The Pittsburgh Press (August 19, 1944)
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.