Tuesday, August 26, 2014

War and words

Michael has been reading me excerpts from Ernie Pyle's Brave Men (campaigns in Sicily, Italy, and France in World War II), and as a way of remembering the Western journalists in captivity in Syria and Iraq, I'm posting a little homage to a war correspondent that I think interesting. Pyle loves to give little sketches of men faithfully doing the ordinary or extraordinary things that happen in war. There's a good deal of blood and mud and sweetness in the book.

Richard Tregaskis appears to be an unusual man in this portrait, but Pyle is just as interested in the humblest American foot soldier. Richard Tregaskis served as a correspondent in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam and published thirteen books.

* * *

Ernie Pyle, Brave Men

Shortly after leaving the artillery outfit, I stopped in at an evacuation tent hospital to see Dick Tregaskis, war correspondent for International News Service. He had been badly wounded a few weeks before. A shell fragment had gone through his helmet and ripped his skull open. That he was alive at all seemed a miracle. Even after he was wounded, other shells exploded within arm's length of him; yet he escaped further injury.

He still had his battered steel helmet. It had a gash in the front two inches long and a smaller one at the left rear where the fragment came out. The blow had knocked off his glasses but not broken them. Even with such a ghastly wound Dick had walked half a mile down the mountain by himself until he found help. Late that night he arrived at the hospital, was put to sleep on morphine, and Major William Pitts performed the brain operation.

It was Major Pitt's fourth head operation that night. He took more than a dozen pieces of bone and steel out of Dick's brain, along with some of the brain itself. He and the other doctors were proud of pulling Dick through--as well they might be.

At first Dick had little use of his right arm, he couldn't read his letters, and he couldn't write. Also, he couldn't control his speech. He would try to say something like "boat" and a completely different yet related word like "water" would come out.

But he was making rapid progress. During my visits he made only a couple of small mistakes such as saying "flavor" when he meant "favorite." But he always kept trying until the word he wanted came forth. The doctors said he was a marvel. While other patients usually lay and waited for time to do the healing, Dick worked at it. He constantly moved his arm to get it back into action, and he read and talked as much as he could, making his mind practice.

While I was visiting him the second time, a corporal in the Medical Corps came in with a copy of Guadalcanal Diary, which Dick wrote [the first of his books], and asked if he would autograph it. Dick said he'd be glad to except he wasn't sure he could sign his name. He worked at it several minutes, and when he got through he said, "Why, that looks better than the way I used to sign it." And after the boy left he said, "I always like to be asked to sign a book. It makes you feel important."

Dick Tregaskis was the quiet and scholarly type of newspaperman. His personal gear was in the same room I had been living in back at the base camp, and I had noticed that his books were Shakespeare and the like. He wore tortoise-shell glasses and talked slowly and with distinctive words. He was genuine and modest. His manner belied the spirit that must have driven him, because he had by choice seen a staggering amount of war. He had been through four invasion assaults in the Pacific and the Mediterranean. His famous Guadalcanal Diary sold half a million copies in America and was made into a movie. He was a very thoughtful person and was as eager to know about my book as if it had been his own...


  1. Thanks for this. The dreadful and self-aggrandizing Newseum here in D.C. does a terrible job of honoring journalists who put their lives on the line. Once you get past the costumes worn by Saturday Night Live parodists, exhibitions about Elvis and the Beatles in the media, and the late Tim Russert's perfectly preserved office, you can see a reporter's jeep that was riddled with bullet holes in the Balkans near a small tribute to journalists who died on the job—but these are side attractions, all too easy to miss.

    1. Oh, that is too bad! I've never been there...

      I'm finding this book full of both charming and heartrending anecdotes. I wonder how often these bold fellows are read today.

  2. One of the great paradoxes of civilization: art emerges from the carnage of war.

    1. And many other tragic events... What does it have but the materials of Creation, after all, broken or whole? We can never get away from that... But it is a mystery.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.