Ernie Pyles War: America's Eyewitness to World War II

Ernie Pyles War: America's Eyewitness to World War II

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by James Tobin

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When a machine-gun bullet ended the life of war correspondent Ernie Pyle in the final days of World War II, Americans mourned him in the same breath as they mourned Franklin Roosevelt. To millions, the loss of this American folk hero seemed nearly as great as the loss of the wartime president.

If the hidden horrors and valor of combat persist at all in the


When a machine-gun bullet ended the life of war correspondent Ernie Pyle in the final days of World War II, Americans mourned him in the same breath as they mourned Franklin Roosevelt. To millions, the loss of this American folk hero seemed nearly as great as the loss of the wartime president.

If the hidden horrors and valor of combat persist at all in the public mind, it is because of those writers who watched it and recorded it in the faith that war is too important to be confined to the private memories of the warriors. Above all these writers, Ernie Pyle towered as a giant. Through his words and his compassion, Americans everywhere gleaned their understanding of what they came to call “The Good War.”

Pyle walked a troubled path to fame. Though insecure and anxious, he created a carefree and kindly public image in his popular prewar column—all the while struggling with inner demons and a tortured marriage. War, in fact, offered Pyle an escape hatch from his own personal hell.

It also offered him a subject precisely suited to his talent—a shrewd understanding of human nature, an unmatched eye for detail, a profound capacity to identify with the suffering soldiers whom he adopted as his own, and a plain yet poetic style reminiscent of Mark Twain and Will Rogers. These he brought to bear on the Battle of Britain and all the great American campaigns of the war—North Africa, Sicily, Italy, D-Day and Normandy, the liberation of Paris, and finally Okinawa, where he felt compelled to go because of his enormous public stature despite premonitions of death.

In this immensely engrossing biography, affectionate yet critical, journalist and historian James Tobin does an Ernie Pyle job on Ernie Pyle, evoking perfectly the life and labors of this strange, frail, bald little man whose love/hate relationship to war mirrors our own. Based on dozens of interviews and copious research in little-known archives, Ernie Pyle's War is a self-effacing tour de force. To read it is to know Ernie Pyle, and most of all, to know his war.

Editorial Reviews

Book World Washington Post
What Ernie Pyle called his 'worm's-eye' view of combat set a standard for war reporting that remains influential unto this day. A revealing book.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
No one on the flat plains of western Indiana could have foretold that a small, homely, self-deprecating farm boy would experience a meteoric rise to folk hero status, but that is what WWII war correspondent Ernie Pyle (1900-1945) did. Tobin, a reporter for the Detroit News, has written an superbly documented and compassionate account of Pyle's war encounters and his poignant newspaper columns that brought frontline life to the folks back home. Beloved by G.I.s and the American reading masses, Pyle was the champion of the long suffering G.I., a type who was portrayed by Pyle as being akin to Bill Mauldin's cartoon G.I., 'Sad Sack,' but who, in Pyle's words, 'triumphed over death through dogged perseverance.' His columns were crucial to morale. Slogging with the infantry through North Africa, Italy and France, Pyle, who was eventually killed on an island near Okinawa, avoided reporting on all the bloody brutality he saw, as he knew that such frankness would lead to discouragement and despair. He managed, however, to convey that horrors lay beneath his rhythmic, conversational depictions of ordinary Joes: 'These are just guys from Broadway and Main Street, but you wouldn't remember them. They are too far away now. They are too tired. Their world can never be known to you.' The day-by-day feel of Tobin's narrative nearly matches the immediacy of the dispatches themselves, and he does an excellent job of recreating 'The Pyle Phenomenon' -- the extraordinary grip the columns had over America's wartime imagination.
Kirkus Reviews
From Detroit News reporter Tobin, the definitive biography of this country's great WW II war correspondent. There was little in Ernie Pyle's background to suggest greatness. Born in 1900 in Indiana to an unsuccessful farmer, Pyle grew into a small, quiet man with a tendency to hypochondria. He dropped out of Indiana University in 1923 to accept a job as a reporter for the LaPorte Herald. Later that year, he made the leap to big-city journalism with a job at the Washington Daily News. In the capital, he met Geraldine Siebolds, whom he married in 1925. After a peripatetic period, he became a widely read roving columnist for the Scripps-Howard papers. According to Tobin, covering the war allowed Pyle to escape from a disintegrating marriage. Reporting on Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, he swiftly became a favorite of the soldiers, as his columns portrayed the war from the standpoint of the average GI rather than that of the generals: Pyle faithfully relayed messages from soldiers to their families, mentioned soldiers by name in his columns, and shaped America's image of the Good War (as Tobin shows, Pyle was both oppressed and exhilarated by the war but was often unable to get his darker images of war past the military censors). Exhausted after several years in the European theater, he basked in homefront glory (he wrote two bestselling books, had an audience with Eleanor Roosevelt, and a movie was made about his life) before leaving again to report on the Pacific War. Insisting on covering the invasion of Okinawa from the front lines, he was killed by a Japanese machine gun on the beach at Ie Shima on April 18, 1945. Tobin's account is abalanced tribute to the quintessential war correspondent: In his ability to make war come alive and at the same time show its human side, Pyle was never to be bettered by any of the generation of war correspondents that followed.

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PROLOGUE: "And So It Is Over"

APRIL 18, 1945

Ernie Pyle's body lay alone for a long time in the ditch at the side of the road. Men waited at a safe distance, looking for a chance to pull the body away. But the machine gunner, still hidden in the coral ridge, sprayed the area whenever anyone moved. The sun climbed high over the little Pacific island. Finally, after four hours, a combat photographer crawled out along the road, pushing his heavy Speed Graphic camera ahead of him. Reaching the body, he held up the camera and snapped the shutter.

The lens captured a face at rest. The only sign of violence was a thin stream of blood running down the left cheek. Otherwise he might have been sleeping. His appearance was what people in the 1930s and '40s called "common." He had often been described as the quintessential "little guy," but he was not unusually short. In fact, at five feet eight inches, his frame precisely matched the average height of the millions of American soldiers serving in the U.S. Army. It was his build that provoked constant references to his size -- a build that once was compared accurately to the shape of a sword. His silver identification bracelet, inscribed "Ernie Pyle, War Correspondent," could have fit the wrist of a child. The face too was very thin, with skin "the color and texture of sand." Under the combat helmet, a wrinkled forehead sloped into a long, bald skull fringed by sandy-red hair gone gray. The nose dipped low. The teeth went off at odd angles. Upon meeting Pyle a few months earlier, the playwright Arthur Miller had thought "he might have been the nightwatchman at a deserted track crossing." In death his hands were crossed at the waist, still holding the cloth fatigue cap he had worn through battles in North Africa, Italy, France, and now here in the far western Pacific, a few hundred miles from Japan.

A moment later the regimental chaplain and four non-commissioned officers crawled up with a cloth litter. They pulled the body out of the machine gunner's line of fire and lifted it into an open truck, then drove the quarter-mile back to the command post on the beach. An Associated Press man was there. He already had sent the first bulletin:

COMMAND POST, IE SHIMA April 18, (AP) -- Ernie Pyle, war correspondent beloved by his co-workers, G.I.s and generals alike, was killed by a Japanese machine-gun bullet through his left temple this morning.

The bulletin went via radio to a ship nearby, then to the United States and on to Europe. Radio picked it up. Reporters rushed to gather comment. In Germany General Omar Bradley heard the news and could not speak. In Italy General Mark Clark said, "He helped our soldiers to victory." Bill Mauldin, the young soldier-cartoonist whose warworn G.I.'s matched the pictures Pyle had drawn with words, said, "The only difference between Ernie's death and that of any other good guy is that the other guy is mourned by his company. Ernie is mourned by the Army." At the White House, still in mourning only six days after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, President Harry Truman said, "The nation is quickly saddened again by the death of Ernie Pyle."

One of Pyle's editors at the Scripps-Howard newspapers, George Parker, spoke on the radio. "He went into war as a newspaper correspondent among many correspondents," Parker said. "He came back a figure as great as the greatest -- as Eisenhower or MacArthur or Nimitz." Parker spoke of "that strange and almost inexplainably intimate way" in which Pyle's readers had known him. Indeed, people called newspaper offices all day to be sure Ernie Pyle was really dead. He had seemed so alive to them. Americans in great numbers had shared his life all through the war -- his energy and exhaustion; his giddy enjoyments and attacks of nerves; his exhilarations and fears. Through Pyle's eyes they had watched their "boys" go to distant wars and become soldiers -- green and eager at the start, haggard and worn at the end. Through his eyes they had glimpsed great vistas of battle at sea and they had stared into the faces of men in a French field who thought they were about to die. So no one thought it strange for President Truman to equate the deaths of Franklin Roosevelt and a newspaper reporter. For Pyle had become far more than an ordinary reporter, more even than the most popular journalist of his generation. He was America's eyewitness to the twentieth century's supreme ordeal.

The job of sorting and shipping Pyle's personal effects fell to Edwin Waltz, a personable and efficient Navy man who had been working as the correspondent's personal secretary at Pacific Fleet headquarters at Guam. There wasn't much to go through -- a few clothes and toilet articles; books; receipts; some snapshots and letters. Here was Pyle's passport, stamped with the names of places he had passed through on his journeys to war -- Belfast and London; Casablanca and Algiers; and on the last page, "Pacific Area." Waltz also found a little pocket notebook filled with cryptic jottings in a curlecue script -- notes Pyle had made during his last weeks in France in 1944.

9 killed & 10 wounded out of 33 from D-Day to July 25 ...

...drove beyond lines...saw orange flame & smoke -- shell hit hood -- wrecked jeep -- dug hole...with hands -- our shells & their firing terrible-being alone was worst....

Blowing holes to bury cows -- stench everywhere.

Waltz also found a handwritten draft of a newspaper column. Knowing the war in Europe could end any day, Pyle had collected his thoughts on two sheets of paper, then marked up the sentences with arrows and crossings out and rewordings.

"And so it is over," the draft began. "The catastrophe on one side of the world has run its course. The day that had so long seemed would never come has come at last." He was writing this in waters near Japan, he said, "but my heart is still in Europe...For the companionship of two and a half years of death and misery is a spouse that tolerates no divorce." He hoped Americans would celebrate the victory in Europe with a sense of relief rather than elation, for

in the joyousness of high spirits it is easy for us to forget the dead.

...there are so many of the living who have 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. Those 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 unknown reasons Scripps-Howard's editors chose not to release the column draft, though V-E Day followed Ernie's death by just three weeks. Perhaps they guessed it would have puzzled his readers, even hurt them. Certainly it was a darker valedictory than they would have expected from him. The war had been a harsh mistress to Ernie. First it had offered him the means of escaping personal despair. Then, while his star rose to public heights he had never imagined, the war had slowly driven him downward again into "flat black depression." But he kept this mostly to himself. Instead he had offered readers a way of seeing the war that skirted despair and stopped short of horror. His published version of World War II had become the nation's version. And if Ernie Pyle himself had not won the war, America's mental picture of the soldiers who had won it was largely Pyle's creation. He and his grimy G.I's, frightened but enduring, had become the heroic symbols of what the soldiers and their children would remember as "the Good War."

Copyright © 1997 by James Tobin

Meet the Author

James Tobin won the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography for Ernie Pyle’s War and the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. Educated at the University of Michigan, where he earned a PhD in history, he teaches narrative nonfiction in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film at Miami University in Oxford, OH.

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Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
BRICOR More than 1 year ago
A very well written biography of an important man who brought WWII home to Americans the world over. He made us understand and respect the American warrior like no other has. Ernie Pyle should be idolized for the true American icon that he was.
HomeSchoolBookReview More than 1 year ago
When I was in high school, back in the days when we actually studied history rather than “social studies,” I remember learning about Ernie Pyle, one of the foremost American newspaper correspondents during World War II. Therefore, while driving through west central Indiana last year and seeing a sign for the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site at Dana, IN, we decided to stop. I purchased this book from their gift shop to serve as a memento of our visit and to learn more about Pyle, who was born Ernest Taylor Pyle on a tenant farm outside of Dana, IN, in 1900, and attended but didn’t graduate from Indiana University. Instead, he accepted a job at a paper in LaPorte, IN, where he worked for three months before moving to Washington, D.C. to be a reporter for a tabloid newspaper, The Washington Daily News. While in Washington, Pyle met Geraldine "Jerry" Siebolds and married her in 1925. In 1928, he started the country's first aviation column, which he wrote for four years. After serving as managing editor of the Daily News for a couple of years, he returned to writing with a series of national columns for the Scripps-Howard Alliance group about the unusual places he saw and people he met in his travels. His articles were written in a folksy style, much like a personal letter to a friend, and enjoyed a following in some 300 newspapers. With America’s entry into World War II, he became a special war correspondent, covering actions in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily, and D-Day, writing from the perspective of the common soldier, an approach that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1944. Pyle decided to cover events in the Pacific, and on April 18, 1945, was struck in the left temple by Japanese machine-gun fire on Ie Shima, an island off Okinawa, and died instantly. James Tobin’s account of Pyle’s life and work, emphasizing his efforts during the war, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998. One of the disadvantages of a biography is that one often has to read about “warts and all.” Pyle’s wife Jerry, who called herself an atheist, suffered from intermittent bouts of mental illness and alcoholism. Pyle himself dealt with severe emotional insecurities and was a heavy drinker. Jerry just wanted them to live together, but Pyle at least insisted on marriage because “he could not shame his parents by living in sin.” The only time Jerry got pregnant, she chose to have an abortion, and she tried to commit suicide a couple of times. Because of the problems they divorced in 1942, and there are references in the book to several affairs that Pyle had during this time, but they remarried by proxy a year later. Also, Pyle and many of his co-workers, and apparently the author too, were very profane and vulgar men. Their language is liberally sprinkled with cursing (especially the “d” and “h” words), a lot of taking the Lord’s name in vain (including various forms of “go**am”), and even some actual obscenities (such as the “f” and “s” words among others). The book ends with an Appendix that contains a potpourri of Pyle's articles. For very mature, older teens and adults making an in-depth study of World War II, the book contains some important information, but it is definitely not for children. This book is not to be confused with Ernie’s War, a collection of Pyle’s World War II dispatches edited by David Nichols.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
James Toban has written a stunning book in ¿Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II¿. Toban has succeeded in giving readers the rare opportunity to see the human frailties concealed within one of America¿s greatest and most valuable World War II correspondents. James Toban present a picture of the complex Ernie Pyle; a man that entered the World War II carrying only a broken Remington typewriter and a deep desire to describe the life and hardships of the horrific world of the infantrymen to the American public. The reader will learn of the contradictory Ernie Pyle. The Ernie Pyle who despised war, but who could not stay away from the physical and emotional anguish of battle. The Ernie Pyle who loved his wife, but who continually left her behind to travel to the front lines. Ernie Pyle, the seemingly frail and terrified journalist who demonstrated his bravery by traveling to the front lines to be with and write about ¿his boys¿. Ernie Pyle, a genius for writing about the common soldier, but who needed constant reminding that he was the best at what he did. His articles became legendary and the hope and news link for Americans with loved ones in the front lines. James Toban¿s ¿Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II ¿ is a must read for World War II readers and all readers who wish to know about the human spirit and about a plain old fashion brave American.