ALEX KERSHAW FOLLOWS THREE LEGENDARY WWII CORRESPONDENTS FROM LONDON TO PARIS AND BEYOND
Loudspeakers blared: “Fight to get your troops ashore…. If you’ve got any strength left, fight to save yourselves…. Away all boats!…. Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name….” At 5:50 a.m., the battleships Texas and Arkansas opened up. In Life photographer Robert Capa’s landing craft, which was nearing Omaha Beach, some men were bailing water frantically with their helmets. Others looked up at the heavy salvos flying over their heads and cheered.
For men of the 16th Infantry Regiment and the 30-year-old Capa, H-hour on D-Day had almost arrived—by far the biggest story in an action-packed career that had seen the photographer crisscross the globe in search of romance and danger. Capa alone had been selected from the press pool’s dozens of photographers to land with the first wave. If he could survive and return with photographs, he would have bagged arguably the greatest picture exclusive of the 20th century: shots of the first GIs landing in France on D-Day. His reportage would be forever associated with America’s finest hour, rather than that of his more famous rivals and close friends—Scripps Howard correspondent Ernie Pyle and Collier’s Ernest Hemingway, both of whom were also anxious to record the greatest invasion in history.
A few miles from the beach, already exhausted men—having gone without sleep for over 24 hours—started to collapse with acute seasickness. “Some of the boys were politely puking into paper bags and I saw that this was a civilized invasion,” Capa recalled. “We waited for the [special assault teams] to go in and then I saw the first landing boats coming back and the black coxswain of one boat [was] holding his thumb in the air and it looked like a pushover. We heard something popping around our boat, but nobody paid any attention.”
Capa crouched down in vomit and seawater as artillery fire from German shore emplacements found the range of his landing craft. He pulled out one of his two cameras from a waterproof oilskin. Despite the overcast sky, there was just enough light to take fast-action pictures. Then his craft’s ramp lowered and men in front of Capa leaped into the waist-deep water with their rifles above their heads. “My beautiful France looked sordid and uninviting [and] a German machine gun, spitting bullets around the barge, fully spoiled my return,” he recalled. Dozens of men died in the first few minutes on the Easy Red sector of the beach, mere yards from him. “I saw men falling,” he later told fellow correspondent Charles Wertenbaker of Time magazine, “and I had to push past their bodies, which I did politely.”
Capa later joked, typically, about his first harrowing moments on Omaha. “I was going in very elegant with my [Burberry] raincoat on my left hand. I had a feeling I would not need that raincoat. I let go of it and it floated away and I hid behind some tanks that were firing on the beach. After twenty minutes I suddenly realized that this is not a good place to be. The tanks were a certain amount of cover from small arms fire, but they were what the Germans [were] shooting at.”
As shells exploded around Capa and the shallows became clogged with corpses, he found himself repeating words he had learned in Spain: “Es una cosa muy seria,” he muttered. “Es una cosa muy seria.” This is a very serious business.
Men dared not lift their heads above the sand of the beach in case they were shot. “The slant of the beach gave us some protection, so long as we lay flat, from the machine gun and rifle bullets, but the tide pushed us up against barbed wire, and the guns were enjoying open season,” Capa recalled. For several minutes, he lay with his entire body pressed as close to the sand as possible, gripped by a debilitating fear that was far greater than any he had experienced in a decade of covering war: “I had it bad. The empty camera trembled in my hands. It was a new kind of fear shaking my body from toe to hair, and twisting my face.”
Capa unclipped his entrenching tool and tried to dig a foxhole, but he hit heavy gravel almost immediately and threw it away. Then he noticed that the men around him were motionless; “only the dead on the waterline rolled with the waves.” He knew that the only way to overcome the terror was to take pictures, get the job done as quickly as possible, and get the hell off the beach. He later told Wertenbaker that he had spent 90 minutes taking pictures before he used all his film. Then he saw a landing craft 50 yards out at sea.
A group of medics, with red crosses daubed on their helmets, jumped out of it. A machine gun snarled. Several of the medics died instantly. Capa stood up and ran for the boat without making a conscious decision. Soon he was wading out through blood-red water. The cold seas came up to his chest, then waves slapped his face. He held his cameras above his head. On the landing craft, LCI 94, 19-year-old motor machinist Charles Jarreau was struggling to lift wounded aboard when he spotted Capa. “Poor fellow, he was there in the water, holding his cameras up to try to keep them dry, trying to catch his breath.”
As soon as Capa clambered aboard, he started to change his film. Then he felt “a slight shock” and found himself covered
with feathers. “What is this?” he thought. “Is somebody killing chickens?” He looked up and saw that the 150-foot boat had taken a direct hit from an 88mm shell. Body parts littered the blood-splattered craft. “The feathers were the stuffing from the kapok jackets of the men who were blown up. The skipper was crying because his assistant had been blown all over him and he was a mess.”
The landing craft was listing badly but somehow managed to slowly pull away from Omaha Beach. Capa went below, dried his hands, changed the film in his cameras, and returned to the open deck. All around him he found dead and moaning men. A few hundred yards from the beach, he looked back and took a last shot of “Bloody Omaha,” shrouded in smoke.
By the time the first wave of Americans finally found a way off Omaha Beach later that morning, Capa was in the middle of the English Channel, talking with motor machinist Jarreau. The photographer looked stunned by what he had seen, gray-faced and still in shock. After changing his film again, he photographed the first American wounded to be taken off Omaha in LCI 94. He then put down his cameras and helped lift several stretchers of wounded men aboard the attack transport Samuel Chase. Only six hours before, he had clambered down into a landing craft from the Chase’s immaculate decks. Now it was “no longer nice and clean. Even the cooks that made such good food were helping to hoist the wounded.”
Once the wounded were aboard the Samuel Chase, Capa collapsed with exhaustion. The ship was nearing the English coast when he woke up naked beneath a coarse blanket with a note around his neck: “Exhaustion case. No dog tags.” Early on June 7, the Samuel Chase docked at Weymouth. Reporters surrounded Capa, eager to get a firsthand account of the invasion. Capa later claimed that when he stepped onto dry land he was offered a plane to whisk him to London so that he could make a radio broadcast about the invasion. Instead, he put his film in a courier’s pouch, changed into clean, dry clothes, and found the first boat returning to the beachhead.
The greatest gamble of Capa’s career paid off, firmly establishing his legend as the gutsiest snapper in the business. Capa’s extraordinary pictures, which retain a heart-pounding immediacy to this day, first appeared in Life on June 19, beside perhaps the magazine’s most famously understated headline: “the fateful battle for europe is joined by sea and air.”
Capa landed back on Omaha Beach on June 8. Before heading for the press camp inland at Bayeux, he paused to photograph the beach once again. Macabre flotsam and jetsam crowded the high-tide line: rifles, body parts, scattered kit, and many a Bible. Capa’s colleague Ernie Pyle, who had landed the day before, described this “human litter” movingly as “extending in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark…. Here are the latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out…, toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand.”
Near Easy Red sector, Capa found local fishermen gazing at rows of covered corpses. Elsewhere, he watched captured Germans, who had fired on him 48 hours before, digging temporary graves. He arrived in Bayeux, five miles inland, by evening.
Capa was astonished to find his press colleagues sitting in a barn around flickering candles, drinking a bottle of Calvados, holding a wake in his honor. He later claimed that a sergeant had reported seeing his corpse floating in the shallows on Omaha. Because he had been missing from the front line for 48 hours, he had been announced officially dead. That night, in a hotel called the Lion D’Or, Capa and his colleagues apparently polished off several more bottles of Calvados to celebrate his return from the dead.
Among those at this celebratory wake was 44-year-old Ernie Pyle. By this stage of the war, the Scripps Howard correspondent was famous for his tender yet muscular prose, which recorded better than any peer the human tragedy of American victory in Europe. Indeed, much to his embarrassment, he was sometimes mobbed by GIs who would gladly give the one-and-only Ernie Pyle whatever booty they had liberated. Wherever he went, soldiers asked him to sign franc notes and rifle stocks. “Each day brought new invitations,” biographer James Tobin wrote, “from soldiers ranging from privates to generals yearning to have Pyle’s recognition bestowed upon their units.”
Pyle was frustrated that he had missed out on the landings on June 6. Ernest Hemingway, world famous then as the author of For Whom the Bell Tolls, had as well, having watched them from a landing craft offshore, frantically drying his spectacle lenses with a woolen sock as American destroyers had blown “every pill box out of the ground with their five-inch guns.” Other colleagues had been the victims of a huge blunder by the army’s public relations divisions, which had left nine correspondents designated to the invasion behind in England. Now everyone was playing catch-up.
On June 9, Capa teamed with the slightly built, chain-smoking Pyle and Time’s Wertenbaker to cover the Allied advance on Cherbourg, the “first great objective of the invasion” as Wertenbaker called it. Before returning to the front lines, each man tucked into a good steak, shaved, took a hot bath, and changed his clothes. It might be weeks before they would do the same again.
Nine days after D-Day, the correspondents were in the thick of the fighting. The men who had survived D-Day were losing yet more friends and brothers as they crept from steep hedgerow to hedgerow. On June 26, the trio joined an American battalion of the 9th Division as it entered a suburb of Cherbourg. At one street corner, Capa found several German prisoners as well as Russian conscripts and their wives, who were hysterical with fear: the Germans had told their husbands that the Americans didn’t take prisoners. It was the best way to keep them fighting.
In the distance, Cherbourg harbor was ablaze. As the battalion advanced toward the city center, Capa heard intense fighting in nearby streets: the hack-hack-hack of German MG42 machine guns and lonely single Luger pistol shots. Sniper fire crackled. The battalion’s immediate objective was a hospital where German troops had captured more than a hundred wounded Americans.
A young lieutenant wearing sunglasses despite the overcast weather approached Capa and his colleagues. “Our company is starting in a few minutes to go up this road and clean out a strongpoint,” said the officer. “It’s about half a mile from here. There are probably snipers in some of the houses along the way. Do you want to go with us?” Pyle didn’t want to, but couldn’t refuse the invitation. It would have been cowardly. Wertenbaker nodded calmly. Capa looked eager. They moved forward, Capa checking his cameras, until they were at the front of a column.
The lieutenant introduced himself as Orion Shockley of Jefferson City, Missouri. He had been named after Mark Twain’s brother. One of his fellow officers had arrived with the company just three hours before, and was so new to combat that he ducked when “outgoing mail” —American shells—flew overhead, in contrast with the men under his command who had been in combat since June 14. They had snatched a few hours of sleep in damp cellars and hastily dug foxholes. Their uniforms were slick with dirt and sweat, their expressions numbed, for each one was now certain he would either die or be taken home on a stretcher—the only two ways out of the hell of Normandy. By the war’s end, the 9th Division had spent 264 days in combat, suffering 33,864 casualties, more than any other infantry division in Europe. The turnover in troops was a staggering 240 percent.
“Why don’t you tell the folks back home what this is like?” an exhausted soldier asked Pyle, anger in his voice. “All they hear about is victories and a lot of glory stuff. They don’t know that for every hundred yards we advance somebody gets killed. Why don’t you tell them how tough this life is?” It was a cruel reproach. Of all the American reporters covering the war, Pyle had expressed the greatest sympathy in his prose for the ordinary GI’s plight. But there was only so far he could venture in print given the constraints of censors and the American public’s weak stomach for the reality of combat.
It started to rain. Soon, Capa and Pyle were soaked to the bone. Shockley explained to Capa how his men were going to wipe out machine gun positions and pillboxes at the end of a street. “We don’t know what we’ll run into,” he said, “and I don’t want to stick you right out in front, so why don’t you come along with me?” Capa nodded. There was a loud thwack-thwack of bullets passing just above his head. Capa crouched down behind a high wall near a crossroads. To advance any further, he would have to brave open ground under fire.
Shockley ordered his men forward while Capa watched. “Spread it out now!” Shockley yelled, knowing that men bunched together would be easy targets. “Do you want to draw fire on yourselves? Don’t bunch up like that. Keep five yards apart. Spread it out, dammit!” Pyle was struck by the utter vulnerability of the men as they carried out Shockley’s orders: “They were really the hunters, but they looked like the hunted. They weren’t warriors. They were American boys who by mere chance of fate had wound up with guns in their hands, sneaking up a death-laden street in a strange and shattered city in a faraway country in a driving rain. They were afraid but it was beyond their power to quit. They had no choice.”
Word came down the line that German troops were 200 yards ahead, near their objective—a hospital full of wounded Americans. Fifty yards from the hospital, an American tank opened up with its 75mm gun. Windows shattered as the street shook from the blast. Then the tank took a direct hit, flames ripping from its underbelly. The crew scampered out and ran for cover.
A few minutes later, a group of Germans appeared ahead, an officer leading them, waving a Red Cross flag on a stick. They were carrying two stretchers with wounded. Capa jumped over some wreckage, ran toward the surrendering Germans, lifted his camera and photographed them several times. He then told them in German to follow him back to the American lines.
When Capa finally arrived at the hospital, he discovered more than 200 bandaged men from the 82nd Airborne Division. He also learned that the hospital’s basement had a supply of the very best wine and brandy. But when he got there, he found “every soldier of the 47th Infantry [Regiment] already had his arms, jacket, and pockets bulging with precious bottles.” Capa needed a drink badly and begged one soldier for some booze. The soldier laughed: “Only if you’re Ernie Pyle.” Capa asked another soldier for a bottle for Pyle and was quickly given one.
Cherbourg fell later that afternoon. It had been a costly victory, especially for the Americans, who had comprised two-thirds of Allied casualties since D-Day, and the mounting death toll bore heavily on any who witnessed it. On June 30, Pyle wrote to a friend: “This hedge to hedge stuff is a type of warfare we’ve never run into before, and I’ve seen more dead Germans than ever in my life. Americans too, but not nearly so many as the Germans. One day I’ll think I’m getting hardened to dead people, dead young people in vast numbers, and then next day I’ll realize I’m not and never could be.”
Pyle had by now been covering the war in Europe, mostly from the front lines, for almost four years. He was in fact close to an emotional and physical breakdown, increasingly overwhelmed by “too much death” wherever he turned. “I’d become so revolted, so nauseated by the sight of swell kids having their heads blown off,” Pyle later told a fellow reporter, “I’d lost track of the whole point of the war. I’d reached a point where I felt that no ideal was worth the death of one more man.”
Robert Capa returned to England with Charles Wertenbaker in mid-July, leaving Pyle to report on the ever-more-bloody fighting around the strategically vital town of St.-Lô. In London, Capa discovered to his outrage that most of his D-Day shots had been ruined in a darkroom accident in a rush to develop them to beat deadlines. Only 11 of his images had survived from more than 100 shots he had taken, and even these were blurred because the emulsion on the negatives had melted when they were dried too quickly. Capa was even more bitterly resentful when he discovered in Life’s June 19 issue a bogus explanation for his spoiled pictures: “Immense excitement of moment made Photographer Capa move his camera and blur picture.”
When Capa got back to France in late July, he found that more than 300 members of the press corps, including Pyle, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck, were now vying to be in the lead in the race to Paris: the city’s liberation was the next great story.
Hemingway was determined to make up for lost time, having missed much of the action since D-Day. The 44-year-old “Papa,” as his poker-playing buddy Capa and numerous others called him, had spent the following six weeks in England stewing and cursing his wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn, for trumping him by getting to Normandy first. She had arrived on a hospital ship around June 7 and then returned to London to rub salt into the notoriously thin-skinned writer’s wounded ego.
Now Papa was back in the game, busy waging his own private war, advancing with a unit of the 4th Infantry Division. Hemingway was popular with several senior officers. Colonel Charles Lanham, commander of the 4th Division’s 22nd Infantry Regiment, called the writer “simple, direct, gentle, and unaffected.” Capa, however, said Hemingway had his own cook, a driver/photographer, and his very own ration of Scotch. Hemingway’s companions were public relations officers, but under Papa’s influence had become what Capa called a “bunch of bloodthirsty Indians.” Barred from carrying a weapon, as were all war correspondents, Hemingway had made sure his personal platoon carried “every weapon imaginable”—both German and American.
In an August 1 letter to his latest mistress, the 36-year-old correspondent Mary Welsh, Hemingway described the “jolly and gay life” he was leading: “Full of deads, German loot, much shooting, much fighting, hedges, small hills, dusty roads…, wheat fields, dead cows, horses, new hills, dead horses, tanks, 88’s, Kraftwagens, dead U.S. guys, sometimes don’t eat at all, sleep in rain, on the ground, in barns, on carts, on cots, on one’s ass and always moveing, moveing….”
A few days later, Hemingway invited Capa to join him and his band of “irregulars,” as he had dubbed his platoon members. Sensing a story in the making, with Hemingway his main focus, Capa accepted. The daredevil photographer had first met and then photographed America’s most famous living writer at the height of the Spanish Civil War, and knew images of Papa in action would guarantee yet more bylines in Life magazine.
It wasn’t long before Hemingway was riding beside Capa in a jeep. A German fighter appeared and began to strafe the road. Capa and the driver dived beneath the vehicle for cover but Hemingway remained erect in his seat, ignoring the bullets.
When the plane passed over, Capa crawled from beneath the jeep and ordered the driver to head back to a command post so he could fly some film back to London. “What?” Hemingway shouted. “Go back? I’m not going to retreat because of Henry Luce!”— Life magazine’s visionary publisher.
Early the next day, near Granville in Normandy, Hemingway sent a captured Mercedes field car to pick up Capa for another jaunt. With Colonel Lanham he had decided he was going “to take” the village of St.-Pois, and wanted Capa along to record the action. When Hemingway held up a map and outlined his plan of attack, Capa advised Papa against the foolhardy and unnecessary action, telling him that he should obey a simple rule: always go forward behind as many soldiers as possible, and never take “lonely shortcuts through no-man’s-land.”
As Capa later recorded, Hemingway looked at the photographer with disdain, implying he was a coward. Capa reluctantly agreed to go along, but only if he could follow at a safe distance behind. Hemingway set off, riding in a motorcycle sidecar. Capa followed in the Mercedes. Hemingway again came under fire as the motorcycle rounded a corner. In the distance stood a panzer. The motorcycle’s driver slammed on the brakes and Hemingway was thrown into a shallow ditch where he was soon pinned down.
“Get back, goddammit!” Hemingway snapped. But Capa stayed where he was. “Get back, goddammit, I said.” Still he refused to budge. When the Germans finally withdrew, a furious Hemingway confronted him and a bitter argument ensued. Hemingway’s son John later heard what happened that day from both Capa and his father: “Capa said that he finally did go back and the only reason he stayed at first was so he could help Papa. But Papa always swore that the reason Capa didn’t go back was because he wanted to be there to get the story and pictures of Papa getting it from the machine gun.”
In any case, Hemingway and Capa were back on speaking terms less than a week later as they took a short break from the war in the picturesque Norman seaside town of Mont St. Michel. Several other correspondents also gathered in the Hôtel de la Mère Poulard to drink, gorge, and relax. The New Yorker’s A. J. Liebling, a true gourmand, ordered dishes made from fresh local ingredients, utterly delicious after a long subsistence on rations and wartime London meals. Hemingway chose the best vintages, which had been hidden from the Germans behind a woodpile, and over two-hour lunches he laughed and joked with Capa and others, although he soon grew tired of the CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood and Charles Wertenbaker’s antics. The pair had found a joke shop in the town and used various gadgets to booby-trap Papa’s dinner plate; a left-handed corkscrew was particularly irritating.
After bidding Hemingway adieu, Capa and Wertenbaker teamed up yet again and returned to the front. On August 23, they learned that the first troops to enter Paris would be General Philippe Leclerc’s French 2nd Armored Division. There was just one problem: Leclerc had stated that he wanted only the French press with him and he had moved his division closer to Paris without informing any of the American correspondents, thus earning Hemingway’s pithy nom de guerre —”that jerk Leclerc.”
On the 24th, Capa and Wertenbaker caught up with Leclerc’s tanks in Étampes, near Paris. Wertenbaker later described how that afternoon “the clouds blew away and the sun shone through a pale blue sky. The tall lovely bending trees that lined the roads and fields stood dark against the sunset.” That night, they laid out their bedrolls beside Route National 20. “From beneath the Big Dipper came occasional flashes of light and then the sound of artillery in the distance. The French tanks were dark blurry shapes beneath the trees.” The blacked-out city of light was only a few miles away.
The next morning, the sun seemed to rise in a rush. Capa didn’t bother to brush his teeth. At nine o’clock, the driver of his and Wertenbaker’s jeep maneuvered just behind Leclerc’s armored car and drove fast toward the Porte d’Oléans. Minutes later, a dense crowd swarmed around them, waving flags and bouquets of flowers. Women climbed aboard their jeep and kissed them passionately. “Vive de Gaulle,” they cried. “Vive Leclerc!” Others shouted over and over again “merci, merci, merci!” Capa and Wertenbaker passed through the Porte d’Oléans at precisely 9:40 a.m. They had beaten Hemingway’s army to the gates of Paris by just a couple of hours.
After five years, Capa was back in the only city he would ever consider home. It was the most joyous day of his life. All the bottled-up emotions of the last few years soon flooded out. “Bob Capa and I rode into Paris with eyes that would not stay dry,” Wertenbaker recalled. “We were no more ashamed of it than were the people who wept as they embraced us.”
They left their jeep near the Boulevard des Invalides and walked toward the Quai d’Orsay, where Germans were still putting up a spirited resistance. A bearded priest in a steel helmet ran past, rushing to reach a fatally wounded French marine and give him last sacrament. At one street corner, Capa came across a crowd gathered around a German officer kneeling in the street, praying for his life. Several Resistance workers wanted to shoot him then and there, but three French marines arrived and took him prisoner.
Meanwhile, shortly after noon, a carbine-toting Hemingway and his irregulars finally arrived at the Arc de Triomphe. A French captain invited Papa and others to get a better view of the liberation from the monument’s roof, which provided an unforgettable vista. “One saw the golden dome of the Invalides,” recalled one of Papa’s group, “the green roof of the Madeleine, Sacre-Coeur…. Tanks were firing in various streets. Part of the Arc was under fire from snipers. A shell from a German 88 nicked one of its sides.”
Hemingway and his party took cover, knocked back several glasses of champagne, and then drove at high speed down an almost-deserted Champs-Élysées through joyous throngs in the Place de L’Opéra to the Hôtel Ritz. The hotel’s manager welcomed Papa and his merry band—a group of perhaps a dozen—at the entrance. When asked if they required anything other than lodging, Hemingway’s party promptly ordered 50 martini cocktails.
That afternoon, Ernie Pyle also arrived in central Paris, having talked his way through a roadblock, and then watched from the third floor of a hotel as jubilant French women jumped up onto tanks to embrace and kiss soldiers. By evening most of the Germans left in Paris had surrendered. As darkness fell and the sound of gunfire faded into the distance, the city of light was again lit up for the first time in four years, and the Tricolor and the Stars and Stripes were raised side by side over the Eiffel Tower. Parisians sang “La Marseillaise” from windows throughout the city.
“[It] was like a champagne dream,” remembered one war correspondent.
“Any GI who doesn’t get laid tonight is a sissy,” Pyle said.
The next afternoon, beneath azure-blue skies, Capa photographed General Charles de Gaulle as he walked in a victory procession from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame. The photos show him breaking into a rare smile during his greatest moment of glory. But the parade was cut short in the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville: several maverick German snipers, perhaps ignorant of the surrender order, opened up on the crowd. Thousands of Parisians were soon huddled together on bloodstained pavements. A beautiful woman wearing sunglasses, utterly fearless, stood tall—too proud to cower any more. In nearby streets, Resistance fighters quickly located the snipers and returned fire with machine guns and automatic rifles. In one street, Capa found an elegant businessman in a double-breasted pinstripe suit, lying on his back, firing a carbine; behind him, bullet holes scarred the door of a restaurant.
A few hours later, the last of the snipers had been eliminated and Capa joined Wertenbaker at the Hôtel Scribe; its bar had quickly became the watering hole of the international press corps. Life artist Floyd Davis later captured the bar scene wonderfully. In his painting, Capa looks like a swarthy bandit as he surveys his colleagues: Wertenbaker, resembling a distinguished general, New Yorker writer Janet Flanner with her perpetual cigarette, eye-patched broadcaster William Shirer, a barrel-chested Hemingway, and a grim-looking John Steinbeck.
For Ernie Pyle, the “pent-up semi-delirium” of Paris marked the end of his war in Europe; he was at long last headed home. “My spirit is wobbly and my mind confused,” confessed America’s finest-ever war correspondent. “The hurt has finally become too great.” The hurt stretched on, endlessly it must have seemed to Pyle, Hemingway, and Capa—who had all hoped, like the Allied generals, that after the liberation of Paris the Third Reich would fall by Christmas. Instead, there were 12 more months of fighting, countless more of those whom Pyle had called “swell kids with heads blown off.” Capa followed the Allies through the Ardennes, to the German border, and across the Rhine. Hemingway reported during that fall of 1944 on the 22nd Infantry Regiment’s heroics and numbing losses in the hell of the Hürtgen Forest, evoking a brutal World War I battle when he called it “Passchendaele with tree bursts”—his words for senseless slaughter. Pyle returned to America, a household name, and then went “warhorsing off to the Pacific.”
It was, finally, almost over when the first of them fell. In Leipzig on April 18, 1945, Robert Capa was awakened with the news that his good friend Ernie Pyle had finally run out of luck. The previous day, around 10 a.m., Pyle had been shot through the temple, just below his helmet, by a Japanese machine gunner on the 10-square-mile Pacific island of Ie Shima off Okinawa.
Capa sat in silence, getting blind drunk. He had slept beside Pyle in Africa, shared his flask with him in times of terror and jubilation in Italy and on the killing fields of the Cherbourg peninsula. Like tens of millions of Americans, he had read Pyle’s columns to find tenderness and humor amid what John Steinbeck called “the crazy hysterical mess” of the Second World War.
While so very different in so many respects as craftsmen in the trade of journalism, Pyle and Capa had set the standard for both reporters and photographers to this day. After Pyle, biographer James Tobin wrote, “No war correspondent could pretend to have gotten the real story without having moved extensively among the front-line soldiers who actually fought.” The same had been true of Capa, if not more so: Pyle had not had to stick his head above a parapet every day to do his job.
As with Pyle, it was only so long before the odds caught up with his daredevil friend. This time it would be Ernest Hemingway’s turn to be poleaxed by the news. In 1954, while visiting Madrid, he learned that Capa had been killed after stepping on a land mine in Indochina. Hemingway, who would take his own life seven years later, could just as well have been referring to any of the 54 U.S. Army–accredited reporters who had died in World War II when he wrote of Capa: “It is bad luck for everybody that the percentages caught up with him…. He was so much alive that it is a hard, long day to think of him as dead.”
Alex Kershaw is the bestselling author of eight highly acclaimed books, seven of them about World War II. After graduating from University College, Oxford, he worked as a features writer for over a decade at the Guardian, the Sunday Times, and other UK publications before moving to the United States in 1994. His biography of Robert Capa has been translated into over a dozen languages.