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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ernie Pyle still sets the style

To think that Ernie Pyle would have turned 110 today is one way of measuring just how far in the past World War II lies—and how enduring Pyle's reporting has proved. Ernie Pyle had already developed a following for his folksy syndicated columns about daily life in America when he began covering the war from London in 1940. Over the next five years his dispatches from Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific would make him the most read—and most imitated—reporter on the war. On April 18, 1945, Pyle was hit in the temple by Japanese machine-gun fire on Ie Shima, an island off Okinawa Honto, and died instantly.

In a 1950 reminiscence in The New Yorker, his colleague, wartime correspondent A. J. Liebling, offered this profile, “Pyle Set the Style”:
The thin old-looking reporter who was killed by a Japanese sniper on Ie Shima in April, 1945 (he was only forty-four, but to enlisted men he seemed as old as a senior admiral), contributed a stock figure to the waxworks gallery of American history as popularly remembered. To a list that includes the frontiersman, the Kentucky colonel, the cowboy, and Babe Ruth, Ernest Taylor Pyle, to give him the full name nobody ever called him by, added G. I. Joe, the suffering but triumphant infantryman. The portrait was sentimentalized but the soldier was pleased to recognize himself in it, and millions of newspaper readers recognized their sons and lovers in Pyle’s soldiers and got some glimmer of the fact that war is a nasty business for the pedestrian combatant. Through millions of letters from home enclosing clippings, the soldiers learned that their folks read Ernie Pyle. He provided an emotional bridge. . . . He was the only American war correspondent who made a large personal impress on the nation in the Second World War.
Pyle’s dispatches focused not on military strategy but on the experiences of the common foot soldier, as in this report, “The God-Damned Infantry,” from Northern Tunisia in May 1943:
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. There is an agony in your heart and you almost feel ashamed to look at them. They are just guys from Broadway and Main Street, but you wouldn't remember them. They are too far away now. They are too tired. Their world can never be known to you, but if you could see them just once, just for an instant, you would know that no matter how hard people work back home they are not keeping pace with these infantrymen in Tunisia.
The above excerpts are from Reporting World War II: 1938-1946 (two volumes) and A. J. Liebling: World War II Writings.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the reminder. I came across a collection of Pyle's work when I was about ten, and I found it fascinating. I'm not normally into reading war stories, but I thought his writing was wonderful. It was a horrible shock to come to the end of the book and learned that he was killed in the war.

    I haven't read him since, but this post reminds me I should give his work another look.


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