Saturday, August 24, 2013

Ernie Pyle, the greatest war journalist

"You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don’t ask silly questions." These words are from The Death of Captain Waskow, Earnie Pyle’s most popular World War II report. He wrote this after watching the American dead being brought down on mule backs from a hill on the Italian front lines on January 10, 1944.

Ernest Taylor Pyle (August 3, 1900 – April 18, 1945) was perhaps the greatest war reporter of all times. Surprisingly, he never graduated. He joined the US Navy Reserve during World War I but the war was over within a few months. Then the man turned to journalism. He became America’s first aviation columnist in 1928. By 1932 he became the managing editor of the Daily News. After America entered the war he started reporting from the European Theatre.
 
The readers of nearly 300 newspapers in the US waited for his reports great eagerness. He told them of the war from the angle of the GIs – of their suffering and sacrifices, longing and depression, fear and loneliness, dignity and courage in the face of danger. The feelings went deep inside the readers. They were living the GI life through the Ernie Pyle reports, praying and hoping that the war would end soon.

Ernie Pyle never glorified the war. As John Steinbeck commented, he was telling the story of the ordinary GI out there on the war field. Hollywood made a movie, “GI Joe” based on his writings. The collections of his reports became best sellers.  There are a few of them of them: Here Is Your War, Brave Men, Last Chapter, Home Country, Ernie’s War: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches, Ernie’s America: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s 1930s Travel Dispatches, Ernie Pyle’s Southwest, and On A Wing & A Prayer. Some of these books have been translated to other languages.

Ernie Pyle did something more for the GIs. In 1944 he mooted the idea that the soldiers on the war field should get a “fight pay”. Those days the Air Force was disbursing “flight pay" to the airmen. The suggestion was accepted by the Congress in what is known as ‘The Ernie Pyle Bill’ and the GIs in combat started getting $10 per month extra.

The writer won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1945 and also the Purple Heart. The United States issued a postage stamp in his honour. But I feel that the greatest tribute to him was by the employees of Boeing-Wichita. They built a Boeing B-29 Superfortress at their own expense using the 7th War Loan Drive and named it The Ernie Pyle. The plane which was sent to the Pacific survived the Second World War but the journalist did not. Two weeks before The Ernie Pyle reached its assigned destination, Ernie Pyle was dead.

 In 1945 Ernie Pyle had shifted to the Pacific War Theatre. On April 18, he was shot dead by the Japanese on Ie Shima, an island off Okinawa. He was buried there but his remains were later shifted to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Honolulu.
 
Ernie Pyle War Memorial on Ie Shima near Okinawa
  
Former American President Harry S. Truman’s tribute to Ernie Pyle was appropriate: “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told.... He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen."

Way back in college in the early 1950s I came across a copy of Brave men. It impressed me a great deal. I wanted write about the book, write about the man who authored it and write like him. Sixty years later I have achieved, with this article, the first two parts of my wish. Forget the third wish because I’ll never be able to write like Ernie Pyle.


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