- Historic Sites
Chronicler of “The Men Who Do the Dying”
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Honors piled up. Earlier in the year he had been awarded a Pulitzer. A recent congressional authorization of combat pay for GI’s was known as the “Ernie Pyle bill.” Harvard offered him an honorary degree that he never got around to collecting, but he did pick up doctorates from Indiana University and the University of New Mexico. He received the degree from the latter in a daze, having spent most of the previous night on a train drinking with two Marines.
New Mexico was a special place for Ernie because he and Jerry had built a house in Albuquerque in 1940. They wanted a home base after years of living in hotel rooms and he liked the warmth of the desert sun. At the time, the price of around six thousand dollars staggered Ernie, a frugal man, but now the little one-story white clapboard house seemed rather modest for a man who was earning a six-figure income from his columns and books. Nevertheless he was delighted with it and was just settling down there in late October for a rest from the war and from the increasingly burdensome demands of fame when all his hopes for a truly peaceful interlude were shattered. Jerry tried to kill herself. She stabbed herself twenty times with a pair of scissors and locked herself in the bathroom. Ernie broke down the door and found her drenched with blood. She survived, but Ernie had to worry over the arrangements for her care and at the same time plan for his return to the war—this time in the Pacific.
The Navy was anxious for him to write about its role there, but he went to the Pacific mainly out of an inescapable sense of duty. “I’m going simply because there’s a war on and I’m part of it and I’ve known all the time I was going back. I’m going simply because I’ve got to, and I hate it. …” The only good thing he could think of was that he wouldn’t be cold.
Pyle never really hit his stride there. At his first stop, Pearl Harbor, where he landed January 15, 1945, the Navy brass treated him as an exalted personage, dominated his days and kept him from the rank-and-file servicemen who were the lifeblood of his column. It was the same when he moved westward across the Pacific to Guam.
Another problem was that he couldn’t get the mud and misery of Europe out of his mind. He had missed the savage fighting in the Pacific for specks of land like Tarawa and Saipan, and when he visited some of the conquered islands the comfortable living quarters they now boasted seemed positively luxurious compared to what he had known in Europe. He implied as much in his columns and conversations and thereby irritated some of those who had seen the fighting and endured the isolation of the islands.
But he kept trying to tell what the war was like in the Pacific. On Saipan he lived with B-29 crews who were flying exhausting fourteen-hour missions to Japan. He sailed aboard a small aircraft carrier, the Cabot , popping corn at night with a boilmaker first class and marveling at the split-second decisiveness of the landing signal officer who wigwagged instructions to pilots as they hurtled toward the deck. Vowing it would be his last invasion, he decided to accompany the Marines on their Easter Sunday landing on Okinawa at the beginning of April. His canteen filled with whisky, he went ashore with the seventh wave and to his vast relief found that the Marines had hit a stretch of beach with no opposition; the heavy fighting on Okinawa came later. He tramped inland with the Marines, and wrote a column about a night in a foxhole, with scattered firing and muted voices at field telephones punctuating long silences, that was reminiscent of pieces from Africa and Europe. “I was back again at the kind of life I had known so long.
Returning to a command ship off Okinawa April 7 to rest and write, Ernie learned that an Army assault was planned for April 16 on Ie Shima, a ten-square-mile island just west of Okinawa that had some useful airstrips. He made plans to go ashore the second day. He nursed a cold while he waited, and, along with the rest of those aboard, received the stunning news of President Roosevelt’s death April 12. Still he remained optimistic: to relatives in Indiana he wrote: ”… I feel now that at last I have a pretty good chance of coming through the war alive.”
When he went ashore on the seventeenth the fighting had not yet been particularly heavy, but Japanese bodies and wrecked vehicles were still strewn about. Ernie spent much of the day talking to infantry officers and GI’s and slept that night in an old Japanese dugout. The next morning he set out in a jeep with two officers and two enlisted men looking for a spot to locate a command post. He had made similar expeditions countless times, and the road, which paralleled the beach a short distance inland, seemed relatively safe. An occasional mortar shell landed in a nearby field, but other vehicles had preceded Ernie’s jeep without mishap.