Pyle brought war home to readers

WAY BACK WHEN

His front-line stories altered war coverage before he died in '45

Back Story

Taking Note of History

April 23, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Six days after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a still grieving nation learned that beloved war correspondent Ernie Pyle had been killed early on the morning of April 18, 1945.

Sixty years after his death, Pyle is still recalled as one of the great chroniclers of World War II. His stories from the front lines conveyed what war was really like, presenting it through the eyes and emotions of GIs for whom all its grimness and horror was a daily reality.

"As a practitioner of the craft of journalism, Pyle was perhaps without peer. After him, no war correspondent could pretend to have gotten the real story without having moved extensively among the front-line soldiers who actually fought," wrote James Tobin in his 1997 book, Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II. "Nor could any credible reporter ever again hint that modern warfare was glorious on the old Victorian pattern, or that soldiers went into battle with patriotic words on their lips, or that war could somehow be waged without producing `an awful lot of dead people.'"

Pyle was serving with U.S. troops on Okinawa and riding in a jeep when he was shot in the left temple by a Japanese sniper during an ambush. The Indiana native, who had grown frail, sad-eyed and prematurely gray, was 44.

"The nation is quickly saddened again by the death of Ernie Pyle," said President Harry Truman. "No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it to be told. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen."

"He was one of the greatest heroes of this war," wrote Adm. Chester W. Nimitz to Pyle's widow.

The outpouring of affection, tears and tributes at his death were an odd contrast for a man who throughout his life had suffered from shyness and feared rejection.

"I suffer agony in anticipation of meeting people for fear they won't like me," he wrote.

Pyle was born in 1900 on a farm near Dana, Ind., and studied journalism at Indiana University. He quit before graduation to take a job on The La Porte (Ind.) Herald-Argus, and then went to work for Scripps-Howard Newspapers' Washington (D.C.) News. From 1928 to 1932, he was the chain's aviation correspondent.

After serving as managing editor of the Washington News for three years, and weary of a desk job, Pyle was given a new assignment as a roving reporter for Scripps-Howard in 1935. Touring the nation in a Ford coupe with his wife, Pyle filed six 1,000-word columns a week that were syndicated to the newspaper's chain of 24 papers.

In 1940, he was sent to London to cover the Blitz for the New York World Telegram and in 1942 went into action with troops in the North African campaign. He remained with them through the invasion of Sicily, Italy, D-Day and the battle across France, until 1945 when he was sent to the Pacific.

"I love the infantry because they are the underdogs," he wrote. "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."

A corpsman going through Pyle's pockets after his body was removed from the lonely roadside found a draft of a column he intended to publish when the German surrender came.

"And so it is over. The catastrophe on one side of the world has run its course. The day that it had seemed would never come has come at last," he wrote, describing "the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.

"Dead men by mass production - in one country after another - month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer. ...

"These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn't come back. You didn't see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.

"We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That's the difference ... "

He was buried not far from where he fell, and where his Army comrades erected a sign: "At this spot, the 77th infantry lost a buddy, Ernie Pyle, 18 April 1945."

In 1949, he was re-buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

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