Book Review: Ernie Pyle

The wartime career of legendary combat journalist Ernie Pyle spanned four years and countless battlefields.

By W.F. Burke

Ernie Pyle was the most celebrated war correspondent of World War II. In his newspaper column, which ran in 144 papers and was read by 40 million Americans, Pyle raised the footslogging “GI Joe” to near-heroic status. “They were straw spun into gold,” writes James Tobin in Ernie Pyle’s War (The Free Press, New York, 1997, $25). “The ordinary turned into the sublime.”

Ernest Taylor Pyle was “the sort of fellow you’d never notice in a crowd”–a nondescript little man, 5-foot-8 and skinny. He had humble beginnings, born on a farm in Dana, Ind. His father was a carpenter who farmed, and his mother was a strong-willed woman who reportedly wore the pants in the family.

Pyle was restless as a teenager, and he stayed restless all his life. Halfway through his senior year at Indiana University, he quit school to take a newspaper job. In 1928, while writing a column for the Washington Daily News on aviation, Pyle began to develop his trademark folksy writing style as well as the major theme of his subsequent work–the heroism of “little men” transcending the circumstances of everyday life.

In 1935 Pyle’s editor-in-chief, George Parker, agreed to an experiment that would let Pyle become a roving reporter, free to go where he wished and write about what he chose–“a tramp with an expense account,” as Tobin puts it. Pyle’s travel column ran in 24 Scripps-Howard papers and by 1939 had been picked up by several others.

“Pyle showed a remarkable capacity for identifying with suffering,” Tobin writes, “and began to shape a mythic role for himself [as] American Everyman.” Despite the increasing popularity of his column, Pyle had troubles. He complained of constant fatigue and nervous tension, and his wife, “Jerry,” whom he had married in 1925, entered the acute phase of alcoholism and became reclusive and suicidal.

In late 1940 Pyle went to London to cover the blitz. He had been ambivalent about becoming a war correspondent, but once committed he became a man with a mission. In November 1942 he followed the Operation Torch landings into North Africa, arriving in Oran after American paratroopers had seized the airfields in a fight against the Vichy French. He filed his first reports from an air base in Biskra, then joined the U.S. Army’s II Corps as it headed east.

Pyle found life as a footslogger in the great outdoors to be liberating. He wrote that he reveled in the “magnificent simplicity” of life at the front.

Pyle was with the 1st Armored Division outside the village of Sidi Bou Zid when the largest tank battle of the war up to that time was fought. He then joined the American retreat through the Kasserine Pass. “Awful nights of fleeing,” he wrote of the experience, “crawling and hiding from death.” In April he returned east, advancing with the 1st Division into combat as the Allies launched their assault on Tunisia and broke through to the Mediterranean ports in early May.

Pyle then left North Africa and hooked up with General George Patton’s Seventh Army near Palermo, Sicily. He followed the American advance toward Messina until he fell ill with what was diagnosed as “battlefield fever.” He stayed in a medical clearing station less than a week, then joined the men of the II Corps as they slugged their way through mountainous terrain to Troina. When Sicily fell, Pyle took a five-week leave in the United States, where he was lionized–invited to tea by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and courted by Hollywood studios that wanted to turn his first book, Here Is Your War, into a movie.

By the beginning of 1944, Pyle was back in Italy, in the mountains north of Naples with the 34th Infantry Division. In February, he arrived at the Anzio beachhead, where he remained for four weeks. Pyle occupied a room in a villa that, on March 17, was nearly destroyed when a 500-pound bomb exploded nearby. Somehow he survived without injury.

A week later Pyle left Anzio and returned to London to await the June 6 Allied invasion of Normandy. While waiting, he received word that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

On June 7, Pyle rode an LST (landing ship, tank) to Omaha Beach in Normandy. After returning to his ship that night, he wrote one of the most moving columns of the war. “I took a walk,” he began, “it was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead….

“The strong swirling tides of the Normandy coastline…carry soldiers’ bodies out to sea, and later return them. They cover the corpses of heroes with sand, and then in their whims they uncover them.”

After Operation Cobra, the attack that broke the German line west of St. Lô, Pyle followed the 9th Division into liberated Paris. His European war was over. “I’ve been immersed in it too long,” he wrote in his column, “the hurt has become too great.”

In September 1944, he returned to the United States, but he did not stay long. By January 1945, he was in Guam en route to the Pacific theater. He feared returning to war, he wrote, but felt that he had to “stick with the boys.” He traveled from Guam with Task Force 58, headed for the waters off Okinawa.

From aboard ship, Pyle wrote a friend that he would “not give 2¢ for the likelihood of being alive a year from now.” He went ashore on the island of Ie Shima, off the west coast of Okinawa’s Motobu Peninsula, into an area thought to be secure. The jeep he was riding in on April 18 came under machine-gun fire, and Ernie dove out of the vehicle and into a roadside ditch. When he lifted his head the machine gun fired again, and Pyle was hit in the left temple. He died instantly. He was 45 years old and a long way from Indiana.

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