“Immediately after the explosion, the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, having run wildly out…and having looked in wonderment at the bloody soldiers at the mouth of the dugout they had been digging, attached himself sympathetically to an old lady, who was walking along in a daze, holding her head with her left hand, supporting a small boy of three or four on her back with her right, and crying, “I’m hurt! I’m hurt! I’m hurt!” Mr. Tanimoto transferred the child to his own back, and led the woman by the hand down the street, which was darkened by what seemed to be a local column of dust. He took the woman to a grammar school that had previously been designated for use as a temporary hospital in case of emergency. By this solicitous behavior, Mr. Tanimoto at once got rid of his terror.”
—John Hersey in Hiroshima,
the last entry in Reporting
World War II
The impulse to delight in a fellow creature stirs with unanticipated frequency in the huge volumes of Reporting World War II, and never so surprisingly as when John Hersey crowns their terminal pages with this revelation of Hiroshima, as a monument not just to suffering but to coping.
A year afterward, the Rev. Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto recalled to Hersey that he had awakened on August 6, 1945, as he had on a succession of mornings, “almost sick with anxiety” but at last with some hope for relief from the worst of his fears.
A wealthier acquaintance had offered him shelter from air raids in the hills above the center of Hiroshima, and this was the day when Mr. Tanimoto and his neighbor, Mr. Matsuo, would finish removing the last of his and his parsonage’s effects to comparative safety. They had just finished trundling their handcart to its place of presumed sanctuary when “a tremendous flash of light cut across the sky…and [both of them] reacted in terror.”
Mr. Tanimoto hunkered down between two large rocks in the garden and, when he dared at length to lift his head, “he saw that the house had collapsed…and in panic, not thinking for the moment of Mr. Matsuo under the ruins, he dashed out into the street.”
It was in one of those moments when the assailed spirit trembles between sinking utterly or rising superbly that he heard the old woman weeping for help. In the hours that followed, thanks to her cry, he had been transmuted into one of those singular incarnations of sacrifice and healing upon whose energy and initiative “many [would] come to depend.” He carried water and bandages to those worse off than he and never ceased to apologize for being himself too lightly hurt.
He ferried the wounded to higher ground, sickened when he reached for one woman’s hand and her skin came off “in huge, glove-like pieces” and again, as throughout these hours, “he had to keep consciously repeating to himself, ‘These are human beings.”‘ A stranger had cried out, “Don’t go away and leave me” and awakened Mr. Tanimoto to a self that, in his prior timidities, he had never known was there.
Who could have conceived an unlikelier hiding place for inspirations than Hiroshima? And yet there the Rev. Mr. Tanimoto shines as bright as the awful light that changed him and all about him. It is hard to believe that the feelings of admiration, kinship, and, yes, even of envy he arouses would surge as quickly in anyone who had not known a little bit of war. To think of Hiroshima and see Mr. Tanimoto as the largest figure on its stage is concededly a quirky point of view; but all my memories of fifty years ago insist on making it my own.
It is not easy to gauge the effect of this remarkable compilation of World War II reportage upon those who were not there. They will, of course, be enlightened and drawn nearer to understanding; but the ultimate fulfillments of recognition must be left for real soldiers or, as in my own case, sort of soldiers who shared in unequal degrees the experiences of the authors of these dispatches.
Everyone who has been cast overseas in uniform, however minor the attendant discomforts, eventually settles into a lasting homesickness for everything he has left behind in the civilian world with the cankering exception of its attitudes. That resentment, once so lively and so long forgotten, clamors anew in the complaints of these marvelously engaged men and women against the obtuseness of their editors and the impassivity of their audiences at home.
To remember the late Edward R. Murrow’s collegial courtesy toward the scrawniest of his colleagues is to be quite taken aback by the savageries he dealt one of the largest in a September 20, 1940, broadcast from blitzed London that begins.
Miss Dorothy Thompson made a broadcast to Britain tonight. Her audience was somewhat reduced, since the air-raid siren sounded just after she started speaking. She informed the British that the poets of the world were lined up on their side. That, she said, was a matter of consequence. I’m not sure that Londoners agreed that the poets would be of much assistance, as they grabbed their blankets and headed for the air-raid shelters…. Most of them expect little from the poets and no effective defense by word of mouth.
That was perhaps harsher treatment than Dorothy Thompson had earned from the fervor of her commitment at far remove. But we may ask too much from any man’s patience when it has been too protractedly flogged through deprivations of sleep, and detonations shaking his studio, and shrapnel clattering off its walls. His listeners at home—smug, safe, and in the comfort that was by then but an acrid thought to him—could only puzzle over the outrage in a voice whose containment they were so used to admiring.
“During the last week,” Murrow intruded upon them, a few nights later, “you have heard much about the bombing of Buckingham Palace and probably seen pictures of the damage. You have been told by certain editors and commentators who sit in New York that the bombing of the Palace, which has one of the best air-raid shelters in Europe, caused a great surge of determination—a feeling of unity—to sweep this island…. I do not find much support for that view amongst the Londoners with whom I talked…. There is nothing exclusive about being bombed these days.”
After the soldiers of France abandoned Paris in June of 1940, they turned south on the assumption that somewhere they might rally and turn again at bay, and found the roads designated for their orderly withdrawal choked near stoppage by caravans of fleeing Parisians. The London Times’s Virginia Cowles ran that dreadful night through a succession of impasses until she was halted at last at a junction where a furniture truck was stalled across the road and the artillerymen sat cursing on their caissons and a sergeant paced up and down saying over and over, “Filthy civilians. Filthy, filthy civilians.”
Notes like this recur rather often in the home thoughts of these correspondents; but their tones do not so much imply enraged hostility as baffled estrangement. Still, when we look back on the feelings so many of us shared long ago, time’s mellowings ought to persuade us that our grievance was irrelevant even then, simply because of the chasm between our circumstances and those prevailing on the farther shore that continually receded and left its inhabitants strangers to us and us alien to them.
Even the French civilian reviled by the soldier for disappointing the army’s expectations could have fairly replied on his side that he had expected a bit more from the army. And, as for the civilians stateside, what could have been asked of them and what could they do if asked? Collect tinfoil for aircraft plants already bulging with aluminum?
Reporting World War II’s editors have conscientiously mined a mountain of commentaries on the doings back home; but time has rather tarnished the ore. The New Yorker made an effort to match the triumph of its dispatches from the combat areas with an occasional chronicle under the rubric “The Home Front,” a compliment less than appropriate for the realities of a nation that has not endured the actualities of a front since Sheridan broke the last line of Confederate resistance at Five Oaks. But then toasts to our brave boys might also ring truer to the facts of the case if the Table of Organization’s allotments did not insure a substantial majority of soldiers against ever seeing the front.
We are offered only one—and we may take it to be the fairest—sample of “The Home Front.” It is Brendan Gill’s account of an afternoon spent with a White Plains gas-rationing board assembled to hear the appeals of citizens seeking to cadge a ration card more permissive than the one assigned to them.
Gill takes note of one malcontent who inquired, “Well, did you think we’d ever come to this in the good old U.S.A.?”; and the old resentment rises again and then subsides in the recollections of the all-but-universal urge to avoid unpleasant consequences that Bill Mauldin so neatly caught when he observed that,
The gunner in the platoon CP is itching to get the hell out of there and back to the safety of company headquarters, where the topkick is equally anxious to find an excuse to visit Battalion [where] the radio operators like to go after extra tubes at Regimental supply, even though Regimental seldom stocks tubes.
I cannot acquit the compilers of Reporting World War II of all suspicion of the intent to mock in their choice of some of these extinguished embers from the domestic hearth, and most especially in “Three Americans,” an essay composed by the editors of Life around a photograph of three dead Yanks on the beach at Buna. This has to be the longest picture caption in the history of journalism and certainly among the more excruciating in its reliance on the delusions of utter sincerity required for unerring strokes upon the wrong note: “When these three boys broke out of the jungle they ran down the beach, chasing Japs in a kind of fury.” How can Life or anyone else have known whether these three died in purposeful fury or in one of those over-precipitate rushes whose perils are lessons early in a soldier’s seasoning?
Might not these three “boys” have thought their day done and their battle won and run to the beach not in rage but jubilation? Might not they indeed have been so new to their craft as to drift still in the confoundingly long time it takes to recognize that the bullet that went past your head bespoke some hostile intent for yourself? I do not advance these alternate versions in preference to Life’s but only in decent respect for our common duty to refrain from inferences about how the dead felt and acted in the seconds before their last breath was drawn.
Life regrets that its photographer had come late to this scene and “yet, miraculously, it is not too late; miraculously the battle still goes on, and we can still see, in every line of action, why it is that American boys win.”
We can still sense the high optimism…[be] still aware of the relaxed self-confidence with which the leading boy ran into the sudden burst of fire—almost like a halfback carrying the ball….Yes, we can tell even on this distant shore that these are our boys, born of our women, reared in our schools, bred to our horizons….
In September 1943, Life’s editors were furnishing three death-emptied heads on the beach at Buna with “green meadows stretching down from a white-washed barn…a stout, grayhaired woman pulling out of the oven an American apple pie…the sound of a girl’s voice when she told him, or the feel of her waist, or the memory of her promise.” A month later James Agee was writing in The Nation:
We suffer—we vaguely realize—a unique and constantly intensifying schizophrenia…. Those Americans who are doing the fighting are doing it in parts of the world which seem irrelevant to them; those who are not, remain untouched, virginal, prenatal, while every other considerable population on earth comes of age….
In every bit of information you can gather about breakdowns of American soldiers in combat, overseas, even in the camps, a sense of unutterable dislocation, dereliction, absence of contact, trust, wholeness, and reference, in a kind and force which no other soldiers have to suffer, clearly works at the root of the disaster.
Life’s editors must have recoiled in disgust at Agee’s tone and he with scorn for theirs; and yet how like their voices are in the cadences that now and then, long after I could be of even as much service as I was when young, impelled me to think that, come another general war, I should have to re-enlist because I could not endure the company of American civilians. The quarrels of Agee with Life and of Life with Agee pale in the horrid glare of the affinities that bind each to each in the same ignorance, the same insistence on arguing from suppositious evidence, and the same apartness from the real thing that condemns them to substituting attitudes for the work that only the tactile can do.
But then, no matter how far those at home were irrecoverably and excusably remote from its facts, the war appears from these accounts to have worked upon civilians and soldiers alike to make good people better and bad ones worse. Mary Heaton Vorse lifts us up when she tracks the increasing kindness of the citizens of Elkton, Maryland, while they struggle with their engulfment by the country girls who flooded into the munitions plant prodigiously expanded by the Navy. Deton J. Brooks, Jr., casts us as far down when he canvasses the indignities dealt soldiers of color in Camp Forrest, Tennessee, and notes among the pettier but somehow the cruelest of all their complaints that on furlough “they often miss their train…because the clerks in the station won’t sell them tickets until after all the whites have been waited on.”
We could ask no more vivid evocation of the unforgettably long distance from the enlistee’s home and his stateside barracks than Walter Bernstein’s morning-after recall of the night he spent with the recreations catered by Phenix City, Alabama’s stump-joint-cathouse stews. The proprietrix victimizes the troopers and is victimized in her turn by State Liquor Control agents falling in to confiscate her stock. Once in a while, a party of Military Policemen arrives with its summons to one more unit to repair to quarters for shipment elsewhere, and Bernstein commences to feel the air around him grow fouler and fouler and ever less bearable. On his way out and toward his lonely bed at Fort Benning, he passes the two symbols of his deprivation, “a soldier being sick in a corner and the juke box screaming, ‘Goodby, Mama, I’m Off to Yokohama.’ ” It is scarcely a month since Pearl Harbor.
Two years later Bernstein bobs up again, restored to cheer on tour with the mountain troops in Italy. He is in the exuberant company of ski bums in the shrine of the democratic ideal that is the field where the colonel, short of artillery, communications, supplies, or even a sufficiency of manpower, hazards that “anyway we can send out patrols,” and the non-com answers that, on the other hand, “We can sit. I could use a little sitting.”
Bernstein must have been finding these hills as jolly as Phenix City had been dismal, and the difference would have been that in Phenix City he had nothing to do and that in the hills he had at least a sort of something. The soldier, however otherwise inferior in fortune, has the singular luck of access to the absurdities of existence while the civilian cannot often enough get clear of the absurdity of himself.
The witnesses to these testaments are so remarkable a lot that Ernie Pyle could not persuade us that he was the very best if he had not beyond all others unflaggingly proceeded from the premise that eye and ear have no hope to understand everything unless they refuse to shrink from anything. Once on night march in Italy Pyle began to reflect upon the infantrymen’s powers of endurance and arrived at the revelation that “a certain fundamental appreciation for the ridiculous carries them through.”
That was as much the point for Bill Mauldin, who was buoyant and boyish, as it became for Pyle, who was middle-aged, disposed to melancholy, and encumbered with the foreknowledge of the deaths awaiting those who hung about long enough with this stuff, and who nonetheless, when he caught a short respite from the fighting in Tunisia, apologized to his readers for having perhaps “unconsciously made war seem more awful than it really is” when “there is a good deal of gaiety in wartime” and “some of us, even over here, are having the time of our lives.”
The spirit that is never unaware of the horrors around it but still manages to have the time of its life is supremely affirmed in the journeyings of the women correspondents. Margaret Bourke-White wakes up when the torpedo strikes the transport that is taking her and SHAEF’s complement of secretaries, WACs, WAVES, and nursing sisters to Africa two nights before Christmas 1942. She retrieves two of her cameras, leaves the rest behind, and goes to the bridge to do her job until the last lifeboat goes over the side. And then she takes her seat, looks up at the silvery clouds, and reflects that, if that were the sun and not the moon, “this would be a perfect K-2 sky.” In the lifeboat all hands set to bailing and “People began joking now. The irrepressible Kay Summersby, Eisenhower’s pretty Irish driver, announced her breakfast order. She wanted her eggs sunny-side up and no yolks broken.”
Lee Miller, voyager for Vogue, thumbs an LST ride to St. Malo and the siege of its last German garrison, “a grandstand view of fortress warfare reminiscent of Crusader times.” She watches from the command post in the boy’s school across from the fort. The infantrymen commence their advance and “I projected myself into their struggle, my arms and legs aching and cramped.” Repulsed, they fall back with the German guns at them front and rear and their survivors trail back to a command post where “everyone was sullen…silent…and aching, like a terrible hangover.”
Lee Miller turns toward what relief the Hotel Victoria may have left to cater:
Stricken lonely cats prowled. A swollen horse had not provided adequate shelter for the dead American behind it…. Gunfire brought more stone blocks down into the street…. I sheltered in a kraut dugout, squatting under the ramparts. My heel ground into a dead, detached hand…and I cursed the Germans for the sordid ugly destruction they had conjured up…. I picked up the hand and hurled it across the street and ran back the way I’d come, bruising my feet and crashing in the unsteady piles of stone and slipping in blood. Christ, it was awful.
A year later, Martha Gellhorn sits on a stone wall beside the Elbe and “[we] watched the river and smoked and talked about nothing.” Then the Russian army began to cross the bridge:
The army came in like a sort of tide; it had no special shape; there were no orders given. It came and flowed over the stone quay and up along the roads behind us like water rising, like ants, like locusts. It was not so much an army as a whole world on the move…. First came men…. Then some trucks bumped over the bridge—God knows what sort of trucks or where manufactured…. A pack train now…. It was a honey. It consisted of very beat-up carts and wagons and strong but shabby horses…. After the pack train, something like the first locomotive appeared; it was short and had a huge smoke stack and it towed two huge wooden cars…. Men on bicycles pedaled across…. The noise was lovely, a sort of splendid Slavic roar and the clang of iron wheels on the cobbles and occasional shouts which may have been orders or curses.
Women like these contained within themselves as many powers to evoke as there are susceptibilities to possess: Margaret Bourke-White for gaiety in the companionship of dread, Lee Miller for the rawness of the horrid, and Martha Gellhorn for revelings in the spectacular, almost childishly delighted and all the while acutely and precisely observant. The men around them can, to be sure, be as open as they to being surprised into exultation in harsh circumstances; but the male memory of such bouts is seldom so free of embarrassment. In Christmas week of 1940, when Ernie Pyle gazed down from his balcony upon a London “ringed and stabbed with fires” and observed that “this old, old city was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen,” he hastened to add an apologetic “even though I must bite my tongue in shame for saying it.”
A marine awakes after a night of “slop and terror” on Guadalcanal, looks at the dawn and says to Hersey, “Anyone who can’t see beauty in that doesn’t deserve to live.” Time’s Jack Belden treks with his fellow evacuees from Burma to where none can know. He makes room for a stranded Burmese nurse and, of a sudden, he welcomes and entertains the dream that he sees himself “in the movies…a tough sailor, cast up on a foreign shore…and finding a simple native girl…who make[s] him forget all his civilization. Melodramatic, yes; but a feeling of romantic melancholy stole over me as we wound slowly through that dry, dead jungle.”
Their sisters were then far from cheated of brothers in the same spirit. And yet, somehow, openness to horrors and wonders seems to inspire reactions more spontaneous and afterthoughts less guilt-burdened in the women correspondents than in the men. It is as though men have to think before they joke and as though women just joke.
When there is spread before us one of those scenes of shipwreck and abandonment that are in their essence melodramatic, and their narrator begs our pardon for owning up to the onsets of “romantic melancholy,” we don’t have to know Jack Belden’s name to recognize the voice of a man, because only a man could be half-ashamed to admit to a response that charms us so much more than it could possibly affront.
The women correspondents went to the wars, however, with the luck to bear shackles of emotional inhibition noticeably lighter than those clanking round their masculine colleagues. They may have owed that advantage to girlhoods spared the self-consciousness about courage unremittingly drilled into adolescent boys. They had grown up unencumbered with puzzlements about whether they would fight or flee the bridge and were therefore free to inherit courage as stuff taken for granted.
The experience of war can, of course, deal as savagely with this as with most assurances; and, if you protract it, you are apt to end, as Lee Miller did, running the blood and muck of St. Malo stunned under the sudden assault of reality. Even so, there is everything to be said for any undreamt-of failure of nerve that could raise its victim to the exact pitch of “Christ, it was awful.”
Lee Miller had been a model for Steichen, an actress for Cocteau, an intimate for Man Ray; and yet she would be but as dust now if she did not arise here as unknown angel of rescue for any old soldier who had come home weary of the game and wearier still of questions about it, and was unconscious that he had at hand, thanks to her, the only appropriate reply, which would have been, “I can’t tell you much about how it went, but you might try looking it up in the back issues of Vogue.”
Women like her are far too sensible to worry the threads of the mystery of courage; and we must seek our light upon the subject from the men, whose temperaments and conditionings tend to press them more insistently into self-examination. War isn’t often credited with redeeming features even when they are as palpable as teaching those intimately engaged never to take themselves quite seriously again and as affording them, if fortune is not terminally unkind, fewer causes for apology than they have probably picked up before and will acquire since. Its other instructional virtues are harder to see; but one of the plainest is that war keeps its richest lessons not for the gunner but for the gunned.
Its highest moments and most exiguous challenges come with the summons not to kill but to rescue. These correspondents were singularly placed to appreciate the difference because their status defined them as non-combatants and, as A. J. Liebling said of himself, “never destined to fight—just to get shot at.”
The nasty courses that Richard Tregaskis had run at Guadalcanal had earned him full exemption from precincts more perilous than the International News Service’s New York wire desk. Instead he shipped back out to Italy and there found the wound that is so often the price of risks over-extended. When he was hit, he tried to call out, “Can you help me?” to a nearby Ranger taking cover from the shells and could get out no more than “Can help?” and the soldier could manage no better than “I can’t help you. I’m too scared.” The medics arrived in time and bound Tregaskis’s wounds, and down the hill he went with a head full of the “Am I going to die?” that would be the first words he spoke to the doctor who bent over him at the field station.
To conceive the shame that must have thronged the mind of that recreant soldier on as many of the nights he survived to lie down in is to understand that Hiroshima had brought the Rev. Mr. Tanimoto not one but two miracles of salvation, the first when he escaped the bomb and the second when he broke the chains that until then had kept him tied to his fears.
What strikes us too in Tregaskis’s account of his plea and the Ranger’s denial is the complete absence of resentment in its tone. Perhaps Tregaskis would not complain because he could know just how many trials this man might have passed through before he had used up all his stock of honor and come to a point where, when asked for more, he could only turn away.
Reporting World War II’s editors might or might not have intended irony when they chose to sit Tregaskis’s tranquilly absolving recollections of his abandoner in the closest possible proximity to Edward Kennedy’s report on the cursings and cuffings that Lt. Gen. George S. Patton visited upon an infantryman weeping on his hospital bed in Sicily. Tregaskis and Patton each had under his eye a soldier at the end of his tether, and neither could know the circumstances that had brought him there. That critical want of information mattered enough to Tregaskis to forbid him to blame and mattered too little to Patton to restrain him from condemning. Who then better knew the basic truths taught by war, the correspondent all but forgotten or the great commander of unfaded legend?
“In the destructive element immerse,” Stein told Marlow in Lord Jim. The lessons that lodge in the destructive element are, we must suppose, profounder for those who are buffeted than for those who buffet there. In all probability the pointless and promiscuous firing of his weapons that marks the soldier’s initiation into combat is prompted less by fear than by an urgency of need to put it out of his mind. To shoot and shoot again in the empty air ahead is to feel safe from harm, anyway up to the dreadful moment when your clips are empty and you naked before the guns. Since they went unarmed, the correspondents were denied such transient illusions of invulnerability; and their continual awareness of being targeted makes them powerful witnesses to the ultimate test of courage that is the decision to die if you must in order to help somebody worse off than yourself.
NBC’s Robert St. John and three of his colleagues had underestimated the speed of the German surge into Greece in April 1941, and, having tarried too long in Patras, had no resource for escaping encirclement except the last train to Corinth. En route the train was strafed and the New York Post’s Leigh White immobilized in the ruin of his right thigh. An evacuation was ordered, and St. John and Russell Hill of the New York Herald Tribune carried White off. He was too heavy and too helpless for his bearers to bring him to the comparative safety of the hills; and they improvised a litter, struggled up to a highway, and were picked up by a Royal Air Force truck. Back came a German plane for more play, and the truck halted and all occupants not too far disabled by wounds ran for cover except St. John and Hill, who felt it their duty to stay with White as soon as he explained that his pain was already too awful to stand being made even worse if he were moved.
And so St. John and Hill lay with this disabled comrade in plain view of the Luftwaffemensch’s guns; and when he had finished his pass with unexpectedly small damage, the RAF driver came back to his cab and, before starting on, advised St. John and Hill not to be quite so foolishly brave the next time round. Once more the German plane returned and, upon its appearance, St. John and Hill deferred to the driver’s wisdom, and hastened to the shelter of a stone wall while White lay in vulnerable sight on the back of the truck.
“I didn’t feel at all right inside,” St. John lastingly remembered.
I could see the truck through a hole in the wall. White and the other wounded men looked as if they were dead already. I was sorry that I had left them in spite of all the driver had said. The driver was right, but I felt mean and selfish. I felt that I’d always be ashamed of running away like that, even though I couldn’t have done anybody any good by staying on top of the truck.
Martha Gellhorn had started out for Bastogne and paused at a fallen German gun position to ask directions of an infantry squad. The sergeant in command replied that he wouldn’t go up that road if he were she.
“Anyhow,” [he] went on. “They’re making a counter-attack. They got about thirty tanks, we heard, coming this way.”
“What are you going to do?” I said.
“Stay here,” said one of the soldiers….
War is lonely and individual work; it is hard to realize how small it can get. Finally it can boil down to ten unshaven gaunt-looking young men, from anywhere in America, stationed on a vital road with German tanks coming in….
It seemed shameful to leave them.
Jack Belden walks with the troops falling back from the Ardennes near Christmas in 1944 and comes to Cheneux, whose townspeople had rejoiced in liberation in September and were standing now “in the roads, alarm plainly stamped on their faces.”
“I noticed in myself a feeling that I had not had for some years,” Belden wrote. “It was the feeling of guilt that seems to come over you whenever you retreat. You don’t like to look anyone in the eyes. It seems as if you have done something wrong. I perceived this feeling in others too.”
Robert St. John had done nothing worse than obey the dictates of common sense and only after he had needed prompting to act upon them. Martha Gellhorn and Jack Belden were no better placed than he to “do anybody any good.” Nonetheless each of them speaks to us from the shame that has no foundation in reason and thus belongs with bravery and universal compassion and the other peculiar virtues that make little sense to the worldly until they are called up and supremely tried in war.
The gods, it would appear, dole out their allotments of courage in unequal shares and then as a fixed account that each of us must draw down without hope of replenishment. Every brave deed represents a capital expenditure.
Ernest Hemingway has never seemed more attractive than in August 1944, when he and a band of maquis were on their way to the retaking of Paris, and twenty-five years of profligacies with his supply of courage took their effect and he had charmingly to confess to Collier’s that a patrol the day before had “scared the pants off me,” that by afternoon his mood was “increasingly apprehensive” and that, he was at last free to concede, he “had never been a great lover of contact anyway.”
A.J. Liebling had sustained le trac, “which means a complete funk,” that ran through Paris when it was announced that the Germans had taken Arras. He had been strafed and bombed at a forward airstrip in Tunisia with so few remissions that he “stared at the parallel furrows the Messerschmitt cannons had plowed down the runway, as if they had been the teeth of a rake and ourselves the field mice between them.”
By the time the LCI carrying Liebling and a Navy beach battalion touched ground at Omaha Beach on the appointed D-Day, H-hour plus 65 minutes, the breath from the hot gates was still sufficiently searing to satisfy every demand of honor and Liebling chose to stay with the ship where the perils, however drastic, were lighter than those ashore.
On the afternoon of D-Day plus two, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Richard Stokes came aboard. He was sixty-one years old and this day was his initiation. Liebling fixed a practiced gaze at the shell puffs on the beach and suggested, “Mr. Stokes, it seems to be pretty rough in there.”
He didn’t have even a blanket to sleep on, and he didn’t have the slightest idea whom he was going to look for when he got in; he was just going ahead like a good city reporter on an ordinary assignment.
Stokes watched two boatloads of infantrymen fill up and start for the beach and then said, “Mr. Liebling, I have made up my mind” and “scrambled aboard…[and] got ashore all right and did some fine stories. A couple of weeks afterward he told me, ‘I couldn’t stand being within sight of the promised land and then coming back.’ ”
Liebling had, of course, been to the promised land and would defer his next visit until this particular patch of Eden stopped shooting at him.
Marvelous as his companions in these pages are, Ernie Pyle emerges as almost a miracle of nature, born and come of age unshadowed by the curse of bravado and equipped to take his courage for granted as simply as Lee Miller and Margaret Bourke-White did theirs. Because he had never blustered, he would never confront the awful moment of shock at having to quail. He could go again and again wherever the worst extremes waited, the unconscripted man bound to the comradeship of conscripts and enduring by choice what they were forced to endure by necessity.
Not even the erosions of hard use could change Pyle; and his only reference to the effects of wear was spoken when he had arrived at Okinawa for the last of all his D-Day landings. A marine asked him what he thought of the war in the Pacific and he replied, “Oh, it’s the same old stuff all over again. I am awful tired of it.”
He was killed a week later in a backwater skirmish on an off-island, and four volunteer litter bearers crawled across open and still contested terrain to bring out his body. Reporting World War II is graced with Pyle’s obituary written by Evan Wylie in the spare and moving key of his own preference and printed in Yank, the Army weekly, which was just where he would have wanted most to be remembered.
Wylie’s death notice includes a citation that defines for good Pyle’s heroic resistance to the worst spiritual damage war does to those stuck in it for too long. On Okinawa another correspondent had asked him how he felt when he saw a dead Japanese soldier, and “Pyle said dead men were all alike to him, and it made him feel sick to look at one.”
When I myself was newly overseas, a comrade older in the traces did me the kindness to explain some things I’d better be ready for and one was the spectacle of the dead: “When you see a dead Nip, you won’t care,” he said. “But no matter how many times you see a dead Yank, you’ll never get over it.”
That sight would not all that often come my way; and yet, when it did, my response was pretty much what he had said it would be, which is why Pyle, who had looked upon hecatombs for every dead body I would see, seems most remarkable for having escaped the coarsening of sensibility that must be the hardest price war extorts this side of wound or death.
The New York Times’s Otto D. Tolischus rode with the German forward elements advancing toward Warsaw; and his distaste for their cause did not prevent his reporting that, before their artillery cut loose, they showered the city with leaflets “calling on the city to surrender, promising soldiers would be sent home instead of being made war prisoners, and that in view of their brave defense, officers would be permitted to keep their swords.” So then at the outset even the German troop commanders wanted to be thought chivalrous and may even have imagined that nature and Nazism could allow them to be.
Murrow’s broadcasts from Luftwaffegrieved London in September 1940 still touch our admiration fifty-five years later because he never departed from celebrating the stoicism of those done unto to distract himself with deploring the bestiality of those who were doing it. His closest approach to a breach of this exemplary containment was to describe the German air tactic as the “terror bombing” it indisputably was and meant to be.
Three years later, Murrow sat in one of the fifteen Lancasters that flew through shrapnel-ridden skies to turn Berlin into a “city of dreadful night” and, when his plane turned homeward, looked back upon a “kind of orchestrated Hell.”
Men die in the sky while others are roasted alive in their cellars. Berlin last night wasn’t a pretty sight. In about thirty-five minutes it was hit with about three times the amount of stuff that came down on London in a night-long blitz. This is a calculated, remorseless campaign of destruction.
Terror-bombing was still a solemnizing sight for Murrow, but by now it left him, on balance, satisfied. Put the wheel of war to grinding along and it will sharpen even a nature as gentle as his to the edge of a knife.
By April of 1943, Pyle could already notice the “vivid change” in American troops from the original state of innocence they had brought to Algeria only five months before to the “casual and workshop manner in which they now talk about killing…[with] a professional outlook to which killing is a craft.”
To them now there is nothing morally wrong about killing. In fact it is an admirable thing.
I think I am so impressed by this new attitude because it hasn’t been necessary for me to make this change along with them. As a non-combatant, my own life is in danger only by occasional chance or circumstance. Consequently I need not think of killing in personal terms, and killing to me is still murder.
All the same, however dangerously far his heart might turn toward ice, the combat soldier’s head was spared the tumblings into abstraction that end with an image of the Enemy as a whole people whose guilt extends to the last neonate. He was engaged fire-to-fire against men in arms, worse-weaponed than he in the Japanese case, better in several ways in the German, but in too many instances more skilled and purposeful than himself.
Pyle watched the infantry squads struggling with the Normandy hedgerows and understood that each one’s endeavor was a “separate little war, fought under different circumstances.” The soldier walking or riding in armor knew little of the sweeps of the war map beyond the grid coordinates that identified the small patch for which he fought. What inspired him and the comrades around him was not the rhetoric of the cause but the intimate dependence of each upon the other.
The bomber crews were bound as close; but as the Luftwaffe wore down and Japanese pilots were left no useful function that was not also suicidal, the Strategic Air Command controlled the skies so nearly immune that the balance of heroic opportunity shifted more and more from the bombers to the bombed.
William L. Laurence, chief science writer for the New York Times, was a passenger on the plane freighting to Nagasaki history’s second atomic bomb—“a thing of beauty to behold.” Laurence contemplated the anti-aircraft puffs hopelessly too far below a cabin pressurized to “the temperature of a comfortable air-conditioned room,” essayed small talk with “our genial bombardier,” and ruminated:
Does one feel any compassion for the poor devils about to die? Not when one thinks of Pearl Harbor and of the Death March on Bataan.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the last two of the targets that the vicissitudes of war had so deprived of effective defense that the crews assigned to flay them further took to referring to their missions as milk runs.
Laurence’s vision of himself and his fellow travelers in their triumphal serenity sends the mind back through these pages to the day but two years earlier and to Lt. Col. Beirne Lay, Jr.’s, recollection of the terror that was the common estate of the targeteer and his targets when 150 B-17s struck upon Regensburg and Schweinfurt.
All the voices here ring with valor; but since Lay was a bomb commander, he speaks uniquely, not from uneasy observation but from fearsome combat. He had felt stripped so bare in “the cluttered wake of a desperate air battle” that it was a relief when his co-pilot signaled him to take over the controls and he could “concentrate on flying instead of sitting there watching fighters aiming between your eyes…. The fear was [still] unpleasant, but it was bearable.” Now that Lay had a task, “my nerves were steady and my brain working…. I knew that I was going to die, and so were a lot of others.”
Laurence’s safety, although not his smugness, makes a gratifying contrast; but he would never know the tactile presence of war as suffering beyond all prior conception, and as a rising up beyond the self that the Marines had found at Tarawa and that their and other soldiers’ victories would finally transform war’s bitter but not unredemptive properties into an exclusive possession for the Rev. Mr. Tanimoto and the sharers of his healing spirit at Hiroshima.
It seems somehow curious that these reporters and those who bore genuine combat with them did not play a larger part in the history of the America to which they returned. There were political careers for a number of officers whose dosages by fire had not been small. George Bush had been shot down in two Navy fighters; and George McGovern had flown a crippled bomber back to base. Bush would be elected and McGovern nominated for president; and, in the key their times had by then ordained, Bush would be widely disdained as a wimp and McGovern dismissed as a sissy.
I cannot think of an enlisted man, tried in the line and certified a hero, who was ever afterward rewarded with large honors in peacetime. To read the citations for the Congressional Medal of Honor is to be filled with awe for human possibility; and yet Commando Kelly was thereafter but fleetingly conspicuous and then as a failed strike-breaker, and Audie Murphy, once Hollywood wearied of him, trailed pathetically off to be shill and dupe for teamster racketeers. Since war so often reserves its glory for those it has already treated worst, mightn’t we suppose, as I earlier did, that its processes teach them never again to take themselves so seriously as to be fit for the vainglorious postures so often demanded for success as a politician?
Doughty and cheerful baggage-bearer though A.J. Liebling showed himself to be from Tunisia through Normandy, his reports from these fields may be the single and certainly the least-expected disappointment in Reporting World War II. We too frequently sense the craftsman’s hand and sometimes even the stage manager’s devices. There is too much of the tableau in his scenes and too little of juice in the talk of his soldiers and perhaps too far a distance between his birth in 1904 and theirs in the Twenties.
All the same, whatever small defeats Liebling may have suffered in his engagement with the authentic are magnificently recouped whenever he steels his eye to confront the fraudulent. Fix his attention on the rear echelons of Supreme Headquarters AEF-London and he is off on a grand assault:
The Public Relations situation reached a high point in opera buffa absurdity in London in the spring [of 1944] before the invasion of France. There were at one time nine separate echelons of Public Relations in London at once: P.R.O. SHAEF; P.R.O. Twenty-First Army Group (Montgomery’s Command); P.R.O. FUSAC (First Army group)… P.R.O.First Army; P.R.O. ETOUSA (European Theatre of Operations, US Army), which handled the correspondent’s mail, gave out ration cards, did publicity for Services of Supply, and tried to horn in on everything else, [etc., etc….]
The P.R.O.s, mostly colonels and lieutenant colonels (a major, in this branch of service, was considered a shameful object, to be exiled to an outer office), had for the most part been Hollywood press agents or Chicago rewrite men in civilian life. They looked as authentic in their uniforms as dress extras in a B picture, but they had learned to say “Army” with an unction that Stonewall Jackson could never have achieved…. The one point on which [all of them] united was their detestation of the field army [emphasis added].
With this one thunderingly glorious roar Liebling had described the class that would inherit the America whose future it had done the least to preserve, and he had adumbrated the postwar national will all the way to the penultimate semi-colon in its final codicil.
But such is the way the world appoints its run. Why should we bother to rail against it when we can raise our eyes to Ed Cunningham’s report for Yank on the auxiliary soldiers put to the breach to meet the terminal Panzer counterattack in the Ardennes?
They were headquarters cooks and clerks and radiomen and behind-the-lines MPs. They were assembled and deployed by a T-4 from Special Services (Music and Art). At the first brush with fire, they retreated, and then regrouped for the next one, and then, Cunningham sparely and beautifully says, “This time the cooks and clerks held fast.” These unapprenticed neophytes had held a salient that would have been overrun without them, and with it a Belgian village and an immeasurable stretch of Belgium to its rear.
The day, Cunningham notes, had been salvaged by “Americans who never received a Combat Infantry badge.” They would have but one historian to mark their great moment; and they were luckier than most for even as much notice. That is an oversight that could scarcely matter to them then or now.
They had formed themselves at a place piled high with potential reasons to apologize and they had stood and come through without ever having to. What more could the men and women in these pages have needed to ask from life, except, of course, hearth and home?
February 15, 1996