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WIDELY READ ERNIE PYLE EARNED HIS OWN FOXHOLE WITH CHRONICLES OF WAR

American troops had been ashore on the tiny Pacific island of Ie Shima for one day when Ernie Pyle arrived. As always, he sought out the forward unit and spent the night in a bunker whose previous occupant had been Japanese.

The next morning, when a concealed Japanese sniper fired on their jeep, Pyle and four soldiers dove into a ditch. As Pyle looked up to see what was happening, a machine-gun bullet hit him in the left temple.After four years of defying a fate he said he expected, the most famous, most widely read, most admired of all World War II war correspondents had died like so many of the infantrymen he loved and extolled.

Soldiers made a wooden coffin and buried the fallen writer under a crude sign, later replaced by a stone marker reading: "At this spot, the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy, Ernie Pyle, 18 April 1945."

"I have known no finer man, no finer soldier than he," said Omar Bradley, one of the few generals Pyle was close to. "My men always fought better when Ernie was around."

Harry Truman, who had succeeded Franklin Roosevelt as president a week earlier, personally broke the news to the nation on radio. As a newspaper editorial observed, there was "no vice president to take Ernie Pyle's place."

There was no journalist, either. Pyle has inspired many, and some have tried to emulate his view-from-the-foxhole style, but no reporter in World War II or any war since has captured the essence of Ernie Pyle's work.

Pyle wrote about the infantryman slogging through mud, the bomber pilot buffeted by flak, the coxswain steering his landing craft toward the beach. And he did it in ways people back home could understand.

His writing was graceful, understated, personal and sometimes nearly poetic, as when he wrote of "tired and dirty soldiers who are alive and don't want to die; of long darkened convoys in the middle of the night, of shocked silent men wandering back down the hill from battle . . . "

When the war began this Indiana farm boy had been a roving reporter for Scripps-Howard Newspapers since 1935 and was already one of the nation's best known newspaper writers.

He was 42 years old, a balding hypochondriac who was twice the age of most soldiers. Rail-thin, friendly, profane, he rolled his own Bull Durham cigarettes and liked to carouse with colleagues. He was the disheveled guy in the knit cap.

"Ernie was a delightful drunk," recalls Jack Foisie, a 22-year-old soldier-reporter for the military paper Stars and Stripes when he met Pyle in Sicily. Foisie remembers Pyle tap dancing out the door of a drunken party, burlesque-style, in his long underwear.

"He charmed people," said James Tobin, a Detroit journalist working on a a Pyle biography. "He supposedly was shy, but here was a guy who made his living talking to total strangers and getting them to tell him things."

Friends and biographers describe a man who felt his work deserved the credit it got, yet was sometimes uneasy with fame it brought him.

Pyle had impact: When when he said GIs complained about the hand-brake on their jeeps, Willys-Overland, the maker, redesigned it. When he suggested special "combat pay" for the infantry, Congress provided it.

While most troops never met him "we always knew when he was there," says Vincent Di Somma, 75, of Brooklyn, a combat engineer in Tunisia, Sicily and Anzio - all places Pyle wrote about.

Those who did encounter him welcomed him as both friend and celebrity, and Pyle's dispatches were studded with names, hometowns, even street addresses - almost unheard of in war dispatches today.

Pyle practically invented the type of war dispatch known in Vietnam as a "hometowner" - a story about local people for their local papers. The index of "Brave Men," Pyle's second book of wartime columns, has more than 500 names and hometowns.

David Nichols, author of the 1986 book, "Ernie's War," says Pyle "was the reporter he was because he really didn't give a damn about the news."

His accounts dealt largely with how front-line troops tried to make their gritty existence seem more civilized.

He wrote about Master Sgt. Woodrow Daniels, of Jacksonville, Fla., who got a bottle of Coca-Cola in a package from home, raffled it off at 25 cents a chance, and earned $4,000 for the children of dead GIs.

Buried in his columns are nuggets of insight and unintended advice for future war reporters: "You feel small in the presence of dead men, and you don't ask silly questions."

The line is from Pyle's famous column about the death of Capt. Henry T. Waskow, of Belton, Texas, a beloved company commander in the Army's 36th Infantry Division.

Waskow's body was brought down an Italian mountainside on a pack mule and laid on the ground, Pyle wrote. One by one, soldiers drifted over, paying their respects with muttered curses of grief.

Then one knelt silently, for five minutes, "holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face," Pyle wrote.

"Finally . . . he reached over and gently straightened the points of the captain's shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of the uniform around the wound, and then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone."

Foisie says Pyle, afraid the story was overdone, tested it on fellow correspondents. "He thought it might be too schmaltzy, but we were all so damn jealous of that piece," he said. The Washington, D.C., Daily News, devoted the entire front page to it.

Pyle's personal life was not as successful. Before the war he and his wife Geraldine, whom he called Jerry and referred to affectionately in print as "That Girl," spent six years crisscrossing the continent, grinding out six "Hoosier Vagabond" columns a week.

In 1939, they settled in Albuquerque, N.M., but the restless Pyle was drawn to the war engulfing Europe. Jerry stayed home, increasingly troubled by alcohol and emotional problems that would lead to two suicide attempts.

Pyle wrote Jerry loving letters and periodically visited. But he always returned to the war, moving with the troops through North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France.

Having narrowly escaped a German air raid at Anzio and many other perils, Pyle told colleagues he might not survive the war but apparently never said so in print.

"He'd have seen that as self-indulgent," says Nichols. "He was not convinced he'd be killed, but there was a dark cloud over his shoulder - he had the sense that he'd been pushing the envelope."

Uneasy about going to the Pacific and a new war zone, Pyle promised Jerry that Okinawa would be his last landing. To his father he wrote: "I feel now that at last I have a pretty good chance of coming through the war alive."

Seventeen days later, as his body lay in the ditch on Ie Shima near Okinawa, soldiers found in his pocket an unfinished column on the fall of Nazi Germany, then just weeks away.

Pyle had written of wanting to be back in Europe, with the troops he'd covered from North Africa to Paris.

"Such companionship finally becomes a part of one's soul, and cannot be obliterated," he wrote.

Pyle was reburied at the U.S. military cemetery at Punchbowl Crater, near Honolulu. An expanded museum will be dedicated April 18 at the Pyle farm at Dana, Ind. Among its 16,000 yearly visitors are many ex-GIs that Pyle mentioned in his war dispatches.

What they did, and what they feel for the man who wrote about them, is Pyle's greatest memorial.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Excerpts of WWII dispatches by Ernie Pyle:

Recovering from illness in a field hospital in Sicily, Pyle watched a chaplain praying over a badly wounded GI:

"When he had finished, the chaplain said, `John, you're doing fine, you're doing fine' . . . 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 awful aloneness of that man as he went through the last few minutes of his life 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."

A military policeman from New York: "He was a coffee merchant by profession, a radio actor by avocation, and a soldier by the trend of events."

In Italy, he described "the look" of combat soldiers:

"Lack of sleep, tension for too long . . . fear beyond fear, misery to the point of numbness, a look of surpassing indifference to anything anybody can do to you."

After watching the D-Day invasion from a ship, Pyle went ashore the next day and walked Omaha Beach. Despite sporadic hostile fire, he called it "a lovely day for strolling along the seashore."

"Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn't know they were in the water, for they were dead. . . . "

In Normandy, Pyle helped some American soldiers carry German bodies to the site for a new cemetery:

"The boys made wisecracks along the way to cover up their distaste for the job. When we got to the field we weren't sure where the lieutenant wanted the cemetery started. So we put our man down on the ground and went back for instructions. And as we walked away, the funny guy of the group turned and shook a finger at the dead German and said: `Now don't you run away while we're gone.' "