Ernie Pyle remembered for tales of soldiers' lives in WWII
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Journalist Ernie Pyle wrote hundreds of front-line columns during World War II, many composed like letters back home relating the personal stories of weary infantrymen.
“We don’t know which of his wartime columns Pyle was most proud of,” Owen V. Johnson said Saturday during a ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, where Pyle is buried among the 34,000 gravesites.
“He didn’t think about such things,” said Johnson, a professor emeritus at Indiana University and Pyle scholar, during a speech at the ceremony dedicating a stone and plaque to World War II infantrymen and the journalists who wrote about them. “But I suspect it would have been his last unfinished one.”
That column – left undone when a bullet to the head killed him on April 18, 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa – summed up the fatigue and numbness in his soul, the same sentiments felt among the infantryman he’d written about for three years from Africa to Italy to France and the Pacific.
The end of the war, Pyle wrote, would be a cause for relief but not elation.
“In the joyousness of high spirits it is easy for us to forget the dead,” he wrote.
“But there are 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.
“Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.”
As one of the few reporters who routinely lived and marched with frontline infantrymen during the war, Pyle was beloved by the soldiers for telling the stories of their lives from the trenches.
“I definitely think there’s still a lot to be learned from him,” Johnson said after the ceremony. “Every war correspondent that I’ve ever talked to has cited Pyle as an example to be emulated, or at least to strive to be that good, to get inside the individual soldier, sailor or airman.”
He also possessed an incredible memory.
“He did not use a reporter’s notebook except to write down names and hometowns,” Johnson said. “The rest of it he got into his head. I used to tell my students it was as though he had a video camera that was rolling and he could store anywhere up to 13 stories and then write them.
“If he wasn’t sure how to frame a story, then he’d look at that picture again. Perhaps it was a gift, but my hunch is it was a gift he worked on getting better at.”
Pyle was an accomplished journalist well before World War II, experience that earned the 42-year-old the nickname “The Old Man” by the troops he began covering in North Africa in 1942.
Pyle had longed to join the military during World War I, but his parents required him to first graduate from high school. After graduating he served a short, land-locked stint in the Navy until the end of the war, then entered Indiana University in 1919 to study journalism.
He became a top aviation writer in Washington, D.C., in the 1920s. During the Great Depression, he began writing a column about the daily struggles of average Americans as he traveled throughout the country.
“In the process he honed his story-telling abilities and, more importantly, got to know America,” Johnson said in his speech. “That experience was priceless when he turned his attention to telling the story of war.”
The Ernie Pyle Legacy Foundation, whose directorship is largely comprised of Pyle’s indirect descendants — he had no children, but his brother did — commissioned the stone and plaque dedicated on Saturday. It stands about 100 feet from Pyle’s simple headstone where he was buried in 1949 after being exhumed in Okinawa.
“When someone asks what his legacy is, it’s his whole life and what he did in his life and his mastery of journalism,” said Jerry Maschino, a foundation director.
Pyle also left his mark in a particularly important way to today’s troops deploying downrange. Pyle wrote a series of columns decrying the unfairness that troops in frontline combat received no more pay than those serving away from battle.
As a result, Congress passed “The Ernie Pyle bill,” giving servicemembers in combat $10 a month extra, a bonus now called imminent danger pay.
Pyle visited Hawaii in 1937, saying in one of several columns he wrote that what he most liked about Honolulu “is the ridge of mountains rising in the back of the sea.”
In a eulogy given at his reburial here in 1949, Honolulu Press Club president Buck Buchwach said: “Today Ernie is here in that very ridge of mountains, and it is fitting that he should be laid to rest for eternity in the shade of that ridge.”
It’s also befitting that Pyle lies among the graves of the kind of men with whom he ate, slept, marched and died.