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Ernie Pyle Revisited

Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief
Illustrations by Carol Johnson from Here Is Your War

My dad was born in 1923 in Brunswick, Maine. He grew up during the depression, went on to fight in World War II, and always had some anecdote about riding his mule to school, trick riding for Mongolian Horse Bandits in China, eating cold C-Rats and abandoning his Veterinary practice to Castroís revolution. He always had some little bit of wisdom that applied to everyday situations but more importantly to the world at large. "Tíainít nothing ever Ďnewí." Was one of those little gems that came back to me recently.

He talked little about the worst parts of WWII, but always had stories about the more adventuresome part of being young, in exotic places, armed to the teeth, and brewing "Jungle Juice" in the gas tanks of stolen jeeps. He also talked about a man named Ernie Pyle.

By some small miracle I found two original pressings of the late Ernie Pyleís books, Here Is Your War, and Brave Men. Rare finds, with a plea to buy War Bonds on the jacket of Here Is Your War. Brave Men was printed in double columns because paper was being rationed.

I had never really had a chance to sit and read Pyleís work in more than passing and I dove in head first. The more I read the more I could hear dad talking about nothing ever being new, even with all the new fangled computers and satellites and jets and stuff. I found to my amusement that when it comes to world of soldiering and global power application in Bosnia, in the glare of TV lights and live feeds, he wasnít half wrong.

"The Arab kids that swarmed the roads around the army camps," wrote Pyle, "and nearby villages were a friendly bunch. Our soldiers werenít two days in a new place until every kid in town was able to say in English "chewing gum, chocolate, cigarette, good-bye, okay." They pestered us to death for tidbits, and the soldiers kept giving them away as long as they had any."

This holds very true in Bosnia. Wherever soldiers congregate, stop, or pause, the children will be all over them in no time. They treat our soldiers better than they treated the UN troopers who preceded us and US troops are an instant hit wherever they go. This comes from the fact that the UN was always being badmouthed in their homes and while they gladly accepted treats they also could be a little surly.

Coming back from Sarajevo we ran up on a group of Engineers who had been camped out for two days in the hills above Olovo, guarding a bridging tank that had broken down. They had gotten to know everyone in the little village where they bivouacked, but it was the kids who really took a liking to them.

One fellow from Hawaii was a particular hit. He was SSgt Marriano and for some reason the kids really locked onto his name and his big islander charm. His name had a nice ring to it that was alien to the Bosnian tongue and the kids would chorus it all day in their little sing song voices.

As MREís come with candy, the kidís sweet tooths were well satisfied and took immense joy in congregating with the troops and having playful snowball exchanges.

Children here are by no means innocent any longer. They have picked up to many bad habits from their older brothers, especially in the cities, but generally behave themselves if they are under the age of fourteen or so.

"The Americansí love of pets never ceases to delight me. As a people, we seem to be fundamentally kind to animals. I had to laugh when I saw the collection of pets at one camp I visited. About the cutest dog on the post was a fuzzy little mongrel called "Ziggie," which belonged to Corporal Robert Pond, of 2147 Marion Street, Denver."

Here the army calls them co-dependents and it is forbidden to openly adopt them, but most commanders look the other way. The dogs come and go as they please but know where their bread is buttered. There was some initial fear of the health risks imposed by strays and the orders were to shoot them on sight but after a nasty incident at Tuzla AFB, they are pretty much left alone if they donít cause problems. The grunts love them and they break the monotony. I met one furry little fellow who had attached himself to a cavalry unit near Olovo who would putter around the checkpoint cleaning up after lunch and generally adoring himself to everyone. The troopers named him "Sabre", for "Sabres Ready", the unitís motto. Every American GI I spoke to about dogs was convinced not only of their morale potential, but their security value as well.

"Itís strange, but for some reason or other things seem to get damaged in wartime. Less than two weeks after we landed in Africa an Army Claims Commission had set itself up in each of the big occupied cities and was doling out money to aggrieved citizens whose persons or property had been damaged by our forces. They handled 165 cases in the in the first two weeks."

The way Bosnians drive and the conditions of the roads, I bet the number is infinitely higher by now. Every time I go up to the airbase at Tuzla, I see Bosnians at all hours waiting to see the adjutant. The roads are just so narrow that accidents are unavoidable.

Earlier in the conflict the UN also had to deal with the same problems and some municipal leaders became adapt at coming up with all kinds of excuses to bill the wealthy foreigners for alleged "Damages." Probably the best one I ever heard was handed to Col. Alastair Duncan, commander of the Yorkshire Regiment in Vitez. Seems the local HVO, Bosnian Croat honcho in Vitez wanted payment for cobblestones "damaged" by the British Warrior APCs. Never mind that the HVOís campaign of ethnic cleansing against their Muslim neighbors had turned the town into a battle scarred ruble heap. In their own words, the Brits 'filed the bill in the appropriate circular container.'

Back to Ernie Pyle...
"We took into custody only the most out and out Axis agents," he writes. "That done, we returned the authority of arrest back to the French. The procedure was that we investigated, and they arrested. As it turned out, we investigated, period. They loyal French saw our tactics and wondered what manner of people we were. Our enemies saw it, laughed, and called us soft.

We over here thought you folks at home should know three things: That the going would be tough and probably long before we cleaned up Africa and were ready to move onto bigger fronts. That the French were fundamentally behind us, but that a strange, illogical stratum was against us. And that our policy was still one of soft-gloving snakes in our midst."

This was the most ominous passage I found. With everything from foreign Mujahadeen to local warlords, ruthless mafia gangs, and corruptible police, "snakes" is an understatement. Local authorities display such varying degrees of "law enforcement" that itís difficult to predict how or what they will handle. Certainly, if the "handover" of the Serb suburb of Grabvica and the extradition of war criminals to the Hague is any indication of things to come, well, we shall see.

These elements, civilian, military and government always want to play games their own way. As so many negotiators in the past have found out, agreement and implementation are often two different things, and it will take much cajoling to make Balkan strongmen tow the line laid down by the rest of civilization.

Ernie Pyle was writing in 1943, and I over fifty years later. The more I read, the more I see how my dad, Old ĎDocí Bartlett, was right in many respects. It is an interesting point to ponder as things grind slowly on in Bosnia. Things may change, but they really arenít ever new.

Additional resources
Ernie Pyle Biography
Honoring Ernie Pyle From a story by William H. McMichael
Ernie Pyle Hall Indiana University

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