Ernie Pyle in Sicily
By David Chrisinger
02 Mar 20

By the time the troop ship carrying Ernie Pyle set sail across an “ageless and indifferent sea” to the invasion beaches of Sicily, he was sick of war and anxious that his columns were sounding redundant and lifeless. “I’m getting awfully tired of war and writing about it,” he confided in a letter home. Still, he pressed on partly out of a sense of obligation and partly because he felt inspired by the young soldiers all around him who he knew were “willing to do everything they can to win the war.”

Pyle had intended to mostly write about the seaborne aspect of the invasion of Sicily, but because American forces hadn’t encountered much resistance, he hopped an assault barge and spent all the first day ashore in Licata. “When we got your first look at Sicily,” he wrote, “we were all disappointed. I for one had always romanticized it in my mind as a lush green picturesque island.” Wondering if perhaps he had been thinking of the Isle of Capri, Pyle continued that what he had encountered was a “drab light-brown country” devoid of trees and pale gray villages that there were “indistinguishable at a distance from the rest of the country.”

When I arrived by ferry to Palermo from Tunis in December this past year, I too noticed the lack of trees and the pale gray villages, but nearly all the land I saw was indeed lush green and absolutely as picturesque as I had hoped. It rained nearly every day for the week I was there, so I saw none of the “dry and naked and dusty” farm fields, nor the hillsides of brittle and flammable grass.

My first stop after picking up my rental car in Palermo was Licata. After parking on the street outside the Chiesa San Salvatore, I walked toward the shore, past the municipal building—Municipio, Licata di Mimma Bonvissuto—and up a steep hill where I could oversee nearly the entire city. On my way up, I saw some remnants of graffiti on a stucco wall that read “Viva Il Duce”—which translates to “Long live the leader”—something Italians said to honor the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It was also clear that a swastika had been pained as well, though someone had tried to scrub it off.

The next day I spent several hours touring the Historic Museum of the Landing in Sicily 1943, which is housed in an old brick factory in Catania. After watching a brief introductory video on the history of the Second World War through Italian eyes, my tour guide led me into a replica of a Sicilian town square, which she told me was a close approximation of how things looked before the Allied bombing raids began. We then turned a corner and walked through a dark doorway flanked by stacks of sandbags into a long, skinny bomb shelter. The tour guide closed the door behind us, and for several minutes I got to experience what it might have sounded and felt like to live through a bombing raid. Once the all-clear sign was given, we exited through a door on the far end of the shelter and emerged into a large room full of half-standing facades, piles of rubble, and other evidence of death and destruction. “If you’ll notice,” my guide said, “This is the same town square that you first entered, only now it is no more.”

Near the end of my time in, I discovered something I wasn’t sure still existed—the famous “Bridge hung in the sky” at Point Calavà, which is located in northeastern Sicily on the most direct route between Cefalù and Messina. Today there is a highway of bridges and tunnels that connect Palermo to Messina, and for two days I drove east and west on that highway looking for the famous bridge. Then, on my last day in Sicily, I decided to visit a beach near Point Calavà. There I found an older man in dark sunglasses and a windbreaker outfit walking alone along the shore. In a sorry excuse for Italian, I asked him if he knew of this bridge. “Sì, è laggiù,” he said, pointing behind him. “Yes, it is over there.”

“Our engineers figured the Germans would blow the tunnel entrance to seal it up,” Pyle wrote of the 3rd Division and its “most difficult and spectacular engineering jobs” of the Sicilian campaign. “But they didn’t. They had an even better idea. They picked out a spot about fifty feet beyond the tunnel mouth and blew a hole one hundred fifty feet long in the road shelf. They blew it so deeply and thoroughly that if you dropped a rock into it the rock would never stop rolling until it bounced into the sea a couple of hundred feet below.”

“All you could do was bridge it,” Pyle continued, “and that was a hell of a job. But bridge it they did.” They had built, “a Jerry bridge, a comical bridge, a proud bridge, but above all the kind of bridge that wins wars. And they had built it in one night and half a day. The General was mighty pleased.”

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