IE SHIMA, Japan — On a tiny spit of tropical Japan where he was killed 55 years ago, Ernie Pyle, America's most famous war correspondent, was honored Saturday as the voice of the GI Joes who fought World War II.
Almost 100 years to the day after his birth, Japanese farmers, American Legion veterans and young U.S. Marines in jungle uniforms saluted Pyle as the quintessential little guy who brought his haunting, ground-level views of the bloody foxhole and the gruesome battlefield into the homes of millions of American readers.
In the years before television and the Internet made warfare come alive, Pyle described the simplest foot soldier and most brutal episodes of battles in just a few taut paragraphs. He was killed here by a bullet from a Japanese sniper's rifle on April 18, 1945, three days after the U.S. assault on this 10-square mile island of pineapple plants and cornfields part of a "back door" battle for control of Okinawa.
Today, this tiny village, once completely flattened by war, almost could have passed for Pyle's small-town birthplace of Dana, Ind. Children waved American and Japanese flags and pointed with wonder as Marines carrying M-16 rifles paraded past.
American Legion soldiers crisply saluted a fallen comrade. Politicians gave speeches to mark the somber occasion.
All for a war correspondent who died doing his job.
The extraordinary fact that U.S. and Japanese forces were bitter antagonists so many years ago hardly needed to be mentioned. After all, U.S. soldiers still control nearly half this island.
"We all know about Ernie Pyle," said Kameo Tamashiro, who remembers being a 6-year-old prisoner of war after American troops captured the atoll.
"I understand that Pyle did not report cold statistics, but he described people's feelings and emotions. In that way, he told readers how the war felt, so we respect him for that."
Pyle, a columnist for the Scripps-Howard newspapers, gained a giant national following for his simple tales of the aviators and truck drivers and "a bunch of scared kids" trying to wage war in strange foreign lands. He helped Americans understand a strange, fierce war they could hardly comprehend and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943 for his coverage of the war in Italy.
"Ernie Pyle's war was the war of the homesick, weary men who washed their socks in their helmets, complained about the food and brought themselves through the dirty business of combat with humor, dignity and courage," said U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley, who spoke to the 1,000 assembled guests.
In an era when patriotism was unquestioned, Pyle made heroes of common men.
Long before Vietnam helped sour relations between the press and the military, Pyle was a booster of America's war effort and helped rally public opinion behind its soldiers.
As he walked the swirling tides of Normandy beach the day after the D-Day assault of June 1944, Pyle described the wreckage left behind by one of history's great invasions. "Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring at you from the sand. Here are pocketbooks, metal mirrors, extra trousers and bloody abandoned shoes.
"I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier's name in it and put in my jacket. I carried it half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach. I don't know why I picked it up or why I put it back down," Pyle wrote in his typical prose — personal but unassuming.
William Pass, an Army Master Sgt. from Tom's River, N.J., said he had paged through some of Pyle's last work after being dispatched for duty on Okinawa last year.
"He was willing to dig his own foxholes and understand the fighting soldier," Pass said. "Sort of like soldiers, he stepped up to the occasion when the going got tough."
In a small field surrounded by corn and sunflower fields, a simple white obelisk stands where Pyle was killed. "At this spot" the engraving says, " the 77th infantry division lost a buddy."
On Saturday they unveiled a new and larger plaque describing Pyle's life and his first-hand accounts of battle. "His tools were his notebook, his pen and his typewriter," the monument reads. "The people of this village hope we will never have to suffer a horrible war again."