and men and a number of Army nurses. I felt a little kinship with our vessel, for I’d seen it tied up under peculiar circumstances in Panama two years ago. I never dreamed that someday I’d be sailing to Africa on it.

The officers and nurses were assigned to the regular cabins used by passengers in peacetime. But all the soldiers were quarters below decks, in the holds. The ship had once been a refrigerator ship, and now all the large produce-carrying compartments were cleared out, and packed with men.

Each compartment was filled with long wooden tables, with benches at each side. The men ate at these tables, and at night slept in white canvas hammocks slung from hooks just above the tables.

Water from 7 to 9, and later

It seems terribly crowded and some complained bitterly of the food, and didn’t eat for days. Yet many of the boys said it was swell compared to the way they came over from home to Britain.

Sometimes I ate below with the troops, and I’ll have to say that their food was as good as ours in the officers’ mess, and that was excellent. Some crowding is unavoidable. It’s bad, but I don’t know how else you’d get enough men anywhere fast enough.

The worst trouble was a lack of hot water. The water for washing dishes was only tepid, and there was no soap. As a result, the dishes got greasy, and some troops got a mild dysentery from it. The American Army officers, much to their credit, continued to raise so much hell about the ship that by the time we left it, things were in much better shape.

In our cabins, we had water only twice a day – 7 to 9 in the morning, and 5:30 to 6:30 in the evening. It was unheated, so we shaved in cold water. The troops took lukewarm saltwater showers, by Army order, every three days.

The enlisted men were allowed to go anywhere on deck they wished, except for a small portion of one deck set aside for officers. Theoretically, the officers weren’t permitted on the enlisted men’s deck, but that soon broke down. We correspondents could go anywhere we please, being gifted and chosen characters.

Instructions for “battle stations” in case of attack were issued. All officers had to stay in their cabins, all soldiers had to remain below. Troops in the two bottom decks, down by the waterline, were to move up to the next two decks above them.

Only we correspondents were to be allowed on deck during an attack. Being useless as well as gifted, we were honored with the divine right of getting ourselves shot if that’s what we wanted.

To Murmansk or America?

We correspondents knew where we were going. Some of the officers knew too, and the rest could guess. But an amazing number of soldiers had no idea where they were bound.

Some thought we were going to Russia over the Murmansk route. Some thought it was Norway. Some thought it was Iceland. A few sincerely believed we were returning to America. It wasn’t until the fifth day out, when the Army distributed advice booklets on how to conduct ourselves in North Africa, that everybody knew where we were going.

The first couple of days at sea, we seemed to mill around without purpose. Eventually we stopped completely, and lay at anchor for a day.

Finally, we made rendezvous with other ships and then at dusk – five days after leaving London – we steamed slowly into a prearranged formation, like floating pieces of a puzzle drifting together to form a picture. By dark, we were rolling, and the first weak ones were getting sick at their tummies.

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The Pittsburgh Press (December 18, 1942)


Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

With U.S. forces in Algeria – (Dec. 17)
It’s a terrific task to organize a shipful of troops. It was not until our England-Africa convoy had been at sea nearly a week that everything got settled down to running completely smoothly.

An Air Forces colonel was appointed Commanding Officer of troops on board. An orderly-room was set up, aides were picked, deck officers appointed, and ship’s regulations mimeographed and distributed.

The troops were warned about smoking or using flashlights on deck at night, and against throwing cigarettes or orange peels overboard. It seems a sub commander can spot a convoy, hours after it has passed, by such floating debris.

The warning didn’t seem to make much impression at first. Soldiers threw stuff overboard, and one night a nurse came on deck with a brilliant flashlight guiding her. An officer near me screamed at her. He yelled so loudly and so viciously that I thought at first he was doing it in fun. He bellowed:

Put out that light, you blankety blank-blank! Haven’t you got any sense at all?

Then suddenly I realized he meant every word of it, and I realized that one little light might have killed us all.

The ship of course was entirely blacked out. All entrances to the deck were shielded with two sets of heavy black curtains. All ports were painted black and were ordered kept closed, but some people did open them in the daytime.

Sandbags worn at mess

In the holds below, the ports were opened for short periods each day, to air the ship out. The theory of keeping most of them closed in daytime is that if a torpedo hits with the ports open, enough water could rush in to sink her immediately if she listed.

Everybody had a life preserver, and had to carry it constantly. They were of a new type, rather like two small pillows tied together. You put your head between them, pulled them down over your shoulders and chest and tied them there. We merely slung them over our shoulders for carrying. They were immediately nicknamed “sandbags.”

After the second day, we were ordered to wear our web pistol belts, with water canteen attached. Even going to the dining room, you had to take your life preserver and your water canteen.

There were nine in our special little group. We were officially assigned together, and we stuck together throughout the trip. We were:

Bill Lang of TIME and LIFE, Red Mueller of Newsweek, Joe Liebling of The New Yorker, Gault MacGowan of The New York Sun, Ollie Stewart of The Baltimore Afro-American, Sgt. Bob Neville (correspondent for the Army papers Yank and Stars and Stripes), two Army censors (Lts. Henry Mayer and Cortland Gillett) and myself.

Sgt. Neville was probably the most experienced and traveled of all of us – he speaks three languages, was foreign news editor of TIME for three years, has worked for The Herald Tribune and PM, was in Spain for that war, in Poland for that one, in Cairo for the first Wavell push, and in India and China and Australia.

But he turned down a commission and went into the ranks, and consequently he has to sleep on floors, stand for hours in mess lines, and stay off certain decks.

Ollie Stewart is a Negro, the only American Negro correspondent accredited to the European Theater. He is well-educated, conducts himself well, and has traveled quite a bit in foreign countries before.

When humor runs thin

We all grew to like him very much on the trip. He lived in one of the two cabins with us, ate with us, played handball on deck with the officers, everybody was friendly to him, and there was no “problem.”

We correspondents already knew a lot of the officers and men aboard, so we roamed the ship continuously and had many friends. Bill Lang and I shared a cabin with the two lieutenants. We enjoyed ourselves on the trip.

We’d get out the regulations about correspondents, which say that we must be treated with “courtesy and consideration” by the Army. We’d read these rules aloud of Lts. Meyer and Gillett, and then order them to light our cigarettes and shine our shoes. Humor runs pretty thin on a long convoy trip.


The Pittsburgh Press (December 19, 1942)


Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

With U.S. forces in Algeria –
Our troopship in convoy from England to Africa had a large hospital, and it was filled.

The long train rides in unheated cars across England seemed to give everybody a cold, and it was a poor man, indeed, who couldn’t sport a deathlike cough aboard ship.

We had two pneumonia cases, both of whom pulled through. I myself came down with one of the Ten Best Colds of 1942 the day after we got aboard, and spent the next five days in bed, feigning sickness.

But the ship was filled with Army doctors, so I had lozenges, injections and consultations, all without charge.

Our ship had never carried American troops before, and the British waiters were somewhat shocked by the appetites and the dining-room manners of the younger officers.

Second lieutenants, muscular and till growing, would order a complete second dinner after finishing the first. And in between times, they’d get up and serve themselves with bread, carry off their own plates, play loud tunes on their glasses with their forks, make rude jokes about the food, and generally conduct themselves in a manner unbecoming the dignity of a British cruise-ship waiter.

But I must say, on behalf of the British, that they finally broke down and entered into the spirit of the thing, and I think eventually enjoyed the Wild West camaraderie as much as the Americans did.

Meals are served in two sittings

Those of us in the cabins were awakened at 7 each morning by the cabin steward, bearing cups of hot tea. Meals were in two sittings, an hour apart. The headwaiter wore a tuxedo at dinnertime, and the food was excellent.

We had fried eggs and real bacon for breakfast every morning – the first real egg I’d tasted in four months. There was also tea in the afternoon, and sandwiches at night.

Smoking was prohibited in the dining room. The British waiters had a terrible time enforcing it, but finally succeeded. Apparently, it was just an old British custom.

There was a bar in the evening for soft drinks, but no liquor was sold. Some officers brought whisky aboard, but it was all gone after a day or two, and from then on, it was probably the driest ocean voyage ever made.

As someone wisecracked:

We catch it both ways. We can’t smoke in the dining room because it’s a British ship, and we can’t buy liquor because it’s an American trooper.

Of all the spots on earth where rumors run wild, I think a convoy trooper must lead, hands down. Scores of rumors a day floated about the ship. You got so you believed them all, or didn’t believe any.

Rumor started to end all rumors

It was rumored we would rendezvous with a big convoy from America; that an aircraft carrier had joined us; that we’d hit Gibraltar in six hours, 24 hours, two days; that the ship behind us was the West Point, the Mt. Vernon, the Monterey; that we were 80 miles off Portugal, and 200 miles off Bermuda. None of these turned out to be true.

The rumor-mongering got so rife that one officer made up a rumor to the effect that we were going to Casablanca, and timed it to see just how long it would take to encircle the ship. It came back to him, as cold fact right from the bridge, in just half an hour.

The third day out, we correspondents decided to start a daily paper. The colonel was all for it, and helped us round up paper and stencils. We published for four days and then ran out of stencils and had to suspend.

Sgt. Bob Neville, of Stars and Stripes, did most of the work. We carried the radio news each day, a little shipboard gossip column, a daily “exploded rumor” department, and some silly pieces by the correspondents.

Since we were not allowed to use the ship’s real name, the paper was called The P-58 Post, as that was our designated number in the convoy. Beneath the masthead was carried a motto:

All the Rumors Fit to Print.

There was an unconfirmed rumor about the ship that it was a fairly rotten paper.

The Pittsburgh Press (December 21, 1942)


Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

With U.S. forces in Algeria –
During the first part of our England-Africa convoy trip, with the weather still cold, most people stuck to their cabins, with only a short curiosity foray on deck every couple of hours to see if they were missing anything.

Personally, I stayed in bed with my cold most of the first five days, and caught up a little on my reading. I read Delilah by Marcus Goodrich – the story of a destroyer, A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and an Oxford University booklet on North Africa, which I’d bought in London (I’m one of those guys who always knows where they’re going).

A couple in our party had bought French instruction books. Three of the boys already spoke good French. So far, the first few days, we’d have communal French lessons. But the ones who could speak French were bored with it, and the ones who couldn’t soon got discouraged, so our French classes petered out.

Then we took to card playing. Since gin rummy is the only game I know how to play outside of solitaire, that’s what we played mostly. We played for a tenth of a cent a game, so about the most you could ever lose was 30¢.

The sea was fairly rough the first couple of days, and there was considerable seasickness, especially below, among the troops. But they handled themselves well, and the holds didn’t get into the frightful condition they do on some voyages.

Rehearse for shipboard show

After a while, the sea calmed, and it was in the main a happy voyage. The soldiers were routed out at 6:30 a.m., and at 10 every day they had to attend muster and have boat drill for an hour.

Outside of that, they had little to do, and passed the time just standing around on deck, or lying down below reading, or playing cards. There wasn’t any saluting on board during the whole trip. Lots of the soldiers started growing beards.

The trip had no sooner started than rehearsals for an enlisted men’s variety show began. I believe you could take any 1,000 soldiers in our Army, and out of them create a good orchestra. From our troops they dug up an accordionist, saxophonist, trumpeter, violinist, two banjo players, a dancer, a tenor, a cowboy singer and several pianists – all professionals.

They rehearsed every afternoon. The big night came a couple of nights before we got to Gibraltar. They put on two shows that night, for the enlisted men only. It was a burlesque, and I mean burlesque. Word got around, and the officers and nurses wanted to see it.

So, the night we were approaching Gibraltar, they put it on again. They cleaned it up some, by the colonel’s request, but it still sparkled.

The show went over terrifically. There was genuine talent in it, and serious music, as well as the whiz-bang stuff. But the hero of the evening was a hairy corporal – Joe Comita of Brooklyn – who did a striptease burlesque of Gypsy Rose Lee.

Colonel gets kiss on bald spot

His movements were pure genius. Gypsy herself couldn’t have been more sensuous. Joe twirled and stripped, twirled and stripped. And then when he was down to his long heavy G.I. underwear, he swung to the front of the stage, lifted his veil, and kissed a front-row colonel on top of his bald head!

The whole show was marvelously good. But there was something more to it than just that. There was the knowledge, deep in everybody’s mind, that this was our night of danger.

The radio had just brought word that Germany’s entire U-boat pack was concentrated in the approaches to Gibraltar. More than 50 submarines were said to be waiting for us. I doubt there was a soul on board who expected the night to pass without an attack.

It was a perfect night for romance or for death. The air was warm and the moon put its brilliant sheen across the water. The night by its very gentleness seemed in evil collusion with the plague that lay beneath the waters.

And in that environment the boys from down below went buoyantly through their performances. We sat with life preservers on and water canteens at our belts. We laughed and cheered against a background of semi-conscious listening for other sounds.

As the show ended, a major whom I did not know turned to me and said:

That’s wonderful, those boys doing that when they’re being taken to war like galley slaves down there in the hold. When you think of people at home squawking their heads off because they can only have 20 gallons of gasoline, it makes my blood boil.

The Pittsburgh Press (December 22, 1942)


Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

With U.S. forces in Algeria –
Our ship had two tunnels, or smokestacks. The forward one was a dummy – empty inside. About three feet from its top a steel platform had been built. It was reached by a steel ladder. The Army kept a lieutenant and three enlisted men up there all the time, on lookout with binoculars for it was indeed a grandstand seat.

I used to go up every afternoon and suit with the lookouts. The sun was bright, the funnel sides cut off the wind, they had deck chairs, and it was really like a few square feet of Miami Beach.

We could get a perfect view of our zigzagging maneuvers. Once we saw three rainbows at once, one of them making a horseshoe right over our ship.

Lt. Winfield Channing, who had charge of an anti-aircraft battery, usually had the afternoon watch up there, and we’d chat for hours about his job before the war, and of our chances for the future, and of what we’d do when it was over.

They had an empty barrel up there, to which was tied about 200 feet of heavy rope, for escape in case the ship was hit. The enlisted men on lookout had made bets among themselves as to which side of the ship the first torpedo would hit. Fortunately, nobody collected. We called our little post “The Funnel Club.”

Gunners on duty at all times

We correspondents and a few Army officers made up a pool on when we would arrive at our destination. The various arrival dates we chose covered more than a week. The pool of about $8 was finally won by Bill Lang, of TIME and LIFE.

American gunners manned all the ship’s guns, but they never had to fire a serious shot.

Once underway, two canteens were opened for the troops. One sold cigarettes, chocolates and so forth; the other, called a “west canteen,” sold hot tea. There was a constant long queue at each one. Soldiers often had to stand in line for three hours.

My special hangout down below was in a section where I ran onto a bunch of soldiers fr4om New Mexico. One of them was Sgt. Cheedle Caviness, a nephew of Senator Hatch. Sgt. Cheedle has grown a blond mustache and goatee, and looks like a duke.

There was no trouble at all among the troops during the voyage. But we did have a couple of small “incidents” in the officers’ section of the ship. One officer, monkeying with his revolver in his cabin, “didn’t know it was loaded” and shot a nice hole through the wardrobe, thoughtfully missing his cabinmates. Another officer was arrested for taking pictures of the convoy out of his porthole.

No movies shown during trip

No movies were shown during the trip. The troop commander issued orders that electric razors were not to be used, for fear the enemy could pick up our position from the current, but we found out later this wasn’t necessary.

We got radio news broadcasts twice a day from BBC. It was rumored they would be discontinued after we were a couple of days at sea, but they weren’t. They were piped over the ship by loudspeakers so the troops could hear the news.

Chaplains aboard ship said that church attendance among the troops went up noticeably after we sailed, and continued to rise as we approached submarine waters.

The nurses and doctors aboard were mainly from Roosevelt Hospital in New York. There were two other detachments of nurses on other ships in the convoy, we learned later. The nurses teamed up with the officers, played cards, walked the decks, sat in the lounge. That moonlight was pretty enchanting, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some romances got started.

As time wore on, acquaintanceships grew broader and broader, just as they do on a peacetime cruise. The days were purposeless and without duties, yet they seemed to speed by. For many of us the trip was a grand rest. Toward the end some of us even hated to have it over – we felt the sad sense of parting from new friends and of returning to old toils, and we were reluctant. But the war doesn’t humor such whims.

The Pittsburgh Press (December 23, 1942)


Roving Reporter

With U.S. forces in Algeria –
I had often wondered in just what sort of formation a big convoy moved, and whether you could see the whole thing all the time or not, and how the escort vessels acted.

Well, ours was a medium convoy. The day we left, we counted a certain number of ships. We were never able to count the same number again until we got almost to port, not because they were out of eye-range, but because they were lined up in rows and you couldn’t see those behind other ships. Usually, our convoy was wider than it was long, which surprised me.

The convoy seemed to use three or four different geometric patterns. Every little bit the entire formation would change from one pattern to another, like a football team shifting after a huddle. It was fascinating to watch some ships speed up, others drop back, and the new pattern takes shape.

In addition, the entire convoy, moving in unison, zigzagged constantly. The turns were sudden, and so sharp that the ships would heel over. These zigzags were made at frequent intervals – very frequent when we were in suspicious waters.

British corvettes and warships were ahead and on all sides of us. They didn’t do much dashing about, but seemed to keep their positions just as steadily as we did ours.

In the daytime, we ran half a mile or so apart, and at night, the entire convoy tightened up. At night, you could distinguish two or three dark shapes close around us. I do not know whether it was true, but they said we had additional escorts out of sight over the horizon.

Sunrises but no submarines

So far as we know, there was only one “incident” during the entire trip. We were on the outside of the convoy. The corvette out beyond us, and the transport running aft of us, both signaled that a torpedo had passed just behind us and just ahead of the other transport.

The corvettes dashed around and dropped depth charges. That was all there was to it. Nobody on our ship saw the torpedo, and nobody at all saw the submarine.

As we progressed southward, the weather became absolutely heavenly – softly warm and so calm there was no movement whatsoever in the ship. Many soldiers slept on deck those last few nights. Often it seemed like a peacetime tropical cruise.

The last three nights, we were ordered to sleep in our clothes. It would be wrong to deny that people were tense those days, but it would also be wrong to say that fear was shown by anybody.

Dawn and dusk were the crucial times, and the last two mornings, I managed to get awake and on deck just before daylight. I never saw any submarines, but I saw two of the most thrilling sunrises I’ve ever known.

As we drew closer and closer to journey’s end, we acquired a feeling something akin to family love for our team of ships. We somehow became like an enormous oceanic machine, engaged in a giant rhythmic rotation, our ability to go on and on forever insured by the perfection of our own discipline.

The sight of us, above all the sights of wartime that I’ve ever seen, thrust itself into my memory forever. Hour after hour, I stood at our rail looking out over that armada of marching ships – they did really seem to march across the ocean – and an almost choking sense of its beauty and power enveloped me.

At last, we came to the Straits of Gibraltar – to lights on both sides of us – and then on into the calmness of the Mediterranean. We still sailed a long time, still in danger waters, but a pleasant relief took hold of us.

With thoughts of home

We started to pack. We were issued our desert gear of dust masks, water purifiers and so on. We tipped our stewards. We returned borrowed books. We traded our money for the new American issue. We took down outfit numbers, for looking up new Army friends.

Finally, we arrived, slowly and intricately, like twine from a hidden ball, the ships poured us out onto the docks in long brown lines, we lined up and marched away.

Some of us marched three miles, some of us 20 miles. We marched at first gaily and finally with great weariness, but always with a feeling that at last we were beginning the final series of marches that would lead us home again – home, the one really profound goal that obsess every one of the brown-clad Americans marching today on foreign shores.

The Pittsburgh Press (December 24, 1942)


Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

Oran, Algeria –
Oran, as a city, is not a bad place at all. But most of the Americans here would trade the whole layout for the worst town in the United States, and throw in a hundred dollars to boot.

That’s the way Americans are, including me. Most of us had never heard of Oran till the war started. Yet it is bigger than El Paso. It has palm-lined streets, broad sidewalks, outdoor cafés, a beautiful harbor, restaurants with soft-colored lighting, and apartments with elevators.

On the other hand, it has Arabs dressed in ragged sheets, garbage in the gutters, dogs that are shockingly gaunt, and more horse carts than autos.

Most of the Americans talk about how dirty Oran is. Which just goes to show they haven’t been around. Oran is cleaner than some of the poorer Latin cities in our own hemisphere. And at this season, it doesn’t even smell very bad.

World travelers had told me that Oran had an Oriental atmosphere, but I can’t sense it. It seems much more like a Latin city than an Oriental one.

You could compare it in many ways with El Paso if you discounted the harbor. The climate is roughly the same. Both cities are in semi-arid country. Both are dusty in the spring and very hot in summer. Both are surrounded by fertile, irrigated land that produces fruit and vegetables and grain. And if you just substitute Mexicans for Arabs, the proportions are about the same.

The population of Oran is actually mostly French, Spanish and Jewish. The Arabs are a minority. They run all the way from hideous beggars up to solemn men in long white robes and bright turbans, sitting in the most expensive cafés and sipping tall drinks. But you see many more Europeans than Arabs.

American forces fight boredom

Our troops are rather lost here, officers and men both. There aren’t the usual entertainments to be had at home and in England. Nothing much is left to drink but wine, and most of the Americans haven’t learned to drink wine with much relish.

The movies are few and pretty poor. There are no dances. There is a professional “line,” but the parents of nice girls are very cranky and won’t let the girls out.

Everybody feels a sense of rage at not being able to talk to the local people. The soldiers try hard with French but it’s not much fun. Officers stationed here at desk jobs are already itching to move onward.

Troops camped far out in the country – which the vast majority are – really are better satisfied than those in town.

Everybody is plenty busy. That is, almost everybody. There are at the moment two correspondents in Oran, and several times that many Army censors to handle our stuff. I turn in one piece a day, and the other correspondent one piece a week. The censors are so bored that when I bring my column in, the entire office staff grabs for it and reads it hungrily, everybody makes flattering remarks, and then we all go out and have a bite to eat.

For some reason, communications from here are faint, you might even say mystic. I can’t find out how my copy is transmitted. The censors themselves don’t know. We write the stuff and send it away with about the same assurance of delivery as though we’d put it in a bottle and tossed it in the Mediterranean. I’m positive I saw a small Arab boy feeding my column to his goat yesterday morning.

We have no word at all from our correspondent friends in Algiers.

U.S. supplies and men fill place

Yesterday, two correspondents arrived from Casablanca bringing the first news we’d had from out there except communiqués. They say Casablanca is a beehive but very dull, and they think they’ll like Oran better.

They say naval aviation did the best job in the original occupation at Casablanca.

Outside of the poor censors, everybody is busy here. The Army’s immense supply organization is working at fever pitch, unloading supplies and getting them started forward.

The scenes at the docks and warehouses are thrilling. It is astounding the amount of rolling stock we have here. There seems to be just as many trucks as I ever saw in America. The coastal highways are good macadam, and our trucks roar over them constantly.

Combat troops that are still bivouacked in this area continue their training, keeping constantly fit by long marches down the highways.

Day by day, the whole of North Africa grows nearer the saturation point with American soldiers, machines of war and supplies. Before long, they will be ready to spill out in a smothering flow over the enemy.

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The Pittsburgh Press (December 26, 1942)


Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

Oran, Algeria – (by wireless)
The American soldier is an incurable wishful-thinker. Today the average soldier in North Africa, despite the slow going in Tunisia and the long distances we still have to go, thinks the war will be over by April.

The censors tell me that the soldiers’ letters home are full of such belief, and I know that in the camps they are willing to bet good money on it whenever they can find a taker. If you try to point out that such a quick victory is against all logic, and that even a year from now would be pretty optimistic, they look at you as though you were nuts.

Mail has started coming to the troops again in enormous gobs, after a blank of more than two months. Lt. Herbert Desforges, a friend of mine from Gallup, New Mexico, got 20 letters from his wife the other day. Another friend, Lt. Bill Wilson of Des Moines, got 30 personal letters in one day.

They tell a story about one soldier who hadn’t heard from his wife in three months, and finally was so disgusted he wrote her and told her to go to Hell, saying he was going to get a divorce. Then in one huge batch came 50 letters, covering the whole three months. So, he’s had to cable her and take back the divorce threats.

As for me, I have been the recipient of only two letters – one from a girl in Pittsburgh wanting me to say hello to her soldier sweetie, and one from a reader in Iowa telling me that eggs were plentiful and only 38¢ a dozen. I suppose my 50 family letters are at the bottom of somebody’s ocean.

Our soldiers are all over being seriously homesick now, but they do constantly think about home. Even a general said the other day:

What I wouldn’t give for 24 hours in New York. I’d just like to see how it looks and hear what people are saying.

What are the folks thinking?

And as I travel about the camps, the question I’m most frequently asked is:

What are the folks at home thinking about?

…never “What are the papers saying?”

Unfortunately, I don’t know any more about this than they do. In fact, even less, since the Post Office Department apparently considers me unworthy to receive mail. All I know is what I read in the French newspapers, such as an item about America building 32,000 “chars” in the past year. I assumed that a “char” was a chair or a charwoman, but my French dictionary swears it means chariot. So, all I can tell the boys at the camps is that there’s apparently some mighty funny business going on in America. Thirty-two thousand chariots indeed!

Rumors are almost as numerous here on land as they were aboard ship coming down. Today, for example, it was rumored all over town that Tokyo had been bombed by 400 planes, that a thousand American planes were over Germany, that Deanna Durbin has died in childbirth, that Jack Dempsey and Bing Crosby had both kicked the bucket.

No, we don’t know what you are thinking at home, but I hope you aren’t letting yourselves believe we’ll all be headed for New York by spring.

Few troops in action

My powers of prediction are pretty feeble, but as I see things, this neighborhood may not be very exciting for some little time. After the initial occupation, there necessarily follows a period of getting established and building up immense stocks of men and supplies. We are in the middle of that period over here.

Only a very small portion of our troops in North Africa are in action now. The remainder of the combat troops are just waiting and a huge organization of supply troops is busy day and night back of the lines, as it will always be.

We are, it seems to me, in another period of waiting to strike, as Mr. Churchill says, when it suits us best and Hitler least. I have no idea when or where that will be.

El Agheila looks on the map like an afternoon’s drive from Algeria, but actually it’s as far as from New York to Kansas City. So don’t get impatient if nothing much seems to happen for a while.

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The Pittsburgh Press (December 28, 1942)


Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

With U.S. forces in Algeria – (by wireless)
My own special bomber crew is here in Africa with us now. You may remember it from England. It’s the one known as the House of Jackson - the one where everybody in the crew calls everyone else “Jackson.”

We had a reunion out under the wing of their Flying Fortress. The crew and the plane both looked a little shopworn. Neither had had a bath in a long time.

The ground crew hadn’t arrived yet, so the boys were doing all their own mechanical work. They live in their little shelter tents out on the field, under the wing of the bomber. Sometimes they eat “C” rations out of tin cans, and sometimes they go to headquarters to eat in the mess hall.

I asked them:

What do you do about washing your shirts and such?

…and they all laughed big and loud.

They said:

We don’t.

But at that, they haven’t much on me. I’ve worn the same shirt for two weeks, myself.

They’ve already flown on several missions over Tunisia. Some of their comrades have had trouble, but the House of Jackson continues to supply itself with roundtrip tickets.

They say:

We don’t want to be heroes. We just want to get back every time.

The battle camps of the world are filled with heroes who’s have preferred not to be heroes.

Ten little bombs in a row

The House of Jackson’s service stripes make a long line now. There are 10 little bombs in a row painted on the nose, signifying 10 missions under fire. And beneath them there are three little swastikas, representing three German planes destroyed.

The skipper says:

Those three were confirmed. But we actually got seven more.

Two members of the crew have been decorated since we parted in England. Their Fortress didn’t have a name then, but now the nose bears a painting of a vicious-looking devil dancing in a fire and brandishing a pitchfork, and above it the words, “Devils from Hell.”

My boys thick they’re pretty tough, and I guess they are. They’ve been hit only one. The other day, they dug a piece of flak half as big as your first out of a wing close to the fuselage, although they weren’t even aware of it when it hit them. Another day, they flew 500 miles with o0nly three motors. They’re weren’t hit that time – the fourth motor just went out, and later they installed a spare outdoors.

When they go to bomb Bizerte or Tunis, they know there’s fighting going on down there on the ground, but they have never been able to see it. The other day, as they headed east for Bizerte, they met a large formation of Ju-88s coming west of attack an Allied convoy. The Americans and the Germans passed about 10 miles apart and just ignored each other.

Capt. Jackson says:

What a war! We meet each other on the way to bomb each other.

The 10 men of the House of Jackson are enjoying themselves. They have no kicks at all. They’re used to being dirty now., and they’re glad to be in Africa.

There’s always a little bunch of Arabs squatting around their plane, selling them oranges and other native things. The boys trade cigarettes for eggs, which they cook over their campfire. They recently changed bases, and the day before moving they “sold” their Fortress to an Arab for 20,000 eggs.

It happens to the other guy

One of the boys said:

Won’t he be surprised when he brings those eggs and finds us gone?

Probably not half as surprised as they’d have been if he really had brought 20,000 eggs.

They’ve been to town only once since they came to Africa. Two of them came to my room, took a bath, then got a bottle of vino. They ran onto some American nurses and bought them Algerian black wooden carved dolls as souvenirs. Then they went to a new nightclub, danced and had what seemed like a hell of a time, but actually wasn’t much.

I was gone when they were in town, but they left a note on my pillow, thanking me for the baths, and signed it “Two Clean Fellows.”

They’ve already lost some of their good friends, ands one of my other airman friends is gone now, too. He got it on the very first American mission, it’s all like the old early days of the night airmail, when one by one of my best friends left and didn’t come back.

I can see these youngsters, who then were in knee pants, going through the same mental phase – always believing it can happen to the other fellow, but never to you. You have to feel that way, or you’d go crazy.

The Pittsburgh Press (December 29, 1942)


Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

Oran, Algeria – (by wireless)
Yesterday, I survived a tour of 150 miles in a jeep.

After 150 miles in a jeep, it takes you 24 hours to stop vibrating. At the hospitals, they tell me they’ve had soldiers down in bed after riding all day in a jeep. So, I feel pretty tough and proud of myself.

We made a grand tour of American camps. I went along with a couple of security officers whose job it is to set up and supervise security detachments in each camp. By security is meant keeping silent about military secrets, and watching for snakes in the grass such as Axis sympathizers and agents.

The security officers have a terrible job because they say Americans simply aren’t security-minded – we won’t keep our mouths shut, and we insist on trusting everybody. They say the French practice better security in peacetime than we do in wartime.

We stopped at the first airport and I ran into some of my fighter-pilot friends that I wrote about from Northern Ireland.

One of them had an arm in a cast. I immediately visualized a good thriller column, but it turned out he had merely fallen off the wing of his plane and broken his arm, the unromantic cur.

Then we stopped at an anti-aircraft gun set in a hole in the ground, and talked to Sgt. John Muir of Chicago. He said that if those Spitfires flying about 2,000 feet overhead were enemy planes, they would be dead ducks.

Helmet serves as foot bath

Afterwards we hit a big tent hospital, just being set up. There I ran onto Lt. Dick Alter and Nurse Katie Bastadiho, both of New York, who came down on the same boat with us. They’re all crazy about living out under canvas. Katie says she has been washing her feet in her steel helmet and it turns out her feet are bigger than her head.

We made quick stops at a supply depot full of railroad rails and at an engineering company that is building some roads. Finally, we would sit up at Sidi Bel Abbès, home of the famous Foreign Legion. Somehow or other, we got acquainted with a Maj. Fuzeau of the Foreign Legion and sat with him for an hour at a sidewalk café though the major spoke no English and we no French, at least hardly any.

We spent the first 15 minutes asking the major such primary questions as how old he was, whether he was married, how long he had been in the Legion, and what his native city was. That exhausted our vocabulary, so we spent the next 45 minutes complimenting each other for our hospitality, extending hands across the sea, touching our hearts, and recalling wonderful Franco-American incidents of the last war.

The reason I knew we were doing this is that the major kept saying, “quatorze-dix-huit,” which I happen to know means “fourteen-eighteen,” and those of course were the war years. We just assumed from his gestures that he was telling us brother-love incidents.

Frenchmen learn our tanks

On the way back, we put in at a place where American tank crews are teaching Frenchmen to run our tanks. They are camped way out on a sloping hillside, on ground covered with sagebrush exactly like hillsides in the American West. The tank boys work from daylight to dark when they’re on the move. They work all night, too, for the ground crews haven’t arrived and they have to do their own repairing.

They are really roughing it. It’s cold out there at night, and they sit around bonfires before going to bed in their little tents.

They were the first troops into Oran, but they’re never been back to the city since. For some reason, they aren’t allowed to go there on leave. Even their officers think it’s ironic that they captured the city and now can’t go into it.

It was long after dark when I left the tank boys. Fortunately, there is no blackout here and you can drive with headlights on. Even so, we almost spilled ourselves a couple of times shying around Arabs who looked up suddenly with immense bundles of sticks on their backs.

We lurched back to Oran at 50 miles an hour, deeply windburned and feeling exactly like men who had seen practically all there was to see. Yet we hadn’t seen the tiniest fraction of what we have actually got around here.


The Pittsburgh Press (December 30, 1942)


Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

Oran, Algeria – (by wireless)
If you want a touch of native life in your North African stories, here’s a little example.

Lt. Nat Kenney, of Baltimore, had an old broken-down motorcycle that he rode about the country. One day he took off for Arzew, about twenty miles from his camp. He passed a monstrous-looking lizard lying on the pavement, so he stopped and went back.

The lizard was about a foot long, plus six inches of tail. The thing kept changing color. Its eyes could move separately, and in any direction. It was an evil-looking customer indeed. Nat poked it gingerly with his shoe, but it didn’t attack him. Then he poked it with his gloved hand, and still it didn’t try to bite. Then he stuck his hand in front of its nose, and the lizard crawled up on the glove, just as if it had been waiting for Nat all the time.

Lizard hat-band

So Nat held still and the lizard continued its crawl – up his arm, over his shoulder, up the back of his neck and clear to the top of his head. There it curled up, resting on the top of his cap and looking forward snakelike over his brow. Nat, crowned with this dragon, got back on his motorcycle and rode into Arzew.

He parked the motorcycle and walked down the street. He kept running into soldiers he knew. They would start to salute, and right in the middle of the salute their mouths would fly open and they would gurgle out:

Lieutenant, for God’s sake don’t!

Nat had dinner with the lizard still poised comfortably on top of his head, spent a pleasant hour walking around the town and startling his friends, then got back on the motorcycle and rode back almost to Oran. Finally, he stopped at a field hospital where he knew some of the doctors. He left his friend there for them to experiment with.

‘I’d like a stripe’

Altogether the lizard spent about three hours and rode about thirty miles on top of Nat’s head. The army began to think of transferring Lt. Kenney to Iceland for fear he would go riding to town next with a camel on his handlebars.

A local French newspaper had a small piece from America recently saying – if I read it correctly – that the maximum age for induction into the U.S. Army had been lowered from 45 to 37. That’s good news to us old duffers who fled America to escape the draft, but they might have decided it a little sooner.

The next time I have dinner with Gen. Eisenhower (what next time?) I’ll have to speak to him about this business and tell him to get busy. I’d kind of like to sport a few stripes myself. I’m due for a six-months foreign stripe already, and although I haven’t been wounded and don’t expect to be, they might give me a stripe for being awfully tired.

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The Pittsburgh Press (December 31, 1942)

Ernie Pyle in action

111-SC-165303 - Copy
Ernie Pyle, the Roving Reporter of the Pittsburgh Press, is snapped by an Army Signal Corps photographer in front of an Army tent in Algeria. He is shown with (L-R) Pvt. Raymond Astrackon of New York, Sgt. Ralph Gower of Sacramento and Army Nurse Annette Heaton of Detroit. Sgt. Gower is the man Ernie wrote about in his column of Dec. 14 who learned lipreading from a deaf-mute neighbor when he was a child and made his knowledge vitally useful after the explosion of an enemy shell destroyed his hearing.

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Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

With U.S. forces in Algeria – (by wireless)
The roads in North Africa were surprisingly good. They were macadamized, with banked curves just like ours. Driving around the country, we often remarked that it was hard to realize we were not somewhere in the United States.

The long coastal plain stretching across North Africa, between mountains and sea, was, as I’ve said before, very much like parts of our own Southwest. It was bare of trees, but it was not exactly desert. In fact, it was very fertile and almost wholly under cultivation.

The soil resembled red clay, and was a regular gumbo after rain. The Arabs raised some oats, and I saw some uncommonly long strawstacks, but most of the land was in vineyards and olive groves. Across the slightly rolling land, a person could see for long distances – fifty miles or more. The fields were quite large, and at that season most of them were freshly plowed.

Many American soldiers had their first experience of picking olives right from the trees and eating them – or, I should say, biting them, for they tried it only once. There followed the most violent spitting, spluttering and face-making you ever saw. It seems an olive has to be ripened in brine before it’s edible.

They’re black and beautiful on the trees, but they have a bitter, puckering taste that’s beyond description.

We were all impressed by the neatness and cleanliness of the farming country, even though I can’t say the same for the cities. The fields were immaculate. There was no refuse or squandered growth or stuff lying around, as on so many American farms.

Few Arab steeds

The Arabs did all their farming with horses, which appeared to be in good shape. But we seldom saw one of those beautiful Arab steeds that we read about in ''sheik” books. Out in the country there were many herds of goats and sheep, usually tended by small children. We saw cute little shepherdesses, not more than eight years old, in hoods and nightgown-like dresses, who smiled and made the V-for-Victory sign as we passed.

The Arabs seemed a strange people, hard to know. They were poor, and they looked as tight-lipped and unfriendly as the Indians in some of the South American countries, yet they were friendly and happy when we got close to them. As we drove through the country, Arab farmers by the hundreds waved at us along the road, and the children invariably shouted their few American words – "goodbye” or "okay” – as we passed, and either saluted like soldiers or gave the V sign with their fingers.

In half a day’s driving here I got more V signs than I saw the whole time I was in England.

I still haven’t got the religion question straight. Some Arab women wore white sheets and hoods that covered the face, except for one eye peering out. The soldiers called them "One-eyed Flossies.” But they were in the minority. Most of the women showed their faces. As far as I could figure out, the ones who covered their faces were the severely religious, just as at home only a few of the Jewish people are what they call orthodox. The rest were good people, but they didn’t observe the ancient customs and restrictions.

Arab prays

Just at sunset one day we passed a team and a wagon carrying a whole Arab family. The man was down on his knees and elbows at the edge of the pavement, facing east toward Mecca, but the women and children were sitting in the wagon. One of our party remarked:

I guess he’s making a deal for the whole family.

That was the only Arab I saw praying.

No American soldier in this part of Africa has seen a camel. Apparently, these beasts aren’t needed in this fertile region. The Sahara proper doesn’t begin until nearly 300 miles south, and I suppose you have to go there to see camels in action.

There are very few native-owned passenger cars on the roads, but quite a lot of heavy trucks. That’s because of gasoline shortage. But trucks burn alcohol, and even that is short, for the Germans turned most of the grape crop alcohol into their own motors.

As far as I know, there is no such thing as interior heating of homes here in winter. This region used to get coal from France, of course, but that was cut off when France fell. We brought our own coal with us – whole shiploads for running power plants and so on.

Once in a while there were clusters of cactus, and frequently fields were fenced with hedgelike rows of what is known in Mexico as maguey, the plant from which pulque and tequila are made. Apparently, the Arabs don’t keep themselves as well-oiled on their native drinks as do the people in some countries. I saw some drunken Arabs, but they were very rare. The good ones never drink anything alcoholic. It’s against their religion.

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The Pittsburgh Press (January 2, 1943)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

Oran, Algeria –
The American soldier will not be denied fraternization with his fellow man. Regardless of barriers, somehow our soldiers got along and made themselves understood, even though they couldn’t speak a word of French or Arabic. I saw a soldier sitting at a café table with two French girls and their father, apparently spending the whole evening just smiling and making gestures. And I also saw Americans walking arm in arm with Frenchmen of the Foreign Legion. What they talked about or tried to talk about, I have no idea. A really comic sight was one of our boys standing on the street with an English-French dictionary in his hand, talking to a girl and looking up each word as he spoke it.

One night, far out in the country, I passed a small roadside fire with two American soldiers and two turbaned and bewhiskered Arabs squatted closely over it like old pals – a really touching sight.

Our soldiers were filthy rich, for there was little to buy. They loaded up on perfume and lipsticks, which were plentiful. They sent, perfume to their girls in America and lipsticks to their girls in England, the old Lotharios.

Navy sets up hospital

The native crafts are largely silverwork, rugs, and leather. Some of the Algerian rugs resembled our Navajo Indian ones. They were beautiful and the prices were about the same. One officer I know thought he’d have an Arabian horseman’s regalia made, to wear to costume balls after the war. But he found it would cost about $100, that he’d have to get a special dispensation to obtain the materials, and that it would take anywhere from several weeks to six months to make.

There weren’t many American sailors in Oran at first, but the Navy, as usual, took excellent care of those who were. One day I bumped into Lieutenant William Spence, a good friend of mine, who invited me down to look at the Navy’s hospital, of which he was in charge.

Lt. Spence was at Bellevue, in New York, before the war. He came ashore here, the morning of the American landings, with eight men, and they spent the next few days tending wounded sailors and soldiers on the beach. Then they went to Oran and started looking for a place to set up their hospital. They found a French Red Cross building standing empty and promptly moved in. In a day or two the navy was all set in what probably was the nicest hospital in North Africa.

I always like to hang around with navy men, they take such good care of me. At the time I still had a cough from the convoy trip, so they fixed me up a bottle of cough medicine and even made a blood count, to get a line on whether I was going to live or not.

It turned out that the pharmacist’s mate who poured the medicine was an old Hoosier boy – in fact, he used to live only 20 miles from where I was raised. His name was Ben Smith of 620 S. Fifth Street, Terre Haute, Indiana.

Guards like the menu

Lt. Spence is getting all his beach boys promotions, so maybe Ben will be a chief pharmacist by the time this is printed.

One of the army hospital commandants who came ashore the first morning of the occupation had a tale to tell. It seems the Medical Corps took over a barracks that the French had vacated in haste, and turned it into a hospital. The Americans found the place full of ammunition, and the officer got the creeps for fear the French would come back that night and try to retake it.

His problem was solved when he spied two Tommy-gunners walking along the street. He rushed out and asked them if they would guard the ammunition all night. They said, ‘‘Sure,’’ and the doctor went on about his business.

It was a couple of days before the fighting was all over, and the two guards never entered his mind again until about a week later, when he happened to see them. They hadn’t reported back to their own outfit; they were still hanging around, faithfully guarding the ammunition.

And why did they do that? The answer is simple. Hospital food was always better than could be had anywhere else. These guys hadn’t spent their months in the Army for nothing.

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The Pittsburgh Press (January 3, 1943)

Pyle: African outlook is very tough

Ernie Pyle V Norman

The censors in North Africa have allowed Ernie Pyle to transmit a remarkably candid dispatch about conditions there.

Pyle says the situation is very tough, that losses have been far higher than is realized, and that we have left in office a number of officials originally installed by the Nazis. This “soft-gloving of snakes,” as he calls it, endangers our position.

Be sure to read this dispatch in MONDAY’S PRESS


The Pittsburgh Press (January 4, 1943)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

Oran, Algeria – (by wireless)
Men who bring our convoys from America, some of whom have just recently arrived, tell me the people at home don’t have a correct impression of things over here.

Merchant Marine officers, who have been here a couple of days, are astonished by the difference between what they thought the situation was and what it actually is. They say people at home think the North African campaign is a walkaway and will be over quickly; that our losses have been practically nil; that the French here love us to death, and that all German influence has been cleaned out.

If you think that, it is because we newspapermen here have failed at getting the finer points over to you.

Because this campaign at first was as much diplomatic as military, the powers that be didn’t permit our itchy typewriter fingers to delve into things internationally, which were ticklish enough without that. I believe misconceptions at home must have grown out of some missing part of the picture.

It would be very bad for another wave of extreme optimism to sweep over the United States. So, maybe I can explain a little bit about why things over here, though all right for the long run, are not all strawberries and cream right now.

In Tunisia, for instance, we seem to be stalemated for the moment. The reasons are two. Our Army is a green army, and most of our Tunisian troops are in actual battle for the first time against seasoned troops and commanders. It will take us months of fighting to gain the experience our enemies start with.

In the second place, nobody knew exactly how much resistance the French would put up here, so we had to be set for full resistance. That meant, when the French capitulated in three days, we had to move eastward at once, or leave the Germans unhampered to build a big force in Tunisia.

So, we moved several hundred miles and, with the British, began fighting. But we simply didn’t have enough stuff on hand to knock the Germans out instantly. Nobody is to blame for this. I think our Army is doing wonderfully – both in fighting with what we have and in getting more here – but we are fighting an army as tough in spirit as ours, vastly more experienced, and more easily supplied.

So, you must expect to wait a while before Tunisia is cleared and Rommel jumps into the sea.

Our losses in men so far are not appalling, by any means, but we are losing men. The other day, an American ship brought the first newspaper from home I had seen since the occupation, and it said only 12 men were lost in taking Oran. The losses, in fact, were not great, but they were a good many twelve times 12.

Most of our convalescent wounded have been sent to England. Some newly-arrived Americans feel that, if more of the wounded were sent home, it would put new grim vigor into the American people. We aren’t the sort of people from whom wounded men have to be concealed.

The biggest puzzle to us who are on the scene is our policy of dealing with Axis agents and sympathizers in North Africa. We have taken into custody only the most out-and-out Axis agents, such as the German Armistice Missions and a few others. That done, we have turned the authority of arrest back to the French. The procedure is that we investigate, and they arrest. As it winds up, we investigate, period.

Our policy is still appeasement. It stems from what might be called the national hodgepodge of French emotions. Frenchmen today think and feel in lots of different directions. We moved softly at first, in order to capture as many French hearts as French square miles. Now that phase is over. We are here in full swing. We occupy countries and pretend not to. We are tender in order to avoid offending our friends, the French, in line with the policy of interfering as little as possible with French municipal life.

We have left in office most of the small-fry officials put there by the Germans before we came. We are permitting fascist societies to continue to exist. Actual sniping has been stopped, but there is still sabotage. The loyal French see this and wonder what manner of people we are. They are used to force, and expect us to use it against the common enemy, which includes the French Nazis. Our enemies see it, laugh, and call us soft. Both sides are puzzled by a country at war which still lets enemies run loose to work against it.

There are an astonishing number of Axis sympathizers among the French in North Africa. Not a majority, of course, but more than you would imagine. This in itself is a great puzzle to me. I can’t fathom the thought processes of a Frenchman who prefers German victory and perpetual domination rather than a temporary occupation resulting in eventual French freedom.

But there are such people, and they are hindering us, and we over here think you folks at home should know three things: That the going will be tough and probably long before we have cleaned up Africa and are ready to move to bigger fronts. That the French are fundamentally behind us, but that a strange, illogical stratum is against us. And that our fundamental policy still is one of soft-gloving snakes in our midst.


The Pittsburgh Press (January 5, 1943)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

With U.S. forces in Algeria – (by wireless)
I have been delving further into this strange business of Axis sympathies among the people of French North Africa. It is very involved.

The population was all mixed – Arabs, Jews, Spanish and French. And there didn’t seem to be much national loyalty. It looked as if the people, being without any deep love of the country, favored whichever side appeared more likely to feather their nest.

Outside the big cities, Algeria hadn’t fared badly under the Germans. But the cities had been actually starving, because the Germans bought produce direct from the farms, and the cities couldn’t get it.

America has already contributed shiploads of food to the Algerian people, but for some reason little of it showed up in the public markets. City housewives find the stalls bare as usual, and they mutter about “les Américains.”

The Germans paid high prices to the farmers for their crops, and paid in French money. They didn’t levy the terrific indemnities here that they did in France. Hence the farm population actually prospered, and had almost nothing to kick about.

Now this year, Algeria has the biggest orange crop since the war started. In distant sections, oranges were actually rotting on the trees for lack of transportation. The farmers blame the Americans for this, and I suppose with some justice. True, we have already arranged to ship vast cargoes of oranges to England in returning convoys, but we can’t spare enough transportation to get the whole crop to the docks.

Buying of crop would help

As far as I can see, the only way to get the Arab, French, and Spanish farmers on our side would be to buy the whole orange crop, even at the high prices the Germans paid.

When the Germans took control, they demobilized the French North African Army. That suited the people fine. They didn’t want to fight anyway. But now the army is mobilized again, and people are saying:

Under the Germans, we didn’t have to fight. Under the Americans, our leaders make us go into the army again.

They are passive about it, but many of them are not happy. There was a deep fascist tinge among some of the officers of the regular army. I’ve tried to find out the reason. As far as I could learn, it was mostly a seeking for an ordered world to live in. The people and the army alike were disillusioned and shattered by the foul mess into which Paris had fallen – the mess that resulted in catastrophe to France. They were, and are, bitter against the politicians and the general slovenliness in high places. They wanted no more of it. They wanted things to run smoothly. They wanted security – and they visualized it as guaranteed by the methodical rule of the Axis.

The German propaganda here has been expert. The people have been convinced that Germany will win. Lacking any great nationalistic feeling, the people jumped onto whatever seems to be the leading bandwagon, and they think it’s Germany. Propaganda has also made them think America is very weak. Literally, they believe we don’t have enough steel to run our factories or enough oil for our motors.

Americans misinterpreted

German propaganda has drilled into them the glories of the New Order. These people believe that life for them under German control would be milk and honey, perpetual security and prosperity. They really believe it. Also, our troops have made a poor impression, in contrast to the few Germans they’ve seen. We admittedly are not rigid-minded people. Our Army doesn’t have the strict and snappy discipline of the Germans. Our boys sing in the streets, unbutton their shirt collars, laugh and shout, and forget to salute. A lot of Algerians misinterpret this as inefficiency. They think such a carefree army can’t possibly whip the grim Germans.

Most of the minor peoples of the world expect discipline. They admire strict rulers because to them strictness is synonymous with strength. The Algerians couldn’t conceive of the fact that our strength lies in our freedom.

Out of it all I gather a new respect for Americans, sloppy though we may be. They may call us Uncle Shylock, but I know of no country on earth that actually is less grabby. In all my traveling both before and during the war, I have been revolted by the nasty, shriveled greediness of soul that inhabits so much of the world. The more I see of the Americans and the British, the most I like us. And although Germany is our bitter enemy, at least the Germans have the character to be wholly loyal to their own country.

Once more, I want to say that this stratum about which I am writing is not a majority of the people of North Africa. Much of the population is just as fervent for Allied victory as we are. But there is this Axis tinge, and I wanted to try to explain why it existed. Personally, I don’t feel that it can do us any grave harm.

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The Pittsburgh Press (January 6, 1943)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

With U.S. forces in Algeria – (by wireless)
Our convoy unloading ports in North Africa are pleasant places to be in – when the Germans are too busy to drop bombs on them, which fortunately is most of the time. Out there on the open docks, the sun beams down warmly, and the air is clear and fresh. Vast quantities of bombs and trucks and guns and food come pouring out of the busy hatches.

Thousands and thousands of American troops unload these ships as they come in. At one port where I recently visited, enough American soldiers to make a good-sized city were working as stevedores. About a fourth of them were colored troops. In addition, there were thousands of Arab stevedores. The Americans are working a three-shift day, right around the clock.

The amount of material pouring out of these ships is impressive. As you stand and look around, you feel that further shipments could be stopped right then, that this is enough. Yet on soberer thought you realize that it is only a drop in the bucket. You realize that the British and Germans in the Middle East have often captured many times this much stuff from each other without stopping the fight. The flood now coming in must continue indefinitely and grow to an absolute cascade before it will be enough.

Convoys arrivals exceed hopes

Convoys are coming through with remarkable safety, even the slow ones. And ships are turned around quickly, though they aren’t approaching any world’s records. With escort ships as scarce as they are, I had supposed that one convoy a fortnight would be a good average. Actually, there are many times that.

There is never a time when there are not ships unloading. There is never a time when new convoys are not about due to take their places. Day by day, the whole of North Africa grows nearer the saturation point with American soldiers, machines of war, and supplies. Before long they will be ready to spill out in a smothering flow over the enemy.

At one port, the commanding officer was given a table of expectancy – he was to have the port ready to unload a certain number of tons per day within a certain time after the occupation. Within a week, he had exactly tripled his goal.

To do that, he had to clear scuttled ships out of the harbor, clear battle debris off the docks, repair damaged utilities, organize thousands of men at the docks.

The whole thing was magnificently planned ahead of time, just as was the whole occupation. For example, they knew just how many ships would be in the harbor. They even assumed that those ships would be sunk or scuttled, and they came prepared to raise them, with soldier-divers trained in England.

Another example of detailed planning: Photographic planes took pictures of the docks. By careful study of the pictures, the Army could tell the exact amount of coal piled on the docks and then figure the total needed to run the utilities and railroads. They brought exactly the amount necessary beyond what was on the docks. It amounted to one whole shipload.

At first, all the thousands of stevedoring troops were quartered in tents right on the docks. Now, they are billeted in empty buildings around the town and in a tent camp out in the country. The men work in brown coveralls and all kinds of headgear.

The Arabs’ working shift is ironically called “the vacation.” Their normal working day consists of two “vacations" of three hours and 20 minutes each, but now they work three hours overtime. They get the going scale here, 50 francs a day, which is about 67¢.

Accidents will happen

In many harbors on the night of the occupation, the French scuttled their ships with a degree of cooperation. That is, on many ships they only opened the seacocks and let the ships ease over on their sides, leaving them in condition to be raised easily.

In other cases, their ships lie on the bottom badly damaged. Even today, you can see masts and funnels sticking above the surface of harbors. Some of the hulks are completely underwater. They impede navigation, but the harbors are usable with careful maneuvering.

Under our arrangements with the local government, French pilots take all ships in and out. They have accidentally run a number of ships over sunken hulks and torn out their bottoms. Diving crews recently worked for two weeks patching a hulk sunk close to the channel, and finally had it ready to start pumping air. They expected it to be afloat the next day. That morning, a ship leaving the harbor with a French pilot somehow happened to hit the submerged hulk, and it tore off all the patches. Now they have to to start all over again. It will take another two weeks to raise the ship.

There are many wars besides the big one up at the front.