Journalism has a short shelf life, which is why people who are not journalists mostly don't remember the name "Ernie Pyle" anymore. He died on this day in 1945, doing what he had done more or less throughout World War II, which was to say hang around with a bunch of troops on the front lines of a difficult war so he could record their sufferings in incredibly popular, lyrical columns he published for the Scripps-Howard news service.
It isn't that Pyle wasn't a big deal while alive. Eleanor Roosevelt was a huge, open fan, as was John Steinbeck, and Pyle's books were bestsellers. When he died the Times reported that,
In the Eighth Avenue subway yesterday a gray-haired woman looked up, wet-eyed, from the headline "Ernie Pyle Killed in Action" and murmured "May God rest his soul" and other women, and men, around her took up the words. This was typical.
Originally from Indiana, Pyle was the kind of reporter who would hang around scenes for a long time and then write them up. Despite that method, he was no slouch, productivity-wise: By the end of his life he was writing six seven-hundred word columns a week.
Before he was a war correspondent he wrote about aviation, and Amelia Earhart herself is often quoted as saying, "Any aviator who didn't know Pyle was a nobody." He roved around the country with his wife, whom he described in his columns as "That Girl." But it was his war correspondence that won him his Pulitzer, the year before he died. Probably his most beloved column was "The Death of Captain Waskow," about a commander whose troops absolutely adored him.
I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow's body down. The moon was nearly full at the time, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley below. Soldiers made shadows in the moonlight as they walked.
Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack-saddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.
When their captain had been unloaded from the mule,
[t]he men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually one by one I could sense them moving close to Capt. Waskow's body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him, and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.
One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, "God damn it." That's all he said, and then he walked away. Another one came. He said, "God damn it to hell anyway." He looked down for a few last moments, and then he turned and left.
Behind the beautiful sentences, you can see how hard Pyle worked to show what impossible circumstances his subjects were in. The war they were fighting might have been just in the abstract, geopolitical sense. On the ground, Pyle showed, it was altogether horrible. He made that point most explicitly in a column he never got to finish that he titled, "On Victory in Europe," where he did not sound very victorious at all:
Last summer I wrote that I hoped the end of the war could be a gigantic relief, but not an elation. In the joyousness of high spirits it is so easy for us to forget the dead. Those who are gone would not wish themselves to be a millstone of gloom around our necks.
But there are so many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.
That tortured feeling had followed Pyle most of his life. He had a gift for conveying humility without seeming self-serving, but the way he did so showed traces of regret. He often repeated to people that "I suffer agony in anticipation of meeting people for fear they won't like me." And indeed, away from readers' eyes, he seems to have been at base unhappy. He was, like many great reporters, a heavy drinker. His wife was often ill, possibly a manic depressive, and eventually they split up, which was about when he started spending so much time doing war writing.
On April 18, 1945, he was doing his usual hanging around on Ie Island, which is near Okinawa, when a Japanese machine gun opened fire on the Jeep he was riding in. He hit the ground with a lieutenant colonel, but when he looked up, briefly, was shot through the temple, just below his helmet. And the colonel who was beside him, in a way a good storyteller like Pyle might have appreciated, had to tell the press about what had happened "almost tearfully," the Times said. Pyle probably would have put it more elegantly than that.
[Image via Wikipedia.]