Indiana University
The Indiana University School of Journalism Ernie Pyle
In the first of three D-Day columns included in this series, Pyle marvels at and celebrates the Allied successes.

A Pure Miracle

IU Archives
Ernie Pyle, pictured in Normandy not long after the invasion of Europe. Pyle (left) is shown with Gordon Gammack (center) of the Des Moines Register and Tribune and Don Whitehead of the Associated Press.

NORMANDY BEACHHEAD, June 12, 1944 – Due to a last-minute alteration in the arrangements, I didn’t arrive on the beachhead until the morning after D-day, after our first wave of assault troops had hit the shore.

By the time we got here the beaches had been taken and the fighting had moved a couple of miles inland. All that remained on the beach was some sniping and artillery fire, and the occasional startling blast of a mine geysering brown sand into the air. That plus a gigantic and pitiful litter of wreckage along miles of shoreline.

Submerged tanks and overturned boats and burned trucks and shell-shattered jeeps and sad little personal belongings were strewn all over these bitter sands. That plus the bodies of soldiers lying in rows covered with blankets, the toes of their shoes sticking up in a line as though on drill. And other bodies, uncollected, still sprawling grotesquely in the sand or half hidden by the high grass beyond the beach.

That plus an intense, grim determination of work-weary men to get this chaotic beach organized and get all the vital supplies and the reinforcements moving more rapidly over it from the stacked-up ships standing in droves out to sea.

*

Now that it is over it seems to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all. For some of our units it was easy, but in this special sector where I am now our troops faced such odds that our getting ashore was like my whipping Joe Louis down to a pulp.

In this column I want to tell you what the opening of the second front in this one sector entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.

Ashore, facing us, were more enemy troops than we had in our assault waves. The advantages were all theirs, the disadvantages all ours. The Germans were dug into positions that they had been working on for months, although these were not yet all complete. A one-hundred-foot bluff a couple of hundred yards back from the beach had great concrete gun emplacements built right into the hilltop. These opened to the sides instead of to the front, thus making it very hard for naval fire from the sea to reach them. They could shoot parallel with the beach and cover every foot of it for miles with artillery fire.

Then they had hidden machine-gun nests on the forward slopes, with crossfire taking in every inch of the beach. These nests were connected by networks of trenches, so that the German gunners could move about without exposing themselves.

Throughout the length of the beach, running zigzag a couple of hundred yards back from the shoreline, was an immense V-shaped ditch fifteen feet deep. Nothing could cross it, not even men on foot, until fills had been made. And in other places at the far end of the beach, where the ground is flatter, they had great concrete walls. These were blasted by our naval gunfire or by explosives set by hand after we got ashore.

Our only exits from the beach were several swales or valleys, each about one hundred yards wide. The Germans made the most of these funnel-like traps, sowing them with buried mines. They contained, also, barbed-wire entanglements with mines attached, hidden ditches, and machine guns firing from the slopes.

This is what was on the shore. But our men had to go through a maze nearly as deadly as this before they even got ashore. Underwater obstacles were terrific. The Germans had whole fields of evil devices under the water to catch our boats. Even now, several days after the landing, we have cleared only channels through them and cannot yet approach the whole length of the beach with our ships. Even now some ship or boat hits one of these mines every day and is knocked out of commission.

The Germans had masses of those great six-pronged spiders, made of railroad iron and standing shoulder-high, just beneath the surface of the water for our landing craft to run into. They also had huge logs buried in the sand, pointing upward and outward, their tops just below the water. Attached to these logs were mines.

In addition to these obstacles they had floating mines offshore, land mines buried in the sand of the beach, and more mines in checkerboard rows in the tall grass beyond the sand. And the enemy had four men on shore for every three men we had approaching the shore.

And yet we got on.

*

Beach landings are planned to a schedule that is set far ahead of time. They all have to be timed, in order for everything to mesh and for the following waves of troops to be standing off the beach and ready to land at the right moment.

As the landings are planned, some elements of the assault force are to break through quickly, push on inland, and attack the most obvious enemy strong points. It is usually the plan for units to be inland, attacking gun positions from behind, within a matter of minutes after the first men hit the beach.

I have always been amazed at the speed called for in these plans. You’ll have schedules calling for engineers to land at H-hour plus two minutes, and service troops at H-hour plus thirty minutes, and even for press censors to land at H-hour plus seventy-five minutes. But in the attack on this special portion of the beach where I am – the worst we had, incidentally – the schedule didn’t hold.

Our men simply could not get past the beach. They were pinned down right on the water’s edge by an inhuman wall of fire from the bluff. Our first waves were on that beach for hours, instead of a few minutes, before they could begin working inland.

You can still see the foxholes they dug at the very edge of the water, in the sand and the small, jumbled rocks that form parts of the beach.

Medical corpsmen attended the wounded as best they could. Men were killed as they stepped out of landing craft. An officer whom I knew got a bullet through the head just as the door of his landing craft was let down. Some men were drowned.

The first crack in the beach defenses was finally accomplished by terrific and wonderful naval gunfire, which knocked out the big emplacements. They tell epic stories of destroyers that ran right up into shallow water and had it out point-blank with the big guns in those concrete emplacements ashore.

When the heavy fire stopped, our men were organized by their officers and pushed on inland, circling machine-gun nests and taking them from the rear.

As one officer said, the only way to take a beach is to face it and keep going. It is costly at first, but it’s the only way. If the men are pinned down on the beach, dug in and out of action, they might as well not be there at all. They hold up the waves behind them, and nothing is being gained.

Our men were pinned down for a while, but finally they stood up and went through, and so we took that beach and accomplished our landing. We did it with every advantage on the enemy’s side and every disadvantage on ours. In the light of a couple of days of retrospection, we sit and talk and call it a miracle that our men ever got on at all or were able to stay on.

Before long it will be permitted to name the units that did it. Then you will know to whom this glory should go. They suffered casualties. And yet if you take the entire beachhead assault, including other units that had a much easier time, our total casualties in driving this wedge into the continent of Europe were remarkably low – only a fraction, in fact, of what our commanders had been prepared to accept.

And these units that were so battered and went through such hell are still, right at this moment, pushing on inland without rest, their spirits high, their egotism in victory almost reaching the smart-alecky stage.

Their tails are up. "We’ve done it again," they say. They figure that the rest of the army isn’t needed at all. Which proves that, while their judgment in this regard is bad, they certainly have the spirit that wins battles and eventually wars.

Ernie Pyle
Source: Ernie's War: The Best of Ernie Pyle's World War II Dispatches, edited by David Nichols, pp. 277-80. Pictures courtesy of The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
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Reader Comments:

  1. I was in the Navy Amphibious Forces on Utah Beach, D-Day 6/6/44.

    We always looked forward to Ernie’s column in “Stars & Stripes”.

    He was the greatest. It was tragic that he was killed near the end of the war in the Pacific.

    Thanks for all this about Ernie.

    Bob Collins Ph.D IU 1965

    - Guy Robert Collins
  2. Fellow Veterans: I was a merchant sailor, at the beginning of Desert shield, Somehow you just do your job! But I found out certain moves, by stupid people can get you hurt. I was on a Navy Ready reserve ship, Cargo and troops to handle the military cargo. This ship could go 40 knots,on an open sea! Destroyers called the bridge too sea what we had in our engine room!!! I was 44 years old, at the time, maybe it was better I was older and College educated, it seemed too cushion a few things! Never got a note accept from mother, once an awhile! How sad! They forgot me, Now I forgot them. Oh, well! Gods speed to all! Kevin Starkey Desert Sheild

    - Kevin Starkey Desert Shield
  3. I was born in 1970 and have never served in the military.

    I am part of the MTV generation, which ufortunately was promoted much more than the glory of our veterans. I have lived in Russia for the past 7 years, and they do a much better job at promoting patriotic pride . May 9th, celebrating the victory of the Soviet Army over the Nazis is arguably the biggest holiday. The airwaves are full of tributes and interviews about those who sacrificed so much for their country. And not only for one day but for the whole month leading up to the celebration.

    This caused me to think about why so little fanfare is made in the USA regarding our heros of WWII, especially the D-Day Invasion, which is one of our finest hours in History.

    We should have a national holiday. There should be parades of tribute. The airwaves should be abuzz with the stories of our real American Heros.

    I am forever in awe of and indebted to the Fathers who sacrificed everything for the freedom that is so taken for granted. I will make sure that my children know of your sacrifice.

    You guys are more man than most of us could hope to be.

    We love you and will not forget you.

    Sincerely,

    Scott M Bensen

    - Scott Bensen (non veteran)
  4. I was in the service during peacetime, only seeing 9\11 in the last year of my enlistment. I’ve never seen anything so horrible as what must have transpired on that beach. My thanks to all of you.

    - Mick Boice. U.S. Navy 1996-2002
  5. I went to the American Cemetery overlooking the beaches of Normandy when I was stationed in Germany. I can’t imagine the carnage that Ernie saw on the beaches immediately following D-Day.

    I will never forget what the soldiers did for us and the rest of the world on that day.

    - Mike Savage US Army 1988-1992
  6. Ernie Pyle was a friend to the GI since he was in the front lines with them. He even lost his life there. He told the story as it really was, without the glitter and glory of Hollywood. It is amazing that anyone survived, or had the courage to go forward into that wall of fire. I can’t thank everyone for what they did, I can only hope and pray that if this nation faces another peril as those men did, that Americans rise to the occasion and are victorious.

    - Brad Koenig (brother of a veteran)
  7. My father served in Vietnam. My grandfather served in Europe during WWII and was an Army Infantry Captain leading troops during the Normandy Invasion and subsequent action that Mr. Pyle wrote about. After the war ended in Europe grandfather went back to Normandy to visit the American cemetery there, before returning to England to await transport home. He took black and white pictures of what was then just a huge muddy field with seemingly endless wooden markers. He never wanted to speak about his combat experiences or days like his visit back to the beaches at Normandy and to that cemetery. However, grandmother told us that was a difficult day, as he paid his respects to the men he had to leave behind, who would never be returning home to their families. It’s amazing so many of these mostly young men are still there today, forever young. How can we ever repay the debt the world owes them? At the least, we should do as Ernie Pyle said and always “appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.”

    Thank you to all Veterans! Thank you to the people who keep the legacy of Ernie Pyle alive today. He was a wonderful journalist, who not only well reported the historic events he witnessed, but also spoke for the everyday soldiers who paid such a high price for our freedom.

    - Eric Bond (son & grandson of veterans)

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