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Jewish World Review May 24, 2002 / 13 Sivan, 5762

Bob Greene

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'The letters incapable
of being written' | The recent story here about Army Air Corps Capt. George Rarey -- who died in combat over France just after D-Day -- gives me the opportunity to let you read something I've only recently become aware of.

Ernie Pyle, the greatest of the World War II correspondents, was on the D-Day beaches. I never knew he was there. I've been asking you to read some of Pyle's work in recent months, because I'm so moved by it. Here -- as only he could write it -- is an account I have found of what he saw. Pyle knew how to see things:

"I walked for a mile and a half along the water's edge of our many-miled invasion beach. I walked slowly, for the detail on that beach was infinite.

"The wreckage was vast and startling. The awful waste and destruction of war, even aside from the loss of human life. . . . Anything and everything is expendable... .

"But there was another and more human litter. It extended in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark, for miles along the beach. This was the strewn personal gear, gear that would never be needed again by those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe.

"There in a jumbled row for mile on mile were soldiers' packs. There were socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles, hand grenades. There were the latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out -- one of the security precautions enforced before the boys embarked.

"There were toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home, staring up at you from the sand. There were pocketbooks, metal mirrors, extra trousers, and bloody, abandoned shoes. There were broken-handled shovels, and portable radios smashed almost beyond recognition, and mine detectors twisted and ruined. . . .

"I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier's name in it, and put it in my jacket. I carried it half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach. I don't know why I picked it up, or why I put it down again.

"Soldiers carry strange things ashore with them. In every invasion there is at least one soldier hitting the beach at H-hour with a banjo slung over his shoulder. The most ironic piece of equipment marking our beach -- this beach first of despair, then of victory -- was a tennis racket that some soldier had brought along. It lay lonesomely on the sand, clamped in its press, not a string broken.

"Two of the most dominant items in the beach refuse were cigarettes and writing paper. Each soldier was issued a carton of cigarettes just before he started. That day those cartons by the thousand, water-soaked and spilled out, marked the line of our first savage blow.

"Writing paper and air-mail envelopes came second. The boys had intended to do a lot of writing in France. The letters -- now and forever incapable of being written -- that might have filled those blank abandoned pages! . . .

"I walked around what seemed to be a couple of pieces of driftwood sticking out of the sand. But they weren't driftwood. They were a soldier's two feet. He was completely covered except for his feet; the toes of his GI shoes pointed toward the land he had come so far to see, and which he saw so briefly.

"A few hundred yards back on the beach was a high bluff. Up there we had a tent hospital, and a barbed-wire enclosure for prisoners of war. From up there you could see far up and down the beach, in a spectacular crow's-nest view, and far out to sea.

"And standing out there on the water beyond all this wreckage was the greatest armada man has ever seen. You simply could not believe the gigantic collection of ships that lay out there waiting to unload. Looking from the bluff, it lay thick and clear to the far horizon of the sea and on beyond, and it spread out to the sides and it was miles wide.

"As I stood up there I noticed a group of freshly taken German prisoners standing nearby. . . . 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."

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

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