People risk their lives for a number of reasons: it’s in their job description, they’re in a medical crisis, or they’re protecting someone or something important. Without those trials, we wouldn’t come away with a better understanding of who we are or what we’re doing. Bravery sculpts us into stronger people. It also makes us capable of accomplishments we didn’t think possible.
Military life isn’t exactly a safe occupation, especially if your MOS (military occupational specialty) is a combat role. There are non-combatant roles that can, however, place one in the line of fire. War correspondents insert themselves right the heat of battle in order to report what happens to the home front. There was certainly no shortage during the Second World War. Dozens of journalists from publishing and news companies around the world risked life and limb to relay actions and human stories to their readers. Amongst the correspondents and reporters, many point to one man who outranks all others. Someone who defined the role of the common soldier and made him, and not the generals, the true heroes: Ernie Pyle. Covering both the European and Pacific theater until he was killed in action on April 18, 1945 on Ie Shima, his dispatches, interviews, and grassroots style of hometown journalism were highly regarded by service members of every rank. A posthumous Purple Heart was awarded to his family, an extremely rare honor for a civilian. His reporting even directly impacted the lives of service members by reporting on the conduct of the war and the sufferings endured by those who were maimed or traumatized. He knew what they were going through because he traveled right alongside them.
In 1944, following his frontline journey in the Mediterranean and Western Europe, Pyle returned to the U.S. for recovery after spending over two years overseas. Everything he chronicled in hundreds of news columns and dispatches were compiled into a handful of books. One of them, ‘Brave Men‘, published in 1944, highlights the different types of combat roles in the European theater. Pyle spent most of his time with infantry units, but he also saw action with engineers, tanks, artillery, aerial bombers, and naval vessels. Pyle’s well-known folksy style is evident in every snippet. He talks to his interviewees, asks about their civilian lives, their hopes, passions, families, hobbies, and why they’re fighting. He slept on cots in tents, on the ground in foxholes, and could talk his way into any jeep, truck, tank, or boat to wherever the action was. ‘Brave Men‘ isn’t a history book in the academic sense that there’s a thesis, central argument, supporting evidence, and endless citations. The book instead is a chronicle of how soldiers experience war differently. The bombardier and rifleman face different dangers from the truck driver or stevedore. Pyle doesn’t glorify one soldier over another because each have their role in the great enterprise. The soldier is there because he wants to make a difference. His livelihood depends on making a split second decision on whether to adjust the range on a mortar or to round a corner into a dark room. There’s a profound sense of loneliness, but also belonging in military life. Pyle doesn’t make these soldiers out to be supermen, but ordinary guys making their way through an extraordinary situation. They’re from Omaha, Nebraska, Columbus, Ohio, Sacramento, California, Danville, Virginia, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Thousands of miles from home and willing to battle a tough enemy.
‘Brave Men‘, despite its age, retains great relevance with our contemporaries. The stories of many of those Pyle interviewed resonant with U.S. servicemen and women today. They learn to deal with impossible situations through their own coping mechanisms. Soldiers also explore ways to remind themselves of home and why they’re serving. Pyle’s brand of journalism kept millions of people grounded to the war effort and taught them just how important their bravery was in such a cataclysmic time. He landed with the thousands who stormed the Normandy beaches on D-Day and captured the historic moment with his eloquence:
“The best way I can describe this vast armada and the frantic urgency of the traffic is to suggest that you visualize New York city on its busiest day of the year and then just enlarge that scene until it takes in all the ocean the human eye can reach clear around the horizon and over the horizon. There are dozens of times that many.“Ernie Pyle – June 6, 1944
‘Brave Men’ is highly recommended for those who want to read about the Second World War, but from a grassroots perspective. We can always check out books examining the war’s causes, political backgrounds, economic impacts, military technology, and many other topical intersections, but this looks at it from those who are fighting the war itself. Everything metaphysical and intangible as geopolitics are far removed from the soldier who’s trying to make it out alive from this foxhole on the Western Front. That was Ernie Pyle’s war.
“Some day I’d like to cover a war in a country as ugly as war itself.“-Ernie Pyle, 1944