Roving Reporter, Ernie Pyle

Ernie again puts us in their boots to experience their lives from the comfort of our homes. Well done Ernie.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 2, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

Somewhere in Normandy, France – (by wireless)
An ordnance tank repair company gets some freakish jobs, indeed.

The other day the company I was with had a tank destroyer roll in. There was nothing wrong whatever with it except – the end of the gun barrel was corked tight with 2½ feet of wood.

What happened was they had been running along a hedgerow and as the turret operator swung his gun in a forward arc, they ran the end of the barrel smack into a big tree.

You would think the vehicle had to be going 100 miles an hour to plug the end of the barrel for 2½ feet simply by running into a tree. But it doesn’t. This one was going 20 miles an hour.

It took the ordnance boys four hours to dig the wood out with chisels and reamers. The inside of the barrel wasn’t hurt a bit and it went right back into action.

A three-inch anti-tank gun was brought in with a hole in the barrel about six inches back from the muzzle. The hole came from the inside! What happened was this: A German bazooka gunner fired a rocket at the anti-tank gun. It made one of those freakish hole-in-one hits – went right smack into the muzzle of the big gun.

About six inches inside it went off and burned its way clear through the barrel. Nobody got hurt but the barrel was unrepairable, and was sent back to England for salvage.

Another freak hit

A tank was brought in that had been hit twice on the same side within a few seconds. The entrance holes were about two feet apart. But on opposite side of the tank where the shells came out, there was only one hole. The angle of fire had been such that the second shell went right through the hole made by the first one.

In another case an 88 shell struck the thick steel apron that shields the breech of one of a tank’s guns. The shell didn’t go through. It hit at an angle and just scooped out a big chunk of steel about a foot long and six inches wide.

It’s very improbable that in the whole war this same shield would get hit again in the same place. Yet they can’t afford to take that chance, so the weakened armor had to be made strong again.

They took acetylene torches and cut out a plug around the weakened part with slanting sides the same as you’d plug a watermelon. Then they fashioned a steel plate the same size and shape as the hole, and welded it in.

The result is that the plug fits into the hole like a wedge and it would be impossible for a shell to drive it in. It’s really stronger now than it used to be.

One of the most surprising things I ran onto touring around scores of outdoor ordnance shops in Normandy was a mobile tire repair unit.

There already are half a dozen of these units here and more coming in. They fix anything from a motorcycle to truck tires. They don’t bother with ordinary holes such as nail holes. Practically all their work is on tires damaged by shrapnel or bullets.

Men especially trained

Each repair outfit consists of one officer and 15 men. They’ve been especially trained and their leaders usually were tiremen back in civil life.

They move in three trucks. When they set up, the three are backed to each other to form a T, thus making a shop with three wings, you get up to it on a portable staircase.

Outside on the ground tires are stacked all around. One set of soldiers works all day with knives carving out the rubber around the damaged places. Then they take the tire inside, and a machine roughens the edges of the holes so the filling will stick.

Then they mold in fresh rubber and put the tire in one of three baking machines. It’s hotter than blazes in there. It takes an hour and 45 minutes to bake each patch so you see they can’t turn them out very fast.

They’ll repair a tire that has up to six holes, but if it has more than that they send it back to England. A six-hole tire takes 10½ hours of baking. One unit can run off a maximum of about 65 tires daily. The unit I saw was set up in a former orchard and was so thoroughly camouflaged with nets you could hardly see it. The officer in charge was Lt. George Schuchardt, who has “The Hawkinson Tread Service” in Nashville, Tennessee. His partner is running it while he’s away.

His first sergeant is Stephen Hudak of Akron, of all places. He used to work for Firestone. I’ve been finding more damned square pegs in square holes in this Army lately. Something must be wrong.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 3, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

Somewhere in Normandy, France – (by wireless)
Mosquitoes are pretty bad in the swampy parts of Normandy. Especially along the hedgerows at night, they are ferocious.

Here in Normandy, they have something I’ve never seen before even in Alaska, the mosquito capital of the world.

When you drive along a Normandy road just before dusk, you’ll see dark columns extending 200 and 300 feet straight up into the air above a treetop. These are columns of mosquitoes swarming like bees, each column composed of millions of them.

At first, I thought they were gnats, but old mosquito people assure me they are genuine, all-wool mosquitoes. In a half-mile drive just before dusk you’ll see 20 of these columns. This is no cock and bull story; it’s the truth.

Our troops are not equipped with mosquito nets, so they just have to scratch and scratch. The mosquitoes, fortunately, don’t you give malaria, they merely drive you crazy.

One day at an ordnance company, I was talking with a soldier scrubbing rusted rifle barrels in a washtub of gasoline. His sleeves were relied up and his arms were covered with great red bumps. They were mosquito bites.

As we talked this man said, “Look at them mosquitoes hit that gasoline.”

Mosquitoes die beautifully

And sure enough, the mosquitoes were diving just like dive bombers, but once they hit the gasoline they just folded up and died beautifully and floated on the surface.

In one small-arms repair section that I visited, the only man who knew or cared anything about guns before the war was a professional gun collector.

He was Sgt. Joseph Toth of Mansfield, Ohio. He was stripped down to bit undershirt as the day was warm for a change. He was washing the walnut stocks of damaged rifles in a tub of water with a sponge. Toth used to work at the Westinghouse Electric plant in Mansfield and he spent all his extra money collecting guns. He belongs to the Ohio Gun Collectors Association. He says each one of the gun collectors back in Ohio has a different specialty. Some collect pistols; some muzzleloaders. His own hobby was machine pistols. He has 35 in his collection, some of them very expensive ones.

Ironically enough, he has not collected any guns over here at all, even though he’s in a world of machine pistols and many pass through his hands.

He says:

It isn’t so much the collecting. I just like to take them down. When I monkey with a gun, I like to take it clear down and put it back together again.

Toth also likes to talk. He’ll talk all day. As the other boys say, if he could always have a new type machine pistol to take down and somebody to listen to him at the same time, he’d constantly be the happiest man on earth.

Eggs are not plentiful enough in Normandy to supply the whole army, but a good scavenger can dig up a few each day. We buy them from farmers’ wives for six and eight cents apiece. We’re hoping someday to buy some from a farmer’s daughter.

These Normandy eggs are fine eggs, and about every fourth one is as big as a duck egg. The five men in our tent are all egg conscious, so we make it a practice to shop for eggs as we go about the country.

Ernie slaves over hot stove

We pass up regular breakfast in the Army mess and have our breakfast in our own tent every morning. By some inexplicable evolution of cruel fate, I have become the chef or this four-man crew of breakfast gargantuans.

Those four plutocrats lie in their cots and snore while I get out at the crack of dawn and slave over two Coleman stoves, cooking their oeufs in real Normandy butter – fried, scrambled, boiled or poached, as suits the whims of their respective majesties.

Except when I’m away with troops, I’ve been at this despicable occupation now for two months. And although my clients are, smart enough to keep me always graciously flattered about my culinary genius, I’m getting damn sick of the job.

So someday I’m going to carry out the most diabolical scheme. I’ll prepare, with the greatest of care, the most delicious breakfast ever known in France – I’ll have shirred hummingbird eggs and crisp French-fried potatoes and corn-fed bacon, done to a turn, and grape jelly and autumn-brown toast and gallons and gallons of thick, luscious coffee.

Then I’ll wake them up and I’ll serve it to all four of them on a red platter. I’ll serve it with a bow to Mr. Whitehead, and a curtesy to Mr. Liebling, and a “Good morning to you, sir,” to Mr. Brandt, and a long salute to Mr. Gorrell. And after I’ve served it, I’ll walk out casually as though I’m going up the hedgerow a little ways.

But instead, I’ll go on away and I’ll never come back again as long as I live, never, not even if they put an ad in the paper, and they will all wither away to nothing from lack of sustenance, and eventually they will starve plumb to death in this faraway and strangely beautiful land. Ha, ha.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 4, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

Somewhere in Normandy, France – (by wireless)
One afternoon a couple of soldiers came around our camp to tell me about the strange, experience that had just happened to them. They were brothers, and the night before they had run onto each other for the first time in more than two years.

They are Cpl. John and Pvt. Edward O’Donnell of East Milton, Massachusetts. John is an artilleryman and has been overseas more than two years, all through Africa and Sicily. Edward has been overseas only a couple of months. John is 22 and Edward, 19.

The first Edward knew his brother was in the vicinity was when he saw some soldiers, wearing the patch of John’s division, getting ready to take a bath at an outdoor shower the Army had set up.

He asked them where the division was and then began a several hour hunt for his brother. John was attending an Army movie set up in a barn when Edward finally tracked him down. They sent in word for John to come out. When he got about half way out and saw who was waiting he practically knocked everybody out of their chairs getting to the back.

Their commanding officers gave them the next day off and they just roamed around with their tongues wagging – talking mostly about home.

*Ernie meets Pvt. Pyle

That same afternoon another soldier came by to say hello because his name is the same as mine. He is Pvt. Stewart Pyle of Orange, New Jersey. He is the driver in a car company, and now and then he gets an assignment to drive some very high officers. At least that will give him something to talk about to his grandchildren.

Pvt. Pyle is married and has been overseas nine months. Try as we might, we couldn’t establish any relationship. That might have been due to the fact that my name isn’t Pyle at all, but Count Sforzo Chef DuPont D’Artagnan.

Our family sprang from a long line of Norman milkmaids. We took the name Pyle after the Jones murder cases in 1739 – January, I think it was. My great grandfather built the Empire State Building. Why am I telling you all this?

Department of Wartime Distorted Values – The other day a soldier offered to trade a French farmer three horses for three eggs. The soldier had captured the horses from the Germans. The trade didn’t come off – the farmer already had three horses.

And – at one of our evacuation hospitals the other day, a wounded soldier turned over 90,000 francs, equivalent to $1,800. He’d picked them up in a captured German headquarters. The Army is now in the process or looking up regulations to see whether the soldier can keep the money.

Paratrooper chaplains first

In the very early days of the invasion, I said in this column that Capt. Ralph L. Haga of Prospect, Virginia, claimed to be the first chaplain ashore on D-Day.

Well, I got into trouble over that, because he wasn’t. If I’d had any sense, I would have known better myself. The first chaplains on the beachhead were those who jumped with the paratroopers and there were a batch of them – I believe 17, altogether. They were in Normandy hours before Chaplain Haga touched the beach.

As one bunch of paratroopers wrote me, “Our chaplains had already rendered their first consolation service in France before Capt. Haga got his feet wet.” So all credit where credit is due.

One afternoon several weeks ago, I went into Cherbourg with an infantry company and one of the doughboys gave me two cans of French sardines they’d captured from the Germans.

Right in the midst of battle is a funny place to be giving a man sardines, but this is a funny war. At any rate, I was grateful and I put them in my musette bag when I got back to my tent that night. I forgot all about them.

The reason I mention it now is that last night I got a hungry spell, and was rummaging around in the bag for candy or something and ran onto these sardines. They tasted mighty good.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 5, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

In Normandy, France – (by wireless)
A few days after D-Day, you may remember we spoke in this column of five early phases of the continental invasion that would have to take place.

Phase No. 5 was to be the break out from our beachhead after we’d held it secure long enough to build up vast quantities of troops and supplies behind us. And once we’d broken out of the ring of Germans trying to hold us in and completed Phase 5, the real war in Western Europe would begin.

Well, we’re in Phase 5 now. At least we are while I’m writing this. Things are moving swiftly. You realize that several days elapse between the writing and the publication of this column. By the time you read this we may be out in the open and pushing into France.

Surely history will give a name to the battle that sent us boiling out of Normandy – some name comparable to Saint-Mihiel, or Meuse-Argonne of the last war. But to us here on the spot at the time it was known simply as “the breakthrough.”

We correspondents could sense that a big drive was coming. There are many little ways you can tell without actually being told, if you are experienced in war.

And then one evening Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, commanding all American troops in France, came to our camp and briefed us on the coming operation. It would start, he said, on the first day we had three hours good living weather in the forenoon.

Glad of news

We were all glad to hear the news. There isn’t a correspondent over here, or soldier, or officer I ever heard of who hasn’t complete and utter faith in Gen. Bradley. If he felt we were ready for the push, that was good enough for us.

The general told us the attack would cover a segment of the German line west of Saint-Lô, about five miles wide In that narrow segment we would have three infantry divisions, side by side. Right behind them would be another infantry and two armored divisions.

Once a hole was broken, the armored divisions would slam through several miles beyond, then turn right toward the sea behind the Germans in that sector in the hope of cutting them off and trapping them.

Keep pressure on

The remainder of our line on both sides of the attack would keep the pressure on to hold the Germans in front of them so they couldn’t send reinforcements against our big attack.

The attack was to open with a gigantic two-hour air bombardment by 1,800 planes – the biggest. I’m sure, ever attempted by air in direct support of ground troops.

It would start with dive bombers, then great four-motored heavies would come, and then mediums, then dive bombers again, and then the ground troops would kick off, with air fighters continuing to work ahead of them.

It was a thrilling plan to listen to. Gen. Bradley didn’t tell us the big thing – that this was Phase 5. But other officers gave us the word. They said, “This is no limited objective drive. This is it. This is the big breakthrough.”

In war, everybody contributes something, no matter how small or how far removed he may be. But on the frontline, this breakthrough was accomplished by four fighting branches of the services and I don’t see truly how one could be given credit above another.

None of the four could have done the job without the other three. The way they worked together was beautiful and precision-like, showering credit upon themselves and Gen. Bradley’s planning.

Goes with infantry

I went with the infantry because it is my love, and because I suspected the tanks, being spectacular, might smother the credit, due the infantry. I teamed up with the 4th Infantry Division since it was in the middle of the forward three and spearheading the attack.

The first night behind the frontlines I slept comfortably on a cot in a tent at the division command post, and met for the first time the Fourth’s commander – Maj. Gen. Raymond O. Barton, a fatherly kindly, thoughtful, good soldier.

The second night I spent on the dirty floor of a rickety French farmhouse, far up in the lines, with the nauseating odor of dead cows keeping me awake half the night.

The third night I slept on the ground in an orchard even farther up. snugly dug in behind a hedgerow so the 88s couldn’t get at me so easily. And on the next day the weather cleared, and the attack was on. It was July 25.

If you don’t have July 25 pasted in your hat, I would advise you to do so immediately. At least paste it in your mind. For I have a hunch that July 25 of the year 1944 will be one of the great historic pinnacles of this war.

It was the day we began a mighty surge out of our confined Normandy spaces, the day we stopped calling our area the beachhead, and knew we were fighting a war across the whole expanse of Europe.

On final victory move

From that day onward all dread possibilities and fears for disaster to our invasion were behind us. No longer was there any possibility of our getting kicked off. No longer could it be possible for fate, or weather, or enemy to wound us fatally; from that day onward, the future could hold nothing for us but growing strength and eventual victory.

For five days and nights during that historic period I stayed at the front with our troops. And now, though it’s slightly delayed, I want to tell you about it in detail from day to day, if you will be that patient.


The Pittsburgh Press (August 7, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

In Normandy, France – (by wireless)
The great attack, when we broke out of the Normandy beachhead, began in the bright light of midday, not at the zero hour of a bleak and mysterious dawn as attacks are supposed to start in books.

The attack had been delayed from day to day because of poor flying weather, and on the final day we hadn’t known for sure till after breakfast whether it was on or off again.

When the word came that it was on, the various battalion staffs of our regiment were called in from their command posts for a final review of the battle plan.

Each one was given a mimeographed sketch of the frontline area, showing exactly where and when each type bomber was to hammer the German lines ahead of them. Another mimeographed page was filled with specific orders for the grand attack to follow.

Officers stood or squatted in a circle in a little apple orchard behind a ramshackle stone farmhouse of a poor French family who had left before us. The stonewall in the front yard had been knocked down by shelling, and through the orchards there were shell craters and tree limbs knocked off and trunks sliced by bullets. Some enlisted men sleeping the night before in the attic of the house get the shock of their lives when the thin floor collapsed and they fell down into the cowshed below.

Chickens and tame rabbits still scampered around the farmyard. Dead cows lay all around in the fields.

The regimental colonel stood in the center of the officers and went over the orders in detail. Battalion commanders took down notes in little books.

The colonel said, “Ernie Pyle is with the regiment for this attack and will be with one of the battalions, so you’ll be seeing him.” The officers looked at me and smiled and I felt embarrassed.

Then Maj. Gen. Raymond O. Barton, 4th Division commander, arrived. The colonel called, “Attention-” and everybody stood rigid until the general gave them, “Carry on.”

An enlisted man ran to the mess truck and got a folding canvas stool for the general to sit on. He sat listening intently while the colonel wound up his instructions.

Then the general stepped into the center of the circle. He stood at a slouch on one foot with the other leg far up like a brace. He looked all around him as he talked. He didn’t talk long. He said something like this:

This is one of the finest regiments in the American Army. It was the last regiment out of France in the last war. It was the first regiment into France in this war. It has spearheaded every one of the division’s attacks in Normandy. It will spearhead this one. For many years this was my regiment and I feel very close to you, and very proud.

The general’s lined face was a study in emotion. Sincerity and deep sentiment were in every contour and they shone from his eyes. Gen. Barton is a man of deep affections. The tragedy of war, both personal and impersonal, hurts him. At the end, his voice almost broke, and I for one had a lump in my throat. He ended: “That’s all. God bless you and good luck.”

Then we broke up and I went with one of the battalion commanders. Word was passed down by field phone, radio and liaison men to the very smallest unit of troops that the attack was on.

There was still an hour before the bombers, and three houses before the infantry were to move. There was nothing for the infantry to do but dig a little deeper and wait. A cessation of motion seemed to come over the countryside and all its brown-clad inhabitants sense of last-minute sitting in silence before the holocaust.

The first planes of the mass onslaught came over a little before 10:00 a.m. They were the fighters and dive bombers. The main road running crosswise in front of us was their bomb line. They were to bomb only on the far side of that road.

Our kickoff infantry had been pulled back a few hundred yards this side of the road. Everyone in the area had been given the strictest orders to be in foxholes, for high-level bombers can, and do quite excusably, make mistakes.

We were still in country so level and with hedgerows so tall there simply was no high spot – either hill or building – from where you could get a grandstand view of the bombing as we used to in Sicily and Italy. So, one place was as good as another unless you went right up and sat on the bomb line.

Having been caught too close to these things before, I compromised and picked a farmyard about 800 yards back of the kickoff line.

And before the next two hours had passed, I would have given every penny, every desire, every hope I’ve ever had to have been just another 800 yards further back.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 8, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

In Normandy, France – (by wireless)
Our frontlines were marked by long strips of colored cloth laid on the ground, and with colored smoke to guide our airmen during the mass bombing that preceded our breakout from the German ring that held us to the Normandy beachhead.

Dive bombers hit it just right. We stood in the barnyard of a French farm and watched them barrel nearly straight down out of the sky. They were bombing about a half a mile ahead of where we stood.

They came in groups, diving from every direction, perfectly timed, one right after another. Everywhere you looked separate groups of planes were on the way down, or on the way back up, or slanting over for a dive, or circling, circling, circling over our heads, waiting for their turn.

The air was full of sharp and distinct sounds of cracking bombs and the heavy rips of the planes’ machine guns and the splitting screams of diving wings. It was all fast and furious, but yet distinct as in a musical show in which you could distinguish throaty tunes and words.

And then a new sound gradually droned into our ears, a sound deep and all-encompassing with not noes in it – just a gigantic faraway surge of doom-like sound. It was the heavies. They came from directly behind us. At first, they were the merest dots in the sky. You could see clots of them against the far heavens, too tiny to count individually. They came on with a terrible slowness.

They came in flights of 12, three flights to a group and in groups stretched out across the sky. They came in “families” of about 70 planes each.

Maybe these gigantic waves were two miles apart, maybe they were 10 miles, I don’t know. But I do know they came in a constant procession and I thought it would never end. What the Germans must have thought is beyond comprehension.

Their march across the sky was slow and studied. I’ve never known a storm, or a machine, or any resolve of man that had about it the aura of such a ghastly relentlessness. You had the feeling that even had God appeared beseechingly before them in the sky with palms outward to persuade them back they would not have had within them the power to turn from their irresistible course.

I stood with a little group of men ranging from colonels to privates, back of the stone farmhouse. Slit trenches were all around the edges of the farmyard and a dugout with a tin roof was nearby. But we were so fascinated by the spectacle overhead that it never occurred to us that we might need the foxholes

The first huge flight passed directly over our farmyard and others followed. We spread our feel and leaned far back trying to look straight up, until our steel helmets fell off. We’d cup our fingers around our eyes like field glasses for a clearer view.

And then the bombs came. They began ahead of us as the crackle of popcorn and almost instantly swelled into a monstrous fury of noise that seemed surely to destroy all the world ahead of us, From then on for an hour and a half that had in it the agonies of centuries, the bombs came down, A wall of smoke and dust erected by them grew high in the sky. It filtered along the ground back through our own orchards. It sifted around us and into our noses. The bright day grew slowly dark from it.

By now everything was an indescribable cauldron of sounds. Individual noises did not exist. The thundering of the motors in the sky and the roar of bombs ahead filled all the space for noise on earth. Our own heavy artillery was crashing all around us, yet we could hardly hear it.

The Germans began to shoot heavy, high ack-ack. Great black puffs of it by the score speckled the sky until it was hard to distinguish smoke puffs from planes. And then someone shouted that one of the planes was smoking. Yes, we could all see it. A long faint line of black smoke stretched straight for a mile behind one of them.

And as we watched there was a gigantic sweep of flame over the plane. From nose to tail it disappeared in flame, and it slanted slowly down and banked around the sky in great wide curves this way and that way, as rhythmically and gracefully as in a slow-motion waltz.

Then suddenly it seemed to change its mind and it swept upward. steeper and steeper and ever slower until finally it seemed poised motionless on its own black pillar of smoke. And then just as slowly it turned over and dived for the earth – a golden spearhead on the straight black shaft of its own creation – and it disappeared behind the treetops.

But before it was done there were more cries of, “There’s another one smoking and there’s a third one now.”

Chutes came out of some of the planes. Out of some came no chutes at all. One of white silk caught on the tail of a plane. Men with binoculars could see him fighting to get loose until flames swept over him, and then a tiny black dot fell through space, all alone.

And all that time the great flat ceiling of the sky was roofed by all the others that didn’t go down, plowing their way forward as if there were no turmoil in the world.

Nothing deviated them by the slightest. They stalked on, slowly and with a dreadful pall of sound, as though they were seeing only something at a great distance and nothing existed in between. God, how you admired those men up there and sickened for the ones who fell.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 9, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

In Normandy, France – (by wireless)
It is possible to become so enthralled by some of the spectacles of war that you are momentarily captivated away from your own danger.

That’s what happened to our little group of soldiers as we stood in a French farmyard, watching the mighty bombing of the German lines just before our breakthrough.

But that benign state didn’t last long. As we watched, there crept into our consciousness a realization that windrows of exploding bombs were easing back toward us flight by flight, instead of gradually forward, as the plan called for.

Then we were horrified by the suspicion that those machines, high in the sky and completely detached from us, were aiming their bombs at the smoke line on the ground – and a gentle breeze was drifting the smoke line back over us!

An indescribable kind of panic comes over you at such times. We stood tensed in muscle and frozen in intellect, watching each flight approach and pass over us, feeling trapped and completely helpless.

And then all of an instant the universe became filled with a gigantic rattling as of huge, dry seeds in a mammoth dry gourd. I doubt that any of us had ever heard that sound before, but instinct told us what it was. It was bombs by the hundred, hurtling down through the air above us.

Many times I’ve heard bombs whistle or swish or rustle, but never before had I heard bombs rattle. I still don’t know the explanation of it. But it is an awful sound.

We dived. Some got in a dugout. Others made foxholes and ditches and some got behind a garden wall – although which side would be “behind” was anybody’s guess.

Too late for the dugout

I was too late for the dugout. The nearest place was a wagon shed which formed one end of the stone house. The rattle was right down upon us. I remember hitting the ground flat, all spread out like the cartoons of people flattened by steamrollers, and then of squirming like an eel to get under one of the heavy wagons in the shed.

An officer whom I didn’t know was wriggling beside me. We stopped at the same time, simultaneously feeling it w a s hopeless to move farther. The bombs were already crashing around us.

We lay with our heads slightly up – like two snakes staring at each other. I know it was in both our minds and in our eyes, asking each other what to do. Neither of us knew. We said nothing. We just lay sprawled, gaping at each other in a futile appeal, our faces about a foot apart, until it was over.

There is no description of the sound and fury of those bombs except to say it was chaos, and a waiting for darkness. The feeling of the blast was sensational. The air struck you in hundreds of continuing flutters. Your ears drummed and rang. You could feel quick little waves of concussions on your chest and in your eyes.

At last, the sound died down and we looked at each other in disbelief. Gradually we left the foxholes and sprawling places, and came out to see what the sky had in store for us. As far as we could see other waves were approach from behind.

When a wave would pass a little to the side of us we were garrulously grateful, for most of them flew directly overhead. Time and again the rattle came down over us. Bombs struck in the orchard to our left. They struck in orchards ahead of us. They struck as far as half a mile behind us. Everything about us was shaken, but our group came through unhurt.

Inhuman tenseness

I can’t record what any of us actually felt or thought during those horrible climaxes. I believe a person’s feelings at such times are kaleidoscopic and uncatalogable. You just wait, that’s all, You do remember an inhuman tenseness of muscle and nerves.

An hour or so later, I began to get sore all over, and by midafternoon my back and shoulders ached as though I’d been beaten with a club. It was simply the result of muscles tensing themselves too tight for too long against anticipated shock. And I remember worrying about war correspondent Ken Crawford, a friend from back in the old Washington days, who I knew was several hundred yards ahead of me.

As far as I knew, he and I were the only two correspondents with the 4th Division. I didn’t know who might be with the divisions on either side – which also were being hit, as we could see.

Three days later, back at camp, I learned that AP photographer Bede Irvin had been killed in the bombing and that Ken was safe.

We came out of our ignominious sprawling and stood up again to watch. We could sense that by now the error had been caught and checked. The bombs again were falling where they were intended, a mile or so ahead.

Even at a mile away, a thousand bombs hitting within a few seconds can shake the earth and shatter the air where you are standing. There was still a dread in our hearts, but it gradually eased as the tumult and destruction moved slowly forward.

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Ernie’s description is almost unbelievable and the horror of friendly fire is something we find hard to grasp given the detailed plans that were supposed to protect US soldiers not kill them.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 10, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

In Normandy, France – (by wireless)
With our own personal danger past our historic air bombardment of the German lines holding us in the Normandy beachhead again became a captivating spectacle to watch.

By now, it was definite that the great waves of four-motored planes were dropping their deadly loads exactly in the right place.

And by now two Mustang fighters flying like a pair of doves patrolled back and forth, back and forth, just in front of each oncoming wave of bombers, as if to shout to them by their mere presence that here was not the place to drop – wait a few seconds, wait a few more seconds.

And then we could see a flare come out of the belly of one plane in each flight, just after they had passed over our heads.

The flare shot forward, leaving smoke behind it in a vivid line, and then began a graceful, downward curve that was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

It was like an invisible crayon drawing a rapid line across the canvas of the sky, saying in a gesture for all to see: “Here! Here is where to drop. Follow me.”

And each succeeding flight of oncoming bombers obeyed, and in turn dropped its own hurtling marker across the illimitable heaven to guide those behind.

Long before now the German ack-ack guns had gone out of existence. We had counted three of our big planes down in spectacular flames, and I believe that was all. The German ack-ack gunners either took to their holes or were annihilated.

How many waves of heavy bombers we put over I have no idea. I had counted well beyond 400 planes when my personal distraction obliterated any capacity or desire to count.

I only know that 400 was just the beginning. There were supposed to be 1,800 planes that day, and I believe it was announced later that there were more than 3,000.

It seemed incredible to me that any German could come out of that bombardment with his sanity. When it was over, even I was grateful in a chastened way I had never experienced before, for just being alive.

I thought an attack by our troops was impossible now, for it was an unnerving thing to be bombed by your own planes.

During the bad part, a colonel I had known a long time was walking up and down behind the farmhouse, snapping his fingers and saying over and over to himself, “–dammit, –dammit!”

As he passed me once he stopped and started and said, “–dammit!”

And I said, “there can’t be any attack now, can there?” And he said “No,” and began walking again, snapping his fingers and tossing his arm as though he was throwing rocks at the ground.

The leading company of our battalion was to spearhead the attack 40 minutes after our heavy bombing ceased. The company had been hit directly by our bombs. Their casualties, including casualties in shock, were heavy. Men went to pieces and had to be sent back. The company was shattered and shaken.

And yet Company B attacked – and on time, to the minute! They attacked, and within an hour they sent word back that they had advanced 800 yards through German territory and were still going. Around our farmyard men with stars on their shoulders almost wept when the word came over the portable radio. The American soldier can be majestic when he needs to be.

There is one more thing I want to say before we follow the ground troops on deeper into France in the great push you’ve been reading about now for days.

I’m sure that back in England that night other men – bomber crews – almost wept, and maybe they did really, in the awful knowledge that they had killed our own American troops. But I want to say this to them. The chaos and the bitterness there in the orchards and between the hedgerows that afternoon have passed. After the bitterness came the sober remembrance that the Air Corps is the strong right arm in front of us. Not only at the beginning, but ceaselessly and everlastingly, every moment of the faintest daylight, the Air Corps is up there banging away ahead of us.

Anybody makes mistakes. The enemy makes them just the same as we do. The smoke and confusion of battle bewilder us all on the ground as well as in the air. And in this case the percentage of error was really very small compared with the colossal storm of bombs that fell upon the enemy. The Air Corps has been wonderful throughout this invasion, and the men on the ground appreciate it.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 11, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

On the Western Front, France – (by wireless)
I know that all of us correspondents have tried time and again to describe to you what this weird hedgerow fighting in northwestern France has been like.

But I’m going to go over it once more, for we’ve been in it two months and some of us feel that this is the two months that broke the German Army in the west.

This type of fighting is always in small groups, so let’s take as an example one company of men. Let’s say they are working forward on both sides of a country lane, and this company is responsible for clearing the two fields on either side of the road as it advances.

That means you have only about one platoon to a field. And with the company’s understrength from casualties, you might have no more than 25 or 30 men in field.

Over here the fields are usually not more than 50 yards across and a couple of hundred yards long. They may have grain in them, or apple trees, but mostly they are just pastures of green grass, full of beautiful cows.

The fields are surrounded on all sides by Immense hedgerows which consist of an ancient earthen bank, waist high, all matted with roots, and out of which grow weeds, bushes, and trees up to 20 feet high.

The Germans have used these barriers well. They put snipers in the trees. They dig deep trenches behind the hedgerows and cover them with timber, so that it is almost impossible for artillery to get at them.

Sometimes they will prop up machine guns with strings attached, so they can fire over the hedge without getting out of their holes. They even cut out a section of the hedgerow and hide a big gun or a tank in it, covering it, with brush.

Also they tunnel under the hedgerows from the back and make the opening on the forward side just large enough to stick a machine gun through.

But mostly the hedgerow pattern is this: a heavy machine gun hidden at each end of the field and infantrymen hidden all along the hedgerow with rifles and machine pistols.

It’s a slow and cautious business

Now it’s up to us to dig them out of there. It’s a slow and cautious business, and there is nothing very dashing about it. Our men don’t go across the open fields in dramatic charges such as you see in the movies. They did at first, but they learned better.

They go in tiny groups, a squad or less, moving yards apart and sticking close to the hedgerows on either end of the field. They creep a few yards, squat, wait, then creep again.

If you could be right up there between the Germans and the Americans you wouldn’t see very many men at any one time – just a few here and there, always trying to keep hidden. But you would hear an awful lot of noise.

Our men were taught in training not to fire until they saw something to fire at. But that hasn’t worked in this country, because, you see so little. So, the alternative is to keep shooting constantly at the hedgerows. That pins the Germans in their holes while we sneak up on them.

The attacking squads sneak up the side of the hedgerows while the rest of the platoon stay back in their own hedgerow and keep the forward hedge saturated with bullets. They shoot rifle grenades too, and a mortar squad a little farther back keeps lobbing mortar shells over onto the Germans.

The little advance groups get up to the far ends of the hedgerows at the corners of the field. They first try to knock out the machine guns at each corner. They do this with hand grenades, rifle grenades and machine guns.

Fighting is very close

Usually, when the pressure gets on, the German defenders of the hedgerow start pulling back. They’ll take their heavier guns and most of the men back a couple of fields and start digging in for a new line.

They leave about two machine guns and a few riflemen scattered through the hedge, to do a lot of shooting and hold up the Americans as long as they can.

Our men now sneak along the front side of the hedgerow, throwing grenades over onto the other side and spraying the hedges with their guns. The fighting is very close – only a few yards apart – but it is seldom actual hand-to-hand stuff.

Sometimes the remaining Germans come out of their holes with their hands up. Sometimes they try to run for it and are mowed down. Sometimes they won’t come out at all, and a hand grenade thrown into their hole, finishes them off.

And so, we’ve taken another hedgerow and are ready to start on the one beyond.

This hedgerow business is a series of little skirmishes like that clear across the front, thousands and thousands of little skirmishes. No single one of them is very big. But add them all up over the days and weeks and you’ve got a man-sized war, with thousands on both sides being killed.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 12, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

On the Western Front, France – (by wireless)
What we gave you yesterday in trying to describe hedgerow fighting was the general pattern.

If you were to come over here and pick out some hedge-enclosed field at random, the fighting there probably wouldn’t be following the general pattern at all. For each one is a little separate war, fought under different circumstances.

For instance, you’ll come to a woods instead of an open field. The Germans will be dug in all over the woods, in little groups, and it’s really tough to get them out. Often in cases like that we will just go around the woods and keep going and let later units take care of those surrounded and doomed fellows.

Or we’ll go through the woods and clean it out, and another company, coming through a couple of hours later, will find it full of Germans again. In a war like this one everything is in such confusion I don’t see how either side ever gets anywhere.

Sometimes you don’t know where the enemy is and don’t know where your own troops are. As somebody said the other day, no battalion commander can give you the exact location of his various units five minutes after they’ve jumped off.

We will bypass whole pockets of Germans, and they will be there fighting our following waves when our attacking companies are a couple of miles on beyond. Gradually the front gets all mixed up. There will be Germans behind you and at the side. They’ll be shooting at you from behind and from your flank.

Sometimes a unit will get so far out ahead of those on either side that it has to swing around and fight to its rear. Sometimes we fire on your own troops, thinking we are in German territory. You can’t see anything, and you can’t even tell from the sounds, for each side uses some of the other’s captured weapons.

Foot soldier hates to be near tank

The tanks and the infantry had to work in the closest cooperation in breaking through the German ring, that tried to pin us down in the beachhead area. Neither could have done it alone.

The troops are of two minds about having tanks around them. If you’re a foot soldier, you hate to be near a tank, for it always draws fire. On the other hand, if the going gets tough you pray for a tank to come up and start blasting with its guns.

In our breakthrough each infantry unit had tanks attached to it. It was the tanks and the infantry that broke through that ring and punched a hole for the armored divisions to go through.

The armored divisions practically ran amuck, racing long distances and playing hob, once they got behind the German lines, but it was the infantry and their attached tanks that opened the gate for them.

Tanks shuttled back and forth, from one field to another, throughout our breakthrough battle, receiving their orders by radio. Bulldozers punched holes through the hedgerows for them, and then the tanks would come up and blast out the bad spots of the opposition.

It has been necessary for us to wreck almost every farmhouse and little village in our path. The Germans used them for strongpoints, or put artillery observers in them, and they just had to be blasted out.

Most of the French farmers evacuate ahead of the fighting and filter back after it has passed. It is pitiful to see them come back to their demolished homes and towns. Yet it’s wonderful to see the grand way they take it.

Four hours rest in three days

In a long drive, an infantry company may go for a couple of days without letting up. Ammunition is carried up to it by hand, and occasionally by jeep. The soldiers sometimes eat only one K ration a day. They may run clear out of water. Their strength is gradually whittled down by wounds, exhaustion cases and straggling.

Finally, they will get an order to sit where they are and dig in. Then another company will pass through, or around them, and go on with the fighting. The relieved company may get to rest as much as a day or two. But in a big push such as the one that broke us out of the beachhead, a few hours is about all they can expect.

The company I was with got its orders to rest about 5:00 one afternoon. They dug foxholes along the hedgerows, or commandeered German ones already dug. Regardless of how tired you may be, you always dig in the first thing.

Then they sent some men with cans looking for water. They got more K rations up by jeep, and sat on the ground eating them.

They hoped they would stay there all night, but they weren’t counting on it too much. Shortly after supper a lieutenant came out of a farmhouse and told the sergeants to pass the word to be ready to move in 10 minutes. They bundled on their packs and started just before dark.

Within half an hour, they had run into a new fight that lasted all night: They had had less than four hours’ rest in three solid days of fighting. That’s the way life is in the infantry.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 14, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

On the Western Front, France – (by wireless)
The afternoon was tense, and full of caution and dire little might-have-beens.

I was wandering up a dirt lane where the infantrymen were squatting alongside in a ditch, waiting their turn to advance. They always squat like that when they’re close to the front.

Suddenly German shells started banging around us. I jumped into a ditch between a couple of soldiers and squatted. Shells were clipping the hedge tops right over our heads and crashing into the next pasture.

Then suddenly one exploded, not with a crash, but with a ring as though you’d struck a high-toned bell. The debris of burned wadding and dirt came showering down over us. My head rang, and my right ear couldn’t hear anything.

The shell had struck behind us, 20 feet away. We had been saved by the earthen bank of the hedgerow. It was the next day before my ear returned to normal.

A minute later a soldier crouching next in line, a couple of feet away, turned to me and asked, “Are you a war correspondent?”

I said I was, and he said, “I want to shake your hand.” And he reached around the bush and we shook hands.

That’s all either of us said. It didn’t occur to me until later that it was a sort of unusual experience. And I was so addled by the close explosions that I forgot to put down his name.

A blessed five minutes

A few minutes later a friend of mine, Lt. Col. Oma Bates of Gloster, Mississippi, came past and said he was hunting our new battalion command post. It was supposed to be in a farmhouse about a hundred yards from us, so I got up and went with him.

We couldn’t find it at first. We lost about five minutes, walking around in orchards looking for it. That was a blessed five minutes. For when we got within 50 yards of the house it got a direct shell hit which killed one officer and wounded several men.

The Germans now rained shells around our little area. You couldn’t walk 10 feet without hitting the ground. They came past our heads so quickly you didn’t take time to fall forward – I found the quickest way down was to flop back and sideways.

In a little while the seat of my pants was plastered thick with wet red clay, and my hands were scratched from hitting rocks and briars to break quick falls.

Nobody ever fastens the chinstrap on his helmet in the frontlines, for the blasts from nearby bursts have been known to catch helmets and break people’s necks. Consequently, when you squat quickly you descend faster than your helmet and you leave it in mid-air above you. Of course, in a fraction of a second it follows you down and hits you on the head, and settles sideways over your ear and down over your eyes. It makes you feel silly.

Once more shells drove me into a roadside ditch. I squatted there, just a bewildered guy in brown, part of a thin line of other bewildered guys as far up and down the ditch as you could see.

It was really frightening. Our own shells were whanging overhead and hitting just beyond. The German shells tore through the orchards around us. There was machine-gunning all around, and bullets zipped through the trees above us.

I could tell by their shoulder patches that the soldiers near me were from a division to our right, and I wondered what they were doing there. Then I heard one of them say:

This is a fine foul-up for you! I knew that lieutenant was getting lost. Hell, we’re service troops, and here we are right in the front lines.

Grim as the moment was, I had to laugh to myself at their pitiful plight.

I left a command post in a farmhouse and started to another about 10 minutes away. When I got there, they said the one I had just left had been hit while I was on the way.

A solid armor-piercing shell had gone right through a window and a man I knew had his leg cut off. That evening the other officers took a big steel slug over to the hospital so he would have a souvenir.

Depends on your number

When I got to another battalion command post, later in the day, they were just ready to move. A sergeant had been forward about half a mile in a jeep and picked out a farmhouse. He said it was the cleanest, nicest one he had been in for a long time.

So, we piled into several jeeps and drove up there. It had been only 20 minutes since the sergeant had left. But when we got to the new house, it wasn’t there.

A shell had hit it. in the last 20 minutes and set it afire, and it had burned to the ground. So we drove up the road a little farther and picked out another one. We had been there about half an hour when a shell struck in an orchard 50 yards in front of us.

In a few minutes our litter bearers came past, carrying a captain. He was the surgeon of our adjoining battalion, and he had been looking in the orchard for a likely place to move his first-aid station. A shell hit right beside him.

That’s the way war is on an afternoon that is tense and full of might-have-beens for some of us, and awful realities for others.

It just depends on what your number is. I don’t believe in that number business at all, but in war you sort of let your belief hover around it, for it’s about all you have left.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 15, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

On the Western Front, France – (by wireless)
One afternoon I went with our battalion medics to pick up wounded men who had been carried back to some shattered houses just behind our lines, and to gather some others right off the battlefield.

The battalion surgeon was Capt. Lucien Strawn, from Morgantown, West Virginia. He drives his jeep himself and goes right into the lines with his aid men.

We drove forward about a mile in out two jeeps, so loaded with litter bearers they were even riding on the hood. Finally, we had to stop and wait until a bulldozer filled a new shell crater in the middle of the road. We had gone about a hundred yards beyond the crater when we ran into some infantry. They stopped us and said: “Be careful where you’re going. The Germans are only 200 yards up the road.”

Capt. Strawn said he couldn’t get to the wounded men that way, so he turned around to try another way. A side road led off at an angle from a shattered village we had just passed through. He decided to try to get up that road.

But when we got there the road had a house blown across it, and it was blocked. We went forward a little on foot and found two deep bomb craters, also impassable.

So, Capt. Strawn walked back to the bulldozer, and asked the driver if he would go ahead of us and clear the road. The first thing the driver asked was, “How close to the front is it?”

The doctor said, “Well, at least it isn’t any closer than you are right now.” So the dozer driver agreed to clear the road ahead of us.

While we were waiting a soldier came over and showed us two eggs he had just found in the backyard of a jumbled house. There wasn’t an untouched house left standing in the town, and some of the houses were still smoking inside.

Also, while we were waiting, two shock cases came staggering down the road toward us. They were not wounded but were completely broken the kind that stabs into your heart.

They were shaking all over, and had to hold onto each other like little girls when they walked. The doctor stopped them. They could barely talk, barely understand. He told them to wait down at the next corner until we came back, and then they could ride.

When they turned away from the jeep, they turned slowly and unsteadily, a step at a time, like men who were awfully drunk. Their mouths hung open and their eyes stared, and they still held onto each other. They were just like idiots. They had found more war than the human spirit can endure.

At the far edge of the town, we came to a partly wrecked farmhouse that had two Germans in it – one was wounded and the other was just staying with him: We ran our jeeps into the yard and the litter bearers went on across the field to where the aid men had been told some of our wounded were lying behind a hedge.

The doctor sent the able German soldier along with our litter bearers to help carry. He was very willing to help. I stayed at the house with the doctor while he looked at the wounded German, lying in the midst of the scattered debris of what had been a kitchen floor.

The German didn’t seem to be badly wounded, but he was sure full of misery. He looked middle-aged, and he was pale, partly bald, had a big nose and his face was yellow. He kept moaning and twisting. The doctor said he thought morphine was making him sick.

The doctor took his scissors and began cutting his clothes open to see if he was wounded anywhere except in the arm. He wasn’t. But he had been sick at his stomach and then rolled over. He was sure a superman sad sack.

Pretty soon the litter bearers came back. They had two wounded Germans and one American on their litters. Also they had two walking cases – one hearty fellow with a slight leg wound, and one youngster whose hands were trembling from nervous tension.

The doctor asked him what was the matter and he said nothing was, except that he couldn’t stop shaking. He said he felt that his nerves were all right, but he just couldn’t keep his hands from trembling.

Just a shade of disappointment passed over the boy’s face, but he was game.

“That’s what I told the lieutenant,” he said. “I think I’m all right to go back.”

I could tell the doctor liked his attitude. There was nothing yellow about the kid.

The doctor said:

I’ll tell you. You get on this jeep and go back to the aid station. We will give you some sleeping stuff, and you can just lie around there on the ground for a day or two and you’ll be all right.

And with that compromise, the kid – relieved at even a two-day respite – got into the jeep with the wounded men and went back down the road.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 16, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

On the Western Front, France – (by wireless)
The other soldier had a white bandage around the calf of his left leg. He had loosely laced his legging back over the bandage.

He said the wound “didn’t amount to a damn” and he wished they hadn’t sent him back from the lines. He said he had gone through Africa and Sicily without getting wounded, and now he’d got nicked. He was disgusted.

You could sense that this guy was a fine soldier. He looked old, but probably wasn’t. I took him to be a farmer. He talked like a hillbilly, and beneath his whiskers you could tell he had a big, droll face.

He had found some long, crooked, raggedy French cigars, and he kept lighting these funny-looking things and putting them about three inches into his mouth. He wasn’t nervous in the least.

Capt. Lucien Strawn, the battalion surgeon, started to put him in a jeep to go back to the aid station, but the soldier said:

Now wait. I know where there’s two more men wounded pretty bad. One of them is a lieutenant who just got back from the hospital this morning from his other wound.

The soldier said they were right up where the bullets were flying, but that if the aidmen would go, he could walk well enough to guide them up there. So, the doctor named off half a dozen men to go with him.

Shells start hitting again

The doctor also told the unwounded German to go along and help carry. But one of the aidmen said:

We better not have him with us. Our own men are liable to start shooting at us.

“That’s right,” the doctor said, “Leave him here.” And he named off one other American to go. After they had left the doctor said, “that’s the truth, and I never even thought of it.”

The doctor and I sat a while on the stairway inside the farmhouse, for shells had started hitting just outside again. But in a little bit the doctor got up and said he was going to see how the stretcher party was getting along. I said I’d like to go with him. He said OK.

We struck out across a sloping wheatfield. It was full of huge craters left by our bombings. There was a lull in the shelling as we crossed the field, but the trouble with lulls is that you never know when they will suddenly come to an end.

As we picked our way among the craters, I thought I heard, very faintly, somebody call “Help!” It’s odd how things strike you in wartime. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, pooh, that would be too dramatic – just like a book. You’re just imagining it.”

But the doctor had stopped, and he said, “Did you hear somebody yelling?”

So we listened again, and this time we could hear it plainly. It seemed to come from a far corner of the field, so we picked our way over in that direction.

Finally, we saw him, a soldier lying on his back near a hedge row, still yelling “Help!” as we approached. The aidmen who had started ahead of us had got down in a bomb crater when the shelling started, so the doctor now waved them to come on.

Making an awful fuss

The wounded soldier was making an awful fuss. He was twisting and squirming, and moaning “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” He had a bandage on his right hand and there was blood on his left leg.

The doctor took his scissors and cut the legging off, then cut the laces on the shoe, and then peeled off a bloody sock and cut the pants leg up so he could see the wound. The soldier kept his eyes shut and kept squirming and moaning.

When the doctor would try to talk to him, he would just groan and say, “Oh, my God!” Finally, the doctor got out of him that he had had a small wound in his hand, and his sergeant had bandaged it and told him to start to the rear. Then, coming across the field, a shell fragment had got him in the leg.

The doctor looked him. over thoroughly. There were two small holes just above the ankle. The doctor said they hadn’t touched the bone. I think the doctor was disgusted.

He said, “He’s making a hell of a fuss over nothing.” Then to one of the aidmen he said, “Better give him a shot of morphine to quiet him.”

Whereupon the soldier squirmed and moaned, “Oh, no, no, no! Oh, my God!” But the doctor said go ahead, and the aidman cut his sleeve up to the shoulder, stuck the needle in and squeezed the vial.

The aidman, trying to be sympathetic, said to the soldier, “It’s the same old needle, ain’t it?” But the soldier just groaned again and said, “Oh, my God!”

Our hillbilly soldier lit another skinny cigar, as though he were at a national convention instead of a battlefield. Then one set of the litter-bearers started back with our new man, and the rest of us went on with the soldier to hunt for other wounded.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 17, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

On the Western front, France – (by wireless)
The commander of the particular regiment of the 4th Infantry Division that we have been with is one of my favorites.

That’s partly because he flatters me by calling me “General,” partly because just looking at him makes me chuckle to myself, and partly because I think he’s a very fine soldier.

Security forbids my giving his name. He is a Regular Army colonel and he was overseas in the last war. His division commander says the only trouble with him is that he’s too bold, and if he isn’t careful, he’s liable to get clipped one of these days.

He is rather unusual looking. There is something almost Mongolian about his face. When cleaned up he could be a Cossack. When tired and dirty he could be a movie gangster. But either way, his eyes always twinkle.

He has a facility for direct thought that is unusual. He is impatient of thinking that gets off onto byways.

He has a little habit of good-naturedly reprimanding people by cocking his head over to one side, getting his face below yours and saying something sharp, and then looking up at you with a quizzical smirk like a laughing cat.

Jacket fits like a sack

The colonel goes constantly from one battalion to another during battle, from early light till darkness. He wears a new-type field jacket that fits him like a sack, and he carries a long stick that Teddy Roosevelt gave him. He keeps constantly prodding his commanders to push hard, not to let up, to keep driving and driving.

He is impatient with commanders who lose the main point of the war by getting involved in details the main point, of course, being to kill Germans. His philosophy of war is expressed in the simple formula of “shoot the sonsabitches.”

Once I was at a battalion command post when we got word that 60 Germans were coming down the road in a counterattack. Everybody got excited. They called the colonel on a field phone, gave him the details and asked him what to do. He had the solution in a nutshell.

He just said, “Shoot the sonsabitches,” and hung up.

Another of my favorites is a sergeant who runs the colonel’s regimental mess. He cooks some himself, but mostly he bosses the cooking.

His name is Charles J. Murphy and his home is at Trenton, New Jersey. Murph is redheaded, but has his head nearly shaved like practicably all the Western Front soldiers – officers as well as men. Murph is funny, but he seldom smiles.

When I asked him what he did in civilian life, he thought a moment and then said:

Well, I was a shyster. Guess you’d call me a kind of promoter. I always had the kind of job where you made $50 a week salary and $1,500 on the side.

How’s that for an honest man?

Murph and I got to talking about newspapermen one day. Murph said his grandfather was a newspaper man. He retired in old age and lived in Murph’s house.

‘Went nuts reading newspapers’

Murph said:

My grandfather went nuts reading newspapers. It was a phobia with him. Every day he’d buy $1.50 worth of 3-cent newspapers and then read them all night.

He wouldn’t read the ads. He would just read the stories, looking for something to criticize. He’d get fuming mad.

Lots of times when I was a kid, he’d get me out of bed at 2 or 3 in the morning and point to some story in the paper and rave about reporters who didn’t have sense enough to put a period at the end of a sentence.

Murph and I agreed that it was fortunate his grandfather passed on before he got reading my stuff, or he would doubtless have run amuck.

Murph never smoked cigarettes until he landed in France on D-Day, but now he smokes one after another. He is about the tenth soldier who has told me that same thing. A guy in war has to have some outlet for his nerves, and I guess smoking is as good as anything.

All kinds of incongruous things happen during a battle. For instance, during one lull I got my portrait painted in watercolor. The artist sat cross legged on the grass and it took about an hour.

The painter was Pfc. Leon Wall, from Wyoming, Pennsylvania. He went to the National Academy of Design in New York for six years, did research for the Metropolitan Museum and lectured on art at the New York World’s Fair.

Artist Wall is now, of all things, a cook and KP in an infantry regiment mess. He hasn’t done any war paintings at all since the invasion. I asked him why not. He said: “Well, at first I was too scared, and since then I’ve been too busy.”

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 18, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

On the Western Front, France – (by wireless)
Soldiers are made out of the strangest people.

I’ve recently made a new friend – just a plain old Hoosier – who is so quiet and humble you would hardly know he was around. Yet in our few weeks of invasion, he has killed four of the enemy, and he has learned war’s wise little ways of destroying life and preserving your own.

He hasn’t become the “killer” type that war makes of some soldiers; he has merely become adjusted to an obligatory new profession.

His name is George Thomas Clayton. Back home he is known as Tommy. In the Army he is sometimes called George, but usually just Clayton. He is from Evansville, where he lived with his sister. He is a frontline infantryman of rifle company in the 29th Division.

By the time this is printed he will be back in the lines. Right now he is out of combat for a brief rest. He spent a few days in an “Exhaustion Camp,” then was assigned briefly to the camp where I work from – a camp for correspondents. That’s how we got acquainted.

Clayton is a private first class. He operates a Browning automatic rifle. He has turned down two chances to become a buck sergeant and squad leader, simply because he would rather keep his powerful BAR than have stripes and less personal protection.

He landed in Normandy on D-Day, on the toughest of the beaches, and was in the line for 37 days without rest. He has had innumerable narrow escapes.

Twice, 88s hit within a couple of arms’ lengths of him. But both times the funnel of the concussion was away from him and he didn’t get a scratch though the explosions covered him and his rifle with dirt.

Then a third one hit about 10 feet away, and made him deaf in his right ear. He had always had trouble with that ear anyway – ear aches and things as a child. Even in the Army back in America he had to beg the doctors to waive the ear defect in order to come overseas. He is still a little hard of hearing in that ear from the shell burst, but it’s gradually coming back.

When Tommy finally left the lines, he was pretty well done up and his sergeant wanted to send him to a hospital, but he begged not to go for fear he wouldn’t get back to his old company, so they let him go to a rest camp instead.

And now after a couple of weeks with us (provided the correspondents don’t drive him frantic), he will return to the lines with his old outfit.

Clayton has worked at all kings of things back in that other world of civilian life. He has been a farm hand, a cook and a bartender. Just before he joined the Army, he was a gauge-honer in the Chrysler Ordnance Plant at Evansville.

When the war is over, he wants to go into business for himself for the first time in his life. He’ll probably set up a small restaurant in Evansville. He said his brother-in-law would back him.

Tommy was shipped overseas after only two months in the Army, and now has been out of America for 18 months. He is medium-sized, dark-haired, has a little mustache and the funniest-looking head of hair you ever saw this side of Buffalo Bill’s show.

While his division was killing time in the first few days before leaving England, he and three others decided to have their hair cut Indian fashion. They had their heads clipped down to the skin all except a two-inch ridge starting at the forehead and running clear to the back of the neck. It makes them look more comical than ferocious as they had intended. Two of the four have been wounded and evacuated to England.

I chatted off and on with Clayton for several days before he told me how old he was. I was amazed; so much so that I asked several other people to guess at his age and they all guessed about the same as I did – about 26.

Actually, he is 37, and that’s pretty well along in years to be a frontline infantryman. It’s harder on a man at that age.

As Clayton himself says, “When you pass that 30 mark you begin to slow up a little.”

It’s harder for you to take the hard ground and the rain and the sleeplessness and the unending wracking of it all. Yet at 37, he elected to go back.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 19, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

On the Western Front, France – (by wireless)
The ways of an invasion turned out to be all very new to Pfc. Tommy Clayton, the 29th Division infantryman we were writing about yesterday.

It was new to thousands of others also, for they hadn’t been trained in hedgerow fighting. So they had to learn it the way a dog learns to swim. They learned.

As we said yesterday, this Tommy Clayton, the mildest of men, has killed four of the enemy for sure, and probably dozens of unseen ones. He wears an Expert Rifleman’s badge and soon will have the proud badge of Combat Infantryman, worn only by those who have been through the mill.

Three of his four victims he got in one long blast of his Browning automatic rifle. He was stationed in the bushes at a bend in a gravel road, covering a crossroads about 80 yards ahead of him.

Suddenly three German soldiers came out a side road and foolishly stopped to talk right in the middle of the crossroads. The BAR has 20 bullets in a clip. Clayton held her down for the whole clip. The three Germans went down, never to get up.

His fourth one, he thought was a Jap when he killed him. In the early days of the invasion, lots of soldiers thought they were fighting Japs, scattered in with the German troops. They were actually Mongolian Russians, with strong Oriental features, who resembled Japs to the untraveled Americans.

On this fourth killing, Clayton was covering an infantry squad as it worked forward along a hedgerow. There were snipers in the trees in front. Clayton spotted one and sprayed the tree with his automatic rifle, and out tumbled this man he thought was a Jap.

To show how little anyone who hasn’t been through war can know about it – do you want to know how Clayton located his sniper? Here’s how…

When a bullet passes smack over your head, it doesn’t zing; it pops the same as a rifle when it goes off. That’s because the bullet’s rapid passage creates a vacuum behind it, and the air rushes back with such force to fill this vacuum that it collides with itself, and makes a resounding “pop.” Clayton didn’t know what caused this, and I tried to explain.

“You know what a vacuum is,” I said. “We learned that in high school.”

And Tommy said, “Ernie, I never went past the third grade.”

But Tommy is intelligent and his sensitivities are fine. You don’t have to know the reasons in war, you only have to know what things indicate when they happen.

Well, Clayton had learned that the pop of a bullet over his head preceded the actual rifle report by a fraction of a second, because the sound of the rifle explosion had to travel some distance before hitting his ear. So, the “pop” became his warning signal to listen for the crack of a sniper’s rifle a moment later.

Through much practice he had learned to gauge the direction of the sound almost exactly. And so out of this animal-like system of hunting, he had the knowledge to shoot into the right tree and out tumbled his “Jap” sniper.

Clayton’s weirdest experience would be funny if it weren’t so flooded with pathos. He was returning with a patrol one moonlit night when the enemy opened upon them. Tommy leaped right through a hedge and, spotting a foxhole, plunged into it.

To his amazement and fright, there was a German in the foxhole, sitting pretty, holding a machine pistol in his hands. Clayton shot him three times in the chest before you could say scat. The German hardly moved. And then Tommy realized the man had been killed earlier. He had been shooting a corpse.

All these experiences seem to have left no effect on this mild soldier from Indiana, unless to make him even quieter than before.

The worst experience of all is just the accumulated blur, and the hurting vagueness of too long in the lines, the everlasting alertness, the noise and fear, the cell-by-cell exhaustion, the thinning of the ranks around you as day follows nameless day. And the constant march into eternity of your own small quota of chances for survival.

Those are the things that hurt and destroy. And soldiers like Tommy Clayton go back to them, because they are good soldiers and they have a duty they cannot define.

When you’re wandering around our very far-flung frontlines – the lines that in our present rapid war are known as “fluid” – you can always tell how recently the battle has swept on ahead of you.

You can sense it from the little things even more than the big things–

From the scattered green leaves and the fresh branches of trees still lying in the middle of the road.

From the wisps and coils of telephone wire, hanging brokenly from high poles and entwining across the roads.

From the gray, buried powder rims of the shell craters in the gravel roads, their edges not yet smoothed by the pounding of military traffic.

From the little pools of blood on the roadside, blood that has only begun to congeal and turn black, and the punctured steel helmets lying nearby.

From the square blocks of building stone still scattered in the village streets, and from the sharp-edged rocks in the roads, still uncrushed by traffic.

From the burned-out tanks and broken carts still unremoved from the road. From the cows in the fields, lying grotesquely with their feet to the sky, so newly dead they have not begun to bloat or smell.

From the scattered heaps of personal debris around a gun. I don’t know why it is, but the Germans always seem to take off their coats before they flee or die.

From all these things you can tell that the battle has been recent – from these and from the men dead so recently that they seem to be merely asleep.

And also from the inhuman quiet. Usually, battles are noisy for miles around. But in this recent fast warfare a battle sometimes leaves a complete vacuum behind it.

The Germans will stand and fight it out until they see there is no hope. Then some give up, and the rest pull and run for miles. Shooting stops. Our fighters move on after the enemy, and those who do not fight, but move in the wake of the battles, will not catch up for hours.

There is nothing left behind but the remains – the lifeless debris, the sunshine and the flowers, and utter silence.

An amateur who wanders in this vacuum at the rear of a battle has a terrible sense of loneliness. Everything is dead – the men, the machines, the animals – and you alone are left alive.

One afternoon we drove in our jeep into a country like that. The little rural villages of gray stone were demolished – heartbreaking heaps of still smoking rubble.

We drove into the tiny town of La Detinais, a sweet old stone village at the “T” of two gravel roads a rural village in rolling country, a village of not more than 50 buildings. There was not a whole building left.

Rubble and broken wires still littered the streets. Blackish gray stone walls with no roofs still smoldered inside. Dead men still lay in the street, helmets and broken rifles askew around them. There was not a soul nor a sound in town; the village was lifeless.

We stopped and pondered our way, and with trepidation we drove on out of town. We drove for a quarter of a mile or so. The ditches were full of dead men. We drove around one without a head or arms or legs. We stared, and couldn’t say anything about it to each other. We asked the driver to go very slowly, for there was an uncertainty in all the silence. There was no live human, no sign of movement anywhere.

Seeing no one, hearing nothing, I became fearful of going on into the unknown. So, we stopped. Just a few feet ahead of us was a brick-red American tank, still smoking, and with its turret knocked off near it was a German horse-drawn ammunition cart, upside down. In the road beside them was a shell crater.

To our left lay two smashed airplanes in adjoining fields. Neither of them was more than 30 yards from the road. The hedge was low and we could see over. They were both British fighter planes. One lay right side up, the other lay on its back.

We were just ready to turn around and go back, when I spied a lone soldier at the far side of the field. He was standing there looking across the field at us like an Indian in a picture. I waved and he waved back. We walked toward each other.

He turned out to be a 2nd Lt. Ed Sasson of Los Angeles. He is a graves registration officer for his armored division, and he was out scouring the fields, locating the bodies of dead Americans.

He was glad to see somebody, for it is a lonely job catering to the dead.

As we stood there talking in the lonely field a soldier in coveralls, with a rifle slung over his shoulder, ran up breathlessly, and almost shouted: “Hey, there’s a man alive in one of those planes across the road! He’s been trapped there for days!”

We stopped right in the middle of a sentence and began to run. We hopped the hedgerow, and ducked under the wing of the upside-down plane. And there, in the next hour, came the climax to what certainly was one of the really great demonstrations of courage in this war.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 21, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

On the Western Front, France – (by wireless)
We ran to the wrecked British plane, lying there upside down, and dropped on our hands and knees and peeked through a tiny hole in the side.

A man lay on his back in the small space of the upside cockpit. His feet disappeared somewhere in the jumble of dial and rubber pedals above him. His shirt was open and his chest was bare to the waist. He was smoking a cigarette.

He turned his eyes toward me when I peeked in, and he said in a typical British manner of offhand friendliness, “Oh, hello.”

“Are you alright?” I asked stupidly.

He answered, “Yes, quite. Now that you chaps are here.”

I asked him how long he had been trapped in the wrecked plane. He said he didn’t know for sure as he had got mixed up about the passage of time. But he did know the date of the month he was shot down. He told me the date. And I said, out loud, “Good God!”

For wounded and trapped, he had been lying there for eight days.

His left leg was broken and punctured by an ack-ack burst. His back was terribly burned by raw gasoline that had spilled. The fool of his injured leg was pinned rigidly under the rudder bar.

His space was so small he couldn’t squirm around to relieve his own weight from his paining back. He couldn’t straighten out his legs, which were bent above him. He couldn’t see out of his little prison. He had not had a bite to eat or a drop of water. All this for eight days and nights.

Yet when we found him, his physical condition was strong, and his mind was as calm and rational as though he were sitting in a London club. He was in agony, yet in his correct Oxford accent he even apologized for taking up our time to get him out.

The American soldiers of our rescue party cussed as they worked, cussed with open admiration for this British flier’s greatness of heart which had kept him alive and sane through his lonely and gradually hope-dimming ordeal.

One of them said, “God, but these limeys have got guts!”

It took us almost an hour to get him out. We don’t know whether he will live or not, but he has a chance. During the hour we were ripping the plane open to make a hole, he talked to us. And here, in the best nutshell I can devise from the conversation of a brave man whom you didn’t want to badger with trivial questions, is what happened…

He was an RAF flight lieutenant, piloting a night fighter. Over a certain area the Germans began letting him have it from the ground with machine-gun fire.

The first hit knocked out his motor. He was too low to jump, so – foolishly, he said – he turned on his lights to try a crash landing. Then they really poured it on him. The second hit got him in the leg. And a third bullet cut right across the balls of his right-hand forefingers, clipping every one of them to the bone.

He left his heels up, and the plane’s belly hit the ground going uphill on a slight slope. We could see the groove it had dug for about 50 yards. Then it flopped, tail over nose, onto its back. The pilot was absolutely sealed into the upside-down cockpit.

“That’s all I remember for a while,” he told us. “When I came to, they were shelling all around me.”

Thus began the eight days. He had crashed right between the Germans and Americans in a sort of pastoral no-man’s-land.

For days afterwards the field in which he lay surged back and forth between German hands and ours.

His pasture was pocked with hundreds of shell craters. Many of them were only yards away. One was right at the end of his wing. The metal sides of the plane were speckled with hundreds of shrapnel holes.

He lay there, trapped in the midst of this inferno of explosions. The fields around him gradually became littered with dead. At last American strength pushed the Germans back, and silence came. But no help. Because, you see, it was in that vacuum behind the battle, and only a few people were left.

The days passed. He thirsted terribly. He slept some; part of the time he was unconscious; part of the time he undoubtedly was delirious. But he never gave up hope.

After we had finally got him out, he said as he lay on the stretcher under a wing, “Is it possible that I’ve been out of this plane since I crashed?”

Everybody chuckled. The doctor who had arrived said:

Not the remotest possibility. You were sealed in there and it took men with tools half an hour to make an opening. And your leg was broken and your foot was pinned there. No, you haven’t been out.

“I didn’t think it was possible,” the pilot said, “and yet it seems in my mind that I was out once and back in again.”

That little memory of delirium was the only word said by that remarkable man in the whole hour of his rescue that wasn’t as dispassionate and matter-of-fact as though he had been sitting comfortably at the end of the day in front of his own fireplace.

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The Pittsburgh Press (August 22, 1944)

Ernie Pyle V Norman

Roving Reporter

By Ernie Pyle

On the Western Front, France – (by wireless)
I would like to tell you in detail the remarkable story of the wounded RAF pilot whom we released after he had lain unnoticed in the wreckage of his plane for eight days on a battlefield.

Several American soldiers sprung out of somewhere a few moments after we arrived. They grasped the situation instantly, and began tearing at the sides of the plane with pliers and wire clippers. They worked as though seconds had suddenly become jewels.

The tough metal came off in strips no bigger than your fingers, and only after terrific pulling and yanking. It seemed as if it would take hours to make a hole big enough to get the pilot out.

The ripping and pounding against the metal sides of the hollow plane made a thunderous noise. I peered inside and asked the pilot: “Does the noise bother you?”

He said:

No, I can stand it. But tell them to be careful when they break through on the other side – my leg is broken, you know.

But the American boys worked faster than we believed possible. They tore their fingers on the jagged edges of the metal; they broke strong aluminum ribs with one small crowbar and a lot of human strength. Soon they had a hole big enough so that I could get my head and shoulders inside the cockpit.

Somebody handed me a canteen of water and I shoved it through the hole to the pilot. He drank avidly. When he put the canteen down, he set it on his bare chest and held it with both hands.

“By God, I could drink a river dry,” he said.

Somebody outside said not to let him drink anymore right now. The pilot said, “Would you pour some on my head?”

I soaked my dirty handkerchief, and rubbed his forehead with it. His hair was nut brown in color and very long. His whiskers were reddish and scraggly and he had a little mustache. His face seemed long and thin, and yet you could tell by his tremendous chest that he was a big man and powerful.

His eyes were not glassy, but I was fascinated by his eyeballs. They didn’t protrude; it was just that they were so big. When he turned them toward you, it was as though he was slowly turning two big brown tennis balls.

He had complete command of his thoughts. The half-delirium you would expect of a man trapped for eight days without food or water, just did not exist in him. He was

His face was dirty from much sweating, but the skin of his body was white and clean. There was a small scab on his forehead and there were some light bruises on his arms.

Inside the plane, the stench was shocking. My first thought was that there must be another man in the plane who had been dead for days. I said to the pilot: “Is there someone else in the plane?”

And he answered, “No this is a single seater, old boy.”

What I had smelled was the pilot himself. We couldn’t see the lower part of his left leg, but we judged it must be gangrenous and in a horrible shape.

“I can move my right leg,” he said, “it’s all right. In fact, I’ve had it out from here several times and moved it around for exercise. But the left one I can’t move.” I asked, “Where did you get the cigarette you were smoking when we got here?”

He said:

Your chap gave it to me. The one who came first. He lighted it for me and stuck it in through the hole, and went searching for the rest of you.

I was wondering if it wasn’t dangerous for him to be smoking inside the wrecked plane. I mentioned something about his being lucky that the plane hadn’t caught fire when he crashed. And he said:

I’ll tell you about that. Do you see that woods a little way north of us?

There were several small woods but I said, “Yes.”

He said:

Well, that first night they set fire to that woods. I could tell it by the glow in the cockpit. And here the plane was soaked with hundred-octane gasoline. I thought the fire would spread right across the field. But it didn’t.

Actually, what he had thought was the woods afire was the little town of La Detinais, which had been set afire by shelling. I didn’t bother to tell him, for he was alive, and after all what could the technicalities matter?

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