Ernie Pyle showed war through soldier's eyes

September 10, 1995|By ROGER SIMON

I could not help but think when watching President Clinton the other day at the Punchbowl, the vast military cemetery in Hawaii, of a man who was not there.

The last time I was there, I looked for him. I saw instead only a broken red flower.

And, in my mind's eye, an aging vet standing above the grave for a silent moment and dropping the flower with an embarrassed shrug.

People do not flock to the Punchbowl, called that because it is a scooped-out and extinct volcano.

But the tourists do come, and some people do remember.

"Pearl Harbor, of course," the person at the hotel desk had told us. "And a pineapple plantation."

And a hula. And a luau. Because that is what you do in Hawaii.

"And you might want to go up to the Punchbowl," she said. "It's a military cemetery."

A military cemetery? On a vacation? Great. And maybe then we could take in the morgue.

"Well, you work for a newspaper," she said, "and there's a guy buried there. I can't remember his first name. But his last name is Pyle."

Ernie Pyle? I asked. Ernie Pyle is here?

"Yeah," she said. "That's the guy. You heard of him?"

Yeah. We heard of him.

They named a ship after him and a bomber and a Marine company and a library and a journalism school and a 16-cent stamp.

On the side of the stamp it says, "Journalist," which is what they call a reporter after he is dead.

They made a movie about him, and his books were best-sellers. He was on the cover of Time.

I called once to the library they named after him, and the person there confirmed that the most asked question from the kids who wander through is: "Who was Ernie Pyle?"

He was born in 1900 and was known as the Little Guy.

He was short and skinny and restless, and he became a war correspondent when he was 40.

He covered the London Blitz and then the invasion of North Africa.

And during the next two years he became one of the most famous reporters in history.

He wrote about the ordinary troops and how they lived and

fought and died.

And when he did so, he gave you the guy's full name and where he came from and what he was like.

He wrote about fear and agony, and he did so with the sweetest kind of simplicity.

War was not grand for him. He never glorified it.

Pyle could be a sour guy. He was wracked by self-doubt. His achievements, like many in this business, came through a fear of failure.

After the Allied victory in Europe, Pyle wanted to come home. He was sick of the war and tired and believed if he continued covering it, he would be killed.

"He was a marvelous guy," Bill Mauldin, the famous cartoonist who became as beloved as Pyle during the war, once told me. "He was not a sweet guy. He drank a lot and worked hard. He was conscious that he was a civilian around soldiers. He took more risks because of that."

Like many, Pyle wanted to go home. Unlike many, he actually had the choice.

But he was too famous and his dispatches provided too much comfort to too many people for him to stop.

"I'm afraid," Pyle once said. "War scares the hell out of me. I guess it's because I don't want to die. I know the longer we stay with this, the smaller our chances are of getting out. But what the hell! We can't leave and we know it."

When he boarded the ship to take him to cover the invasion of Okinawa, a bunch of correspondents on shore shouted to him, "Keep your head down, Ernie!"

He replied: "Listen, you bastards, I'll take a drink over every one of your graves!"

A few weeks later, on a tiny island named Ie, a Japanese sniper put a bullet into his left temple. They buried Pyle in his helmet.

And they put up a marker to him that said:

At This Spot

The 77th Infantry Division

Lost a Buddy

ERNIE PYLE

18 April 1945

Later, they moved his body to the Punchbowl. On each side of him is a grave of an unknown soldier.

Except on grand anniversaries, the place is rarely crowded.

But every now and then someone stops by. And remembers. And leaves a flower.

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