‘At this spot, the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy, Ernie Pyle, 18 April 1945.’ Those were the words on the simple wooden sign erected by US soldiers fighting on Iejima, a small island north-west of Okinawa, following the death of Ernest Taylor Pyle, the most famous American correspondent of the Second World War.
Dubbed ‘the Soldier’s Friend’, his work had been syndicated across the States, making him a household name. President Harry Truman, on learning of Pyle’s death at the hands of a hidden Japanese machine-gunner, summed it up, saying nobody had ‘so well told the story’.
It was Pyle’s ability to convey in words the lived everyday experience of ordinary GIs that was the essence of his popularity. It meant folks back home – millions of them with sons at the front – felt able to get close to their loved ones, to sense their feelings, to share something of the discomfort, the fear, the longings, the camaraderie in adversity.
As biographer Ray Boomhower put it:
To the millions of people back home in America during World War II, Ernie Pyle offered a ‘worm’s-eye view’ of the war as he reported on the life, and sometimes death, of the common soldier doing the dirty work of fighting in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France against the enemy forces of Nazi Germany.
Born in 1900 in the small Midwest town of Dana, Vermillion County, Indiana, Pyle started out as a student journalist covering sporting events. In the 1920s, he first worked as a staff reporter on the Washington Daily News, before taking off with his new wife Geraldine ‘Jerry’ Siebolds in a Model T Ford on a 9,000-mile road trip across the United States.
He then established himself as the country’s leading aviation correspondent, eventually clocking up 100,000 air miles. In the mid 1930s, he began travelling to collect ‘human-interest’ stories – often very simple word cameos from everyday American life – and this, more than anything, proved to be his apprenticeship for what was to come.
Pyle’s style was honed in the last few years before the US entry into the Second World War. His hallmark was a simple, almost homespun prose that described ordinary Americans to themselves; the implicit message always seemed to be ‘this is what our lives are like and this is who we are’.
Pyle goes to war
He expressed his ideal in the interwar years when he said, ‘I will go where I please and write what I please.’ When America entered the war, he applied that principle to the experience of US fighting men overseas.
The war, of course, was the big story, and all serious reporters wanted to be part of it. But while most were content to play the role of ‘camp followers’ – spending most of their time in the rear and basing their reports on official communiqués – Pyle moved, slept, and ate with the common soldiers, usually as close to the front-line as he could get.
A small, wiry man in his mid 40s, with sharp-cut features, balding grey hair, and his trademark wool-knit cap, Pyle was shy and soft-spoken. Something about his persona meant that hardened soldiers warmed to him, and opened up to him. And when they read his stories, they knew he spoke for them, telling it like it was.
He, in turn, empathised with them. ‘I love the infantry because they are the underdogs,’ he wrote.
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.
He was no less highly regarded by fellow correspondents. John Steinbeck, for example, the best- selling novelist, war correspondent, and personal friend of Pyle, explained how there were really two wars, the war of generals and maps and military movements, and the war of the common soldiers, the war that involved
homesick, weary, funny, violent common men who wash their socks in their helmets, complain about the food… and bring themselves through as dirty a business as the world has ever seen and do it with humour and dignity and courage – and that is Ernie Pyle’s war. He knows it as well as anyone and writes about it better than anyone.
By the time he was killed, Pyle’s war dispatches were being syndicated to 400 dailies and 300 weeklies across the United States. He was, quite simply, the voice of the war from the front-line for tens of millions of Americans.
The death of Captain Waskow
Pyle suffered for his work. He was often depressed, his mind filled with images of the carnage, the bodies ripped apart, the men dying in agony, the maimed in the dressing stations. ‘Of course, I am very sick of the war,’ he wrote to his wife,
and I would like to leave it and yet I can’t. I’ve been part of the misery and tragedy of it for so long that I’ve come to feel a responsibility to it or something. I don’t know quite how to put it into words, but I feel if I left it would be like a soldier deserting.
This was a feeling shared by many fighting men, who hated the war but hated equally the thought of not being with their mates. Wounded men would yearn to get back to their unit – despite the misery, boredom, and danger. Pyle, too, had this need to be there.
His depression affected his judgement on his own work. ‘I’ve lost the touch,’ he told his friend Don Whitehead, another leading correspondent, after penning what became his most famous dispatch.
He tossed the typescript to his friend, and when Whitehead finished he had tears in his eyes. ‘If this is a sample from a guy who has lost his touch,’ he said, ‘then the rest of us had better go home.’
The column described the death of Captain Henry T Waskow, commander of B Company, 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Texas Division. He had been killed on 14 December 1944 by shell-fire on the slopes of Monte Sammucro, above the small town of San Pietro, on the approaches to Cassino.
Waskow had been popular with his men. None had anything but praise for his leadership, fairness, and concern for their welfare. The body was brought down a rough mountain track on the back of a mule, and then placed with other dead outside a dressing station. Pyle observed the behaviour of Waskow’s men.
They approached the body one by one, coming to say goodbye. Some cursed in anger, others expressed sorrow. Some walked quickly away, others lingered, looking down at the dead leader. Pyle recorded each reaction in turn. ‘Then,’ he wrote,
the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the captain’s 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.
Finally he put the hand down. He reached over and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of the uniform around the wound, and then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone. •
The Second World War was ‘a people’s war’. The experience of the First World War – the first modern industrialised war – had largely destroyed the public perception of war as a matter of heroic deeds and military glory. Improved communications – film, photographs, war dispatches, soldiers’ letters – also meant the realities of the battlefield could be more readily appreciated on the Home Front. Often enough, the fathers of men at the front during the Second World War were themselves veterans. The demand, therefore, was not for military ‘bullshit’, but for honest reportage. Pyle was not ‘anti-war’ – he never seems to have doubted the necessity of the Second World War – but he was appalled by the human suffering. At the same time, he was filled with admiration for the stoicism of the men who endured it. He achieved supreme stature as a war correspondent not only because of his clear, crisp, concise style, but also because of his exceptional empathy with his country’s soldiers.
The San Pietro and Cassino Project will investigate the site of Captain Waskow’s death, and much else, during its next field season, scheduled for May-June 2020. Volunteer places are being snapped up fast. To join the project, go to www.mhlcassino.co.uk.