America was well served by the its journalists covering the war, many of them were very talented men – like John Steinbeck, expert at portraying the realties of war for the audience at home.
Ernie Pyle was amongst those covering the war in Sicily and he would become a household name back home with his sympathetic portraits of what men were going through. He had only been in Sicily a few days when he fell ill with an unknown fever. It was a condition that was to affect many men there, tests for malaria and dysentery proved negative although he showed the symptoms of both. He found himself in good hands with the U.S. 45th Division clearing station, a field hospital where many men where from Oklahoma and west Texas:
Pyle made light of his ills, for him it was an opportunity to report on the war from another vantage point:
And those men of the Forty-fifth, the newest division over there, had already fought so well they had drawn the high praise of the commanding general of the corps of which the division was a part.
It was those quiet men from the farms, ranches and small towns of Oklahoma who poured through my tent with their wounds. I lay there and listened for what each one would say first.
One fellow, seeing a friend, called out, “I think I’m gonna make her.” Meaning he was going to pull through.
A second asked, “Have they got beds in the hospital? Lord, how I want to go to bed.”
A third complained, “I’m hungry, but I can’t eat anything. I keep getting sick at my stomach.”
Another, as he winced from the deep probing for a buried piece of shrapnel in his leg, said, “Go ahead, you’re the doc. I can stand it.”
A fifth remarked jocularly, “I’ll have to write the old lady tonight and tell her she missed out on that ten thousand dollars again.”
The youngster who was put down beside me said, “Hi, pop, how you getting along? I call you pop because you’re gray-headed. You don’t mind, do you?”
I told him I didn’t care what he called me. He was friendly, but you could tell from his forward attitude that he was not from Oklahoma. When I asked him, it turned out he came from New Jersey.
One big blond infantryman had slight flesh wounds in the face and the back of his neck. He had a patch on his upper lip which prevented him from moving it, and made him talk in a grave, straight-faced manner that was comical. I’ve never seen anybody so mad in my life.
He went from one doctor to another trying to get somebody to sign his card returning him to duty. The doctors explained patiently that if he returned to the front his wounds would become infected and he would be a burden to his company instead of a help.
They tried to entice him by telling him there would be nurses back in the hospital. But in his peaceful Oklahoma drawl he retorted, “To hell with the nurses, I want to get back to fightin’.”
Dying men were brought into our tent, men whose death rattle silenced the conversation and made all of us thoughtful. When a man was almost gone, the surgeons would put a piece of gauze over his face. He could breathe through it but we couldn’t see his face well.
Twice within five minutes chaplains came running. One of those occasions haunted me for hours. The wounded man was still semiconscious. The chaplain knelt down beside him and two wardboys squatted nearby. The chaplain said, “John, I’m going to say a prayer for you.”
Somehow this stark announcement hit me like a hammer. He didn’t say, “I’m going to pray for you to get well,” he just said he was going to say a prayer, and it was obvious to me that he meant the final prayer.
It was as though he had said, “Brother, you may not know it, but your goose is cooked.” Anyhow, he voiced the prayer, and the weak, gasping man tried vainly to repeat the words after him. When he had finished, the chaplain added, “]ohn, you’re doing fine, you’re doing fine.” Then he rose and dashed off on some other call, and the wardboys went about their duties.
The dying man was left utterly alone, just lying there on his litter on the ground, lying in an aisle, because the tent was full. Of course it couldn’t be otherwise, but the aloneness of that man as he went through the last few minutes of his life was what tormented me. I felt like going over and at least holding his hand while he died, but it would have been out of order and I didn’t do it.
I wish now I had.