By David Chrisinger
Most of the men in the first wave never stood a chance. In the predawn darkness of June 6, 1944, thousands of American soldiers crawled down swaying cargo nets and thudded into steel landing craft bound for the Normandy coast. Their senses were soon choked with the smells of wet canvas gear, seawater and acrid clouds of powder from the huge naval guns firing just over their heads. As the landing craft drew close to shore, the deafening roar stopped, quickly replaced by German artillery rounds crashing into the water all around them. The flesh under the men’s sea-soaked uniforms prickled. They waited, like trapped mice, barely daring to breathe.
A blanket of smoke hid the heavily defended bluffs above the strip of sand code-named Omaha Beach. Concentrated in concrete pill boxes, nearly 2,000 German defenders lay in wait. The landing ramps slapped down into the surf, and a catastrophic hail of gunfire erupted from the bluffs. The ensuing slaughter was merciless.
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But Allied troops kept landing, wave after wave, and by midday they had crossed the 300 yards of sandy killing ground, scaled the bluffs and overpowered the German defenses. By the end of the day, the beaches had been secured and the heaviest fighting had moved at least a mile inland. In the biggest and most complicated amphibious operation in military history, it wasn’t bombs, artillery or tanks that overwhelmed the Germans; it was men — many of them boys, really — slogging up the beaches and crawling over the corpses of their friends that won the Allies a toehold at the western edge of Europe.
That victory was a decisive leap toward defeating Hitler’s Germany and winning the Second World War. It also changed the way America’s most famous and beloved war correspondent reported what he saw. In June 1944, Ernie Pyle, a 43-year-old journalist from rural Indiana, was as ubiquitous in the everyday lives of millions of Americans as Walter Cronkite would be during the Vietnam War. What Pyle witnessed on the Normandy coast triggered a sort of journalistic conversion for him: Soon his readers — a broad section of the American public — were digesting columns that brought them more of the war’s pain, costs and losses. Before D-Day, Pyle’s dispatches from the front were full of gritty details of the troops’ daily struggles but served up with healthy doses of optimism and a reliable habit of looking away from the more horrifying aspects of war. Pyle was not a propagandist, but his columns seemed to offer the reader an unspoken agreement that they would not have to look too closely at the deaths, blood and corpses that are the reality of battle. Later, Pyle was more stark and honest.
For days after the landing, no one back home in the States had any real sense of what was happening, how the invasion was progressing or how many Americans were being killed.
Nearly impossible to imagine today, there were no photographs flashed instantly to the news media. No more than 30 reporters were allowed to cover the initial assault. The few who landed with the troops were hampered by the danger and chaos of battle, and then by censorship and long delays in wire transmission. The first newspaper articles were all based on military news releases written by officers sitting in London. It wasn’t until Pyle’s first dispatch was published that many Americans started to get a sense of the vast scale and devastating costs of the D-Day invasion, chronicled for them by a reporter who had already won their trust and affection.
Before World War II, Pyle spent five years crisscrossing the United States — and much of the Western Hemisphere — in trains, planes and a Dodge convertible coupe with his wife, Jerry, reporting on the ordinary people he met in his travels. He wrote daily, and his columns, enough to fill volumes, were syndicated for publication in local papers around the country. These weren’t hard-news articles; they were human-interest stories that chronicled Americans during the Great Depression. Pyle told stories about life on the road, little oddities and small, heart-lifting triumphs and the misery that afflicted the drought-stricken Dust Bowl regions of the Great Plains.
Pyle honed a sincere and colloquial style of writing that made readers feel as if they were listening to a good friend share an insight or something he noticed that day. When the United States entered World War II, Pyle took that same technique — familiar, open, attuned to the daily struggles of ordinary people — and applied it to covering battles and bombings. Venturing overseas with American forces in 1942, Pyle reported the war through the eyes of the regular infantrymen on the front lines. He wrote about the food, the weather and the despair of living in slit trenches during the rainy late winter of 1943. He asked the soldiers their names and their hometown addresses, which he routinely included in his articles. Soon millions of readers were following Pyle’s daily column in about 400 daily and 300 weekly newspapers across the United States. In May 1944, Pyle was notified that he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his dispatches.