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Cort Kirkwood explains why the splendid writing of World War II columnist Ernie Pyle is still worth reading.

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Remembering Ernie Pyle

Cort Kirkwood explains why the splendid writing of World War II columnist Ernie Pyle is still worth reading.

Most Americans probably don’t know who World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle was, even most young journalists who should.

They know Murrow and Cronkite and perhaps even Shirer. Yet when Pyle was filing copy from the battlefields of Africa, Italy, France and the Pacific, he was America’s most beloved war correspondent. When Americans wanted to know what their sons, brothers and husbands were up against, they turned to Pyle.

From a man who ate, slept and marched with the men at the front, they learned what the war was like on the ground for the freckled-faced boys they whelped from pups, who made killing their profession. Pyle carried a typewriter, but he bravely faced the same danger of instant death.

The soldiers considered him one of their own, and they treasured him. And so did everyone else, from the President on down to the corner soda jerk.

Pyle’s story

Ernie Pyle was born on Aug. 3, 1900 in Dana, Ind., and attended Indiana University at Bloomington. He missed World War I, much to his regret on hearing stories about the Great War from a returning friend.

The stories, reports David Nichols’ in Ernie’s War, a collection of Pyle’s columns, gave Pyle an unreal, romantic portrait of war. In 1923, he joined the Washington Daily Star, then a small tabloid.

Pyle became a successful newspaperman and the nation’s first aviation columnist, but he didn’t become a household name until he began telling The Story of G.I. Joe, the title of the posthumous film about Pyle and the men he wrote about.

His first battle with Americans on the ground was in North Africa, where he witnessed America’s humiliating debacle at the Kasserine Pass.

After Africa, Pyle landed in Italy, and then he joined American forces for the Normandy invasion. He hit the beach on June 7, but plenty of fighting, as well as plenty of death and destruction, remained for Pyle to cover. After the war in Europe, Pyle went to the Pacific.

On April 18, 1945 on Ie Shima, he took a sniper’s round through his left temple.

Why Read Pyle

Pyle wrote about men, not battle plans. He wrote about them by name, always mentioned a hometown, and made note of their civilian jobs. He also wrote about their wives and children. Pyle’s columns could be amusing as well as sorrowful, and they were full of triumph and tragedy. Poignant doesn’t begin to describe them.

Most importantly, Pyle documented the American fighting man’s profound sacrifices amid the wanton violence, destruction and killing. The war quickly disabused Pyle of his puerile, romantic ideas about war.

Two columns, filed June 16-17, 1944, from Normandy, describe the wreckage on the beach. The second, titled "A Long Thing Line Of Personal Anguish," deals with the human flotsam and jetsam littering the beach:

"Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters for home . . . . Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand."

At the end of the column, Pyle wrote about the dead.

"The strong swirling tides … carry soldiers’ bodies out to sea and later they return. They cover the corpses with sand, and then in their whims they uncover them . . . . I walked around what seemed to be a couple of pieces of driftwood sticking out of the sand. But they weren’t driftwood. They were a soldier’s two feet."

War brings about an awful change in a man, Pyle wrote in "Brave Men, Brave Men!," filed April 22, 1943. The boys we send off to war will not return the same: "They have made the psychological transition from the normal belief that taking life is sinful, over to a new professional outlook where killing is a craft. To them now, there is nothing morally wrong about killing. In fact, it is an admirable thing."

But in San Pietro, Italy, on January 10, 1944, Pyle filed his most famous and beloved piece, "The Death of Captain Waskow." The account knocked all of the war news off the front page of the Washington Daily News, for more than any other story, it gave readers the unglamorous truth about the war. It may be the most moving piece of combat journalism ever.

"Two men unlashed [Capt. Waskow’s] body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the low stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally there were five lying end to end in a long row, alongside the road . . . .

"The 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.

"Another man came … [and] looked down into the dead captain’s face, and then he spoke directly to him, as though he were alive. He said: ‘I sure am sorry, old man.’

"Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said: ‘I sure am sorry, sir.’

"Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there."

But a reader can neither understand nor appreciate what Pyle learned without repeating a few words from an unpublished column, "On Victory In Europe," found on his body after he was killed. It mutes the glorious colors with which we have a tendency to paint that grand opera of death.

"Dead men by mass production ….

"Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.

"Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.

"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 the multiple thousands.

"That’s the difference . . . ."

The GI’s Buddy

The GIs Pyle memorialized die at a rate of 1,000 a day. They are old men now, but they have never forgotten him.

Pyle performed a simple service. He wrote about the average guy using his wits, humor and inner fortitude to survive a near hopeless Hell of tedium, loneliness, despair and unrelenting tension and fear.

In portraying the soldiers for who and what they were-the kid next door who mowed your lawn, the smiling man who delivered your mail or fixed your car-he made them all the more heroic.

Over his grave at Ie Shima, a makeshift marker showed what the men thought of Pyle:

At This Spot
The 77th Infantry Division
Lost A Buddy
Ernie Pyle
April 18 1945.

Ernie Pyle rests with his buddies in Hawaii’s Punchbowl.

Written By

Mr. Kirkwood is managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.

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