Ernie Pyle on Omaha Beach

Friday, June 10, AD 2016

Normandy - American Cemetery (1)

There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”
Colonel George A. Taylor, commander 16th Infantry Regiment, Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944

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.

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5 Responses to Ernie Pyle on Omaha Beach

Ernie Pyle Remembers Clark Kent

Monday, December 5, AD 2011


Withywindle at Athens and Jerusalem has a spectacular reminiscence by reporter Ernie Pyle of his encounters with Clark Kent during World War II:

We were on a press plane flying from England down to North Africa just after the troops landed in forty two. The ride was bumpy and we were passing around a bottle of whiskey. I offered it to this big man in the back, and he said, “No thanks, Mr. Pyle, I’m tee-total.” But he said it in a friendly way that didn’t seem stuck up at all. I said, “You know my name, but I don’t know yours. Who are you?” Somebody else said, “You don’t know him, Ernie? That’s Clark Kent, the one who did all those Superman stories.” I whistled, because those had been good pieces, and because I could see how young Kent must have been when he wrote them. I took a longer look at him. Big man, handsome man. He looked like he could have been a football player or a movie star. Half Johnny Weissmuller, half Gregory Peck. “I liked those,” I said. “I always wondered how you got that particular interview.” “It wasn’t easy,” Kent said to me solemnly. “First I had to find out where his favorite bar was. Then I had to buy him a drink. And he wouldn’t talk to me until I put a cape on.” He looked at me so seriously that I knew this was God’s own truth—and then he grinned, that wonderful smile that lit up his face and made everyone fall in love with him, even sergeants soaked in vinegar who weren’t that fond of their own mothers. I whooped until my guts hurt and after that he was the best friend I had in the war.

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12 Responses to Ernie Pyle Remembers Clark Kent

  • Talk about dark and gritty…. Very well written. I think he went overboard in an attempt to tone down the idealism, but very well done.

  • There is a great film noire treatment waiting to be written about Superman Foxfier, just as there is a great musical comedy waiting to be written about Batman!

  • …Wouldn’t it make more sense to reverse those two, though?

    (alternate considered response: They already did the musical comedy– dodo dodo dodo dodo BAT MAN!!!! Rejected because I couldn’t justify calling that show a musical, with only one song. )

  • Curse it, now I’ve got mental images of Superman as the straight man for a comedy.

  • “Wouldn’t it make more sense to reverse those two, though?”

    No, placing them in a genre strange to them is half the entertainment! A young Robert Mitchum, circa 1947, in the film noire treatment of Superman, and a young Jimmy Stewart, circa 1938, in the screwball musical on Batman!

  • From one of Ernie Pyle’s “lost” columns in which he mentions Superman:

    “The main impression I got, seeing German prisoners, was that they were human like anybody else, fundamentally friendly, a little vain. Certainly they are not supermen. Whenever a group of them would form, some American soldier would pop up with a camera to get a souvenir picture. And every time, all the prisoners in the vicinity would crowd into the picture like kids.

    One day I saw a group of them staring up at the sky as Superman streaked over, heading to only God knows where. They were yelling out “Ubermensch! Ubermensch!” and pointing at him. Must be a morale loss for the Germans knowing that the only real superman in this war is fighting against them.”

  • Sounds like someone did their homework. (My grandfather was a prison guard after the war– his batch was just a bunch of normal people on an evil side.)

  • “Sounds like someone did their homework. (My grandfather was a prison guard after the war– his batch was just a bunch of normal people on an evil side.)”

    I read that apparently it became a commonplace amongst the Wehrmacht that being captured by the Amis meant “going to Kansas.” We used a lot of POWs to bring in the harvest on the Great Plains. Apparently, there were a significant number of German-American farmers on the Plains, too, so it was far from a terrifying prospect. One German POW said they were assigned to help work the fields of an American farmer born in Germany. He spoke to them in perfect German and promised them some of his wife’s best apple pie if they worked hard. After getting that treat on the first day, they worked like trenchermen from then on. The guards were few and unobtrusive, given the minimal prospects for escape.

    IIRC, one–and only one–German soldier escaped from the U.S. to fight again. An SS hardcase, as I recall.

  • My father (RIP) turned 18 in June 1945 and was drafted. He served as an MP guarding german POW’s in Camp Upton on Long Island and a little upstate camp along the Hudson River.

    He said they were mostly africa corps men and still acted like soldaten after years in prison.

    He said the potato farmers would give the germans pie. He got bupkis.

    Re: Super Man. Those GI’s were Super Men although none of them knew it.

  • My father was in several parts of Germany, and after the war had occasions to guard German prisoners. I now wonder if he ever had occasion to tell young Private Ratzinger to “Keep moving, bud.”