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Jewish World Review April 26, 2002 / 14 Iyar, 5762

Bob Greene

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From across the years,
a message for us | "In the week aboard ship before we set out on the invasion, I naturally was not permitted to send any columns. I spent the days reading and gabbing with the sailors. . . ."

Ernie Pyle writing, in the summer of 1943. A few months ago I wrote about Pyle, the greatest of the World War II correspondents; some of you -- older readers, who remember him -- have been kind enough to send me some of his dispatches. Pyle was shot to death in the Pacific by a Japanese sniper in 1945; Pyle's words in the previous paragraph were written aboard a Navy ship on the way to the invasion of Sicily.

I quote from it here for a reason. Many readers have commented on the difference in the relationship between the military and the news media now, compared with during World War II. Think about that, as you read Pyle:

"The front-line soldier I knew had lived for months like an animal, and was a veteran in the fierce world of death. . . . He was filthy dirty, ate if and when, slept on hard ground without cover. His clothes were greasy and he lived in a constant haze of dust, pestered by flies and heat, moving constantly, deprived of all the things that once meant stability . . . walls, chairs, floors, windows, faucets, shelves, Coca-Colas. . . .

"It was terrifically hot [below deck], so the captain of the ship -- a serious, thoughtful veteran naval aviator -- had a cot with a mattress on it put up for me on the deck, and there I slept with the soft fresh breezes of the Mediterranean night wafting over me. Mine was the best spot on the ship, even better than the captain's.

"In slight compensation for this lavish hospitality, I agreed to lend a professional touch to the ship's daily mimeographed newspaper by editing and arranging the news dispatches our wireless picked up from all over the world during the night. This little chore involved getting up at 3 a.m., working about two hours, then sitting around chinning and drinking coffee with the radio operators until too late to go back to sleep. As a sailor I didn't have much rest but, as we say in the newspaper business, you meet a lot of interesting radio operators."

Now -- consider that: A young sailor or soldier on the ship writes home to his mom and dad, and says that the ship's paper is being edited by Ernie Pyle, as a favor to the troops. And ask yourself if that could happen today -- if a famous and respected journalist could offer to edit a paper for the soldiers he's traveling with. If his editors -- or the soldiers' commanding officers -- would permit it. It's a new world.

Yet in some ways it is unchanged -- which is another reason I am bringing Pyle's words to you here. They apply very much to us today:

"This . . . is being written in the latter part of August, 1944; it is being written under an apple tree in a lovely green orchard in the interior of France. It could well be that the European war will be over and done with by the time you read this. . . .

"It will seem odd when, at some given hour, the shooting stops and everything suddenly changes again. It will be odd to drive down an unknown road without that little knot of fear in your stomach. . . .

"Thousands of our men will be returning to you after Europe. They have been gone a long time and they have seen and done and felt things you cannot know. They will be changed. They will have to learn how to adjust themselves to peace. Last night we had a violent electrical storm around our countryside. The storm was half over before we realized that the flashes and the crashings around us were not artillery but plain old-fashioned thunder and lightning. It will be odd to hear only thunder again. You must remember that such little things as that are in our souls, and it will take time.

"And all of us together will have to learn how to reassemble our broken world into a pattern so firm and so fair that another great war cannot soon be possible. To tell the simple truth, most of us over in France don't pretend to know the right answer. Submersion in war does not necessarily qualify a man to be the master of the peace. All we can do is fumble and try once more -- try out of the memory of our anguish -- and be as tolerant with each other as we can."

Fifty-eight years after Pyle wrote those words, we're still fumbling. Still trying.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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