Saturday, August 8, 2015

On "Brave Men" by Ernie Pyle ****

The nonfiction best-seller from 1945, the last book on my list of World War II-era best-sellers, is not a book I can easily summarize. Pyle's name seems familiar to me, so his reputation as a war journalist probably must pervade popular culture at some level to this day, even though I doubt many people not of the era truly know who he was or what he did (as did not I). Essentially a narrative of Pyle's embedded war correspondence with the U.S. military, this book is a great summary of the day-to-day troubles of those who fought in World War II.

Pyle starts off in Italy, where the U.S. Navy is getting ready to launch its offensive. (He refers many times to the African offensive, which he recounted, apparently, in a previous book.) The army comes across some light resistance as it moves into Sicily, but readers get the sense that most Italians were happy to have the Americans move in. Not so much in Northern Italy, however, where the Germans have a stronger hand. Pyle's account of a beachhead that stays a beachhead throughout his time there is wrenching. Shots are fired constantly at the troops who have managed to carve out a location at the edge of the land. Nowhere is truly safe, even for journalists, who might have buildings destroyed around them.

From there, Pyle moves to Britain, where he interviews people in the back lines, support personnel, and most especially Air Force men, who fly multiple missions each day. The Air Force, as it turns out, leads a fairly regular life, with regular shifts and homes of a sort and leave time, even in the course of war. The reason? They are not on the front lines. They fly into those front lines daily and return. It seems almost strange to read the account, that a man's job could be so mundane and yet kill so many. (That's not to say that there weren't casualties and danger, but even that is largely not present when the men are not flying, which is when Pyle was with them.)

From there Pyle proceeds to France. He was on of the first correspondents to come over in the Normandy invasion (a day later or so). His account is truly harrowing and sad. I was reminded of the beginning of the film Saving Private Ryan: so many were simply shot up when disembarking and dead lay strewn all over the beach.

But in time, Pyle rolls into Paris with the troops and enjoys having once again a bed in a hotel room and other luxuries. In fact, these are luxuries not afforded to the soldiers, who move on very soon thereafter. Few American soldiers, in fact, fought in Paris, according to Pyle's account. It was the French who liberated that city. The Americans, after fighting so hard, didn't really get to enjoy the victory. There was still more war to fight.

In the midst of this account are some wonderful details. Pyle has a tendency to list off the name and address of each man he meets, which seems a bit odd to my modern ear. And like Bob Hope, he engages in the occasional joke about army life. There are also army jobs I'd never even given much thought of, which are interesting. There's a book waiting to be written about an army grave officer: a man who follows after the troops documenting the soldiers who have died (I assume by collecting dog tags and such off bodies). What a grim job.

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