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In Praise of Ordnance

by Ernie Pyle
Reprinted with the generous permission of the Scripps Howard Foundation



IN NORMANDY, July 25, 1944 - One of the things the layman doesn't hear much about is the Ordnance Department. In fact it is one of the branches that even the average soldier is little aware of except in a vague way.

And yet the war couldn't keep going without it. For ordnance repairs all the vehicles of an army and furnishes all the ammunition for its guns.

Today there are more vehicles in the American sector of our beachhead than in the average-sized American city. And our big guns on an average heavy day are shooting up more than ten million dollars worth of ammunition. So you see ordnance has a man-sized job.

Ordnance personnel is usually about six or seven percent of the total men of an army. That means we have many thousands of ordnancemen in Normandy. Their insignia is a flame coming out of a retort - nicknamed in the Army "the flaming onion."

Ordnance operates the ammunition dumps we have scattered about the beachhead. But much bigger than its ammunition mission is ordnance's job of repair. Ordnance has two hundred seventy-five thousand items in its catalog of parts, and the mere catalog itself covers a twenty-foot shelf.

In a central headquarters here on the beachhead a modern filing system housed in big tents keeps records on the number and condition of five hundred major items in actual use on the beachhead, from tanks to pistols.

We have scores and scores of separate ordnance companies at work on the beachhead - each of them a complete firm within itself, able to repair anything the Army uses.

Ordnance can lift a thirty-ton tank as easily as it can a bicycle. It can repair a blown-up jeep or the intricate breech of a mammoth gun.

Some of its highly specialized repair companies are made up largely of men who were craftsmen in the same line in civil life. In these companies you will find the average age is much above the army average. You will find craftsmen in their late forties, you'll find men with their own established businesses who were making thirty to forty thousand dollars a year back home and who are now wearing sergeant's stripes. You'll find great soberness and sincerity, plus the normal satisfaction that comes from making things whole again instead of destroying them.

You will find an IQ far above the average for the Army. It has to be that way or the work would not get done.

You'll find mechanical work being done under a tree that would be housed in a fifty-thousand-dollar shop back in America. You'll find men working sixteen hours a day, then sleeping on the ground, who because of their age don't even have to be here at all.

Ordnance is one of the undramatic branches of the Army. They are the mechanics and the craftsmen, the fixers and the suppliers. But their job is vital. Ordinarily they are not in a great deal of danger. There are times on newly won and congested beachheads when their casualty rate is high, but once the war settles down and there is room for movement and dispersal it is not necessary or desirable for them to do their basic work within gun range.

Our ordnance branch in Normandy has had casualties. It has two small branches which will continue to have casualties - its bomb-disposal squads and its retriever companies that go up to pull out crippled tanks under fire.

But outside of those two sections, if your son or husband is in ordnance in France you can feel fairly easy about his returning to you. I don't say that to belittle ordnance in any way, but to ease your worries if you have someone in this branch of the service overseas.

Ordnance is set up in a vast structure of organization the same as any other Army command. The farther back you go the bigger become the outfits and the more elaborately equipped and more capable of doing heavy, long-term work.

Every infantry or armored division has an ordnance company with it all the time. This company does quick repair jobs. What it hasn't time or facilities for doing it hands on back to the next echelon in the rear.

The division ordnance companies hit the beach on D-day. The next echelon back began coming on D-day plus four. The great heavy outfits arrived somewhat later.

Today the wreckage of seven weeks of war is all in hand, and in one great depot after another it is being worked on - repaired or rebuilt or sent back for salvage until everything possible is made available again to our men who do the fighting. In later columns I'll take you along to some of these repair companies that do the vital work.

Ernie Pyle