Showing posts with label Marcus O. Stevenson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Marcus O. Stevenson. Show all posts

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ernie Pyle's Last Byline

My old friend Mo Stevenson, who I have written about previously, once told me a story about how he came to know Ernest Hemingway back in July 1944. Gen. Raymond O. Barton, commander of the Fourth Infantry Division during the Normandy campaign, called him to his tent one day and asked him if he knew any war correspondents. Stevenson replied, “I know the good ones.” And that’s how Mo ended up riding into Paris with Hemingway a few weeks later.

But the Ernie who was at the top of Mo’s list wasn’t Hemingway. It was Ernie Pyle.

As an old newspaperman and World War II history buff, I have found myself more interested in the past couple of years in going back to the first-hand accounts of the newspapermen (and women) who covered the war.

Some of this fascination came from reading the excellent two-volume set of World War II reportage from Library of America where the reporting of Robert Sherrod, Lee Miller, A.J. Liebling, Mack Morris and Carl Mydans still crackles like rifle fire.

But as great as some of this work is, the work of Ernie Pyle still exists on a different plateau.

Pyle’s ability to tell the stories of ordinary people and capture small moments allowed millions of American readers to understand the war in a different way. The headlines might show readers the movements of armies as giant arrows on a map, but Pyle put you inside the thoughts of the soldier in the foxhole in the rain. The human-scale portraits he painted with his words helped his readers catch a glimpse they could never understand without actually living it.

One example of this is his story of Omaha Beach. If you’ve seen the movie Saving Private Ryan, you know what happened. But although Pyle spent more than his share of time under fire, he wasn’t there on D-Day for that horror. Instead, he wrote a story a few days later about walking down the beach in the midst of the detritus of war. His words bring home the magnitude of the loss in an understated, dignified manner.

It wasn’t the destroyed landing craft or the burned out tanks he wrote about, it was personal affects that washed ashore, “this long thin line of personal anguish” as he called it. It was backpacks, Bibles, shaving kits and snapshots. It was tennis racket. It was a dog looking for its master.

Pyle writes:

“I stepped over the form of one youngster whom I thought dead. But when I looked down I saw he was only sleeping. He was very young and very tired. He lay on one elbow, his hand suspended in the air about six inches from the ground. And in the palm of his hand he held a large, smooth rock.

“I stood and looked at his for long time. He seemed in his sleep to hold that rock lovingly, as though it were his last link with a vanishing world. I have no idea at all why he went to sleep with that rock in his hand, or what kept him from dropping it once he was asleep. It was just one of those things without explanation, that a person remembers for a long time.”

That kind of writing, that kind of empathy earned the appreciation of millions of readers and the affection of the soldier whose stories he told. He shared their dangers and seemed to understand their lives. I understand that sense affinity for the man and his writing because I still feel it today some 60 years later.

That’s why I had mixed feelings about the publication earlier this month of the photograph of the dead Ernie Pyle stretched out on the volcanic rock of a little island off Okinawa where he was killed. Although it was thought that the photo had never been published, it actually had been in 1979. Nonetheless, it was a shocking photo. If you want to see it, go to USAToday

Is this exploitation? Is this sensationalism? Do we really need to see this picture?

I’ve pondered this question for a while. What I have wondered is what this photo tells us about the man. How a person dies doesn’t always tell us anything about the way they lived. But in this case, I believe it does.

Pyle spent the war years reflecting the world he experienced. He wrote often about violent death coming suddenly and unexpectedly to those around him. Pyle knew you couldn’t write about the war and not write about the price that soldiers pay. He probably did that most eloquently in his column “The Death of Captain Waskow.”

In that column, he wrote, “You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don't ask silly questions.” I feel a little of that when I look at that photo of Ernie Pyle. For a man who sought to tell the stories of Americans at war, you have to be able to tell The Story of war – people die. Pyle didn’t learn these stories from a distance. He learned them from close up.

One of Pyle’s colleagues – the great combat photographer Robert Capa touched on this in his memoir Slightly Out of Focus. As he was taking a picture of a wounded pilot crawling out of his damaged bomber at an airfield in England, the pilot held the gash in his forehead and cried, “Are these the pictures you were waiting for, photographer?”

Capa was stung by this. “On the train to London, with those successfully exposed rolls in my bag, I hated myself and my profession. This sort of photography was for undertakers, and I didn’t like being one. If I was to share in the funeral, I swore, I would have to share the procession.”

Capa certainly took part in the procession, and so did Pyle. And I think that is part of what this picture of Pyle shows. You do not see a reporter, you see a soldier.

Also, this man is not an anonymous victim of war. When you read this man’s writing today, the words are still living. His thoughts and observations are as real as something that happened this afternoon. And this photograph serves to magnify the tragedy.

Ernie Pyle was very much an everyman – a quiet, unassuming regular guy, a bit of a loner. He hated the war as much as any soldier he wrote about but understood that there was a job to do. When he left Europe at the end of 1944 to go home to Albuquerque, N.M., he could have stayed there. He didn’t have to go back out to the war, but he did. Maybe it was a sense of duty, a longing to escape a less than happy marriage or his innate restlessness. Whatever it was, it led him to that little island off Okinawa where he met his end.

And maybe that is why this photo is necessary to see. We know Ernie Pyle. We can read his thoughts and we still find him to be a hell of a guy. This photo is his last byline and it helps to make the immense scope of tragedy much more real and personal.

To understand a little more about the man Ernie Pyle was, take a few moments to read this excellent look at his life before the war.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Wound My Heart With Monotonous Languor

That line above is from Verlaine: The long sobs of autumn's violins wound my heart with a monotonous languor. And, although you may not know that line if you are not a devotee of French symbolist poetry, you may know it from the movie about the Normandy Invasion, The Longest Day. The reading of the second line (wound my heart with a monotonous languor) on BBC radio signaled to the French Resistance that the allied invasion would occur within hours. With that, the French set about destroying rail lines, communications, and other German targets to pave the way for liberation.

On this anniversary of D-Day, that climactic day of World War II, I wanted to share that little bit of poetry, but also a few local stories. If you are interested and are suitable equipped, you may listen to original re-broadcast of NBC newscasts from that day on XM, beginning at 12:41 a.m. Eastern on Channel 4.

Mark Stevenson and General Roosevelt
I've known a few D-Day vets through the years. When I was a kid, a friend of my Dad's named Joe Cummings from Waco, a red-haired firecracker of a guy shared his stories about landing in the first wave at Omaha Beach with a unit of combat engineers from the Big Red One. There was also another old friend of my father's who took the time to share his stories, a guy I've mentioned before, Marcus O. Stevenson of Dallas.

On D-Day, Stevenson was aide to Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the assistant division commander for the 4th Infantry Division -- that's a picture of them together above. They landed in the first wave that morning at Utah Beach. Years later, when I asked him about what I thought going in that day, Stevenson -- by D-Day was already a veteran of landings in North Africa and Sicily -- was succinct in his answer. "I thought we were going to die."

But they didn't. Roosevelt was the only general to land in the first wave on D-Day. When the general learned that the landing craft had drifted more than a mile south of their objective, he made the decision that typifies the American power of improvisation. "We’ll start the war from right here," he said. And young Lt. Stevenson, who Ernest Hemingway would describe later in the Normandy campaign as looking like a sheriff out of the Old West with his handlebar mustache, was right there by his side as history was made.

With artillery landing close by, Roosevelt made his way around the beach wearing a knit cap rather than a helmet and using a cane rather than a rifle. He got the men of the 4th moving inland to their objectives and worked as a self-appointed traffic cop, untangling traffic jams of men and material.

General Raymond O. "Tubby" Barton, the commander of 4th Division, later remembered meeting Roosevelt on the beach that morning: "While I was mentally framing [orders], Ted Roosevelt came up. He had landed with the first wave, had put my troops across the beach, and had a perfect picture (just as Roosevelt had earlier promised if allowed to go ashore with the first wave) of the entire situation. I loved Ted. When I finally agreed to his landing with the first wave, I felt sure he would be killed. When I had bade him goodbye, I never expected to see him alive. You can imagine then the emotion with which I greeted him when he came out to meet me [near La Grande Dune]. He was bursting with information."

Roosevelt and Stevenson made their way inland with the rest of the 4th and eventually made contact with paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, commanded by another former Roosevelt aide, Gen. Matthew Ridgway. After their first meeting, Roosevelt remarked that Stevenson and Ridgway had a lot of good qualities, much like Stevenson. "Keep it up, and maybe you can be a general one day, too," he said, slapping him on the back.

For his courage and leadership on D-Day, Roosevelt would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on September 28, 1944. However, he didn't live to see the award. He died of a heart attack on July 12, 1944, while commanding troops in the field, and he's buried with many of his men at the Colleville-sur-Mer Cemetery in Normandy. Roosevelt was 56 years old on D-Day. He had been seriously wounded in the First World War and was already in poor health. He could have stayed home and let men like Mark Stevenson fight it. But he didn't.

The RAF Pilots of Kaufman
The British, French, Canadians, Russians and pretty much everyone else in the world like to point out -- correctly I might add -- that the Americans didn't beat the Germans alone. So I would like to tell another local story to remind us of that.

I discovered Monday that the RAF had a training base in Terrell, southeast of Dallas, thanks to a documentary on KERA. During World War II, almost 2,000 RAF pilots trained to fly there and almost a third of those men went on to perish in the skies over Europe and Asia.

And those young men from England are still remembered by the people of Kaufman County. Many who trained have returned over the years to visit and one cadet, Henry C. Madgwick, returned, became a citizen and served as Mayor of Terrell in the 1990s. Even today, the graves of 18 RAF pilots are tended by locals at Oakland Memorial Park Cemetery with a monument there inscribed with the words of Rupert Brooke: Some corner of a foreign field that is forever England. For those who are interested in finding out more, a book on this subject is available through UNT Press.

To the men and women of the French Resistance, to Joe Cummings and the men of the 1st Infantry, to General Roosevelt and Lt. Stevenson and the men of the 4th Division, to the RAF pilots who trained in Terrell and the people of Kaufman County who supported them, to all of those people who have passed into history and those who are still with us, thank you for the sacrifices you made and the things you achieved.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Three Old Favorites

My new blog friend Walnuts (who I imagine looking like the Sopranos guy) tasked me with the following endeavor: The Little-Known Favorites. Rules: List and describe three of your favorite books that other people might not be familiar with. Then tag five people. I've been tagged. So here I go.

Schoolboy Johnson by John R. Tunis. I read this 1958 book when I was a kid back in the 1970s, which probably had something to do with the beginnings of my love of all-things Mid-Century. Schoolboy is a pitcher for the Dodgers who overcomes his travails and masters the change-up under the wise and steady influence of the old veteran Speedy. And as the bookjacket says, "But it took even more than the change-up Speedy taught him, to turn the Schoolboy into a winning pitcher, and a man." Uh, OK. I know how that sounds, but I swear to God it doesn't end up like The History Boys. Anyway, flash forward from fourth grade to college. One of my great professors at Texas, Bill Stott said in passing that the works of John R. Tunis would make a great master's thesis for someone. I decided to be that person, then promptly forgot about it. Sorry, Bill. But, years later, I found this copy of the book at the flea market in Canton, helping me formulate my estate saling thesis that sometimes you find things and sometimes things find you.

Cowtown Moderne by Judith Singer Cohen. This book is a love letter to Fort Worth if there ever was one. My city is blessed with a rich architectural heritage (which you can find out more about here) and some of my favorite buildings are from the 1920s and 1930s -- the Art Deco or Moderne period. Open these pages, and you can find out the detailed history of some of Fort Worth's Art Deco gems like the Kress Building and the Sinclair Building. I first learned about this book during my UT days thanks to Jeff Meikle in the American Studies Department. I loved it and made it my mission to procure my own copy, which wasn't easy because it seems only about five were printed. I found my copy at the old Barber's Books in downtown Fort Worth. Barber's was an old Art Deco-style bookstore that was bought out by Larry McMurtry in the mid- to late-nineties. Larry moved all of the books to his book-o-plex in Archer City, but he didn't get this one. It cost me $75 in 1991, which was about 40 percent of my weekly paycheck, so you know I wanted this book REALLY bad. And I've never regretted buying it. It's a priceless resource.

Slightly Out of Focus by Robert Capa. This is an amazing book by one of the great photographers of the 20th Century. Capa, a Hungarian Jew who fled the rise of Fascism in Europe. Capa tells us about his World War II with a light tone, always displaying humor and humility. It's quite a stunning achievement for someone who was not a native English speaker. Did he have help? A ghost writer? I don't want to know. The narrative flows so easily that I imagine it being told in Capa's heavily accented English. For me, there is another, more personal reason for loving this book. My old family friend, Marcus O. Stevenson, pops up from time to time in the story -- in North Africa, in Sicily, in Normandy. Stevenson lived most of his postwar life in Dallas selling construction equipment. But during the war, he was aide-de-camp to Teddy Roosevelt Jr. and was by his side when the General won the Medal of Honor on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. Later had the distinction of being Ernest Hemingway's chaperon during the liberation of Paris. On page 166, you find Hemingway, Capa and Stevenson tear-assing around Normandy in captured Mercedes-Benz with full ration of scotch and enough weapons to arm a full platoon. They soon found themselves caught in the middle of a German ambush that very nearly moved Papa's expiration date forward by 17 years. You want adventure? You want name-dropping? This book is full of great stories like that.

But Slightly Out of Focus is more than a gripping narrative, it's a collection of photos that capture the moments, big and small, of a war. You are there when the Americans storm Omaha Beach, but you also see a little boy sitting on top of a tank during the celebration accompanying the liberation of Paris. The full range of human emotions are there but mostly you find images of life at its most raw. Joy, happiness and exultation. Hate, fear and malice. It's all there.

Thanks for letting me play, Walnuts. Now to tag other people.

UPDATE: The Stash Dauber picks up the gantlet! Good on ya!