Ernie Pyle: 60 Years After His Death
Ernie Pyle, perhaps America’s most famous war correspondent, died 60 years ago on the tiny island of Ie Shima, off the coast of Okinawa in the Pacific. He was three and a half weeks short of his 45th birthday.
Pyle’s death came just six days after President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed away. In both cases, many Americans felt they had lost an old friend. Newspapers across the country editorialized about the man who gave readers a sense of what being on the front lines was like.
No journalist since then has been able to establish himself as the equal of Pyle, though many have dreamed of matching the accomplishments of this 5-7, 110 pound native of Dana, Ind. Part of the reason was Pyle’s talent. Part of the reason is that journalism has changed since Pyle’s day. And part of the reason is the myth that has grown up around Pyle.
In letters to friends, Pyle used to complain about the stories that people invented about him.
Launching a career
It’s true that Pyle attended Indiana University and left one semester short of graduation. He didn’t major in journalism because it was an easy major, as some writers of the past suggested. Although IU had a Department of Journalism, it didn’t offer a major until the 1930s.
It’s doubtful that Pyle left the university because of a broken heart. It’s true that his beloved Harriett had given him back his pin so that she could date a doctor 10 years her senior, whom she would eventually marry. (She died about 10 years ago in Bedford, Ind.)
More likely, Pyle found the university too provincial. After a taste of travel to the Far East during his junior year, he was ready to move on. The immediate cause of his departure may, in fact, have been a run-in with a faculty member in the Department of Journalism, most likely the chair.
When the chair learned that a newspaper in LaPorte, Ind., was looking for a reporter, he nominated Pyle. That newspaper staff was a remarkable one for its day. Five reporters there had college degrees or like Pyle, had almost finished.
Within a short time, Pyle was on his way to join the staff of the Washington Daily News, a new tabloid founded by Scripps-Howard head Roy W. Howard, whose journalistic roots also had been planted in Indiana.
The paper boasted a brilliant, young staff that included Nelson Poynter, an IU graduate who made a name for himself at the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times; and Lee Miller, Pyle’s immediate boss for much of his life, another brilliant Hoosier, who had graduated from Harvard at the age of 19.
They worked hard and they played hard. Pyle reveled in the environment. Just two years out of college, he was writing about life in the nation’s capital. He glowed as he wrote to a friend how he had covered a press conference given by President Calvin Coolidge, noting that a Washington Post photograph showed him at the edge of Coolidge’s desk.
On a couple of occasions, Pyle was an editor, not a reporter. He was the first editor of a special edition of IU’s student newspaper, the Daily Student, produced for more than 30 years at the Indiana State Fair. Twice during World War II, he helped Naval personnel edit newspapers on board ships.
As a civilian, he worked three years as managing editor at the Daily News. Copies of memos he wrote to the staff show someone who expected tough, persistent reporting and good writing. But he also recognized that how a paper played a story was important. It had to have stories to "smash" on page one.
To some degree, however, Pyle was a writer stuck in a journalist’s skin. He was learning how to tell stories. He could write a story on deadline, but he preferred the chance to craft his work.
More importantly, Pyle saw stories. Rarely as a reporter did he take notes, except to record information such as names and dates. He stored the stories, sometimes more than a dozen, in his mind until he had a chance to hole up somewhere and write them.
Even then he struggled to get the words down on paper. He wrote and edited and rewrote, sometimes six or seven times, trying to get just the right rhythm and just the right words.
As Pyle would have been the first to admit, sometimes the columns weren’t very good. But for much of his journalistic life he had to turn out six columns a week, with 700 words in each column.
Pyle honed his abilities to tell stories while writing about aviation, a field of heroes and heroines in the late 1920s that naturally created stories. He knew everybody. Or, as Amelia Earhart put it, any aviator who didn’t know Pyle was a nobody.
Pyle didn’t embellish. He didn’t have to because of his ability to see stories. Only on a few occasions did someone complain about the accuracy of a Pyle story. On those occasions Pyle could reach back in his mind and look back at the "recordings" in his brain and recall practically word for word, picture for picture, what had happened.
In 1925, still fairly new in Washington, Pyle married Jerry Siebolds, a government worker from Minnesota. We know little about their courtship and the early years of their marriage. We do know that Pyle quickly recognized that there was something wrong with Jerry.
Doctors today would recognize signs of manic depression. Perhaps it was the creative manic times that originally attracted Pyle to Jerry. She apparently loved to play with words, just as he did. She apparently was his muse. She wrote some of the columns that were attributed to him.
They were married quietly with no honeymoon. After the ceremony they went back to work.
Until his death, Pyle struggled with his wife’s illness. He started traveling across the country in 1935 with her by his side, writing columns and perhaps hoping that they might find a solution to the demons that were consuming her.
But they often drove in silence. In hotels they usually had separate rooms. Her alcohol and drug abuse increased. In the days before Viagra and Cialis, Pyle suffered erection inadequacies.
By the late 1930s, they both knew that their marriage was in crisis, but neither knew what to do. There’s even some evidence that in the summer of 1940, he was ready to give up. Friends who were worried about him set him up with a Brown County (Ind.) Theatre actress for some frolicking that did not lead to sex.
(One night during that same Brown County visit, he had dinner with Herman B Wells, the young president of Indiana University, and an old IU classmate. That same week, in one of the most revealing interviews he ever gave, he recalled for a Bloomington reporter how when he was a student, he had worked at the railroad roundhouse, where he had once crossed a picket line, something he later regretted.)
In 1942, Ernie and Jerry, after much discussion, decided to divorce. Pyle would say he hoped this would shake Jerry to her senses. But by that time, she was too far gone.
A trip to London at the end of 1940 to report on the Nazi bombing there catapulted Pyle to fame. It was launched by a brilliant word-picture of the biggest attack of the war.
"It was a night when London was ringed with fire," Pyle wrote.
It showed his bosses at Scripps-Howard that Pyle was more than just a provincial writer. For the first time, Americans could picture the war’s impact in Europe. When Pyle returned to Great Britain in the summer of 1942, they knew who he was and what to expect from him.
Remarkably, Pyle almost missed the big attack in London. He had been stalled for several weeks in Lisbon, Portugal, trying to catch a flight to London. If he had arrived a couple of weeks later, he would have missed the last, big air attack that the Germans launched on London.
Despite Pyle’s reputation as the quiet, mild-mannered buddy of the GIs in the foxhole, he was well-connected. In 1941 when he was trying to arrange passage back from London, he didn’t hesitate to get his bosses to contact directly the president of Pan American Airlines for priority on one of their new Clippers. Or if that didn’t work, he could ask his Indiana friend, Lowell Mellett, to intervene at the White House, where Mellett was an adviser to the President.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, in her own column, had complimented Pyle on his work. Pyle wrote her several letters, thanking her for her support.
That was another secret to Pyle’s success. He thanked those who praised his work. A Pyle letter for sale on e-Bay earlier this spring thanked a reviewer for what he had written about Pyle’s book, "This is Your War."
The secret of that success explains why no one has been able to take his place in the pantheon of war correspondents.
Ernie Pyle didn’t have to file daily stories on the fighting and the strategic situation. Instead, he did as he had done before. He looked for stories and stored them up in his mind, then went back away from the front lines and wrote them up. What Americans read in the paper usually appeared several weeks after Pyle wrote it.
While Pyle and his Scripps-Howard bosses often had cable contact with each other, most of the time he operated somewhat autonomously. He didn’t have editors who choreographed his every move. He roamed about following tellable stories.
They weren’t all about the men in the foxholes, either. He treasured having Gens. Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower as his friends. At the very least, such friendships could open doors when they needed to be opened.
Several of Pyle’s most famous columns were not the result of his planning, but of the chance of timing or of someone else’s decision.
"The Death of Captain Waskow," Pyle’s most famous column, appeared when the Allied forces were bogged down at the Anzio beachhead in Italy. In the column, which described how Waskow’s men paid homage to him after the captain’s body, one of many brought down from the mountainside, was laid alongside a stone wall.
The column captured the tragedy of war, but also showed how the comradeship it built would win the war.
Pyle didn’t want to be on the beach at Normandy, one day after D-Day. He hated invasions because he knew the chance of death was high. But Gen. Bradley asked him to go. Without that request, we wouldn’t have the picture of the beach one day after the fighting that was captured in "Saving Private Ryan."
The columns that he wrote from the beach are many-layered. Those looking for inspiration will find it there. Those who abhor war will also find inspiration.
In 1944 Pyle was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, one of a bundle of prizes that he won during the war. Pyle wasn’t present in New York for the presentation of the award, which took place, remarkably on D-Day.
Pyle’s ability to tell stories explains in large part why he was so successful. Even censors were probably taken in by the stories. They found it difficult to remove even one stone from the stories that Pyle had constructed.
Readers at home or the soldiers and sailors who read his stories overseas remembered not the facts, but the stories. They could share the stories with others. The facts of other reporters were quickly forgotten as the front moved on. Pyle’s stories survived.
The Allied drive across France to Paris took a severe toll on Pyle. Not only did he witness an attack of friendly fire, but he saw more dead people than he ever had before. Over time this unnerved him, just as it did on so many soldiers during the war.
He came home where he was overwhelmed and scared by the adulation that he received.
He wanted to spend time alone with Jerry to try to rekindle their relationship. But he was interrupted by tourists, a movie, and the business of being famous. Tourists came by his house in Albuquerque, N.M., wanting just a few minutes of his time. But lots of tourists meant lots of time.
Pyle had to rent a hotel room in town to do his writing.
During Ernie’s stay, Jerry tried to commit suicide.
Why he chose to go to the Pacific isn’t exactly clear. When Roy W. Howard suggested the idea in fall 1943, while Pyle was on a home visit, Pyle opposed it.
Perhaps the bloody fighting he witnessed in Europe in 1944 convinced him he didn’t want to go back there. And he knew he would be viewed as unpatriotic if he quit writing about the war.
Pyle never hit his stride in the Pacific. None of his columns there is among his famous ones. When he was on board ship the war seemed distant and impersonal. It only became real when he went ashore.
Too much has been made of Pyle’s premonition of death. His letters indicate that like most other troops, he feared invasions and landings. Once those were over, he was fine.
He was scared about the landing on Okinawa, but he landed on a portion of the beach where practically no Japanese resistance was encountered.
A few days later, he came ashore on the small adjacent island of Ie Shima. It had been captured by the Allied Forces, but it hadn’t been cleared.
On April 18, 1945, a Japanese machine gun fired on the jeep in which Pyle was riding. Pyle and the others hit the dirt by the side of the road. When Pyle raised his head to check on the others, he was hit in the head and died instantly.
In his pocket was the draft of a column Pyle was preparing to mark the end of the European war. It was so depressing that it wasn’t published at the time.
Pyle died at the height of his fame, during the combat that had made him so famous.
Pyle, in death, was buried first on Ie Shima (an island that one member of congress proposed should be renamed Ernie Pyle Island), and then in 1949 at Punchbowl Cemetery in Honolulu.
In death, Pyle has remained on a pedestal. For those who lived during the war, his writing recaptures the quiet heroism of American troops. Like other journalists of the time, he supported the cause. He saw his role as one of helping the troops gain victory. He did not picture himself as a watchdog of democracy. Pyle’s letters, in fact, are remarkable by the almost complete absence of politics.
Pyle never had to take sides on the war in Korea, the removal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, or the threats of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. He was spared the division of Vietnam.
That the war had made Pyle rich bothered him. He was not comfortable with making money from his books and the movie about his life. He did think that in peacetime it would provide him with a financial cushion in a time in which he foresaw economic hardship.
It’s hard to imagine what Pyle would have done if he had survived the war. His fame meant that he would no longer be able to return to his quiet travels as an unknown across North America.
Pyle’s stories remain eminently readable today. His powers of observation and description are still difficult to match.
The generation he wrote about is rapidly passing from the scene. But Ernie Pyle will always be able to tell us that generation’s stories.
Owen V. Johnson teaches journalism and history at Indiana University. He is working on a book of Pyle’s letters.