February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Chronicler of “The Men Who Do the Dying”
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.
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.
The reports from England gave Pyle his first taste of real attention. A number of newspapers added his column, and the New York World-Telegram ran the blitz stories on page one.
Back home, Pyle’s old beat now seemed trivial even to him. Not long after Pearl Harbor he was off at a ski resort writing pieces about learning to ski. The feeling that he was missing out on the only story that mattered, coupled with a worsening of his wife’s troubles, plunged him into gloom that began to lift only when Scripps-Howard sent him back to the war in June of 1942. In Northern Ireland and England he wrote about the garrison life of the American forces then beginning to arrive. But his career as a war correspondent really dates from late November of 1942, two weeks after the Allied invasion of North Africa, when he arrived by troopship at Mers-el-Kabir near Oran in Algeria.
“Down the gangplank to a long concrete quay went Ernie, lugging a barracks bag, bedroll, musette bag, gas mask, helmet, canteen, and typewriter,” wrote Lee Miller. A fellow correspondent recalled him as looking “wan and miserable,” and, says Miller, “he was still self-conscious in his uniform with its ’C’—for correspondent—armband.” He was beginning a series of campaigns from which he was to have little respite until his death—from North Africa to Sicily, on to Italy and then the Normandy landings, and finally the Pacific.
Pyle’s assignment gave him advantages. “Most war correspondents envied Ernie the freedom his job afforded, and we liked to think that was a major reason why he was more successful than we,” wrote Graham Hovey, who was a wire service reporter in North Africa. “Most of us had daily deadlines to meet. We had to go to the front every day; dip briefly into the war, then drive back to base and file ‘spot’ stories on developments. Ernie could remain in the field with one unit for five days at a time; get to know many soldiers, then come back and write enough columns for a week.” But Hovey and Pyle’s other professional rivals agreed that this hardly began to explain his success.
One of Pyle’s special qualities was that he never lost the ability to stand back and see the incongruity of the whole business. Again and again he was struck by a sort of “what on earth are we all doing here?” feeling. That happened, for example, as he rode in a jeep that was part of a miles-long convoy of hundreds of vehicles and thousands of men feeling its way in the dark across the mountains and deserts of Tunisia. “I couldn’t help feeling the immensity of the catastrophe that had put men all over the world, millions of us, to moving in machinelike precision throughout the long nights—men who should have been comfortably asleep in their warm beds at home. War makes strange giant creatures out of the little routine men who inhabit the earth.”
He never ceased wondering at the way the “little routine men” delivered when called on to do things they had never dreamed of doing. He wrote of the airline clerk from New York City who had proved himself as a fearless, resourceful infantry company commander and the cowboy-turned-platoon sergeant who could fix anything and who felt his responsibility for green replacements so keenly that he suffered terrible pangs of guilt every time one was killed. He speculated on a subchaser captain who brought his little vessel alongside and hailed Pyle’s ship as it headed for the invasion of Sicily: ”… out in the darkness the voice was youthful. I could picture a youngster of a skipper out there with his blown hair and his life jacket and binoculars, rolling to the sea in the Mediterranean dusk. Some young man who shortly before had perhaps been unaware of any sea at all—the bookkeeper in your bank, maybe—and then there he was, a strange new man in command of a ship, suddenly a person with acute responsibilities, carrying out with great intentness his special, small part of the enormous aggregate that is our war on all the lands and seas of the globe.”
Pyle tried to give a measure of recognition to men whose contributions were usually overlooked. Thus he wrote not only about the Flying Fortress pilots but also about the repair crews that could take bombers with washtub-size flak holes and have them flying again in three days. He described the superhuman efforts of a band of Engineers in Sicily to bridge a huge gap blasted by the retreating Germans in a vital road carved into the face of a sheer cliff two hundred feet above the sea; twenty-four hours after they tackled the complex and perilous project jeeps rumbled across the span. On the Anzio beachhead he devoted a column to eighty soldiers who worked under fire baking twenty-seven thousand pounds of bread a day.
But it was the men at the front—“the tiny percentage of our vast Army who are actually up there doing the dying”—that got the most attention from Pyle. As American troops approached Bizerte and the windup of the North African campaign, he wrote an often-quoted tribute to the infantry—“the God-damned infantry as they like to call themselves. I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.”
Pyle felt that the people at home could never fully grasp what life at the front was like, but he did his best to tell them. It wasn’t so much the constant fear of bombing and shelling that undid men as the unremitting discomfort and weariness. He described his own life. In North Africa and Italy his skinny frame suffered miseries from the cold, despite layers of sweaters, coveralls, a mackinaw, a knit cap, and overshoes. His breakfast one dripping dawn in a muddy foxhole was cold C-ration hash from a can. He went as long as two months without a bath and “discovered I was a guy who could take baths or leave them alone.”
A. J. Liebling, who as a correspondent for The New Yorker encountered Pyle in North Africa and France, thought that he indulged in self-pity at times but acknowledged the vividness of his accounts. “You could have been sleeping on the ground for a fortnight without thinking much about it, but when you read that he had slept on the ground, your bones ached.” And while Ernie sometimes may have dwelt on his own discomforts, he never pretended that a correspondent’s lot was comparable to the soldiers’. A correspondent could always retire behind the lines for a good night’s rest and a hot meal. Even at the front, sleeping on the ground was bliss compared to the plight of one GI Ernie heard about at Anzio. He was trying to sleep sitting up in a foxhole partly filled with water, but every time he dozed off he fell over into the water. Finally he tied a rope around his chest and attached the other end to a log, so that he was held upright as he sat sleeping.
In Sicily the weather was warm, but there was still the grinding fatigue of prolonged combat. “It’s the perpetual, choking dust, the muscle-racking hard ground, the snatched food sitting ill on the stomach, and heat and flies and dirty feet and the constant roar of engines and the perpetual moving and the never settling down and the go, go, go, night and day, and on through the night again. Eventually it all works itself into an emotional tapestry of one dull, dead pattern—yesterday is tomorrow and Troina is Randazzo and when will we ever stop and, God, I’m so tired.”
And then there was the dying. In Sicily Pyle landed in a tent hospital with a fever, and a badly wounded soldier was brought in: “The wounded man was still semiconscious. The chaplain knelt beside him and two wardboys squatted nearby. The chaplain said, ‘John, I’m going to say a prayer for you.’
“Somehow this stark announcement hit me like a hammer. He didn’t say, Tm going to pray for you to get well,’ he just said he was going to say a prayer, and it was obvious to me that he meant the final prayer. It was as though he had said ‘Brother, you may not know it, but your goose is cooked’ Anyhow, he voiced the prayer, and the weak, gaspir tried vainly to repeat the words after him. When he finished, the chaplain added, ‘John, you’re doing fine, ybu’re doing fine.’ Then he rose and dashed off on some othencall, and the wardboys went about their duties.
“The dying man was left utterly alone, just lying there on his litter on the ground, lying in an aisle, because the tent was full. Of course it couldn’t be otherwise, but the alonenessW that man as he went through the last few minutes of his IiF was what tormented me. I felt like going over and at least holding his hand while he died, but it would have been out of order and I didn’t do it. I wish now I had.”
Pyle found the front lines particularly miserable in Italy in late 1943 and early 1944. Mud was knee deep in the valleys. Ernie reported that the GI’s often lacked overshoes, which they desperately needed to keep their feet dry, but were inundated with Life Savers and brushless shaving cream. In December he joined some of the troops who were clawing their way from one stony mountain ridge to another on the long road to Rome. At night many of the men slept in the open in freezing temperatures with “the thin snow sifting over them.” Water, K-rations, and ammunition had to be packed part way up the mountains on mules and then transferred to soldiers’ backs for the final and steepest ascent. One night Ernie made such a climb with a private first class who had to walk on his toes because his heels were blistered. Another night he watched at the bottom of a mountain as mules came down with dead Americans lashed across their backs. Among the dead was a popular young captain from Belton, Texas, Henry T. Waskow, and Pyle’s account of men approaching his body to pay their last respects was one of the most moving columns he ever wrote (see opposite page).
Shortly before Christmas he withdrew to Caserta, fifteen miles north of Naples, where the correspondents were billeted in the vast palace that served as Allied’headquarters. He was depressed by what he had seen, and he was also in one of those periods when he was convinced he had lost his writing touch. After laboring over some columns, he said, “This stuff stinks,” and tossed several to Don Whitehead of the Associated Press for comment. The first column Whitehead read was the one about the death of Captain Waskow. “The simplicity and beauty of that description brought tears to my eyes,” Whitehead said later.
Whitehead’s praise failed to lift Ernie’s spirits, however, and on Christmas Eve he began a prolonged drunk. Sometimes he drank in the officers’ bar in the palace, where on one occasion he shed his normal mild demeanor long enough to insult a huffy colonel who apparently was offended by Pyle’s casual attitude toward uniform regulations. Other times he drank in his room, which was a gathering place for the press corps. “Usually he would be huddled in his bedding roll with only his head sticking out, looking like a pixie in that knit cap,” said Whitehead. One night after he had been drinking steadily for about a week, Ernie announced to the correspondents assembled in his room that he was stopping. As the others left, he asked Whitehead to stay. “If you’ll just look under my cot you’ll find a bottle,” he said. “Now, let’s have just one more drink.” The following night an Army doctor knocked him out with sleeping pills, and the morning after that he was ready to resume work, which was lucky because his backlog of columns had dwindled to almost nothing during the binge.
Pyle inevitably wondered about his own prospects for coming through the war alive. He said he avoided needless risks. Several times, for example, he declined invitations from bomber crews to accompany them on missions, explaining that other reporters had already done the story and that he would simply be in the way. But, he wrote Lee Miller, “there’s just no way to play it completely safe and still do your job.”
Diving in foxholes and slit trenches at the approach of German shells and planes became routine for him in North Africk Once a dud shell landed thirty feet from his hole and bounced by him. At Anzio a bomb demolished his room on the top floor of a waterfront villa. He had just awakened and was standing at the window wearing slippers and a helmet. The blast flung him back into the room, a wall collapsed on his bed, and debris covered his typewriter. But Ernie merely got a scratch on cheek, and the typewriter still worked.
He was particularly apprehensive before the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. He was one of twenty-eight American correspondents—out of five hundred on hand in England—picked to accompany the early stages of the assault. As things worked out, he played gin rummy aboard an LST on D-Day and didn’t go ashore until the second day, when he took a walk on Omaha Beach and produced a memorable column about the young soldiers lying dead on the sand and floating in the water and the awesome wreckage of mighty war machines. But in the next few weeks he saw considerable fighting, including the capture of the heavily fortified port of Cherbourg. And then on July 25 he had an experience that totally unnerved him.
He had joined a regiment near Saint-Lô that was part of the force charged with breaking out of the Normandy beachhead. Dug in among the hedgerows, Ernie and the soldiers waited while eighteen hundred American bombers began softening up the enemy before the attack. But despite red smoke shells and strips of colored cloth marking the forward limit of the U.S. troops, bombs started falling short. More than a hundred Americans, including a general, were killed. Ernie and an officer he didn’t know squirmed under a farm wagon parked in a shed, where they lay with their heads slightly up, “like two snakes—staring at each other.” Bombs crashed around them. “The air struck us in hundreds of continuing flutters. Our ears drummed and rang. We could feel quick little waves of concussion on the chest and in the eyes.”
When it was over, Ernie had had enough. He hung on at the front for a few more days until the breakthrough was completed, and then he worked out of a press camp behind the lines for a while. In late August he joined the Free French for their joyful entry into Paris. But he was ready to go home. “All of a sudden it seemed to me that if I heard one more shot or saw one more dead man, I would go off my nut.”
Ernie was now a full-blown public figure. GI’s in Europe, who received clippings of his columns in the mail and read him in Stars and Stripes , crowded around wherever he went. They shouted “Hi-ya, Ernie” when they passed him on the road in France. He was also the object of flattering attentions from generals, including Eisenhower and Bradley. Bradley, whose homespun manner Ernie found congenial, was one of the few high-ranking officers he wrote about at length. The general once said of Pyle: “My men always fought better when Ernie was around.”
He had made one earlier visit home. That was in the fall of 1943, when he flew to the United States by Clipper for a two-month break between Sicily and Italy. He had undergone his initial experience of being lionized then, and he frankly admitted that celebrity status had some advantages. By the time he returned home in the fall of 1944, traveling this time on the Queen Elizabeth , then serving as a hospital ship, the acclaim and interest were overwhelming.
Everybody wanted to see him. John Steinbeck dropped by his hotel in New York, and a soldier’s widow poured out her heart to him for five hours in San Francisco. Magazine, lecture, and radio offers flooded in; all were declined, including requests for radio appearances from Bob Hope and Eddie Cantor that came on the same day. An anthology of his African columns was a best seller, and a new collection of columns from Europe received enthusiastic reviews. In Hollywood, which he visited, The Story of GI Joe , based on his columns, was being filmed. He had approved the project, but now he was uneasy that he would be glamorized.
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.
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.