by lyle e davis
You are about to see an example of some of the finest writing ever put to paper.
Most young people today would have no idea who Ernie Pyle is, or was. Those of us who have been around for a few years know that he was probably the finest war correspondent that ever lived. He had a touch for writing that caught the moment, caught the emotion, caught the truth . . . and it was practically always about the little guy . . . the grunt, the soldier in the line and on the line. Occasionally, he would focus on officers.
Americans rushed home to read Ernie Pyle’s columns written from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. Seven hundred daily and weekly newspapers carried his war reports to 14 million kitchen tables. Pyle won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his war reporting.
His most memorable column, and most widely published, dealt with a certain officer, a Captain Waskow. Grown men, who have seen combat, read this and their eyes grow moist. “Yes,” they’ll say, “Pyle caught the emotion.”
The figure in the photograph is clad in Army fatigues, boots and helmet, lying on his back in peaceful repose, folded hands holding a military cap. Except for a thin trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, he could be asleep. But he is not asleep; he is dead. And this is not just another fallen GI; it is Ernie Pyle, the most celebrated war correspondent of World War II. The previously unknown photo surfaced 63 years after Pyle was killed by a sniper’s bullet and has only recently been published.
"It's a striking and painful image, but Ernie Pyle wanted people to see and understand the sacrifices that soldiers had to make, so it's fitting, in a way, that this photo of his own death ... drives home the reality and the finality of that sacrifice," said James E. Tobin, a professor at Miami University of Ohio.
Read this masterpiece . . . then we’ll talk a bit more about Ernie Pyle. You are about to participate in a special experience:
The Death of Captain Waskow
AT THE FRONT LINES IN ITALY, January 10, 1944 - In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas.
Capt. Waskow was a company commander in the 36th Division. He had led his company since long before it left the States. He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.
"After my own father, he came next," a sergeant told me.
"He always looked after us," a soldier said. "He'd go to bat for us every time."
"I've never knowed him to do anything unfair," another one said.
I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow's body down. The moon was nearly full at the time, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley below. Soldiers made shadows in the moonlight as they walked.
Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack-saddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.
The Italian mule-skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies at the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself, and ask others to help.
The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment, while they got a new grip. In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road. I don't know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don't ask silly questions.
We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.
Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about it. We talked soldier talk for an hour or more. The dead man lay all alone outside in the shadow of the low stone wall.
Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there, in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting. "This one is Captain Waskow," one of them said quietly.
Two men unlashed his 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. You don't cover up dead men in the combat zone. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.
The unburdened mules moved off to their olive orchard. 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; I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the half light, for all were bearded and grimy dirty. The man looked down into the dead captain's face, and then he spoke directly to him, as though he were alive. He said: "I'm 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.
And finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain's shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.
After that the rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the five dead men lying in a line, end to end, in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.
At one point during the US campaign in Italy during WWII, Don Whitehead of the Associated Press dropped in on Ernie Pyle of Scripps-Howard. He knew Ernie had been feeling depressed.
"Ernie was all man, but there was something that made you want to take care of him, to lend him a hand whenever possible. I suppose we sensed that war was a heavier strain on him than on most of us because he was more sensitive to cold and hunger and pain and the shock of seeing men killed."
Whitehead found Pyle at work. He had been to the front to get some stories about the mule teams they were using to supply the men fighting in the mountains.
"I've lost the touch," Pyle said. "This stuff stinks. I just can't seem to get going again." He tossed three columns to his visitor and said, "What do you think of 'em?"
The first one was a tribute to Captain Henry T. Waskow, a beloved commander whose body had just been brought down on one of the mules.
"The simplicity and beauty of that description brought tears to my eyes," Whitehead writes. "This was the kind of writing all of us were striving for, the picture we were trying to paint in words for the people at home.
"'If this is a sample from a guy who has lost his touch,' I said, 'then the rest of us had better go home.'"
There is more. From one of his columns, “The Goddamned Infantry”
Now to the infantry — the God-damned infantry, as they like to call themselves. I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can't be won without.
I wish you could see just one of the ineradicable pictures I have in my mind today. In this particular picture I am sitting among clumps of sword-grass on a steep and rocky hillside that we have just taken. We are looking out over a vast rolling country to the rear. A narrow path comes like a ribbon over a hill miles away, down a long slope, across a creek, up a slope and over another hill.
All along the length of this ribbon there is now a thin line of men. For four days and nights they have fought hard, eaten little, washed none, and slept hardly at all. Their nights have been violent with attack, fright, butchery, and their days sleepless and miserable with the crash of artillery.
The men are walking. They are fifty feet apart, for dispersal. Their walk is slow, for they are dead weary, as you can tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies speaks their inhuman exhaustion.
On their shoulders and backs they carry heavy steel tripods, machine-gun barrels, leaden boxes of ammunition. Their feet seem to sink into the ground from the overload they are bearing.
They don't slouch. It is the terrible deliberation of each step that spells out their appalling tiredness. Their faces are black and unshaven. They are young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion make them look middle-aged.
In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory — there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.
The line moves on, but it never ends. All afternoon men keep coming round the hill and vanishing eventually over the horizon. It is one long tired line of antlike men.”
At the Indiana University School of Journalism, Ernie Pyle is revered for his contributions to journalism and honored as the namesake of the building that houses an institution dedicated to teaching students what Pyle mastered: that great storytelling is built on great journalism skills and an ability to explain the larger issues of the world through the eyes of the people most affected by them.
Every journalist I have known knows who Ernie Pyle was. They all admire his work and, to some degree, try to emulate him.
I decided, way back in 1967, when I first went to South Vietnam as a brand new war correspondent, that I would try to use Pyle as a model. Using simple words to describe the troopers I would be interviewing, and their jobs. To try and paint an accurate word picture of where they were, what they were doing, and what they were experiencing. Pyle has definitively influenced my style of writing.
En route to South Vietnam I stopped in Hawaii and paid a visit to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. There, I found Ernie Pyle’s grave. I paid my respects and headed off to Vietnam, hoping I could capture at least some of Pyle’s magic with words.
No one will ever write like Ernie Pyle. Ever. He was one of a kind and will never be duplicated. Still, he is one terrific model for anyone who hopes to write. He was a simple man, from a small tenant farm near Dana, Indiana. Ernest Taylor Pyle was born on August 3, 1900 and died, way too young, age 45, on April 18, 1945.
He wrote as a roving correspondent for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain from 1935 until his death in combat during World War II. He enjoyed a loyal following in as many as 300 newspapers. Pyle spent time as a traveling correspondent, writing folksy articles about places and people he would visit, much like a later correspondent for CBS-TV, Charles Kuralt would do. I suspect Mr. Kuralt learned a few lessons from Mr. Pyle. We all did.
He had a rather tempestuous marriage to a Geraldine Siebolds, whom he called Jerry. He also called her a "fearful and troubled wife." They were married in 1925. Jerry suffered from intermittent bouts of mental illness and alcoholism. Pyle described her as "desperate within herself since the day she was born". In a letter to his college roommate, Paige Cavanaugh, after his return for a vacation during his war correspondent days, he said "Geraldine was drunk the afternoon I got home. From there she went on down. Went completely screwball. One night she tried the gas. Had to have a doctor." The two were divorced shortly after.
Readers who enjoy outstanding writing would be well advised to trot on down to the local library and check out any or all of the four books that Pyle wrote, all based on his war correspondent years; they are: Ernie Pyle In England, Here Is Your War, Brave Men, and Last Chapter
In 1944, he wrote a column urging that soldiers in combat get "fight pay" just as airmen were paid "flight pay". Congress passed a law giving soldiers 50 percent extra pay for combat service. The legislation was called "the Ernie Pyle bill."
He reported from the United States, Europe, Africa, and the Pacific.
On April 18, 1945, Pyle died on Ie Shima, an island off Okinawa Honto, as the result of machine gun fire from an enemy machine gun nest. He had been riding in a jeep with Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Coolidge, commanding officer of the 305th, as well as three other men. The road, which paralleled the beach two or three hundred yards inland, had been cleared of mines, and hundreds of vehicles had driven over it. As the vehicle reached a road junction, a machine gun position on a coral ridge about a third of a mile away began shooting at them. The men stopped their vehicle and jumped into a ditch. Pyle and Coolidge raised their heads to look around for the others, and when they spotted them, Pyle smiled and asked Coolidge "Are you all right?"
Those were his last words. The machine gunner began shooting again, and Pyle was struck in the left temple. The colonel called for a medic, but there were none present. Pyle had been killed instantly.
He was buried with his helmet on, and laid to rest in a long row of graves among other soldiers, an infantry private on one side, an engineer on the other. At the 10 minute service, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army were represented. He was later reburied at the Army cemetery on Okinawa, then moved to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific located in Honolulu. When Okinawa was returned to the Japanese the Ernie Pyle Memorial was one of three American memorials they allowed to remain in place.
In 1947, his last home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was made into the first branch library of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Library System, named in honor of its famous occupant. Today, the Ernie Pyle Library houses a small collection of adult and children's books, as well as Pyle memorabilia and archives.
The bulk of his archives, however, are at the Lilly Library at Indiana University; the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site at Dana, Indiana; and the Wisconsin State Historical Society. The Ernie Pyle State Historic Site in Dana, Indiana, has Pyle's boyhood home, fully restored. The site also has a Quonset hut with many WWII Pyle artifacts contributed by people in this community where Pyle grew up.
The Monument to Ernie Pyle at Ie Shima. When the US returned Okinawa and its neighboring islands to Japan, Pyle’s monument ws one of only three memorials they allowed to stay.
Ernie Pyle once wrote: "I guess it doesn't make any difference once a man has gone. Medals and speeches and victories are nothing to them anymore. They died and others lived and nobody knows why it is so. There's nothing we can do for the ones beneath the wooden crosses, except perhaps to pause and murmur, 'Thanks, pal.'"