Beyond  /  Profile

The Man Who Told America the Truth About D-Day

Ernie Pyle's World War II dispatches offered comfort to readers back home. Then D-Day changed his perspective on the war’s costs.
Wikimedia Commons

Pyle’s first column about the D-Day landings, published on June 12, 1944, gave his readers an honest accounting of how daunting the invasion had been — and what a miracle it was that the Allies had taken the beaches at all. “The advantages were all theirs,” Pyle said of the German defenders: concrete gun emplacements and hidden machine-gun nests “with crossfire taking in every inch of the beach,” immense V-shaped ditches, buried mines, barbed wire, “whole fields of evil devices under the water to catch our boats” and “four men on shore for every three men we had approaching the shore.” “And yet,” Pyle concluded, “we got on.”

Pyle’s intent with this first column seems to have been simple: to elicit appreciation for the huge achievement and gratitude for “those both dead and alive” who had clawed their way up the beaches and taken down the enemy.

This kind of dispatch was well-trod ground for Pyle, whose wartime columns tended to omit certain facts on the ground and reassure readers back home that the Allies were on the path to eventual victory. Tell the truth of it but offer reassurance too. Pyle used this same strategy when he began covering the war in 1940, and it served him well when he followed inexperienced American troops into ground combat in North Africa in 1942 and 1943, only to see them battered by the German army. After 1,600 men were killed or wounded by Germans in a trap at Sidi bou Zid in Tunisia, Pyle described the withdrawal of the remaining American forces as “a majestic thing.” Describing the fast-moving convoys of trucks and tanks, he wrote, “it was carried out so calmly and methodically” that it “was hard to realize, being a part of it, that it was a retreat.” He didn’t mention the 100 American tanks that were destroyed, or the loss in confidence the rank-and-file soldiers were feeling toward their command. Though he didn’t entirely whitewash the American defeat, which he called “damned humiliating,” Pyle’s artful narrative lent purpose and dignity to events that perhaps should have been probed more critically.

Pyle’s second report from the Normandy beaches, published 10 days after D-Day, was markedly different from anything he had ever previously filed. “It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore,” he wrote, reeling the reader in with a cheerful opening. “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.” Pyle cataloged the vast wreckage of military matériel, the “scores of tanks and trucks and boats” resting at the bottom of the Channel, jeeps “burned to a dull gray” and halftracks blasted “into a shambles by a single shell hit.” Some reassurances followed to soften the unvarnished fact — the losses were an acceptable price for the victory, Pyle said — but he hadn’t shied away from showing his readers the corpses and “the awful waste and destruction of war.” Pyle was working up to something he hadn’t done before.

View on New York Times Magazine