Media Matters

What I Always Wanted to Be

Ernie Pyle is still the greatest. He deserves not to be forgotten.

By 4.30.04

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The first good book I ever read, when I was about nine, was Ernie Pyle's Here Is Your War, dispatches from the North Africa campaign in World War II. During the war, Pyle held a place of regard and honor in American culture and letters comparable to that of Will Rogers. His Scripps-Howard columns ran in hundreds of newspapers. He was "one of us," the G.I.s said. When a Japanese sniper killed Pyle in 1945, the nation wept.

Nowadays, people know Ernie Pyle mainly as a name attached to various institutions. Our own Wlady Pleszczynski didn't know who he was till he (Wlady) arrived at Indiana University and found the J-school building named after Pyle. (Pyle was a Hoosier, born in 1900, and he left Indiana's journalism school a semester short of graduation.) There is the generically perceived "Ernie Pyle Award" for journalism. Actually, there are three. Scripps-Howard awards one to an outstanding journalism school student and another to working journalists for human interest writing. Anheuser-Busch awards another for "lifetime achievement" to various established notables like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather.

The student award doesn't seem to be much of a predictor of journalistic success, or even of a career in journalism. I Googled the names of the 11 winners from 1990 through 2000. Nineteen ninety-three winner Janel Shoun seems to be the most widely published; she works, unsurprisingly, for Scripps-Howard. E. Knight Stivender, 1999 winner, minus the first initial these days, is a staff writer for the Nashville Tennessean. Nellan Young, winner in 2000, writes for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, with some of her articles syndicated by Scripps-Howard.

Nineteen ninety-six winner Catheryne Pully went to work right out of school as an aide to a Congressman, while 1998 honoree Carly Irion apparently competes in rodeos. Of the rest, nothing.

THAT'S ALL KIND OF A SHAME, because Ernie Pyle could really write. There in my grandmother's living room, reading in the dusty shafts of South Dakota light, I was mainlining the good stuff. One is tempted to quote whole sheets of Pyle, and I'm going to quote a lot, because he wrote in long strophes, not just one-liners, and all are worth reading today. The following come from Brave Men, Pyle's book about the Sicily invasion, the Italian campaign, the runup to Normandy, and the D-Day invasion itself.

Pyle could convey the awful grandeur of war:

"Suddenly we were aware of a scene that will shake me every time I think of it for the rest of my life. It was our invasion fleet, formed there far out at sea, waiting for us…On the horizon it resembled a distant city. It covered half the skyline, and the dull-colored camouflaged ships stood indistinctly against the curve of the dark water like a solid formation of uncountable structures blending together. Even to be a part of it was frightening."

He would describe things other writers did not think to describe, here, the firing of tracer shells from ships into the Sicily shoreline:

"A golden flash would appear way off in the darkness. Out of the flash would come a tiny red dot. That was the big shell. Almost instantly, it covered the first quarter of the total distance. Then uncannily it would drop to a much slower speed, as though it had put on a brake…It amazingly kept on in an almost flat trajectory as though it were on wheels being propelled on a level road. Finally after a flight so long it seemed unbelievable that the thing could still be in the air, it would disappear in a little flash as it hit something on the shore. Long afterward the sound of the heavy explosion came rolling across the water."

Pyle's readers loved his personal sketches of individual soldiers and sailors, which always included their addresses:

"Joe Raymer, electrician's mate first class, of 51 South Burgess Avenue, Columbus, Ohio, was a married man with a daughter four years old…Of medium height, he was a pleasant fellow with a little silver in his hair and a cigar in his mouth. Before the war, Joe was a traveling salesman, and that's what he intended to go back to. He worked for the Pillsbury flour people -- had the central-southern Ohio territory. He was a hot shot and no fooling. The year before he went back in the Navy he sold more pancake flour than anybody else in America, and won himself a $500 bonus."

Pyle could be funny, as in this description of his stay in a field hospital, where he found himself felled by a fever. His doctor had just gotten news of the birth of his second child:

"He was so overjoyed he gave me an extra shot of morphine, and I was asleep before I could say, 'Congratulations!'"

He could break your heart, as his own was broken:

"The dying man was left utterly alone, just lying there in his litter on the ground, lying in an aisle, because the tent was full. Of course it couldn't be otherwise, but the aloneness of that man as he went through the last minutes of his life was what tormented me. I felt like going over and at least holding his hand while he died, but it would have been out of order and I didn't do it. I wish now I had."

And in his description of awful weariness that overcame fighting men and correspondents alike, Pyle eerily prefigured his own death:

"We were grimy, mentally as well as physically. We'd drained our emotions until they cringed from being called out from hiding. We looked at bravery and death and battlefield waste and new countries almost as blind men, seeing only faintly and not really wanting to see at all."

ONE MORE INSTITUTION, now forgotten. Apparently April 18, the day Pyle died (sometimes reported as April 17, 1945, because of confusion over the International Date Line), is now Columnist's Day. Jed, Shawn, Bill, Wlady, who knew? A day for us.

I was lucky. There in my grandmother's living room when I was nine, reading Ernie Pyle, I found out what I wanted to be.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.