With all the media coverage of the 75th anniversary of D-Day earlier this month, I have been thinking about the Second World War a great deal.
As I was born in Great Britain only about 20 years after the end of the war, I grew up with older family members and the British media frequently referring to and sharing their memories of World War II and specifically where they were when they heard the British Declaration of War on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939.
British colonies and semi-independent countries that were part of the Commonwealth at the time, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as the Raj of India (ruled by the British), also found themselves at war alongside Britain.
Of course, most Americans consider World War II to have begun in December 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii by the Japanese. Up until that point, the U.S. had been trying to keep itself isolated from the global war that officially started on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.
As a writer, a history major and a great supporter of the freedom of the press, I have always had an appreciation for war correspondents. These brave journalists choose to educate and inform the rest of us by travelling into dangerous war zones to report on what is going on.
I really believe that the service provided by the independent media is vital and too often taken for granted or undervalued.
I was recently introduced to the writing of Ernie Pyle by a friend who is an Anglophile with a love of literature and military history, and I was instantly hooked by the reporting of this newspaperman turned war correspondent.
Born in 1900, Ernest Taylor Pyle was a Pulitzer Prize–winning American journalist during the first half of the 20th century who is best known for his reports during the Second World War. Pyle was an American newspaper editor but chose to switch to human interest travel columns in 1935 for the Scripps-Howard newspaper syndicate and then, during perhaps the bleakest time for Europe, moved to war correspondent.
Just as his accounts of ordinary people across North America were simple and interesting, he later showed the same skill and insight in his reports of American soldiers as they fought across the world.
There is more information about Ernie and his writings at www.biography.yourdictionary. com/ernie-pyle I have just read “Ernie Pyle In England,” a collection of his reports from the four months he spent in Great Britain from December 1940 to March 1941, when most Americans were trying to leave this dangerous and bombed out country and return home to safety.
His on-the-ground insights into the daily life of the land of my birth at war, standing alone against an occupied Europe, are fascinating and only serve to increase my respect for the “greatest generation” who saved us from the Nazis.
To quote Pyle before he undertook the arduous journey to England, “I will be scared. I know I will feel small and in the way among a people who are doing a job of life and death.”
Pyle spent a lot of time in London, which was bombed almost nightly during his time there. He also travelled widely across the whole of Britain, to the north, south, east and west, as well as to Scotland and Wales.
He visited the nearly destroyed town of Coventry and the badly damaged city of Bristol, where I attended university over 40 years later.
As was typical of his writing, he interviewed the military English and Canadian soldiers and airmen as well as the “Home Guard,” that secondary defense force made up of volunteers, mostly old and young men in particular whose role was to be prepared for possible invasion.
He also visited with ordinary men and women and reported how they were coping with the deprivations of war – from the rationing of food and gas (which the British call petrol) to sleeping in shelters, the nightly blackout at every window and on every street to confuse the bombers and how people survived the death of their family members and the destruction of their homes by the Nazi bombs.
He clearly admired the British spirit and sense of humor as well as their absolute certainty that they would win the war, with or without eventual assistance from the Americans.
He commented: “They (the British people) are ready. They feel that Hitler has not got anything that they, the ordinary people, can’t take. And after being here with them for a few weeks I believe they are right.”
Pyle did not describe himself as brave, but I think he was. He was honest about his fears of bombs but took comfort in the advice of a veteran newspaperman who told him, “Your best protection is in the law of averages.”
Sadly, Pyle did not live to see the end of the war. He took his talented reporting on to the Pacific, where he was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire on April 18, 1945, in the battle of Ie Shima in the East China Sea.
He had been once again reporting on the average American soldier’s experiences at war. He was just 44 years old.
Pyle made those highs and lows in wartime England 80 years ago really come alive for me and underscored how strong and positive and good the human spirit can be in times of terrible adversity.
I have often thought about how millions of good men and women from all allied force countries fought so bravely to overcome the Nazi Germany threat to our way of life.
It has brought to mind one of my long-time favorite quotes which goes back well before Ernie’s time, written during the French Revolution by 18th century Irish orator, philosopher and politician, Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Ernie, I believe that you were a very good man who did a lot.
God bless America!