There was no shortage of outstanding reporters in World War II. In the United States alone, journalists such as William L. Shirer, Edward R. Murrow, John Hersey, Quentin Reynolds, Martha Gellhorn, and Richard Tregaskis are still read today for their reporting of this titanic conflict of the twentieth century. Literary lights also served as war correspondents, including John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Erskine Caldwell. But there was one newspaperman whose reportage is inseparable from World War II, a reporter who occupied a special place in the hearts of those fighting the war: Ernie Pyle.
Ernie Pyle wasn’t just popular with the GI’s. He had a huge audience in the United States who valued the simple, direct approach he took to the people and events he wrote about in his columns. He had become a “roving reporter” for the Scripps-Howard syndicate in the 1930s, traveling throughout the U.S. as well as deep into both Central and South America, sharing with his readers what he encountered along the way.
Ernie Pyle was born in Dana, Indiana on August 3, 1900. His family worked as sharecroppers for a prosperous farm family. He grew up among plain people and learned to value the stories and experiences of everyday folk. He served briefly in the Navy towards the end of World War I, then went to Indiana University to study journalism. He served as a reporter and city editor for the campus paper, earned a position at the LaPorte (Indiana) Herald six months before graduation, and was lured away from there after just six months to the Washington Daily News of the Scripps-Howard chain. He married his wife Geraldine on July 7, 1925.
Several years later, Ernie Pyle broke new ground in journalism–he became the first writer to have a column devoted entirely to aviation. He held this position from 1928-1932, then became a managing editor for the Daily News, but hating being deskbound. By 1935 he convinced Scripps- Howard executives to let him become a roving reporter on the condition he provide six columns a week. Some of these columns about life in the U.S. would be published in the posthumous collection Home Country (1947).
Pyle began covering the war with the Battle of Britain in 1940. When America entered the conflict he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, but was rejected due to his age. He went on to cover the North Africa and Italian campaigns and the drive through Europe following D-Day. His next assignment was covering the Pacific war in 1945. He was killed on April 18, 1945 by a sniper on the island of Ie Shima. Ernie Pyle was only forty-four years old. He was buried on Okinawa, but his remains were later taken to the National Military Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, known informally as “The Punchbowl.” Many veterans of the Pacific campaign are buried there.
Ernie Pyle’s book Brave Men was published seventy years ago. Brave Men is divided into four sections. The first covers the invasion of Sicily and subsequent campaign there between June and September of 1943. The second is devoted to the Italian campaign from December of 1943 to April of 1944. Then follows a section on Pyle’s time in England in April and May of 1944. Some of this material includes reflections on the war in Italy, a visit to American airmen in England, and a portrait of a tank destroyer unit. The book concludes with the battle through France from June to September of 1944. Pyle arrived in Normandy one day after the D-Day landing and followed the fighting into Paris.
Brave Men is fascinating reading. Pyle’s prose reads so easily, and the stories are so fascinating that it’s easy to get pulled into the book. It is chock-full of accounts of everyday soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Often when profiling someone he will tell where the man is from and sometimes even provide a street address and some family history. This makes for an intimate first-hand look at the war.
The legacy of Ernie Pyle lives on. There is a museum at the Erie Pyle State Historic Site in Dana, Indiana, and Indiana University’s School of Journalism is located in Ernie Pyle Hall. There is also an Ernie Pyle journalism scholarship at Indiana U. Visitors can also tour the Ernie Pyle Home and Library in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His home has been converted into a branch library, and they have Ernie Pyle material and memorabilia stored there as well.
It you’re looking for a great first-hand look at World War II, you can’t go wrong with Brave Men. It is an outstanding collection of columns by a great American journalist.
Ernie Pyle State Historic Site in Indiana: http://www.erniepyle.org/
Ernie Pyle Home/Library in Albuquerque, New Mexico: https://www.facebook.com/ErniePyleLibrary
Brave Men by Ernie Pyle. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1944.
Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One: The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001. Entry on Ernie Pyle by Krista Ann Greenberg.