FROM CASABLANCA TO NORMANDY, Ernie Pyle’s Pulitzer Prize winning reports were the link between civilian America and Americans in uniform during The Second World War. Ernie described logistical technicalities, personal encounters, and random incidents with intimacy, integrity, and nary a shard of sensationalism, and these unvarnished accounts were published in two books, Here Is Your War and Brave Men, which I picked up in an antique store and couldn’t put down.
One vignette from a field hospital was particuliarly striking.
The wounded man was still semiconscious. The chaplain knelt down beside him and two wardboys squatted nearby. The chaplain said, “John, I’m going to say a prayer for you.” Somehow this stark announcement hit me like a hammer… Then he rose and dashed off on some other call, and the wardboys went about their duties. The dying man was left utterly alone, just lying there on his litter on the ground, lying in an isle, because the tent was full. Of course it couldn’t be otherwise, but the aloneness of that man as he went through the last few minutes of his life was what tormented me. I felt like going over and at least holding his hand while he died, but it would have been out of order and I didn’t do it. I wish now I had.–Ernie Pyle, Brave Men
Saddest words ever written: “I wish I had.”
I wonder if anyone held Ernie’s hand…
The autobiography of Sergeant York (a conscientious objector who became America’s “one man army” during The First World War) is told in a hillbilly vernacular that makes me think the humble hero must have been sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch. It’s also one of the best books ever written.
The war brings out the worst in you. It turns you into a mad, fightin’ animal, but it also brings out something else, something I jes don’t know how to describe, a sort of tenderness and love for the fellows fightin’ with you. It’s sort of clean, like a fire of pine logs on a frosty night… It was as though we could look right through each other and knowed everything without anything being hid… I kinder think away down underneath I sorter loved them for their weakness most of all.–Sergeant York, Sergeant York and The Great War
Virtuoso Jascha Heifetz (a Russian Jewish immigrant) knew what Pyle and York knew, when he took his musical genius and his robust sense of duty to the frontline.
One day, he told me, there was supposed to be pouring rain, the afternoon when Mr. Heifetz was supposed to perform. He was told that nobody was planning to come. He said that, ‘you know, when I am scheduled to play–unless I’m really, really deathly ill–I will play.’ So when the time came, he played. And to his great surprise, there was only one soldier sitting way in the back, holding an umbrella. And he told me later that that was one of his greatest, best performance ever.–Ayke Agus, in an interview for the PBS documentary, Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler
The performance of a lifetime for an audience of one on a rainy day.
Imagine that G.I.’s disappointment, if Heifetz had not been there.