- Historic Sites
Chronicler of “The Men Who Do the Dying”
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
During a driving rain, the American infantry company worked its way toward a German strong point rmi the outskirts of Cherbourg. Rifle and machinegun fire echoed through the deserted streets, and shells passed overhead with rustling noises before exploding. Riflemen edged along both sides of a narrow, winding street, now darting forward, now crouching beside a wall or ducking into a doorway. They halted when they came up behind two American tanks training their guns on a German pillbox. The lead tank opened up with its 75-millimeter cannon, and the blasts reverberated thunderously among the buildings. Then a yellow flame—a German shell—pierced the tank, and the crew came tumbling out of the turret. The men raced for a nearby doorway and plunged through it.
Waiting for them there was Ernie Pyle, who had come along with the infantry company. A steel helmet covered the correspondents gray-fringed bald head, but the tankers recognized him immediately. Shifting from the dirt-floored wine cellar behind the doorway—Ernie had already investigated and found the remaining bottles empty—to a nearby hallway furnished with boxes they could sit on, Pyle and the soldiers took a breather. The GI’s eagerly collected Ernie’s autograph. In his rain-dampened notebook he recorded their names and hometowns—Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Leeds, Alabama, and Marshalltown, Delaware. They all appeared in a column he wrote about the day.
It sometimes seemed that almost every American GI in World War II knew Ernie Pyle, and it wasn’t at all unusual for soldiers to seek his autograph in the midst of battle. Such recognition only begins to suggest his impact in the Second World War. The GI’s considered him their spokesman. They felt that more than anyone else, he told the folks back home what their life was like—the fear, the discomfort, the weariness, the boredom, the occasional comic relief. For the folks at home, Ernie—he was born Ernest Taylor Pyle but only his family ever called him Ernest—was a personal link to sons and husbands in distant lands. Mothers deluged him with letters asking him to look up their boys.
Pyle’s hold on the nation mounted steadily throughout the war. A relatively obscure roving columnist for Scripps-Howard at the outbreak, by 1945 he was appearing in four hundred dailies six times a week, and three hundred weeklies, carried a condensation of his columns. By then he had also achieved a celebrity no other journalist—not even Woodward and Bernstein or Walter Cronkite—has surpassed. Pyle, a painfully shy man who would have made a tongue-tied interrogator on “Meet the Press,” found himself on the cover of Time and the inspiration for a movie in which he was portrayed by Burgess Meredith. Indeed, by the time he flew off to his fatal assignment in the Pacific in 1945, he was the focus of so much attention that it was sometimes hard for him to get at the story that had won him fame—the remarkable transformation of millions of young Americans from bookkeepers and students, factory hands and farmers, into competent, tough fighting men.
Pyle’s success waidfiserved. He was a superb reporter and writer. Competing not only with hundreds of other journalists but also with literary figures like Hemingway and Steinbeck on wartime assignments, he was the best. Because of Pyle’s work, wrote the poet Randall Jarrell, “most of the people of a country felt, in the fullest moral and emotional sense, something that had never happened to them, that they could never have imagined without it—a war.”
Pyle was a frail-looking man, five feet ight inches tall and never much more than a hundred and ten pounds. Forty-one years old at the time of Pearl Harbor, he was among the oldest of the front-line correspondents, and he always seemed to be coming down with the flu or a cold.
He was also saddled with agonizing emotional burdens. He deeply loved his wife, Jerry, but she shuttled in and out of hospitals because of drinking and depression. As a result their childless marriage was so tormented that it is hard to believe Ernie did not feel some sense of relief when he went to war. For that matter, he was no model of stability himself. He, too, was given to bouts of heavy drinking, and even at the height of his success, self-doubts about his ability to produce a daily column sometimes drove him to despair.
But he had much going for him. Despite his seeming frailty, he had a grit that enabled him to live on the move in the field month after month. Despite the shyness that had afflicted him ever since his childhood on a farm in western Indiana, everybody liked him. He always had time for others’troubles, and even after he had become famous he was not above rolling out of his bunk at 3:00 A.M. to edit a ship’s newspaper or helping an overburdened photographer lug his equipment ashore from a landing craft. Because people liked Ernie, they helped him get stories. The best reporters are not always the brash, abrasive ones.