- Historic Sites
Chronicler of “The Men Who Do the Dying”
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Pyle seems to have stumbled into journalism almost by accident. He enrolled atSndiana University in 1919 mainly, it would appear, because he wanted to escape farm chores, and he signed up for journalism because he had heard it was a breeze. But from then on ra&jiever thought seriously of doing anything else. Quitting tnfesuniversity, where he did a stint as editor of the student dailyxa few months before graduation, he went to work as a reporter-for the La Porte (Indiana) Herald . After only half a year there, h?*1 landed a job, through a university connection, at Scripps-Howard’s struggling new Washington Daily News . Except for a year at a couple of New York papers, Ernie was to stick with Scripps-Howard for the rest of his life.
He proved deft at editing copy, and many of his earlier years with the chain were spent in editing jobs he did not particularly like. These culminated in a job in which Ernie, the antithesis of the executive, was particularly uncomfortable, the managing editorship of the Daily News, from 1932 to 1935. In 1935, when some articles he had produced on a vacation impressed his bosses, he proposed switching from editor to traveling columnist, and Scripps-Howard agreed. For the next few years he went pretty much where he pleased and picked his own subjects. Usually accompanied by Jerry, he crisscrossed the United States by car, visited Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii, and flew around South America.
His column had only a modest audience. At first it was offered just to the two dozen Scripps-Howard newspapers, and some of them, including the flagship New York World-Telegram , shunned it. When Scripps-Howard eventually syndicated it, only a few papers bought it. But the column set the pattern for his wartime triumph.
It sharpened his ability to use telling details to capture a scene or a character in a few lines—“making people at home see what I see,” as he put it. And it strengthened his natural inclination to skip the stories that most other reporters flocked after—politics bored him, for example—and go off on his own. He wrote about sheepherders in South Dakota, lepers in Hawaii, and his relatives back in Indiana, whom he revisited regularly. He described himself as a “talker to obscure people,” and he seems to have become imbued with a sense of mission to record the lives of those whom history overlooks. Later he would focus on the privates and largely ignore the generals.
Important people scared him, he claimed. Passing through San Antonio he wandered into a press conference being given by Eleanor Roosevelt, also in town on a visit. He sat in a corner with two high school journalists, asked no questions, and could not bring himself to tell the President’s wife that he was a columnist whose work often appeared alongside her “My Day” column. He fantasized that she would recognize him as the group filed out and “lean over and whisper, ‘Stay behind a minute, Ernie. Let s talk about our columns.’ ” But Mrs. Roosevelt, who years later would invite him to tea at the White House, merely smiled as he went by.
He nevertheless got a column out of his nonmeeting with Mrs. Roosevelt, and in so doing helped shape the public character that would swell his following during the war. In peace he was the timid, ineffectual guy who had trouble with stuck zippers and could not think of a riposte to the rude hat-check girl until it was too late. In war he became the aging, tired reporter who struggled to keep up with the young GI’s and confessed that shelling turned his joints to jelly.
He was also developing the methods of work that he was to use in the war. He shunned formal interviews, and he took no notes except for names and addresses. Someone said he seemed to absorb a story through his pores. After a concentrated stretch of observing, he would often carry a dozen or more columns in his head and then go off by himself and at one crack peck them all out with two fingers on his Underwood portable. He labored over the copy with a pencil, and he fretted if editors tinkered with his phrasing.
Inevitably many of Pyle s peacetime columns were trivial, and in the late thirties he often seemed oblivious to the ominous developments abroad. When Hitler marched into Austria in 1938, Ernie was in Death Valley. His main concern was that he had the grippe—he claimed that no one else had been sick in as many hotel rooms—and that a rugged drive in search of a local character named Death Valley Scotty had proved fruitless. He wrote Lee Miller, his editor through all his years as a columnist and later his biographer: “Finally we got to Scotty’s, and the sonovabitch was in Los Angeles! (Signed) Death Valley Ernie.”
If it had not been for World War II, Pyle might have become increasingly bogged down in such trivia. But the war provided a subject of overwhelming significance that meshed perfectly with his talents. The same sort of thing he had done on his peacetime travels—the small-focus glimpses of people and places—now could illuminate a vast conflict in a way that the “big-picture” stories based on headquarters communiqués and official pronouncements seldom could.
Pyle’s introduction to the war came on a three-month visit to England in the winter of 1940–41. The trip was his idea; by then he had become aware of events beyond his “hick circuit ” and he said he felt driven to share the experience of the blitz. The resulting columns told about nights in stifling London bomb shelters, rationing, and duty tours with an anti-aircraft crew.