- Historic Sites
Chronicler of “The Men Who Do the Dying”
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
The jeep came to a junction. There, as Lee Miller described it, “the high-voiced chatter of a .31-caliber Nambu machine gun was heard on the left and somewhat ahead of the party. Apparently it was firing from a shell-battered coral ridge about a third of a mile away. Dust danced in the field on their left. ” The driver braked to a halt, and the five men scrambled into roadside ditches. Ernie ended up beside a lieutenant colonel. They raised their heads to check on the others. “The Jap let go again,” the colonel recalled later. “He had had time to adjust his sights on us. Some shots chewed up the road in front of me and ricocheted over my head. After ducking I turned around to ask Ernie how he was. He was lying face up, and at the time no blood showed, so for a second I could not tell what was wrong.” Ernie had been shot in the left temple and had died instantly. He was forty-four years old.
He was buried on Ie Shima two days later, but subsequently his body was moved to Okinawa and finally to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific near Honolulu. When Pyle was killed, President Truman said: “The nation is quickly saddened again by the death of Ernie Pyle.” Jerry Pyle declined rapidly and died in November of 1945. The small house that she and Ernie fleetingly shared is now a branch of the Albuquerque library.
Ernie Pyle had some off days in his wartime columns. Sometimes he laid on the Hoosier folksiness a bit too heavily. Sometimes the GI’s came off just a little too good to be true, not only rugged and brave but also unfailingly good-humored in adversity and kind to children and dogs. Moreover, he, like other World War II reporters, has been criticized for giving an incomplete picture of the war—for leaving out the incompetent generals, the strategic blunders, the looting and atrocities. Though Pyle didn’t always depict a smoothly running war machine, there is some truth in such criticism. Indeed, he wasn’t above partaking of a bottle of looted cognac himself, and he, like other correspondents, did suppress some distressing stories, such as the Patton slapping incident.
But there was a war on after all. There was censorship, and just as important, American journalists, including Pyle, saw themselves as part of the war effort, with a duty to strengthen national unity. Given Pyle’s limited goal of making people at home see what he saw, it is amazing how many good days he had and how many of the stories he wrote leap to life today. And even though he disclaimed any interest in the “big picture, his columns add up to a remarkable panorama of the war.
During the Korean War, noted A. J. Liebling, who by then had switched from war correspondence to press criticism, many reporters tried to imitate Pyle with limited success. But by the time the Vietnam war was in full swing, he seemed a figure from the distant past. There was disunity at home, and the reporters in Vietnam reflected it. Also, by the time of Vietnam, Americans were obtaining much of their war news from television.
It’s an interesting question who got a clearer idea of the day-to-day realities of war—Pyle s readers in World War II or television viewers of the war in southeast Asia. Television provided riveting glimpses of the brutality and anguish of combat. But as the television critic Michael Arlen has observed, Vietnam did not lend itself neatly to depiction “in terms of three-minute narrative slices of film.” Moreover, television reporters seldom had the chance to offer a strong, consistent personal viewpoint that would give meaning to what we were seeing. Ernie Pyle, by contrast, gave Americans a coherent view of the war as seen through the eyes of someone they knew and trusted. His success suggests that television, with all its electronic wonders, sometimes still may be no match for one man with a fresh eye, a capacity for feeling, and a battered portable.