“Remembering a Journalistic Jewel”
In an era in which we are consumed by the effortlessness of blogging, the false plenitude of the internet, and inconsequential ‘tweets’, Ernest Taylor Pyle’s journalistic legacy shines bright as a true jewel.
Pyle (1900 –1945), the epic wartime reporter, found himself in the midst of dozens of the 20th century’s fiercest clashes, serving as a roaming correspondent for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain from 1935 until his death by Japanese machine-gun fire during World War II.
In 1944, Pyle’s chronicles of the World War II military campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, in Italy, and France earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
His columns as an embedded reporter were enormously popular, comforting the heart of a war-torn America. Indeed, his articles, penned in a homey style much like a private letter to a friend, teemed with compassion for the ordinary soldier.
A self-doubter, depressive, alcohol abuser, and too sensitive for the terrors he recorded so brilliantly, Pyle suffered from bouts of deep depression, never content with the flavor or style of his reportage.
Still, Pyle changed the face of American journalism, and, fortunately, the Ernie Pyle Boyhood Home State Historic Site, in Dana, Indiana, provides us a place to recall – and salute – the career of this journalist.
Birth and Early Life
Pyle was born on a tenant farm near Dana, Indiana. When he was almost 18 years old, he briefly joined the United States Navy Reserve. World War I, however, ended right after he signed up, so he served just three months before attending Indiana University.
There he worked as editor of the student newspaper. Despite a semester shy of completion, he did not graduate, electing to accept a reporting job in LaPorte, Indiana. That gig kept Pyle interested for three months, before he moved to a Washington, D.C. tabloid newspaper called The Washington Daily News. Soon, he was its managing editor, a role he served for three years.
Irritated he was unable to do any reportage of his own and tired of tedious desk work, Pyle quit his job in 1926.
He and his newlywed wife took to the open road in their Ford roadster. Along the way, a local newspaperman asked Pyle to write about his leisurely perambulations across California.
Originally planned as substitute items, the series of eleven became a success; so much so that the editor in chief of Scripps-Howard newspaper chain said that he had noticed a Mark Twain characteristic in Pyle’s style.
Pyle began writing a national feature for the Scripps-Howard Alliance group, wandering about the country in his car, documenting the surprising encounters he had along the way. In 1928, he became the country’s first aviation columnist, a role in which he continued for four years. Following the entry of the United States into World War II, Pyle became a war correspondent, applying his folksy style of writing in his coverage of combat. Instead of the deployments of units, troop tactics, or the activities of generals, Pyle generally wrote from the perspective of the average soldier. These wartime entries endure in four books: Ernie Pyle In England, Here Is Your War, Brave Men, and Last Chapter.
“He was all soldiers’ friend and advocate,” says David Weaver, Interpretation Facilitator at the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site. “He was a watchdog who was always looking out for soldiers. He wrote a column in 1944 demanding that soldiers in combat get fight pay. Because of that article, Congress passed The Ernie Pyle Bill, which set aside $10.00 a month extra for combat infantrymen.”
Not surprisingly, Pyle, often knee deep in gore, suffered severe bouts of war neurosis and acute mental fatigue. He often had premonitions of his own demise, predicting that he would perish while covering the war.
Death of a Legend
On April 18, 1945, Pyle’s ugly suspicions came true. He died on Ie Shima, a Pacific island off of Okinawa Honto, belted in the left temple by Japanese machine gun fire.
He was with the U.S. forces, riding in a jeep with Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Coolidge of the 305th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, and three others.
The road, which ran parallel to the beach two or three hundred yards inland, was supposed to be protected.
“The jeep reached a fork in the road,” explains Weaver, “There was enemy machine gun fire all over, originating on a coral ridge. The men left the vehicle, diving into a ditch. Pyle and Coolidge lifted their heads to look around for the others. Pyle is said to have smiled, asking Coolidge if he was safe. Those words were his final ones.”
The museum center contains the telegram sent from the government to Pyle’s family informing them of his death. In his pocket, the outline of a column he was preparing an article that foresaw the end of the Great War – a bitterly ironic expression that went unpublished for years.
Buried with his helmet on, Pyle – one of but a few American civilians killed during the war later awarded the Purple Heart– was entombed in a long row of graves among other soldiers.
“An infantry private rested on one side,” said Weaver. “And a combat engineer on the other.”
Later, he was reburied at the Army cemetery on Okinawa, and then moved to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, in Honolulu. Once Okinawa returned to Japanese control, the new government accepted the Ernie Pyle monument as one of only three American memorials to remain in place.
Pyle remains especially revered by World War II veterans, their families, and their descendants. For those who lived during the war, his writings – syndicated by hundreds of newspapers – captured the dignity and heroism of American troops; his humble observations and descriptions remain unmatchable. As the participants who he wrote about rapidly depart from this earth, Pyle’s stories survive as eminently readable bits and bulletins, forever etched in the permanent ink of American journalism.
Similar to other journalists of the time, he supported the war effort, seeing his role as one that boosted troops’ moral and physical victory. Neither hawkish nor dovish in his dispatches, Pyle did not envision himself as a reporter of democracy, and his accounts are noticeably absent of politically-charged vocabulary. His timeless bulletins survive as a means to tell us his generation’s war stories and sacrifices.
Photos: Courtesy Ernie Pyle Historic Site