D-Day 80th Anniversary: ‘The horrible waste of war’

In the second of three D-Day columns in this series, Ernie Pyle sees the terrible cost of victory on the Normandy beaches.

Listen to the audio version of the column on the IU Media School site.

NORMANDY BEACHHEAD, June 16, 1944 – I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France.

It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead.

The water was full of squishy little jellyfish about the size of your hand. Millions of them. In the center each of them had a green design exactly like a four-leaf clover. The good-luck emblem. Sure. Hell yes.

I walked for a mile and a half along the water’s edge of our many-miled invasion beach. You wanted to walk slowly, for the detail on that beach was infinite.

The wreckage was vast and startling. The awful waste and destruction of war, even aside from the loss of human life, has always been one of its outstanding features to those who are in it. Anything and everything is expendable. And we did expend on our beachhead in Normandy during those first few hours.

*

For a mile out from the beach there were scores of tanks and trucks and boats that you could no longer see, for they were at the bottom of the water – swamped by overloading, or hit by shells, or sunk by mines. Most of their crews were lost.

*

You could see trucks tipped half over and swamped. You could see partly sunken barges, and the angled-up corners of jeeps, and small landing craft half submerged. And at low tide you could still see those vicious six-pronged iron snares that helped snag and wreck them.

On the beach itself, high and dry, were all kinds of wrecked vehicles. There were tanks that had only just made the beach before being knocked out. There were jeeps that had been burned to a dull gray. There were big derricks on caterpillar treads that didn’t quite make it. There were half-tracks carrying office equipment that had been made into a shambles by a single shell hit, their interiors still holding their useless equipage of smashed typewriters, telephones, office files.

There were LCT’s turned completely upside down, and lying on their backs, and how they got that way I don’t know. There were boats stacked on top of each other, their sides caved in, their suspension doors knocked off.

In this shoreline museum of carnage there were abandoned rolls of barbed wire and smashed bulldozers and big stacks of thrown-away lifebelts and piles of shells still waiting to be moved.

In the water floated empty life rafts and soldiers’ packs and ration boxes, and mysterious oranges.

On the beach lay snarled rolls of telephone wire and big rolls of steel matting and stacks of broken, rusting rifles.

On the beach lay, expended, sufficient men and mechanism for a small war. They were gone forever now. And yet we could afford it.

We could afford it because we were on, we had our toehold, and behind us there were such enormous replacements for this wreckage on the beach that you could hardly conceive of their sum total. Men and equipment were flowing from England in such a gigantic stream that it made the waste on the beachhead seem like nothing at all, really nothing at all.

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A few hundred yards back on the beach is a high bluff. Up there we had a tent hospital, and a barbed-wire enclosure for prisoners of war. From up there you could see far up and down the beach, in a spectacular crow’s-nest view, and far out to sea.

And standing out there on the water beyond all this wreckage was the greatest armada man has ever seen. You simply could not believe the gigantic collection of ships that lay out there waiting to unload.

Looking from the bluff, it lay thick and clear to the far horizon of the sea and beyond, and it spread out to the sides and was miles wide. Its utter enormity would move the hardest man.

As I stood up there I noticed a group of freshly taken German prisoners standing nearby. They had not yet been put in the prison cage. They were just standing there, a couple of doughboys leisurely guarding them with tommy guns.

The prisoners too were looking out to sea – the same bit of sea that for months and years had been so safely empty before their gaze. Now they stood staring almost as if in a trance.

They didn’t say a word to each other. They didn’t need to. The expression on their faces was something forever unforgettable. In it was the final horrified acceptance of their doom.

If only all Germans could have had the rich experience of standing on the bluff and looking out across the water and seeing what their compatriots saw.

Read more of Pyle’s wartime columns on the IU Media School site.

Donate now to the Ernie Pyle Memorial & Veterans Park fund

Join the Friends of Ernie Pyle in our effort to build the Ernie Pyle Memorial and Veterans Park on the property adjacent to the museum in Dana, Indiana. The park will include a bronze statue of Pyle, a memorial to our veterans, benches, tables, gardens, food truck parking, trees, a bandshell, accessible restrooms and greenspaces. Your generous donation will help honor Pyle and our fighting men and women.

Download the brochure and donation form here.

Download the fundraising booklet here.

Donation options

• 5-Star General $25,000+

• General $15,000-$24, 499

• Brigadier General $10, 000-$14,999

• Colonel $5,000-$9,999

• Lt. Colonel $2,500-$4,999

• Major $1,000-$2,999

• Captain $500-$999

• 1st Lieutenant $250-$499

• 2nd Lieutenant $100-$249

• Private $25-$99

Mail your donation to Friends of Ernie Pyle Development Fund, Inc., P.O. Box 345, Dana, IN 47847 or donate via Paypal here.

Join us: Ernie Pyle author to visit Dana, Indiana Dec. 5 for book signing

Join us 7 p.m. EST Tuesday, Dec. 5 in Dana, Indiana for a special visit by author David Chrisinger who will be signing copies of his new book, “The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II.” The event will be held at the Dana United Methodist Church, 260 N. Linden, map below. Copies of the book will be available for $20.

Read the Friends of Ernie Pyle newsletter story about Chrisinger here.

Visit Chrisinger’s website here.

‘The Soldier’s Truth’: Book tells story of WWII through Ernie Pyle’s experiences

David Chrisinger was looking for his grandfather when he stumbled upon Ernie Pyle.

It might be better to say he was looking to understand his grandfather, a WWII veteran who he had last seen on a visit when he was an eighth-grader.

“He was almost like an exhibit in a museum. ‘The Lasting Effects of Unaddressed Combat Trauma,’ his display placard would have read,” Chrisinger wrote in a piece for The New York Times. “Only no signage existed to explain what I saw and what it all meant.”

Chrisinger is a journalist and author who serves as the executive director of the Public Policy Writing Workshop at the University of Chicago. He is also the director of writing seminars for The War Horse, a non-profit newsroom focused on telling stories about the human impact of war.

The search for this grandfather and then Pyle came together in his book, “The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the story of WWII.”

In 2016, Chrisinger traced his grandfather’s path to Okinawa where he served during the war. A tour guide asked if he wanted to make a tracing of a name etched on the Cornerstone of Peace memorial there commemorating the Battle of Okinawa, perhaps someone his grandfather had known. More than 240,000 names of people killed during the battle are inscribed — Americans, Japanese, soldiers, civilians.

“My grandfather was very tight-lipped about his experiences. He didn’t stay in contact with anyone, he didn’t go to reunions, he didn’t talk about old friends,” Chrisinger said.

The tour guide suggested someone everyone felt they had known, Ernie Pyle.

Chrisinger said he recalled in the moment that Sylvester Stallone’s Vietnam movie character, John Rambo, was inspired by a name on the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Wall. He said he’s embarrassed now to say his first thought was if Ernie Pyle was likewise the inspiration for Gomer Pyle — the endearing Marine character played by Jim Nabors in the 1960s sit-com. 

“The tour guide looked at me like I had two heads. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t know about Ernie Pyle,” Chrisinger said.

“He said, ‘If you’re trying to figure out what it was like to be a soldier during WWII, if you’re trying to sort of put yourself in your grandfather’s shoes, you’ve got to read everything Ernie Pyle ever wrote.’ ”

The first book Chrisinger bought at a used book store was “Brave Men.”

“I just devoured it. The thing that I think made Ernie so intriguing to me was his ability to humanize a really abstract and chaotic and terrible thing that is war and put a face on it — and not just a face but a face you knew and could recognize.”

“The quality of his writing read like letters. He was letting you into this world,” Chrisinger said. “You could just tell that he was constantly trying to translate the experience for the folks back home.”

“What is the Ernie-ness about Ernie? What makes him such an irresistible figure after all these years?” — David Chrisinger 

From there, Chrisinger said he became fascinated with Pyle, a Midwestern kid and complicated man who went on to be come an unlikely, and yet the most famous, war correspondent.

Chrisinger got the opportunity to write about Pyle for the New York Times for the 75th anniversary of D-Day and he visited the museum in Dana as part of his research.

The piece, “The man who told America the truth about D-Day,”  was published online on June 5, 2019 and had a million views by noon the next day.

“I got hundreds of emails. Some people somehow found my phone and were texting me. People wrote me letters,” Chrisinger said. “People, all these years later, having a really visceral connection to this guy that they never met. It’s really incredible.”

Understanding that connection was part of what Chrisinger wanted to explore in his book. “What is the Ernie-ness about Ernie? What makes him such an irresistible figure after all these years?”

The War Horse, the organization Chrisinger works with to help veterans and people dealing with trauma tell their stories, was founded by Thomas Brennan. Brennan took the name from a phrase Pyle used to describe his return to covering the war after leaving the European theater: “I can go war-horsing off to the Pacific.”

Chrisinger said someone told him they thought that Pyle would be proud of the work he was doing to help veterans and that maybe Pyle would have done that kind of thing after the war — tell the stories of veterans to try to help inform people and help improve empathy, compassion and understanding.

 “I took that as one of the greatest compliments probably I’ve ever received.”

To read more about David Chrisinger and see his columns on Pyle, visit davidchrisinger.com.  

Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall Schedule of Events June 9-11

The friends of Ernie Pyle are hosting the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall at the International Paper Family Park, 4840 S. County Rd. 360 E. in Hillsdale, Indiana. Hillsdale is in West Central Indiana — about seven miles East of the Ernie Pyle WWII Museum in Dana.

The Wall will be open to the public 24 hours a day from 9 a.m. Friday, June 9 through 9 p.m. Sunday, June 11. More information and a map of the location here.

Download Schedule

Photo by Maureen Welsh.

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