Those warriors we refer to as our “Greatest Generation” are fast disappearing from our midst now, the last of them in their 90s. They have left a mark on all the succeeding generations who benefit in uncounted measure from what they did for us. As one who grew up in that sliver of time in which they left home, fought, sacrificed and died, I have devoted a major effort as a writer, speaker, broadcaster and story-teller in trying to say THANK YOU in every venue in which my “voice” can be heard. My affection for this quiet unassuming brotherhood of volunteer crusaders has been one of the motivating ingredients of my life, and I have done my best to pass on to those who didn’t know them as personally as I have words to explain that veneration. I believe each generation has a sacred responsibility to communicate to those who follow something of how our generation’s values were shaped and refined.
He, about whom I choose to write today did not carry a rifle – although he elected to place himself in the midst of those who did – nor did he plan great campaigns and lead others in battle or even wear stars or bars on his uniform shirt. His name was Ernie Pyle, and his only weapon was a beat-up portable typewriter.
Born in 1920 to a Nebraska farm family, Ernest Taylor Pyle decided two things at an early age: 1. although a good worker and a great help to his Dad, he did not wish to become a farmer, and 2, he wanted to write for a newspaper. He was just one semester short of getting his Journalism degree from Indiana University when he was offered the very kind of a job he wanted with the LaPorte Herald. Working as a reporter, then on the copy desk, with a temporary interval as an editor (which did not excite him), he eventually found his way into the Scripps Howard chain where he made a name for himself writing about the up-and-coming world of aviation.
With an eye for the “untold story”, he was able to convince his editors into turning him loose to seek out his own subject matter, often packing his humble camping gear onto the running boards of a beat-up Model T and touring America’s back roads in search of the kind of human interest drama he would uncover in a visit to almost any main street barber shop. The readers loved it, and soon his daily columns were being carried by hundreds of newspapers across the country. Newly married, he and his young wife Jerry wore out several automobiles and any number of suit cases, pausing just long enough to supervise the building of a modest home in an area they fell in love with near Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Ernie would have made a name for himself no matter what, but destiny had something special in mind for the skinny, unassuming guy from Nebraska. Having served in uniform briefly himself in the closing days of the First World War, he quickly volunteered to serve as a War Correspondent after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and our entry into WWII, and it was in the trenches, fox holes and landing craft of front line troops in Italy, North Africa, Sicily and France that he would win the nickname “The Soldiers’ Best Friend”.
Ernie didn’t write about grand strategy and momentous events, nor did he either glorify or soft-sell the realities of war. He wrote about his real heroes, the boys from everybody’s “next door neighborhood”; he used their real names (and censors-be-damned!) He spent his time where the action was, not in some relatively- safe and comfortable rear command post or liberated hotel room. He bathed and shaved once a week in his helmet and endured every hardship shared with the grizzled men around him. More often than not, he would be the first to arise so that he could brew the first coffee of the day and some hot rations for the war-weary men near him. He had so many close calls that he stopped keeping track, despite an increasing sense of his own mortality.
He wrote six columns per week, and they ran in 300 weekly and as many as 400 daily newspapers around the country. At the same time as he suffered from often-frail health himself, he worried about his frequently-hospitalized wife at home. He felt that he was falling short as a columnist and told friends he was thinking about calling it quits and going home. That year – 1944 – he won The Pulitzer Prize.
Against the advice of close friends and his own sense of pending doom, Ernie Pyle felt impelled to visit the war in the Pacific – a very different war from the one he had left behind in Europe. The sheer brutality of the island campaign seemed overwhelming, and he had determined to leave it behind. On April 18th, 1945 in a supposedly “safe” area on the tiny island of IeShima, a bullet from a Japanese Nambu machine gun ended his life and his brilliant career.
If there is justice on the other side of earth life, I picture Ernie in his trademark “beanie” hat surrounded by a circle of ageless warriors for whom he harbored a deep and undying love.
In a rare moment away from the front lines an Army photographer captured an image of Ernie Pyle behind the beloved CORONA portable that was his constant companion.