Ernie Pyle, The WWII Grunts’ Storyteller
AP says today, a new/old photo has surfaced that shows Scripps-Howard war correspondent Ernie Pyle dead at the side of the road in Japan in 1945. There is much to-do in the big newspapers today about this memorial photo of a dead war writer. But no image of the photo yet. It is being held somewhere by someone until… what? enough money, enough positioning. Whatever.
To me the iconic photo is the one of Pyle alive, as the photo below shows… and the photo of the elegant, battered tool of his trade as shown in the above photo comes in second. But, I digress.
The road Ernie and the small contingent of solders had taken that day back in the spring in 1945, had been swept of mines. Many G.I trucks had ridden over it safely. Just six days previous, President Roosevelt had suddenly died while still in office. His corn-fed Vice President, Harry S. Truman had ramped up everything in himself to try to take a wheel a million times larger than he. Germany would surrender and ‘the war’ would be declared over another 20 days hence. The end of ‘the war’ in Japan would take another three and a half months to close.
But Ernie Pyle had only heard that maybe Germany’s surrender was imminent. And he continued to write notes like these, which are from his journal, to my eye, blood poetry, bone poetry… viz:
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.
Pyle was also one of the few who referenced black, latino and jewish soldiers, poor whites– all the young, young souls who arrived so gung ho in all their padding and ammo, to wind up in the end, beleaguered, and with the eyes of old, old men.
Ernie Pyle didn’t chase the celebrity generals, although they respected him greatly. He was writing the story of the naive, strong, loyal, scared, intense and brave American Boy. Who loved Life more than anything during Wartime. Pyle didn’t describe his beloved grunts by race. But, by family love. The people waiting for that boymansoldierchild, back to home.
So, that day, April 18, 1945, with green Spring at Okinawa coming up from the embattled ground nonetheless, the small contingent Ernie was riding with was just bouncing over the gouged road. Suddenly, a sniper hidden above in the scrabble of a coral hill began to fire on them. Everyone dove off the sides of the jeeps…
and Pyle raised his helmeted head to ask if everyone was alright.
Left temple. Gone. In an instant. Ernie was gone.
Ernie, the little skinny guy, 5′-8″ who, when standing sideways, looked to me like a zipper in the wind. ‘Nothing to write home about in the looks department,’ some would say. Handsome, heart-breakingly handsome heart, I would say.
In our family, the old ones say, “Whatever is displayed in the front parlor, no matter what a person says out loud to the contrary, is what they hold most dear.” In a museum in Albuquerque, there is a typewriter, this one shown in the photo above. It is the quintessential ‘tool of the trade’ of Ernie Pyle.
This manual typewriter is one of several he dragged around in their black fake-leather-made-of-pebbly-paper boxes with the silver clasps… all over the theatres of war during WWII.
Can you imagine the dirt and dust and wet and slamming around those machines got, bigger than breadboxes and heavy enough to do bad damage if one fell on a foot or hand. This particular machine went to Spain, North Africa and Italy and finally in April of 1945, to Japan.
There’s so very much to be said about wartime writers, photographers and filmakers– and their native consiglieris– who risk their lives to tell stories. We have one of those wild stout-hearted guys here at TMV, Shaun Mullen. And, I wonder sometimes if the people who have never been to war or in war, realize that there is a heart commitment in those writers and photo and film makers that put them in incendiaries’ way to tell a story that matters. That they are often driving without goggles in a fire of commitment to a humane principle that has nothing to do with a paycheck. And maybe at least a little to do with being crazy in love with humanity.
So it went for Ernie Pyle… trying to report back from the souls of the soldiers, not just their egos, trying to tell the stories of the soldiers back to their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers back home in the USA, those loved ones Stateside who listened to the radio for news hourly the way people today often seem to have their ears embedded permanently in their cell phones.
Except back then, the families were listening for some secret inhalation and exhalation only they could hear… that between life for their loved ones, and death. And the possible ends of their worlds as they once knew them.
Pyle, some said, was Twainesque. Others say he did not cover ALL the war. I’d just look at comments like that last one with something like Yaweh’s jaded ‘Ok, pillar of salt for you,’ eyes.
I think what it was about Ernie Pyle was that he managed one of the hardest things to do: tell a complicated story simply.
As the old ones in our family said when someone was going on too long with a many-forked preamble to a story– a preamble being essential to any storytelling, but not supposed to be interminably so– ‘Just tell the damn story already.’
Pyle did that. He just told the damn story.
Here is a picture of him alive and working in the field at Normandy.
He died at the mere-ling age of 45.
There are several books of his work, one is: Here is Your War.
There is also a film.
And here is a link to a delightfully named Blog, called “Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub” that carries many more links to Ernie Pyle’s story. As well as the iconic typewriter.
We knew of Pyle when we were children because he grew up in a village not far away from our small rural outback, population 600. His village was bigger. Presently, population: 662
h/t Helaine for sending the wire about Pyle’s death photo being suddenly found.