I just finished The Ultimate Battle, Bill Sloan’s recently-published book detailing the Battle of Okinawa, and it’s an outstanding read. But since I’ve been composing pieces for Today’s History Lesson, I’ve been reading a little differently. While working through Sloan’s book, I started keeping pen and paper next to me, writing down dates and events that might make good topics…topics that hopefully interest you. This is one of those…
On April 17, 1945, Ernie Pyle landed on Ie Shima, following the previous day’s landing by the Army’s 77th Infantry Division. Having already spent time on the main island of Okinawa, Pyle wanted to see a smaller operation, and the 77th was delighted to accomodate him.
Pyle got his start as a correspondant during The Great Depression, but became famous in World War II. Choosing to spend time on the front lines rather than in safer areas to the rear made him an instant friend of the foot-soldier. Ernie had a presence in nearly every major campaign…North Africa, Italy, Europe, and the Pacific. His simple, but poignant, prose made him wildly popular back home, where his columns were featured in hundreds of papers.
After the relative quiet of the landings of the April 16th, Japanese resistance had increased substantially on the 17th, the day of Pyle’s arrival. He got to see some of the action from an observation post and endured a minor mortar barrage.
He saw the filth and stench of war first-hand. Rick Atkinson, in his terrific book The Day of Battle, writes that Pyle’s dream was to be the last war correspondant. Writing to his wife from Italy, Pyle said, “The war gets so complicated and confused in my mind; on especially sad days it’s almost impossible to believe that anything is worth such mass slaughter and misery.” Ernie spent much time in Italy and saw the brutality and horror of what was, for some time, a WWI-style bloodbath. In early 1944, Pyle wrote of the soldiers fighting next to him, “They live and die so miserably and they do it with such determined acceptance that your admiration for them blinds you to the rest of the war.” He left Italy shortly after narrowly cheating death when a 500-pound bomb exploded just 30 feet from the villa where he was staying. From there he accompanied the men participating in Overlord, and then went to the Pacific in 1945.
The morning after his arrival on Ie Shima, Ernie was offered a ride to the front to see the action first-hand, which he eagerly accepted. So he and four others mounted up and headed off. Approaching a junction, a Japanese machine gun nest opened up on the Jeep, damaging it and scattering its occupants, who took to the ditches for safety. Pyle raised his head up to check on the others…and, on April 18, 1945, was shot through the temple, and died instantly.
Sloan quotes what are possibly Ernie Pyle’s last written words, which stand as stark testimony to his thoughts on war and what he had seen:
“[T]here are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world. Dead men by mass production-in one country after another-month after month and year after year. Dead men in the winter and dead men in the summer. Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them…”
Recommended Reading – Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Eyewitness to World War II