I started the book Brave Men about a year ago, and then put it aside while I read some others. I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago and I have been reading a few pages at a time, mostly over breakfast.
I finished it today.
Ernie Pyle was an American war correspondent during World War II. He was very well and widely known – a real celebrity in his day – and very well liked.
In his newspaper columns and in his book Brave Men, he describes the minutiae of detail of army life in wartime from the perspective of the common soldier.
He described the way the war machine works – from engineers pulling captured tanks off the line with giant earth moving machines, to bomb loaders preparing bombers for a mission, to cooks cooking up thousands of meals for the troops.
The book describes the push from North Africa and up through Italy, then the waiting period in England before D Day, and then the invasion and the battle through France. The final chapter was written in August 1944, and Pyle talks about the war being more or less over.
That was before the German counter-offensive in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes in December 1944, that was the last major offensive against the Allied forces in Europe.
It’s hard to tell you exactly why or how the book is so touching and sad. Certainly the tone changes when Pyle goes with the invasion forces on D Day, and he becomes more sombre and in the end, lyrical.
One passage is particularly poignant. It is about the jeep ride that he and another journalist and the photographer Robert Capa took into a town near Cherbourg. The Germans has only just been pushed out of the town, and there was always the risk of snipers or of Germans left behind, manning a machine gun somewhere by the roadside. So Pyle was nervous, and he talks about the fearless Capa, who would push on whatever the risk.
Robert Capa was one of the original Magnum photographers, I knew that Capa was killed in South East Asia, in what was then called Indochina, in 1954, when he stepped on a mine.
What I learned a week ago when reading up about the background to Brave Men, is that Ernie Pyle was killed in 1945 by Japanese machine gun fire on an island off Okinawa.
There is something strange about reading in a book published in 1944, the author writing about his companion, Capa, who I knew would be killed in 1954, and knowing also that the writer himself would be killed even before that, in 1945.
Are there they were in his description, as large as life and nervous as kittens – riding into a town during the Allied invasion of Europe.
After the war, the Takarazuka Theater in Tokyo was taken over by the US Army headquarters and renamed the Ernie Pyle Theater – which remained its name until 1955.