Normandy — “I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France.
It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead.”
Ernie Pyle, June 16, 1944, column
DANA, Ind. — History books will tell you that Allied forces established five beachheads along the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944, as 156,000 servicemen arrived aboard 6,900 ships and landing craft. Allied casualties on D-Day were at least 10,000 with 4,413 killed. Those are the facts.
But Ernie Pyle wasn't someone whose dispatches concerned a blow-by-blow account of battles, tallying up the dead and wounded, ground gained or lost. They weren't culled from news releases or press briefings, nor from a general standing at a bulletin board pointing out strategic sites.
No. The displays at the Ernie Pyle WWII Museum illustrate his columns, which are prominently featured as posters amid vintage artifacts. The museum is Dana's tribute to the famous World War II correspondent who put it on the map. But the memories of the man are fading, much like a mural that once graced the downtown landscape.
Pyle's columns were so popular because they painted word pictures, giving readers a better grasp of the war through the common infantryman's eyes.
Note how he informs the homefront what those men's sacrifices and those strategic toeholds meant as he toured the debris-strewn beaches after the epic, “Longest Day” amphibious landing:
“... I noticed a group of freshly taken German prisoners standing nearby. They had not yet been put in the prison cage. They were just standing there, a couple of doughboys leisurely guarding them with tommy guns.
The prisoners too were looking out to sea – the same bit of sea that for months and years had been so safely empty before their gaze. Now they stood staring almost as if in a trance.
They didn’t say a word to each other. They didn’t need to. The expression on their faces was something forever unforgettable. In it was the final horrified acceptance of their doom.
If only all Germans could have had the rich experience of standing on the bluff and looking out across the water and seeing what their compatriots saw.”
Few could rival the Hoosier newspaperman, who started his career in LaPorte, in bringing the frontline action home to readers as an “embedded” correspondent who shared the same hardships, fears and apprehensions as the troops he trudged across battlefields with, enjoying their camaraderie in dugouts and seeking shelter in foxholes together.
Whether he was studying the faces of German POWs or viewing the lifeless eyes of former companions, Pyle brought a unique perspective on the war.
The Dana native might have spoken with generals, but his stories mostly focused on the “grunts,” “dogfaces” and fellow citizen soldiers fighting the war, not the brass orchestrating it. Every first reference to his interview subjects with their grime-smeared faces, sweaty T-shirts and mud-caked boots was dutifully followed by their hometown. His readers needed to know that to create the bond Pyle wanted as he related how former neighbors and relatives thrust into impossibly dangerous situations responded to them.
The 1944 Pulitzer Prize winner shared the harsh life in the field where a pair of dry socks was treasured, not because he had to but because he wanted to, said Joanie Rumple, a Friends of Ernie Pyle board member and recent museum tour guide.
“He didn't eat well. He didn't sleep well,” she noted, adding his time spent in the field took a toll on the frail, chain-smoking Indiana University product.
Actor William Windom does a dramatic reading of excerpts from the columns at “field phones” by each display. The column "Dugout Coffee" reveals Pyle recognized his perilous circumstance:
“Pvt. Cummings stretched and said 'I feel like I was 45 years old.' So I said 'I feel like I was, too, and I damn near am.' Then Sgt. Swartz asked how old I was, and I said 43, and he said he was 30 and if he knew that he'd live to be 43 he wouldn't have a worry in the world, but I said, Oh yes you would, you'd be just like me — worrying whether you'd ever get to be 44 or not.
“... That's the way the conversation went around a dugout at nighttime — rumors, girls, hopes of home, jokes, little experiences, opinions of their officers and an occasional offhand reference to what may happen to a man in the end.”
The end came for Pyle on April 18, 1945, when a Japanese sniper shot him on the island of Iejima (formerly known as Ie Shima) near Okinawa. Pyle was 44.
Harry Momi, 90, of Stockton, California, who took the last photo of Pyle the night before he was killed, spoke about his encounter with the beloved writer on April 9, 2015, during a program commemorating the 70th anniversary of Pyle's death. Other speakers have included veterans who knew Pyle and the sister of Capt. Henry T. Waskow, the Belton, Texas, native Pyle wrote so movingly about after his death in the Sicily campaign. It was one of Pyle's most widely-recognized columns.
The oral accounts of time spent with Pyle are dwindling with the numbers of the Greatest Generation who are still alive. The rest of his legacy is in some jeopardy, too.
Rumple and the rest of the Friends of Ernie Pyle organization rescued the museum after it was closed on Jan. 1, 2009, due to a state funding crunch. Grants from the Eli Lilly and Scripps Howard foundations helped them reopen it on May 14, 2011.
Donations can be sent to the nonprofit at: The Friends of Ernie Pyle, P.O. Box 345, Dana, IN 47847.