A couple of years ago I went over to the Senior Center in Greenfield to hear my friend Harold play the piano and I got to chatting with a guy there who was in the Merchant Marine in World War II. I asked him where he served and he said mostly on the Murmansk Run. I reached out and shook his hand.
“Thank you,” I said. The gentleman passed away not long after that, so I’m glad I had the chance to thank him. I don’t remember the exact figures, but at times German submarines were sinking more than half the ships on that run.
Sailing in a giant hunk of iron in an arctic sea, knowing you had a very good chance of being sent to the bottom couldn’t have been very pleasant, but these ships were transporting weapons and supplies to the Russians, who were putting them to good use smashing the Nazi war machine.
I like reading Ernie Pyle because he introduces his readers to the individuals like my friend who fought and won the war. He even gives their names and addresses.
And like the people who fought and won the war, Ernie didn’t go in for “hero stuff.” Some people were exposed to great risk; others were not. Everybody had a job to do. There are many examples of bravery, but it was a collective bravery as when two men in an anti-aircraft gun are shot dead and two men immediately take their places.
Ernie writes about the guys who were responsible for supplying clean water to the troops during the Sicily landings, the staff of the Maryland hospital that was transported lock, stock and barrel to North Africa, the crew that generated smokescreens for the port of Oran and the mule drivers who took supplies to the troops fighting in the mountains of Italy.
Ernie gives you the telling details that you just don’t find anywhere else, like the little cemetery where the Germans had buried American soldiers, listing the numbers on their dogtags so they could be identified. On one of the wooden crosses he noticed the mark “T-40,” which the Germans thought was part of the GI’s serial number. Actually it meant that the soldier had had a tetanus shot in 1940.
I guess the best example of a truly telling tableau is Ernie walking along Omaha Beach the day after the D-Day invasion, the largest armada in the history of the world.
The soldiers had each been given a carton of cigarettes and these were strewn for miles up and down the beach, washing to and fro with the tide. As he walked along the beach, he found, of all things, a tennis racket.
No one would include that in a work of history, or a grand saga of bravery. You only get that kind of detail from a guy on the scene telling you what he saw.