On Memorial Day, we honor the men and women of the armed forces who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country.
Through his wartime columns, Ernie Pyle, IU’s preeminent journalist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, let civilians inhabit the lives of some of these service members, if only for a few hundred words at a time. In this way, Pyle’s embedded reporting of World War II helped his homeland more fully appreciate service members’ experiences and sacrifice.
Pyle put it best: “I want to tell you … so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.”
In that spirit, we’re sharing excerpts from some of Pyle’s wartime columns this Memorial Day. If you can, take a moment to read some in full so you too can better appreciate all service members who so bravely gave their lives.
From Killing Is All That Matters, Dec. 1, 1942:
“Only those who served in the last war can conceive of the makeshift, deadly urgent, always-moving-onward complexion of front-line existence. And existence is exactly the word: it is nothing more.”
From Digging and Grousing, March 23, 1943:
“We were all afraid of being strafed … and we wanted a nice ditch handy for diving into. The way to have a nice ditch is to dig one. We wasted no time.”
From Brave Men, Brave Men!, April 22, 1943:
“American boys were still lying dead in their foxholes, their rifles still grasped in firing position in their dead hands. And the veteran English soldier remarked time and again, in a sort of hushed eulogy spoken only to himself: ‘Brave men. Brave men.’”
From The God-Damned Infantry, May 2, 1943:
“In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory—there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.”
From The Death of Captain Waskow, Jan. 10, 1944:
“Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said: ‘I sure am sorry, sir.’”
From A Pure Miracle, June 12, 1944:
“All that remained on the beach was some sniping and artillery fire … That plus the bodies of soldiers lying in rows covered with blankets, the toes of their shoes sticking up in a line as though on drill.”
“Medical corpsmen attended the wounded as best they could. Men were killed as they stepped out of landing craft. An officer whom I knew got a bullet through the head just as the door of his landing craft was let down. Some men were drowned.”
From The Horrible Waste of War, June 16, 1944:
“Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever.”
From A Long Thin Line of Personal Anguish, June 17, 1944:
“It extends in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark, for miles along the beach. This is the strewn personal gear, gear that will never be needed again, of those who fought and died to give us our entrance …”
“The most ironic piece of equipment marking our beach—this beach of first despair, then victory—is a tennis racket that some soldier had brought along. It lies lonesomely on the sand, clamped in its rack, not a string broken.”
“The strong, swirling tides … shift the contours of the sandy beach as they move in and out. They carry soldiers’ bodies out to sea, and later they return them. They cover the corpses of heroes with sand, and then in their whims they uncover them.”
“He was completely covered by the shifting sands except for his feet. The toes of his GI shoes pointed toward the land he had come so far to see, and which he saw so briefly.”
After years covering the war in both the European and Pacific theatres, Pyle was killed in Iejima, Japan, on April 18, 1945, while reporting on the U.S. invasion. In his pocket was a draft of what became his final column, On Victory in Europe, which saw a somber Pyle grappling to resolve the joy of the recent victory in Europe with his great grief at the cost.
From that column, a concluding thought worth revisiting on Memorial Day: “Last summer I wrote that I hoped the end of the war could be a gigantic relief, but not an elation. In the joyousness of high spirits it is so easy for us to forget the dead.”