The Pittsburgh Press (May 1, 1943)
By Ernie Pyle
Northern Tunisia – (by cable)
As is bound to happen in wartime, your close friends sometimes disappear. And as soon as they are gone, you sit of an evening and recounted stories about them, just as we used to do in the old aviation days after a mail pilot didn’t come back from his run.
The closest friend I’ve got so far is Lt. Leonard Bessman, a lawyer from Milwaukee. We have almost definite proof that Bessman was captured, and not killed, so we all hope to see him again before too long if things turn out right. I’ve mentioned Lennie Bessman before in these columns. Of all the soldiers I have ever known, he is the most sensitive to the little beauties of war and to the big tragedy of life. Maybe that is because he is Jewish, or maybe it isn’t. I don’t know.
His bravery was a byword among us long before he was captured.
Laugh about Lennie’s words
We sit around on our cots at night and laugh about things we’d heard Lennie say, because they sounded so melodramatic, yet, knowing him as we do, we know they weren’t melodramatic at all and that Lennie meant what he said.
He was up forward of our advance troops, for that was his job, and suddenly he found himself cut off, with a German tank in front of him and a machine-gun nest on his side. Lennie jumped out of his jeep, pulled his .45 and yelled at the heavily-armed enemy:
Come on out and I won’t shoot.
How’s that for confidence? We sit around at night and laugh about it.
Most of us find our emotions becoming jaded as month after month of war piles up on us, but Lennie was never jaded. He had a facility for mirroring in his fertile mind every little human thing that crossed his path. I’ll tell you a couple of stories he told us.
We had a certain type of anti-aircraft gun, mounted on a half-track, which requires two men to fire. They sit in two metal bucket seats just back of the guns.
Eyes kept on Germans
Lennie was lying near this ack-ack outfit during a terrific dive-bombing and strafing. He kept his eyes on these two special gunners as the Stukas came down right upon them.
The two never wavered. They sat there firing until suddenly and in unison they toppled sideways out of their seats – dead. And all within the same instant two more Americans rose like twins from the bed of the half-track, took the seats just vacated by death, and went right on with the firing.
The incident that most tickled his admiration was a queer one. It seems we had a big concentration of artillery that was giving the Germans plenty of trouble. They couldn’t locate it, so at night they would send planes over hunting for it. Of course, it was then our cue to lay low and silent, so as not to give away our position by firing at them.
‘You silly fools’
They came night after night, and never did find us. But each night after they had circled and were finally leaving, one lone contemptuous gunner would fire one lone contemptuous shot at them, just as though to say:
Here we are, you silly fools!
Night after night that one gunner would fire his one slapstick shot just as they were leaving. His sauciness exalted Lennie’s soul. I’ve heard him say:
I’d rather shake hands with that man than anybody in the American Army. I’m going to try to find him, and even if he’s a private I’m going to salute him.
We have heard that the Germans took the few Americans captured at El Guettar and marched them up the main street of Tunis, then loaded them in trucks and paraded them back again, then unloaded them and marched them through town once more – to make it look as though there were lots of prisoners. One of Lennie’s friends back here says he can just see Lennie, on his third compulsory trip down the main street of Tunis, screwing up his nose in the special mask of comic disgust which is one of his little habits, and observing:
Seems as if I’ve seen this before somewhere.