Monday, February 24, 2020

Ernie Pyle, Bulldog?

As a journalism major at Indiana University from 1978 to 1982, and as a reporter and editor for the Indiana Daily Student newspaper for three of those years, Ernie Pyle played a major role in my life on the Bloomington campus. The World War II correspondent’s presence seemed omnipresent—I went to classes and worked on the IDS in Ernie Pyle Hall next to the Indiana Memorial Union and often passed by a lounge in which memorabilia from his career was on display. In my mind, Pyle and IU were meant to be.

A recent document unearthed by staff at the Butler University Irwin Library’s Special Collections, Rare Books, and University Archives has shaken that belief. Found by Evan N. Miller, library associate, and brought to my attention by Megan McKee (my wife, who works part time in the archives), the letter is dated August 21, 1918, from a young man, Ernest Pyle, from Dana, Indiana, and establishes that at one time Pyle was interested in attending the college, then located in the Indianapolis neighborhood of Irvington. Could Pyle—the quintessential IU Hoosier—have instead gone down in history as a Bulldog?

Addressed to “President, Butler College,” Pyle’s letter appears to seek further information on a bulletin he had recently seen about the Student Army Training Corps (the United States had entered World War I in April 1917). The SATC had been created by the War Department’s Committee on Education and Special Training to “utilize the executive and teaching personnel and the physical equipment of the educational institutions to assist in the training of our new armies,” and training camps had been established in the summer of 1918 to induct students that fall. The Corps had two sections: the Collegiate or “A” section and the Vocational or “B” section. The students were inducted into the service, were subject to military orders, and received pay. “The housing, subsistence and instruction of soldiers” in both branches of the SATC, according to a bulletin for the program, was provided by the educational institutions under contract with the government.

Officially inaugurated on October 1, 1918, the SATC had units at more than 500 educational institutions across the country and inducted 200,000 students on its first day of existence. Nineteen colleges and universities in Indiana (Butler, DePauw University, Hanover College, Huntington College, Purdue University, the University of NotreDame, Wabash College, and Valparaiso University, among others) had SATC units.

In advance of the SATC’s start, Butler, in late September, announced that construction work had begun on three barracks to house students enrolled in the program. According to an article in the September 25, 1918, Indianapolis News, the buildings were to be built on college ground south of University Avenue between Ohmer and Butler Avenues, and were to be “double width. They will have stone foundations and ample heating facilities.” The article went on to say that although the original limit of 250 students had been passed, the quota could be increased to 300. “Places for surplus students will be found elsewhere by the government,” the News added. (It appears that 264 men were part of the Butler SATC by the time it ended.)

Pyle, who had graduated from Bono High School in May 1918, had badly wanted to do his part for his country. His best friend, Thad Hooker, about a year older than him, had volunteered for the army before graduation. At the commencement ceremony Pyle noted that “there was an empty flag-draped chair on the stage for him [Hooker]. I could hardly bear to go to commencement, I was so ashamed that I wasn’t in the Army too.”

In his August 1918 letter to Butler’s president, Pyle sought more information about the SATC, wondering if one already had “to be a college student to enlist in this Corps, or can a High School graduate, who intends entering college this fall enlist. What courses are offered. I would want to take engineering. What are the physical requirements. I am physically sound except a little light for my height. What are the terms, and length of semesters. I will come to Indianapolis next week and enlist in this Corps, and make arrangements for entering your fall term, if all the desired information is satisfactory.”

Pyle must not been happy with the answers he received, for in October 1918 he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve and went off to the University of Illinois to receive his preliminary training. Before he could be sent off for training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago, however, the war ended with the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918. According to Pyle scholar Owen Johnson, a retired IU journalism professor, on July 31, 1919, Pyle wrote a letter to IU officials indicating his wish to enter the university as a student that fall and seeking information on how to do so. IU responded, Pyle enrolled, and the famed war reporter’s ties to the school were firmly established.

Butler’s SATC unit received its orders to demobilize on November 26, with most of the men enrolled released from their service the first week in December. The unit had its share of problems, according to Indiana historian Christopher B. Coleman. Writing in the 1919 Butler Alumnal Quarterly, he noted that the unit lacked proper equipment of all kind. “Though badly handicapped by the lack of equipment,” Coleman wrote, “the men made considerable progress in knowledge of military life and tactics.” Unfortunately, they lacked a proper supply of officers to guide them in their training. “For more than a week of a most critical period in the organization of the unit,” Coleman pointed out, “one man had to shoulder the entire burden of the command of the unit—a thing beyond the capacity, probably, of any man in the service.”

The 1918 worldwide influenza pandemic, which led to more than 600,000 deaths in the United States alone, also effected the Butler SATC. Coleman wrote that a hospital “hastily improvised on Ritter avenue, under the direction of Dr. Walter F. Kelly, was on several occasions filled to capacity.” Coleman added that one of the most popular and promising men of the Corps, Wilson Russell Mercer, died at the hospital due to “an attack of influenza and pneumonia.”


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

"The Great Possible Violence": Robert L. Sherrod on Iwo Jima

Very early on when American Marines landed on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, in fine weather, war correspondent Robert L. Sherrod of Time magazine could see that the Japanese had buried themselves deep underground. The pre-invasion bombardment of 7,500 tons of shells looked good as they hit the beaches, the northern plateau, and the sides of Mount Suribachi, but Sherrod could see no flames rise in their wake. “Though I have seen this many times,” Sherrod wrote of the intense bombardment, “I can’t help thinking, ‘nobody can live through this.’ But I know better.”

At the beginning of the landings for Operation Detachment, progress had been slow, but steady. As the Marines struggled to make their way from the beaches inland, however, the Japanese began to hit them with heavy artillery fire from hidden positions, including huge mortar shells as large as 320-mm. “You can lick machine guns with infantry, but mortars are tougher,” Major General Clifton Cates told Sherrod. Some assault battalions had suffered casualty figures of 20 percent to 25 percent storming the invasion beaches. The coarse, loose black sand that made it difficult for the marines to move also hampered tracked vehicles. “Many of our indispensable tanks stalled in the sand soon after they hit the beaches,” Sherrod said. “There they became easy marks for heavy gunfire.”

Late in the afternoon, when Sherrod’s landing boat was ready to load on the USS Bayfield’s port side, the correspondent realized that the transport seemed to be “a nice haven, a precious place to be.” He could see on the beaches between Motoyama Airfield Number 1 and the water line tremendous mortar shells exploding one right after the other. The high-explosive charges—dubbed “floating ash cans”—crashed into the thin line of marines or among the boats bringing in reinforcements, “throwing sand, water and even pieces of human flesh a hundred feet into the air.” The Japanese had the Americans covered from both ends of the island, Sherrod noted. “They [the Marines] could only advance and die,” he said, “paving the way for the men who came behind them.” The cost of battle suddenly appeared right in front of him. Sherrod saw a boat pull alongside the Bayfield carrying three psychiatric cases, with one man screaming and twisting violently in his stretcher. “No man can look at a severe psychiatric case without thinking, ‘There is war at its worst,’” he said.

At about five o’clock orders came for Colonel Walter Irvine Jordan to take his Twenty-Fourth Regiment of the Fourth Division into the beach. Sherrod had been assigned as one of the sixteen men in the landing boat of Jordan’s executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Austin R. Brenelli. As he climbed down the cargo net from the transport to Boat X-2, Sherrod started to feel that he had no business being there, feeling the law of averages weighing against his survival. But when he turned and asked a marine in the boat what he thought, the man answered, “I believe the worst is over now.” Sherrod knew better, as did the marine, actually, but “it made me feel good to hear the lie.”

Before reaching land, Sherrod came across fellow correspondent Keith Wheeler of the Chicago Tribune, who had gone ashore in one of the earlier waves. Wheeler had nothing but grim news to relay, telling Sherrod, “There’s more hell in there than I’ve seen in the rest of the war put together. The Nips have got the beaches blanketed with mortars. There are dead Marines scattered from one end to the other, and looks like nearly every boat is getting smashed before it can pull out.” He advised his friend that it would be “plain foolishness” to land with the troops that day.

At first, Sherrod had taken Wheeler’s advice. “After all,” Sherrod later reflected, “this business of taking long chances could be carried too far.” He changed his mind, however, when he saw the faces of the marines from the Fourth Marine Division he had been scheduled to land with—faces that had written on them “the same fear that gripped at my guts.” Sherrod knew they could not, as he could, decide to stay behind, but “had to go in.” He had cast his lot with the Marines when they had set out for shore “and this was no time to desert. I put on my jacket, buckled on my belt, and shouldered my pack.” Colonel Brunelli appeared and asked the correspondent, “Ready to go?” Sherrod said, “Sure,” very bravely, “though I was mighty scared.”

When the boat hit the beach, Sherrod dashed a couple of yards inland through the semi-darkness. As he ran, a shovel in his hand, the correspondent noticed dark forms scattered on the loose earth—about twenty dead marines—and the smell of death began to waft through the cool evening air. Fashioning a foxhole out of that loose sand was, in the words of a marine from the Deep South, like trying “to dig a hole in a barrel of wheat.” Whenever Sherrod scooped up a shovelful, three-quarters of it would roll back into the hole. But by the time darkness had settled over the island, he had scratched out a hole two-feet deep and six-feet long. “That first night on Iwo Jima can only be described as a nightmare in hell,” Sherrod said.

Although he expected an enemy counterattack to come at any moment, Sherrod managed to get a few hours’ sleep. Slightly after four o’clock in the morning, however, the Japanese unleashed a terrific mortar barrage on the center of the beachhead, shattering any sense of security Sherrod had. The heavy shells started bursting around his foxhole every few seconds; he timed the explosions and counted twenty within fifty yards of his position in one minute. “In the midst of this thunder and lightning there was a thud in the bank of my foxhole, next to my left arm,” he recalled. “I reached over and dug out a piece of hot steel that must have weighed a half pound.”
When daylight broke over the island, Sherrod shook off the sand that had covered him during the night and downed a two-ounce bottle of medicinal brandy a ship’s doctor had kindly stuck in his pocket. Next to his collapsed foxhole lay two unexploded Japanese mines and, ten yards away in a shell hole, there were eight marines who had been killed by a direct hit the day before.

After a visit to the Twenty-Fourth’s command post, where he endured another round of Japanese shelling, Sherrod, ducking the occasional enemy sniper, surveyed the scene and saw the sloping sands spotted with dead Marines. The Japanese and American bodies had one thing in common, he noted: “They died with the greatest possible violence. Nowhere in the Pacific war have I seen such badly mangled bodies. Many were cut squarely in half. Legs and arms lay 50 ft. [feet] away from any body. Only the legs were easy to identify—Japanese if wrapped in khaki puttees, American if covered by canvas leggings. In one spot on the sand, far from the nearest clusters of dead men, I saw a string of guts 15 ft. [feet] long.” In some areas, he added, the smell of burning flesh overpowered one’s senses.

To report on the horrors he had seen, and the uncommon courage displayed by the marines, Sherrod, as night approached, walked to the beach to catch a ride to the Bayfield. The good weather during the initial landing, however, had turned rough, and boats were having a hard time evacuating the wounded that littered the beach. He turned back to spend another restless night on Iwo Jima, during which Sherrod endured the earth trembling beneath him with a sound “not unlike someone banging on the radiator in the apartment below.” Although many around him agreed that the tremors were probably Iwo’s “own manifestation of an earthquake,” nobody laughed when a sergeant suggested that the enemy had been able to dig under the position and were about to “blow up the damn island.”