Title: “The Story of Ernie Pyle”
Author: Lee G. Miller
Publisher: The Viking Press
This vintage book was a joy to read. It takes us back to events from the first half of the last century, as recorded in the words of Ernie Pyle.
The author was Pyle’s friend, and boss, for 20 years. Miller compiled a treasure-trove of Pyle’s correspondence to his wife, parents, friends, coworkers and to Miller himself. Pyle’s words are quoted to great effect.
On Aug. 3, 1900, Pyle was born to a farm couple near Dana, Ind. Not wanting to stay on the farm, he went to the University of Indiana. He had no special plan of study in mind, but migrated to journalism (it was supposed to be easy).
Though initially shy, when he became involved with the student newspaper, he became popular. Unlike his father, Pyle had wanderlust. In his junior year, he traveled with friends to Japan, an adventure that started what would become a nomadic life.
He left college early to work for a small town Indiana newspaper. His next job was in Washington, D.C. He quickly advanced in the newsroom, but he wanted out of the confines of an office. He began covering the emerging field of aviation and, for several years, wrote about fliers and flying. He became fast friends with them all.
He met a bright, somewhat eccentric, Minnesota girl in Washington, D.C. They married and later decided to take their savings, quit their jobs and tour the “rim” of the United States. Along the way, they stopped in Jamestown, N.D., and bought four used tires for a dollar. His old tires had suffered too many flats.
Some years later, as an established columnist, he returned to the Dakotas to cover the drought. He wrote: “A drought is not a spectacular thing … You gradually become accustomed to dried field and burned pasture; it stretches into a dull, continuous fact … The whole thing is awful.”
In the early years, Pyle and his wife, Jerry or “Geraldine,” covered the U.S. by auto many times. Other times, they would fly or take a train. Pyle traveled to Hawaii, Mexico and Canada. When he left Jerry behind for his Alaska trip, she began having bouts of severe depression. Both she and Pyle drank too much with friends and had bouts of melancholy. As the years passed, Jerry’s depression became severe, repetitive and sometimes life threatening. Pyle spent the rest of his years worrying about her. They loved each other, but divorced for a time, and then remarried.
Pyle’s basic Midwest character emerged when he wrote about the dying of his mother.
“Only you who have come from the intimate confines of a Midwestern farm community can know in what fear parents live of their children bringing shame and disgrace up on them … I was an only child … They sacrificed to send me to school … in later years, I had been able to send a little money, best of all I had never brought disgrace upon my parents ... I pictured in my mind my return to my mother’s bedside … I could hear her whisper, just in her last moments, ‘I am proud of you.’”
In September of 1940, Germany began the air “blitzkrieg” of London, and Pyle went to cover it. His columns became a favorite of millions. He returned to America and was prepared to be drafted. Though he was over 40, and weighed 111 pounds, he was eligible. However, Pyle returned to Europe and spent the rest of the war as a correspondent. He followed the troops into North Africa, Sicily and Italy. After a brief break, he returned for the D-Day invasion in France.
His columns were beloved by the military. They respected this frail older man for enduring all the miseries they lived. He slept in foxholes, dodged bullets and slogged through the dust, mud, heat and cold with them. He explained what the “doughboy” actually felt and experienced, better than anyone.
Pyle came home knowing he needed to cover the Pacific front. Fearing he was pressing his luck, he did not go in with the first wave of the Okinawa invasion. He later joined soldiers tasked with taking a small island near Okinawa. After days of fighting, the situation was considered under control. However, he and a general were ambushed by a Japanese machine gunner. The general survived, Pyle did not. He was wearing the watch he received from Amelia Earhart years earlier.
His wife, Jerry, was devastated. She accepted an award in his honor in Washington, D.C. Six months later, Jerry died.
Pyle’s remains are interred at the Punchbowl Cemetery in Honolulu. Some of his most famous columns are available online at the Indiana University archives.