Ernie Pyle in Tunisia

DavidChrisinger.com
By David Chrisinger
14 Feb 20

In late January 1943, Ernie Pyle joined an American convoy headed east from the headquarters of General Lloyd Fredendall’s II Corps in Tébessa, Algeria, to the front lines in central Tunisia. “I couldn’t help feeling the immensity of the catastrophe,” Pyle wrote of his journey, “that has put men all over the world, millions of us, to moving in machinelike precision throughout long foreign nights—men who should be comfortably asleep in their own warm beds at home.”

Nearly eight decades after Pyle traversed the mountains and deserts of central Tunisia, I set out to trace that exact same path with the help of my guide, Yomna Mansouri, and our driver, Yomna’s cousin, Zakariya. I met Yomna through a professor friend of mine who had Yomna as a student in one of her classes. Yomna is the daughter of a Tunisian diplomat; she has lived all over the world, including in New York City, and fluently speaks English, French, and Arabic. That’s her in the first picture above. The woman up in the tree in that same photo is taking a short break from harvesting olives in Yomna’s uncle’s grove to explain, in Arabic, how much she distrusts and dislikes the United States. I thought it would be because of America’s relationship to Israel. That was part of it, but what also bothered this woman was the fact that the United States was responsible for the execution of Saddam Hussein. The Tunisians, it turns out, were devastated when Saddam was captured by American forces in Iraq. According to Zakariya, most of the universities in Tunisia were either built by or supported by Saddam and his riches. I tried to explain that I have nothing to do with American foreign policy. She smiled. Then I asked her if it would be OK for me to take a picture of her. After Yomna translated my request, the woman got excited and in broken English asked, “For Facebook?!”

Yomna’s family’s land sits directly in the middle between two mountains on the eastern edge of Tunisia, only a few kilometers from Algeria where General Fredendall set up his headquarters. Her family’s compound, in fact, had been destroyed during the Battle of Kasserine Pass—the rubble was still visible under enormous patches of prickly pears. To the south of Yomna’s family’s land lies Jebel ech Chambi, the highest mountain in Tunisia. In the picture above, you can see the deeply gouged limestone and the budding pine saplings. Yomna explained to me that in December 2012, Islamist terrorists took to the mountain and its caves, and since then the Tunisian armed forces have been trying to root them out. After several years without making any substantial progress, the armed forces burned the pines dotting the mountain to smoke out the terrorists and deny them cover. One night, while eating pizza at a restaurant at the base of the mountain, we heard several explosions, one right after the other. “That’s the army,” Yomna told me. “They must have spotted a terrorist.”

On my last day in Tunisia, Yomna, Zakariya, and I visited the North African American Cemetery in Tunis. In addition to four sets of brothers, one Medal of Honor recipient, and an Olympic gold medalist, the North African American Cemetery is also the final resting place for my great-great uncle, Robert L. Mullikin. He was my great-grandmother’s brother, on my father’s side of the family. He enlisted in the US Army on June 10, 1941, nearly seven months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After surviving the invasion of North Africa and the embarrassing defeat at Kasserine Pass, my great-great uncle was wounded during the Battle of El Guettar. He died a couple days later, on March 30, 1943. As far as I know, I am the first person in our family to visit his grave.

A month after my great-great uncle was killed, Pyle began writing some of his most memorable columns from the North African Campaign, columns that would eventually earn him a Pulitzer Prize for overseas correspondence. One of my favorites—“Little Boys Lost in the Dark”—was published on April 27, 1943. In it, Pyle talks about the sounds made by distant artillery in the dead of night. “Concussion ghosts,” he calls the wave-like sounds, “touched our tent walls and made them quiver. Ghosts shaking the ground ever so lightly. Ghosts were stirring the dogs to hysteria. Ghosts were wandering in the sky peering for us in our cringing hideout. Ghosts were everywhere, and their hordes were multiplying as every hour added its production of new battlefield dead.”

“You lie and think of the graveyards,” Pyle continued, “and the dirty men and the shocking blast of the big guns, and you can’t sleep.”

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