Chapter 1 Warhorsing Around
This is the last of these columns from Europe. By the time you read this, the old man will be on his way back to America. After that will come a long, long rest. And after the rest-well, you never can tell.
Ernie Pyle, "Farewell to Europe," September 5, 1944
A warm summer rain soaked the men as they mounted muddy tanks and stuffed themselves into half-tracks or jeeps pointed east. The smell of soggy gear and idling engines overpowered the sweet scent of the honeysuckle that climbed the gray siding of a nearby three-story inn. In a darkened shed out behind the inn, a forty-three-year-old pipe cleaner of a man sat hunched over his portable typewriter, ankle deep in straw, his back curved like a cashew. "This morning we are sort of stymied as far as moving is concerned," he pecked out with his index fingers to his wife back home in New Mexico, "so in order not to waste the day I dug up a white metal table out of a nearby garden."
After nearly three months of hellish fighting through the hedgerow country of France, the Americans and their allies were thirty miles from the center of Nazi-occupied Paris. Capturing Paris had never been part of the Allies' plan, which involved a strike through to the Low Countries, across the industrial heartland of Germany, and straight to the heart of Berlin. The supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, had grave concerns that if he marched his men into Paris, they would likely bog themselves down in brutal street-by-street combat with seasoned enemy troops and reduce one of the world's most magnificent cities to a charred graveyard. Not even an impassioned plea from the French commander, General Charles de Gaulle, had been able to dissuade him.
On August 22, 1944, the French Resistance's chief of staff, Roger Gallois, slipped through German lines on the outskirts of Paris and found his way to General George S. Patton's headquarters. The situation on the ground was not what the Americans thought, Gallois told General Omar Bradley's chief intelligence officer. The Resistance movement in the capital city had infiltrated the police force, and the week before, fifteen thousand Parisian policemen had gone on strike. More than that, the tens of thousands of Resistance fighters had risen up to attack and harass their Nazi occupiers, even though they were armed with not much more than antique rifles and Molotov cocktails. In the days following the police strike, many more Parisians of all ages and abilities dug up paving stones, collected piles of furniture and other odds and ends, and felled trees to construct an elaborate network of more than four hundred street blockades. Even though they were outnumbered and now outmaneuvered, the Germans were nowhere near outgunned and would eventually crush the insurrection and inflict untold amounts of suffering and destruction as they retreated east-unless the Allies came to the rescue. This new intelligence quickly reached Eisenhower, who dispatched the Free French forces under his command to liberate their capital with American and British backup while the rest of his forces pushed east and north toward the Belgian border.
On August 25, 1944-Liberation Day-after a brilliant sun burned away the morning mist, Ernest Taylor Pyle, better known as Ernie to his millions of readers back home in America, stuffed his typewriter into its case, slung his musette bag over his shoulder, and hopped into a jeep with a couple of fellow combat newspapermen. Through most of the early part of the day, they felt their way through gardenlike country toward the outskirts of Paris, far behind the lead tanks and the more daring Allied correspondents, such as Robert Capa, Ernest Hemingway, and Don Whitehead. The outer rings of the city hadn't been bombed much, Ernie was heartened to find, and most of the bridges were still safe to cross. Not at all desperate to be the first to secure that coveted "Liberated Paris" dateline under their bylines, Ernie and his companions entered the city from the south, along the Rue d'Orléans, where they discovered "a pandemonium of surely the greatest mass joy that has ever happened."
Women in brightly colored blouses and skirts lined the wide city streets in a carnival-like frenzy, leaving only a narrow corridor of pavement for the hulking military vehicles to navigate. Aging veterans of the Franco-Prussian War stood at attention, saluting their liberators. Excited children bounced and waved. Some ran along jeeps with their hands extended, hoping for a shake but settling for slaps on the back or pats on the shoulder. The demented choir of shrieking shells and zipping machine-gun tracers the Allies had expected to encounter that day had mostly been replaced by cheers of Vive la France!
and Vive l'Amerique!
-even as pockets of German resistance in the city remained. "They tossed flowers and friendly tomatoes into your jeep," Ernie later reported. "One little girl even threw a bottle of cider into ours."
"Once when the jeep was simply swamped in human traffic and had to stop," he wrote, "we were swarmed over and hugged and kissed and torn at. Everybody, even beautiful girls, insisted on kissing you on both cheeks." At least one ecstatic woman, with full pompadour and flashy earrings, reached out to grab Ernie by the slack in his collar. Before he could protest, she pulled his gray-bearded face, smudged with dust and lipstick, to her wine-colored lips. Thank you, oh thank you
, she squealed between kisses. Thank you for coming.
"We all got kissed until we were literally red in the face," he later recalled, "and I must say we enjoyed it." At long last, Ernie's ability to relish in the beauty of the world at war, something he feared might have atrophied inside his chest, suddenly flickered back to life.
After inching through so much gratitude and joy for about an hour, Ernie had the driver pull over in front of a hotel near the Luxembourg Palace, across the river from the Louvre. They'd heard scuttlebutt that there were any number of desperate Germans holed up in the palace, firing indiscriminately at anything wearing green. While others fought, Ernie and two United Press correspondents wrote their first dispatches from Paris in a room overlooking the street below. "I had thought for me there could never again be any elation in war," Ernie wrote of that joyous day. "But I had reckoned without the liberation of Paris-I had reckoned without remembering that I might be a part of this richly historic day."
The day after the city was liberated, Ernie and crew puttered over the Seine and past the Place de la Concorde and the gardens of the Champs-Élysées. From there, they meandered their way to the gilt-edged Grand Hôtel, across the street from the Allied press camp taking shape inside the Hôtel Scribe. Like Mary and Joseph, when Ernie and his companions arrived at the Scribe, they were told there was no room at the inn. Not long after the Nazi propaganda officers who had occupied the hotel had fled, some two hundred Allied correspondents "under an emotional tension, a pent-up semi-delirium," moved in and set up shop.
Through the gilded lobby of the Grand Hôtel, up a set of marble stairs, and down the carpeted hallway all the way to the corner, Ernie found a room with clean sheets but no electricity. From the balcony three floors above the street, he grinned down in the afternoon sun at the joyous abandon below. After so much darkness, grateful Parisians had found the light. Standing there with several other correspondents, in as genteel a way as his tongue could muster, Ernie quipped, "Any GI who doesn't get laid tonight is a sissy." In fact, as one military study later showed, eight out of ten unmarried American soldiers had liaisons at some point during the war in Europe. About half of married soldiers did, too. But not Ernie.
As the sun began to set, Ernie and his buddies made their way back across to the Scribe and claimed a table near the bar on the far side of the room. The booze did what Ernie wanted it to; it dissolved him. Soon a couple of dozen war correspondents had him encircled, eager to hear a tale or two from the little man everyone loved so much.
At one point, the other famous Ernie-Hemingway-bellied up to the opposite end of the bar with the swagger of a lonely warlord, seemingly resentful of Pyle's command of his hangers-on. SLAP!
Hemingway stung the air with a heavy hand on the bar top. A grenade he carried with him "just in case" pulled on the inside pocket of his field jacket. "Let's have a drink here," he spat from the corner of his bearded mouth. The bartender babysitting Ernie and his buddies turned. Hemingway motioned for him. "I'm Ernest Hemorrhoid," he roared across the room, "the rich man's Ernie Pyle!"
Around eleven o'clock, in between rounds of cocktails, air-raid sirens wailed, snapping everyone back to reality. In a raid of vicious retaliation, German bombers flew low over the rejoicing city, dropping their payloads and strafing anything that moved. Back suddenly was the "little knot of fear" in Ernie's stomach. Back was the "animal-like alertness for the meaning of every distant sound." Back was the "perpetual weight" on his spirit that comes with "death and dirt and noise and anguish."
Gin-saddened, Ernie Pyle realized he had reached his limit. What should have felt like a gigantic relief-celebrating the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany-had become another opportunity to die. The German air raid killed as many as two hundred people who probably thought their war was over. Another nine hundred were wounded.
The next morning, Ernie sent a telegram to his longtime editor, dear friend, and amateur business manager, Lee G. Miller. "About done up," he started. Physically, everything was fine, Ernie added, "but dogged clear down inside and can barely keep columns going." That final German raid had brought home the truth. Ernie was wrung out. There was nothing left to give. It was time to come home.
Copyright © 2023 by David Chrisinger. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.