SERVING OUR VETERANS: Remembering Ernie Pyle
Seventy-five years ago next month marks the death of Ernie Pyle. On April 18, 1945, Ernie was killed by enemy fire on le Shima during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. I would speculate few people younger than me would know who Ernie Pyle was.
Ernest Taylor Pyle was a Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist and war correspondent. He is best known for his stories about ordinary American soldiers during World War II. Pyle is also notable for the columns he wrote as a roving human-interest reporter from 1935 through 1941 for the Scripps-Howard newspaper syndicate that earned him wide acclaim for his simple accounts of ordinary people all across America and beyond. When the United States entered World War II, he lent the same distinctive, folksy style of his human-interest stories to his wartime reports from the European Theater (1942-1944) and the Pacific Theater in 1945. Pyle won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1944 for his newspaper accounts of “dog-face” infantry soldiers from a first person perspective. At the time of his death in 1945, Pyle was among the very best-known American war correspondents. His syndicated column was published in 400 daily and 300 weekly newspapers nationwide. President Harry Truman said of Pyle, “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men want it told. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”
Ernie Pyle was born to humble parents on a small farm near Dana, Indiana, on August 3, 1900. An only child, he disliked farming and pursued a more adventurous life. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War I. Ernie began his military training at the University of Illinois, but the war ended before he could be transferred to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. In 1919 he enrolled at Indiana University, aspiring to become a journalist, but he dropped out in January 1923 with only one semester remaining, without graduating. He accepted a job as a newspaper reporter and never left this vocation. He worked his way up the newspaper ladder to become a managing editor of a large newspaper and eventually began writing his own national column as a roving reporter of human-interest stories. From 1935 to 1942, Pyle and his wife Jerry, traveled the United States, Canada, Mexico, as well as Central and South America writing about the interesting places and people he saw and met. The articles he wrote became popular with readers earning Pyle national notoriety. This was mainly due to his ability to tell the stories and articulate the feelings of the common man in every-day life.
Ernie’s career as a war correspondent initially began in 1940 when he was sent to London for a short period to cover the Battle of Britain. He again returned to Europe in 1942, this time to officially act as a war correspondent. From this time forward, until his death, he was at or near the front line of all the major campaigns of the war, from North Africa, to Italy, to Normandy in the European Theatre, and then to the Asiatic-Pacific Theatre in 1945. Pyle lived among the U.S. servicemen and was free to interview anyone he wanted. As a non-combatant, he could also leave the front when he wanted, which he did at times to recuperate from the stress of combat.
Servicemen saw Ernie as a different type of war correspondent. Reinforcing his status as the dog-face G.I.’s best friend, Pyle wrote a column from Italy in 1944, proposing that soldiers in combat should get “fight pay,” just as airmen received “flight pay.” In May 1944, U.S. Congress passed a law that became known as the Ernie Pyle Bill. It authorized 50 percent extra pay for combat service time.
The majority of servicemen, upon seeing him walk into their unit for the first time, often described him as a lonely, sad-looking little man. He was friendly in a quiet way and never “hammered” them with “stupid” questions. Their conversations were low key and he rarely even jotted down any notes. Afterwards, when Ernie was alone again, he would write his columns from memory and was able to do it almost word-for- word on what he had heard. Unlike most correspondents, who stayed a far distance back from the front line, then would rush up to get a quick interview (usually only from the officer group), and then quickly return to safety, Ernie stayed with them, lived like one of them, and became one of their own. Because of his unique quality of showing real concern and empathy for them, even a “dog-face “soldier could easily share his feelings and thoughts about the war with him, and they did. Ernie witnessed the very worst of war and it did weigh heavily on him. He struggled with periods of extreme sadness, loneliness, depression, alcohol abuse, marital problems and other mental and physical issues throughout his time as a war correspondent, just as many servicemen did. One reporter wrote, “Ernie had a face that was sweet and kind and haunted by memories. He seemed to bear all the nation’s war sorrows.”
Not only did Ernie demonstrate a deep empathy for war servicemen, he also did for their families back home, and they loved him and his columns as well. He always seemed to give the citizens back home just enough information so they could better understand the real war situation and the horrors that went with it, from the soldier’s perspective. But, he could write it in a way without having to add to their pain by giving them too much horror or too much detail on what he actually saw. I recently read the book “Ernie Pyle’s War” by James Tobin. He described Ernie’s writings this way: “Yet the inescapable force of Pyle’s war writings is to establish an unwritten covenant between the soldier at the front and the civilian at home. The experience of the combat soldier is so terrible that you, the civilian, can never redeem it, but you must at least try to see it and know it, and return your humble gratitude and love.”
I think we today should remember and learn from Ernie’s style of writing. Other than civilians in the area of our Civil War battles, the majority of American citizens have not had to face the horrors of real war on a long-term basis. We should be thankful that for all but the Civil War, our other involvement in wars has been on foreign soil. During World War II, Ernie could give us a sense of the realty of war by giving us just enough information to let our own thoughts and imagination fill in the rest, to the extent one can or could deal with it. He kept his covenant between the combat soldier and the citizens back home. He could write in a way that our hearts and minds could make better sense of what war is really like. He could do it in a way without having to shock and demoralize us. He showed us writing about war can be done in a way that can bring sorrow and acceptance, but not devastation to our lives. I think Ernie would be disappointed on what we watch on television, in movies, and the war-type video games that both youth and adults are playing. I would guess he would be saddened and feel it is making us callous and it is de-sensitizing us to what the true face and inhumanity of what war is really like.
After the war, Ernie’s remains were moved to a U.S. military cemetery in Okinawa. In 1949, his remains were again interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. May God continue to bless his memory and his diligent work as a war correspondent. May He also continue to bless all war correspondents, like Ernie, who suffered, or gave up their lives, for the unity and the common good of our country.
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