Tuesday, August 4, 2009

August 3: Ernie Pyle, The Consummate War Correspondent

"ALGERIA, JANUARY, 1943: Men who bring our convoys from America, some of whom have just recently arrived, tell me the people at home don't have a correct impression of things over here."
Ernie Pyle looked at his job as a war correspondent during World War II as one in which he told the unflinching truth, not based on political agendas or political correctness, and

As a result, Pyle was one of the most respected journalists of his era, beloved by the men – the common soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines – that he worked with because he wrote their stories, their lives, their truth, and he shared their dangers.

He had that rarity among men – the ability to look at where he was emotionally and professionally, and where he needed to be. He wrote September 11, 1943 in an article titled “Fed Up and Bogged Down”:
“Perhaps you who read this column wonder why I came home just at this special time, when events are boiling over in Italy.

Well, I might as well tell you truthfully. I knew, of course, that the Italian invasion was coming up, but I chose to skip it. I made that decision because I realized, in the middle of Sicily, that I had been too close to the war for too long.

I was fed up, and bogged down. Of course you say other people are too, and they keep going on. But if your job is to write about the war, you’re very apt to begin writing unconscious distortions and unwarranted pessimisms when you get too tired.”
Ernie Pyle – always called Ernest by he parents – was born on August 3, 1900, on a tenant farm near Dana, Indiana. He was the only child of William and Maria Taylor Pyle. A shy youth, he worked his way through school more or less as a loner, sitting alone during recess in elementary school, and seeking the quiet and solitude of long walks in high school and during his college years.

He was not an exceptional student, nor a motivated one. He got by grade-wise, with no real ambitions. He took journalism at Indiana State University not because he had a real, sincere desire to become a journalist, but because it was an easy grade.

Pyle would quit Indiana University the semester prior to graduation in order to accept a job at the LaPorte, Indiana newspaper. He worked there three months, then moved to Washington, D.C. to accept the job of reporter, then managing editor, of the Washington Daily News. He survived, desk-bound, for three years. He married Geraldine Siebolds in 1925, then quit his job in 1926 so he could see America with his new wife and Ford roadster.

After travelling more than 9,000 miles, Pyle went to work at the Evening Herald in New York for a year, and then returned to the Daily News. In 1928 Pyle became the nation’s first aviation columnist at a time when aviation was beginning to boom. It was during his stint as an aviation columnist that Pyle honed his story-telling ability that would provide the format for his columns during World War II.

In 1932 Pyle became the managing editor of the Daily News, but would leave the paper in 1935, hired away by the opportunity to write a national travel column for the Scripps-Howard syndicate. It was the era of the Great Depression in America, and Pyle travelled America to write nationally syndicated columns about the places he visited and the people he met. The column was very popular, and would continue until 1942.

Pyle began to achieve national fame during a trip to war-ravaged London in 1940 – a trip exercising his writing ability and setting the course for the rest of his life. His stories of the bombing of London gave Americans a glimpse of the war that they had not recognized before. Using word pictures, Pyle painted a portrait that struck at the heart of America while reporting on one of the biggest Nazi raids on London of the war:
"It was a night when London was ringed with fire…"
Returning to London as a war correspondent during the summer of 1942, Pyle would start the process that made him man loved by those who came in contact with him. He seldom took notes – with the exception of names and addresses – instead preferring to take the images he saw and the stories that came with those images, store them in his mind, then leave the front lines to write his story. He was treated as an autonomous reporter by his bosses, who allowed him the latitude that he needed to get the story.

Pyle had the gift of using his feelings and emotions to accurately, humanely, and compassionately interpret the scene for the soldiers. He wrote about the common solder, never portraying war as glamorous – but portraying it truthfully, digging beneath the surface of the men he met to find out why they did what they did, and risked what they risked, day-after-day.

And he was able to share those findings with the American public, and the public took pride in the men that he wrote about. Pyle wrote about privates, ambulance drivers, front line infantry, Captains and Generals – but not about the politics of war. He won a Pulitzer Prize with his column on the honor that the men serving under Captain Waskow paid to him when his lifeless body was brought down from a mountain in Italy – a column showing the death that occurred in war, but also the comradeship that often goes beyond the understanding of those who have not experienced it.

Pyle served in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily and later Anzio, and in Normandy. He returned back to the United States briefly in late 1944, tired and dispirited. He had written in one column:
“When you get to Anzio you waste no time getting off the boat, for you have been feeling pretty much like a clay pigeon in a shooting gallery. But after a few hours in Anzio you wish you were back on the boat, for you could hardly describe being ashore as any haven of peacefulness.”
He didn’t want to go back to the world of combat, but he felt he had to – to do otherwise would, in his mind, be unpatriotic to the country he loved. After a brief respite he went to the Pacific to write the story of the invasion of Okinawa.

He landed on Okinawa with the Marines and Army units, landing on a portion of the beach where there was practically no Japanese resistance. A few days later he went to a small island near Okinawa called Ie Shima. It had been captured by the Americans, but there were still pockets of resistance on the island.

On April 18, 1945, Pyle was riding in a jeep with the commander of the 77th Infantry Division when the vehicle came under fire by a Japanese machine gun. Everyone hit the dirt by the side of the road, and when Pyle raised his head to check on the others he was hit in the head by a bulled, dying instantly.

He was buried at first on Ie Shima, and then reinterred in 1949 at the Punchbowl Cemetery in Honolulu.

America had lost a unique man. Pyle’s columns, compiled into books such as Here Is Your War and Brave Men, bring the story of the 'Greatest Generation' to those today who know virtually nothing of the men who fought - and died - in World War II - if they will read it. It is my privilege to have early editions of both of these books as a treasured possession.
Click here to read a collection of stories by Ernie Pyle from Indiana University, and click here to view YouTube Tribute to Ernie Pyle.

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