Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: WWII Correspondent Ernie Pyle Loved MWDs

During the writing of War Dogs I read a lot of books about dogs — a lot — and I also read a lot of books about war. In both instances I found myself drawn, yes, to stories but more so to voices — ones that felt genuine, authoritative, and unadorned; in other words, trustworthy. ...

Official U.S. Marine Corps Photo
Official U.S. Marine Corps Photo

During the writing of War Dogs I read a lot of books about dogs -- a lot -- and I also read a lot of books about war. In both instances I found myself drawn, yes, to stories but more so to voices -- ones that felt genuine, authoritative, and unadorned; in other words, trustworthy. One voice I turned to again and again was Ernie Pyle (who was killed by Japanese gunfire in April 1945 while reporting from the front) and his collection of reporting from the front during World War II: Brave Men.

Author John Steinbeck commented on the kind of writer Pyle was, the kind of view he gave his readers of the war:

"There are really two wars and they haven't much to do with each other. There is the war of maps and logistics, of campaigns, of ballistics, armies, divisions and regiments -- and that is General [George] Marshall's war. 

During the writing of War Dogs I read a lot of books about dogs — a lot — and I also read a lot of books about war. In both instances I found myself drawn, yes, to stories but more so to voices — ones that felt genuine, authoritative, and unadorned; in other words, trustworthy. One voice I turned to again and again was Ernie Pyle (who was killed by Japanese gunfire in April 1945 while reporting from the front) and his collection of reporting from the front during World War II: Brave Men.

Author John Steinbeck commented on the kind of writer Pyle was, the kind of view he gave his readers of the war:

"There are really two wars and they haven’t much to do with each other. There is the war of maps and logistics, of campaigns, of ballistics, armies, divisions and regiments — and that is General [George] Marshall’s war. 

Then there is the war of the homesick, weary, funny, violent, common men who wash their socks in their helmets, complain about the food, whistle at the Arab girls, or any girls for that matter, and bring themselves through as dirty a business as the world has ever seen and do it with humor and dignity and courage — and that is Ernie Pyle’s war."

Given that kind of disposition I wasn’t surprised, but pleased to find that Pyle wrote about the military working dogs he saw on the front and noted the effect they had on the men around them.

While with a regiment that he’d gotten to know well (his words), he also got to know their dog, Sergeant, who was, as Pyle described, a "beautiful police dog." He wrote about how the dog had learned to take cover in the foxhole the men had dug especially for him, during air raids. During one attack Sergeant was hit with shrapnel and had to be put down. Pyle took note of how the dog’s death impacted the men in the unit. "It is not belittling the men who died," he wrote, "to say that Sergeant’s death shares a big place in the grief of those who were left."

I came across the photo above for the first time this week. The caption (which sadly gets cut off) posted on the Marine Corps site reads: "Ernie Pyle (left), war correspondent who recently left the battlefields of Europe to cover the Pacific Theater of war, gets acquainted with two types of Devil Dogs, ‘Somewhere in the Pacific.’ It was the first time Pyle, celebrated for his stories…" Still, even without the end to the caption, it was a boon all the same — it’s the only photo I’ve ever seen of Pyle with the dogs during World War II.

In the very first chapter of the book, I included this opening epitaph, a quote of Pyle’s from Brave Men which now, at least to me, comes with a whole new layer of feeling after seeing this picture.

"I actually got jealous when I saw some of the soldiers over there with dogs deeply attached to them. It was the nearest thing to civilization in this weird foreign life of ours."

Rebecca Frankel is senior editor, special projects at  Foreign Policy. Her book, War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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