The Card: ♠Q♠ The Queen of Spades (pictured at left from my own deck of World War 2 cards; and below is a deck of cards distributed to armed forces by the Red Cross.)
The Selection: “Life on a Flat Top” by Ernie Pyle, from the collection of his reports titled “Last Chapter”
The Author: Ernie Pyle (pictured in the top middle, from the back over of this book) likely needs no introduction to most, but maybe you don’t know he’s a native of Indiana, born in the small town of Dana, a few miles north of Terre Haute. He was already a well known roving correspondent for Scripps-Howard when the United States entered World War 2 in 1941, at which time he began imbedding (in today’s terms) himself with U.S. fighting forces and reporting back to the folks at home how “our boys” were faring. His writing was wildly popular and he counted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt among his fans. “I shall never forget how much I enjoyed meeting him here in the White House last year,” she wrote, “and how much I admired this frail and modest man who could endure hardships because he loved his job and our men.”
What is Deal Me “IN” 2016?
(For an explanation of the Deal Me In challenge, see the sign up post. For a look at my deck of cards/story roster see here. Since 2016 is my home state’s bicentennial, in this year’s edition of my annual Deal Me In challenge, I’m reading only stories that have an Indiana “connection”of some kind. )
“Life on a Flat Top”
So, I’ll start by admitting that, though I’m only up to week four of Deal Me “IN” 2016 so far, in this story I have an early favorite, and I’m also happy to know that I have two more pieces written by Pyle on my reading list for this year: “Men from Mars” and “The B-29’s” – both from his collection of reports titled “Last Chapter.” Though not mentioned by name in this report, the small aircraft carrier which is the subject of this piece was the USS Cabot (picture – from Wikipedia – below). I also learned, at least according to Wikipedia, that the US Navy had a policy of not allowing individual names of sailors to be used in reporting, but this was lifted in Pyle’s case due to his popularity. Pyle takes this to the extreme, even giving sailors’ hometown addresses in many cases. It made me wonder how many of these homes are still standing and what having their addresses given “in the press” back in the day may have led to…
“An aircraft carrier is a noble thing. It lacks almost every thing that seems to denote nobility, yet nobility is there.”
“The first time you see a plane land on a carrier you almost die.”
In beginning this report, Pyle immediately states his intentions saying “I’ll try to describe what living on an aircraft carrier is like, and how a big task force works when it goes out after the enemy.” Though the carrier Pyle chose was classed as “light” it still was over 700 feet long and had a crew of over 1,000 men. Pyle points out that “…every Navy in the world has as its No. 1 priority the destruction of enemy carriers,” something he calls a precarious honor… but a proud one.” He goes into detail about the logistics of takeoffs and landings and how slight the margin of error is in those situations, with mistakes frequently resulting in the signalman waving off the attempt. Pyle notes that “…somebody said that carrier pilots were the best in the world, and they must be or there wouldn’t be any of them left alive.”
I also read – in some of my drive-by research for this post -that Pyle thought less of the Navy men and their hardships than he did of his European theater subjects, though I must say I felt little of that tone in this reading. The closest was a passage where he relates that “the boys” asked him “a thousand times” how their lives on board ship compared with “the other side” and tells of Seaman Paul Begley’s philosophical approach – and that of others…
“(Begley said)’I can stand a lot of the monotony if I know my chances are pretty good for coming out of it alive.’ But others yelled their heads off, and felt they were being persecuted by being kept out of America a year. I heard some boys say, ‘I’d trade this for a foxhole any day.’ You just have to keep your mouth shut to a remark like that.”
In my opinion, Pyle was just reporting the facts. Life on the carrier may have been monotonous for those aboard, but they did have movies, barbers, doctors, and dentists, good food, etc. so surely their individual privations were less extreme than the boys in the foxholes, even if their ultimate role in the war’s big picture was no less important.
(below: “Smoke ’em if you got ’em” (as my Dad used to say whenever taking a break from anything) Pyle shares a cigarette with some of “the boys”)
Update 1/27/16: Just ran across an interesting article in Investor’s Business Daily News toady with more info about this remarkable writer. It’s here if you’d like to take a look.
I did have an uncle who served in the U.S. Navy during WW2 and will have to ask my mom where and for details (I’ll save that for when I draw one of my other two Ernie Pyle cards from the deck!). I also had a good friend and schoolmate from junior high school who went on to become a Navy Pilot and has blogged about his experiences at “Has-Been Pilot“ (link on the side bar) but aside from that, I know almost nothing about the U.S. Navy so having a fellow “civilian” like Pyle describe what life was like on the USS Cabot was particularly interesting.
I also have been intrigued by the very old copy of this book I picked up at Bookmama’s Bookstore on Indianapolis’s Eastside. The paper cover is crumbling apart as I read it, and I suspect it’s from the first printing, which would put its age at about 70 years old. It also includes a personalized note (pictured below). It’s faded and hard to read, but I think it says* “To Joe – Dec. 13 Christmas 1947 – Judy”. It’s been tantalizing for me to wonder and try to imagine who Joe and Judy were. Was Joe a veteran of the war? Maybe one who was dating Judy and had mentioned that he admired Pyle’s writing? Was Joe a father who had lost a son in the war? Was Joe a serviceman at the time this book was given as a gift? What do you think? Has an old inscription in a used book you’ve purchased ever captured your imagination and led to speculation? I’d love to hear about. It. 🙂
*I actually shared the photo with the “hive mind” of Facebook, asking what my friends on social media thought it said. One thought it said, “To Joe and Irene B,” while another wondered why the Dec 13 date would be included in addition to it noting “Christmas 1947” – also a good question.