Today we have both video and audio reports from war zones, and whenever there is breaking news we can access as much information about a conflict going on halfway around the world that we can learn about instantly via the Internet. But during World War II, the soldiers and the public alike relied on reporters like Ernie Pyle (1900-1945).
Pyle wrote 1,000-word columns that he filed six days a week. The soldiers considered him a friend and counted on him to tell their story. Families at home waited for the latest reports.
Just as William Mauldin’s cartoon characters Willie and Joe represented the average guy, Ernie Pyle, too, was a friend to the infantrymen because he told the regular man’s story.
Ernie Pyle grew up in a small town in Indiana, and when he became a war correspondent, he never lost sight of the type of people and the values he had learned growing up. He rarely told a story of anyone above the rank of captain and kept his focus on the men along the front line — the infantrymen, the cooks, the laundrymen, the mechanics, the tank retrieval crews, the medics, the gravediggers.
He walked along side them after battles when they had fought hard, eaten little, and slept not at all… Pyle called it as he saw it: Every “line and sag of their bodies speaks their inhuman exhaustion.” He called them “dead weary.”
These brothers, sons, fathers, husbands, and friends — these regular guys who for their own survival and that of their comrades had to learn to kill or be killed — something that didn’t come naturally.
Pyle had returned to the United States from Europe in early 1945, and when he was asked to cover the war in the Pacific, he felt he could not say no. He couldn’t imagine not going along to tell their story, too. On April 18, 1945, Pyle was shot and killed by Japanese machine gun fire.
President Harry Truman was to say: “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man… He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”
Needless to say, Pyle had been at work on a column he expected to file later on. It read in part:
Those who are gone would not wish themselves to be a millstone of gloom around our necks.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 throughout the world. Dead men by mass production — in one country after another — month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer. 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 by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference…
For every war, we need great storytellers so that the generations that follow will understand the real war that was fought. World War II’s man was Ernie Pyle.
What journalists do you think are best documenting today’s conflicts?