Ernie Pyle Spoke the GI’s language

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

He was from a small (population 893 the year he was born) rural community in Indiana, was timid and fearful that he would not be liked, yet grew to be a central figure of an era, an international household name, and was eulogized by no less than President Harry S. Truman and two 5-star generals, George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ernie Pyle, n.d. Source: http://www.erniepyle.org/

Ernie Pyle, n.d. Source: http://www.erniepyle.org/

Ernest Taylor Pyle, known by everyone other than his parents as Ernie, was born to Will and Maria Pyle on August 3, 1900, on a farm outside Dana, Indiana. The small-town farming life was not for him—he despised it and was wildly bored. When America entered World War I in 1917, he was romantically eager to go off to war, but his parents insisted that he finish high school. He did so, and enrolled in the Naval Reserve, but the war ended before he could report for training. In 1919 he entered Indiana University “with a single suitcase and aimless ambition.” (Tobin, p. 10)  Journalism interested him (mostly because it was reputed to be “easy,”) and he began to work with the student newspaper, the Daily Student, becoming its editor-in-chief in 1921. Certainly, with a post-war enrollment of 2229, Indiana University (IU) provided him an arena more than double the size of his hometown and the opportunity to meet and interact with a wide variety of people. But it wasn’t enough—he felt a burning desire to see more of the world and to do so quickly.  During his college years he managed to work a summer in the oil fields of Kentucky, tour the Great Lakes on a Naval Reserve Cruise, follow the football team, and in 1922, finagle permission to accompany the baseball team to Japan. To finance their way, he and his buddies worked as cabin boys on the ship, and eventually ended up traveling to China and the Philippines.

In January 1923, just a semester shy of graduation, he left IU to take a job with the La Porte (Indiana) Herald.  His parents were unhappy, but having missed an opportunity to fight in World War I because of high school graduation, he wasn’t about to miss this job opportunity in the “real world” just to graduate from college.  Within 4 months, Pyle had shaken the farm dirt of Indiana off his heels and accepted a job with a new Scripps-Howard paper, the Washington Daily News.  Hired as a reporter, he was soon promoted to copy editor.  During this time, he met and married Geraldine (Jerry) Siebolds, a native Minnesotan who had moved to D.C. after high school.  A bit iconoclastic, Jerry had embraced a bohemian lifestyle and only agreed to the marriage when Pyle insisted that he could not embarrass his parents.  “For years they shared a private joke by telling friends they weren’t really married.  Jerry would neither wear a ring nor observe the anniversary of their wedding, which took place in the summer of 1925.” (Tobin, p. 17)

Wanderlust still took precedence in the Pyles’ lives, and the very next year, they “quit their jobs and left Washington to drive around the United States, traveling nine thousand miles in ten weeks. The trip ended in New York, where Ernie got a job on the copy desk of the Evening World and later the Post. In December of 1927, the Washington Daily News invited him to return as its telegraph editor, and Pyle, never fond of New York, readily accepted.” (Pyle, p. 6)

On the USS Cabot (with Captain Walton Smith): Pyle called carriers "ferocious." (National Museum of Naval Aviation). Source: https://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/byline-ernie-pyle-76396157/

On the USS Cabot (with Captain Walton Smith): Pyle called carriers “ferocious.” (National Museum of Naval Aviation). Source: https://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/byline-ernie-pyle-76396157/

Gainfully employed once again, Pyle was fascinated with the new field of aviation and requested permission to write a regular column on the topic, to be done on his own time.  “Each afternoon, after an eight-hour shift on the copy desk, he would hop on a streetcar or flag a taxi bound for one or another of Washington’s airfields.  There he would wander from office to office and hanger to hanger, chatting with anyone he found.  Sometimes he would stay up half the night on a floodlit field, trading stories with pilots or mechanics and listening for the drone of distant planes approaching. … Ernie wrote of passenger safety, night flying, engine and airplane design, the founding and expansion of airports and the birth pangs of national airlines.  He encountered and befriended any number of pilots…” (Tobin, p. 19)  This was the first glimpse of the Ernie Pyle style that would make him world famous.  His voice was personal.  He was very popular with pilots who loved him and called him with news.  “Once, the editor of the Daily News decided to introduce Pyle to Amelia Earhart. The pilot stopped him, explaining that the two were well acquainted. “Not to know Ernie Pyle,” she said, “is to admit that you yourself are unknown in aviation.”   Eventually he was named aviation editor for all Scripps-Howard papers and allowed to work on his column full time.

In 1932, Pyle was asked to become News’ editor-in-chief, a position he felt obligated to accept although he hated it with all his heart. For three years he was miserable, and according to one source, looked to be 50 years of age even though he was only 34. Unhappy at work, Pyle also faced stress at home. Both Pyles were complicated, mercurial individuals, and during this time Jerry began to exhibit signs of depression that twice led her to attempt suicide. Both abused alcohol, and Pyle himself was a hypochondriac who suffered from anxiety, despondency, and restlessness. In 1934, Pyle was granted a leave of absence to recuperate from a severe case of influenza. Advised to seek a warmer climate, he and Jerry spent 3 weeks aboard a ship, traveling from Los Angeles to California. He called this trip the happiest time of his life, and upon his return, persuaded his employer to let him be a roving columnist.

The roving columnist crossed the U.S. no less than 35 times, visiting each state at least 3 times. “Ernie wandered the western hemisphere for nearly seven years, from 1935 until early in 1942.  A tramp with an expense account, he explored cities, towns and crossroads villages in fourth-eight states, Alaska, Canada, Hawaii, and Central and South America.  He got out of his Dodge convertible coupe to talk with thousands of people—soda jerks, millionaires, death-row inmates, movie stars, cranks, cowboys, strippers, sheepherders, strikers, bosses, promotors, sculptors, mayors, hookers, teachers, prospectors, tramps and evangelists.  He wrote two and a half million words that comprise a forgotten but magnificent mosaic of the American scene in the Great Depression. And in the process he created “Ernie Pyle.” The actual Ernie remained a bundle of contradictions and anxieties, pressured by deadlines and perpetually worried. But “Ernie Pyle” came to life as a figure of warmth and reassurance, a sensitive, self-deprecating, self-revealing, compassionate friend who shared his sadnesses and exhilarations, his daydreams and funny stories, his ornery moods and nonsensical musings, his settled prejudices and deepest meditations.  In 1935, Pyle was merely a skilled newspaperman. By 1942, he had become a consummate craftsman of short prose and simultaneously shaped a mythic role for himself: an American Everyman ready for war.” (Tobin, p. 27)

Although there were early rumblings of World War II while Pyle was globe-trotting, he did not pay much attention until Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and Britain and France declared war. He immediately wanted to be a war correspondent, although, “at the age of 39, Pyle still had a schoolboy’s vision of battle, an untutored conception of war that recalled his disappointment over not accompanying his neighbor friend to World War I twenty-two years before.” (Pyle, p. 10)  In November 1940 set out to cover the Battle of Britain.  He liked the English and they liked him. He reported on the bombings, blackouts, and visited the ruins of Coventry.  “Now marginally familiar with one aspect of war, Pyle had yet to shed his dilettante’s view of it. He was a tourist, a visitor sharing his hosts’ misery in a cursory way. When Pyle next went to war—almost two years later—he would not be on a balcony looking down; he would be in a foxhole, looking up. And what he would see then would dispel forever his adolescent view of the romance of war.” (Pyle, p. 11)

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, Pyle went to cover the training of American troops in England and Ireland.  He ceased to be such an outsider, living close to the soldiers in their day to day lives.  In November 1942 he went aboard the Rangiticki, a British transport ship headed to Algeria and the battles of North Africa. The following January he was living and traveling with the 1st Division, on (or near) the front lines, in the foxholes.  “What’s more, Pyle had finally resolved the question of what to do with himself.  He was committed to staying with the men whose blooding he had only begun to describe. His dilettante’s sense of war had evolved into a more mature outlook.  He hated the “tragedy and insanity” of war, but “I know I can’t escape and I truly believe the only thing left to do is be in it to the hilt.” … The infantrymen with whom he now spent his time lived decidedly unromantic lives. They fought, they waited, they were the ultimate victims. To Pyle, there were heroes, not dashing or even particularly brave, but men who persisted in the face of great fear and discomfort because they had to. By sharing their lives, Pyle was becoming one of them in spirit if not in age, in practice if not by force of conscription.” (Pyle, p. 17-18)

On May 2, 1943, from the front lines in northern Tunisia, he wrote,

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.

His most famous column was written on the front lines in Italy, January 10, 1944. It is about the death of a company commander in the 36th Division, a Capt. Henry T. Waskow. Waskow was a young man, only in his mid-20’s, but he had the respect and love of his men. Bodies had to be brought down the mountain by mule, and bodies had been coming down all day.

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.

If his previous dispatches had not already endeared him to the American public, this one certainly solidified him as a “symbol of the fighting man’s displacement from ordinary life and of his sacrifice. He had become the focus of his audience’s good will toward the soldiers; assigned to him were many of the same idealized sentiments the public assigned to them. The Saturday Evening Post noted that Pule “was probably the most prayed-for man with the American troops….”” (Pyle, p. 22)

Pyle eating "C" rations in the Anzio Beachhead area, Italy, in March 18, 1944. Source: https://bit.ly/2QTEFbR

Pyle eating “C” rations in the Anzio Beachhead area, Italy, in March 18, 1944. Source: https://bit.ly/2QTEFbR

On May 16, 1944, those prayers paid off when Pyle escaped with only a small facial cut after a 500-bomb exploded near the building in which he was living, destroying his room. Shortly after this he learned that he had won a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished war correspondence. In June of that year he was in France, coming ashore at Omaha Beach on June 7, just one day after the D-Day invasion. In August he had the pleasure of participating in the liberation of Paris.  After this, he took a break from combat, telling his readers that “my spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused.  The hurt has finally become too great.  All of a sudden it seemed to me that if I heard one more shot or saw one more dead man, I would go off my nut …” (Pyle, p. 26)

Pyle with a Marine patrol on the roadside in Okinawa, April 8, 1945. Source: https://bit.ly/2QTEFbR

Pyle with a Marine patrol on the roadside in Okinawa, April 8, 1945. Source: https://bit.ly/2QTEFbR

The war in Europe nearly over, Pyle headed to the Pacific.  His time at home had not done much to rejuvenate him. Ambushed by his fame, he faced innumerable demands on his time, and a movie being made about his life, The Story of G.I. Joe, required his attention. In the midst of this, his wife, Jerry, had attempted suicide again. Returning to the war was, for Pyle, almost a return to normalcy—not that there was anything normal about war, but it was a return to his work routine and an escape from the emotional turmoil on the home-front.  Initially, Pyle did not get off on the right foot with the Navy. He was bullheaded about his loyalty to the European Theater and to the infantry, claiming in one instance that it was harder to dramatize the life of a sailor. This did nothing to endear him to Navy men, but he soon was back on his stride, on the front lines and in the trenches with the men, and telling the American public, including soldiers’ and sailors’ parents, about life at war.

Wireless to The New York Times: Guam, April 18–

Ernie Pyle died today on Ie Island, just west of Okinawa, like so many of the doughboys he had written about. The nationally known war correspondent was killed instantly by Japanese machine-gun fire. The slight, graying newspaper man, chronicler of the average American soldier’s daily round, in and out of foxholes in many war theatres, had gone forward early this morning to observe the advance of a well-known division of the Twenty-fourth Army Corps. He joined headquarters troops in the outskirts of the island’s chief town, Tegusugu. Our men had seemingly ironed out minor opposition at this point, and Mr. Pyle went over to talk to a regimental commanding officer. Suddenly enemy machine gunners opened fire at about 10:15 A.M. (9:15 P.M., Tuesday, Eastern war time). The war correspondent fell in the first burst.

Associated Press, at a command post, Ie Island, Ryukyus, April 18–

Ernie Pyle, the famed columnist who had reported the wars from Africa to Okinawa, met his death about a mile forward of the command post.  Mr. Pyle had just talked with a general commanding Army troops and Lieut. Col. James E. Landrum, executive officer of an infantry regiment, before “jeeping” to a forward command post with Lieut. Col. Joseph B. Coolidge of Helena, Ark., commanding officer of the regiment, to watch front-line action.  Colonel Coolidge was alongside Mr. Pyle when he was killed. “We were moving down the road in our jeep,” related Colonel Coolidge. “Ernie was going with me to my new command post. At 10 o’clock we were fired on by a Jap machine gun on a ridge above us. We all jumped out of the jeep and dived into a roadside ditch. A little later Pyle and I raised up to look around. Another burst hit the road over our heads and I fell back into the ditch. I looked at Ernie and saw he had been hit. He was killed almost instantly, the bullet entering his left temple just under his helmet.”

Pyle visiting Marines aboard USS Charles Carroll en route to Okinawa, March 20, 1945. Source: https://bit.ly/2QTEFbR

Pyle visiting Marines aboard USS Charles Carroll en route to Okinawa, March 20, 1945. Source: https://bit.ly/2QTEFbR

In its oral history collections, UASC has an interview with Carl Anderson, a New Harmony man, dealing with his experiences in the Pacific during WWII.  He was present on Ie Shima when Pyle died and seems to have witnessed this death.  In his August 15, 1995 conversation with interviewer Jon Carl, Anderson says,

We landed in Ie Shima which is off the coast of Okinawa. … In the center of the island there was this mountain of solid rock. The Japs or somebody had honeycombed it with caves. They were there.  We had a hell of a time getting them out of there. While we were in the process of doing that Ernie Pyle was killed. We were sitting there. We had been fired at that morning. You don’t pay that much attention to somebody shooting sporadically. We were sitting on the edge of a foxhole. There was a road that was built through there. This jeep drove up with Ernie Pyle and two or three officers. He had no business being there. They had no business being there. That drew fire real fast. A Jap machine gun opened up. They had just sent word for anyone from Indiana to go over there because Ernie Pyle wanted to interview us. I was going to go over and be interviewed, but he got killed. They all bailed out of the jeep. Ernie kind of raised up and took a look. He was in this ditch. The Jap fired another burst and he got hit. I was just twenty years old. He looked awful old–a fragile little man who really had no business being there.

The nation was devastated.  Callers besieged the switchboards of newspapers, begging to be told that the news was not true.

President Harry S. Truman– “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.”

Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal– “Mr. Pyle will live in the hearts of all service men who revered him as a comrade and spokesman. More than anyone else, he helped America to understand the heroism and sacrifices of her fighting men. For that achievement, the nation owes him its unending gratitude.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall– “Ernie Pyle belonged to the millions of soldiers he had made his friends. His dispatches reached down into the ranks to draw out the stories of individual soldiers. He did not glorify war, but he did glorify the nobility, the simplicity and heroism of the American fighting man. The Army deeply mourns his death.”

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower– “The GI’s in Europe–and that means all of us here–have lost one of our best and most understanding friends.”

Pyle was originally buried on Ie Shima, but his remains were later returned to American soil and on July 19, 1949 he was reinterred in the National Cemetery of the Pacific, aka the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. In his foreward to Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Eyewitness to World War II, the author Studs Terkel notes that “it is exquisite irony that this journalist [Pyle] became celebrated for celebrating the non-celebrated.” (Pyle, p. xi)  It is further ironic that Pyle, a small town farm boy who always feared he wouldn’t be liked, who was “equal portions of ambition, irresolution and insecurity” (Tobin, p. 15), grew, in just 44 years of life, to become a household name and beloved by all—the “high and mighty” as well as the average person. In 1983, he was award a Purple Heart, a very rare honor for a civilian (in point of fact, civilians can no longer receive this).  It seems as though a lot of people did like Ernie Pyle.

Online Resources consulted:

“America’s Most Loved Reporter: Ernie Pyle.” City of Albuquerque/Albuquerque Museum.

Brown, Daniel.  “Amazing uncovered photos of famed war journalist Ernie Pyle show a rarely seen side of World War II.” Business Insider, April 20, 2018.

“Ernie Pyle: American Journalist.” Encyclopedia Brittanica online.

“Ernie Pyle: Wartime Columns.” Indiana University Journalism, 2019.

Ernie Pyle World War II Museum online.  Dana, IN.

“Hoosier Facts and Fun. Ernie Pyle.” Indiana Historical Society.

Maksel, Rebecca. “Byline: Ernie Pyle.” Air & Space Magazine, November, 2011.

On this Day. “Ernie Pyle Is Killed on Ie Island; Foe Fired When All Seemed Safe.” April 19, 1945.  The New York Times Learning Network.

Oral history interview of Carl Anderson.  OH 258 (UASC)

Tangible resources consulted:

Ernie Pyle’s War. [DVD]  Indianapolis: Indianapolis Historical Society, 2005. DVD PN4874.P88 E7 2005

Pyle, Ernie.  Ernie’s War: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches.  New York: Random House, 1986.D743 .P95 1986

Tobin, James.  Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Eyewitness to World War II.  New York: Free Press, 1997. PN4874.P88 T63 1997

This entry was posted in American history, Indiana history, World War 1, World War 2. Bookmark the permalink.

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