Part 18: Ernie Pyle and the 45th Division
By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek
I have a first edition copy of a book titled “Brave Men” by war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Much of the information below comes from this book. In the beginning of the book, Pyle tells a story I will summarize like this:
A British officer was walking though a battlefield filled with dead American soldiers in their foxholes with their dead hands still clutching their rifles, which were aimed in the direction from which the Germans had come. As the British officer looked at one dead American soldier after another, he kept saying over and over again, “Brave men! Brave men!”
Ernie Pyle became very famous, not just because of his Pulitzer Prize winning writing, but also because a Hollywood box-office smash hit titled, “The Story of G.I. Joe,” which was made about Pyle’s time in North Africa, Sicily and Italy during World War II. These are the very places Dad and I have been telling you about in this series. Eisenhower called this film the best war movie he had ever seen. One-hundred-and-fifty veterans received six weeks’ working time to be in this movie before returning to the war. Back in combat, many of these soldiers were killed. Because he knew these soldiers who died in action, Director William Wellman said “The Story of G.I. Joe” was his only film he never watched.
Pyle spent most of his time during this part of the war with Dad’s 45th Division. Pyle wanted to get a view of the war from all sides, so he spent time with not only the infantry, but with the Navy, the engineers, the pilots and bombers, and, of course, some time at the rear where the clerks and the generals who tried to run the war spent most of their time.
In Sicily, Pyle stayed with the ships for a week after the beachhead. He not only observed the beachhead invasion, but how the Navy brought supplies in. Don’t think he was chicken because he didn’t go ashore right away. His job was to report the war from all sides. Pyle was up front with the infantry before and after Sicily. By staying with the ships for a week, he could report on the efficiency and dedication the Navy had bringing in all sorts of supplies, including tanks, ammunition, support vehicles, fuel, and other things needed by the Army. He was also able to see how the big guns on the ships supported the troops for several miles inland. Being on a ship firing at the Germans and Italians was not a safe place. Ships were a prime target for planes and artillery; although, they did provide better living conditions, regular showers, and good food. Compared to the boys up-front, it was pure luxury.
By spending time with the 45th Division engineers, Pyle was able to report how they swept areas clear of the many mines and booby traps the Germans left behind. He was able to report how bridges were either repaired or destroyed, depending on the situation. He was able to report the skill with which Army bulldozer drivers could repair the steep roads around cliffs in both Sicily and Italy. Pyle stated that, in many ways, this was an engineers’ war.
When he was with the Army Air Corps, Pyle was able to see how P-51 mustangs (airplanes) were fitted with air brakes so they could dive-bomb the enemy. (Yes, they did put brakes on airplanes.) Pyle also observed how different sized bombs were loaded on bombers. A really big bomb was called a “blockbuster” because it could take out a large portion of a city or town. It was only later that the term “blockbuster” was adopted by Hollywood to describe a hit movie. Pilots had one huge benefit the infantry soldier only dreamed about — they were sent home to the states after so many missions. Many returned for another tour of duty, while men in the infantry, like Dad, had to slug it out with the Germans until near the end of the war. Also, unlike the infantry, members of the Army Air Corps usually got to sleep with a roof over their heads and had good food and other benefits.
Ernie Pyle was small in size when compared to other soldiers. Born on August 3, 1900, he was also much older than the majority of soldiers. He got sick a lot and spent a considerable amount of time in Army hospitals and other medical aid stations. Several times his hide was saved because he managed to be sick at the right time. He even once remarked sarcastically that it is a smart man who knows when to be sick.
Pyle wrote that wounded soldiers from the 45th Division at a first aid station on the beachhead in Sicily were anxious to get back into the war. This may have been true about them so early in their part of the war, but back in the states, it was reported throughout the war that the soldiers wanted to be there and stay until the end. This was definitely not true, and Dad wrote in his letters that this reporting greatly damaged moral every time the troops heard it. It didn’t take long at all for almost all soldiers to have their fill of combat and want to go home.
As I told you in the last episode, I had a telephone conversation with Gerry Maschino who is the executive director of the Ernie Pyle Legacy Foundation. Gerry told me that the famous author, John Steinbeck, wrote that there were two wars in World War II — the Generals’ War and the Soldiers’ War.
The Generals’ War is the war you read in history books. For the most part, it is the war that was reported in newspapers then and is still reported now. It is the war that tells you where the generals went and what their armies “generally” did. Even the documentaries you see on TV now are mostly from the biographers and photographers the generals brought with them. Most of the scenes were either staged or taken far from the front lines. The next time you watch one of these documentaries with big guns firing, notice that the guns are pointed extremely high. This means they were firing at targets many miles away. Also, remember that the cameras were very big and had to be set-up to film any so-called action. Footage of real action by ground troops is very rare, but there is some filmed by very brave photographers.
The Soldiers’ War is what Pyle liked to report. He knew that the soldiers who had it the worst and who received the least credit were those up at the front. Pyle’s stories were carried daily by newspapers across the country. When you read Pyle’s books or articles, you will notice that he is constantly including the names of various military men and where they were from. On any given day an ordinary soldier from Minnesota might get nation-wide fame courtesy of Ernie Pyle. Mentioning this man’s name might not mean much to most of the country, but it sure meant a lot to his family and friends. While other reporters mentioned the same generals over and over, Pyle wrote about the ordinary man caught up in this horrible war.
Pyle wanted to report, not just on the war in Europe, but on the war in the Pacific as well. He was killed on April 18, 1945, by bullets from a Japanese machine gun. The Ernie Pyle World War II Museum was established in 1976 and is located in his hometown of Dana, Ind.
In the next two episodes, I’ll tell you about another famous World War II reporter, Bill Mauldin, and his relationship with Dad.