The Debilitated and the Miserable
By David Chrisinger
25 Apr 20
Ernie Pyle types out a story in Anzio, Italy

Ernie Pyle types out a story in Anzio, Italy

After spending a couple months back home in the States, Ernie returned to the front lines—this time to Italy—in late November 1943. At home he had felt like a “deserter and a heel—not so much to the war effort, but to your friends who are still over there freezing and getting shot at.”

There was nothing heroic about his desire to return. “It is one of our popular heroic myths,” Pyle wrote, “that anybody who comes back from the combat zone begins to itch after a few weeks, and finally gets so homesick for the front he can hardly stand it.” Nonsense.

I’ve never hated to do anything as badly in my life as I hate to go back to the front,” he continued. “I dread it and I’m afraid of it. But what can a guy do?

Covering the war in North Africa had been an adventure for Pyle. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t ever scared or that he would gladly go through it all again. It means only that life at the front for him had an excitement that his previous life had lacked. The simplicity of that life, mixed with the striking clarity that only comes when your life is always on the line, was addicting.

By the time he found himself bogged down in the winter mud of central Italy, however, the war had become debilitating. A deep depression set it. He was burdened with recurring colds and what he later learned was a bout of anemia. On top of all of that, he started drinking heavily again as liquor was much easier to procure than it had been in North Africa.

His morale wasn’t much different than some of the troops he was living with. “It’s funny to hear them talk,” Pyle wrote in a column that was published on January 8, 1944. One night in our cowshed I heard one of them say how he was going to keep his son out of the next war.

“‘As soon as I get home I’m going to put ten-pound weights in his hands and make him jump off the garage roof, to break down his arches,’ he said. ‘I’m going to feed him a little ground glass to give him a bad stomach, and I’m going to make him read by candlelight all the time to ruin his eyes. When I get through with him he’ll be double-4, double-F.’”

Was any of the juice worth the squeeze?

The Mediterranean was a “cul-de-sac,” according to historian Corelli Barnett. It was “mere byplay in the conclusion of a war that had been won in mass battles on the Eastern and Western fronts.”

David M. Kennedy called the campaign “a needlessly costly sideshow,” a “grinding war of attrition whose costs were justified by no defensible military or political purpose.”

At the same time, “One must not lose from view the Mediterranean’s importance in breaking the offensive power of German arms,” wrote historian Douglas Porch, “and forcing the Reich onto the defensive, after which any hope of victory eluded them.”

Historical debates aside, for those soldiers living in the misery, destruction, and frustration that defined the Allied campaign in Italy, it took introspection, faith, and a little imagination to give what they survived any justification, meaning, or romance.

The best (non-Pyle) example I could find comes from J. Glenn Gray, who served as a counter-intelligence officer in Italy. One day he wrote in his diary that, “I watched a full moon sail through a cloudy sky…. I felt again the aching beauty of this incomparable land. I remember everything that I had ever been and was. It was painful and glorious.”

One response to “The Debilitated and the Miserable”

  1. Janet Bridgers says:

    I love the quality of this photo. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

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