Reporting on the War
Seventy-four years ago, the events of World War II were the daily concern of everyone in the United States. Hundreds of correspondents, photographers and field artists braved enemy fire, slept in foxholes and suffered bitter cold and unbearable heat in their effort to chronicle events on the war. Some became prisoners of war, a few were killed.
With a pantheon of talent including Edward R. Murrow, Ernest Hemingway, Joe Rosenthal, Robert Capa and Bill Mauldin reporting news of World War II, reporting the war surpassed all previous war coverage. For the first time, new technologies enabled almost instantaneous transmission to a waiting audience back home. Radio listeners heard the voice of Edward R. Murrow, speaking from a London rooftop during a German air raid, and newspapers ran stories and pictures from battles in the Pacific and European theaters, sometimes only hours after the reporters witnessed the scenes. And for the first time women covered the war, earning the respect of their male colleagues for insightful, accurate coverage.
As many reporters covered battles won and lost, the greatest number of articles being printed in the United States were human-interest pieces, most popularized by Ernie Pyle, a reporter/war-correspondent who focused on individual soldiers’ stories, using full names and hometowns to humanize those fighting. These articles did not attempt to valorize the soldiers but rather show them as people with hopes, fears, and quirks which he felt accurately represented what was happening on the front.
This was an important distinction from official dispatches issued by the White House and other governmental agencies which were vague, often only listing names of battles, the outcome, and information regarding casualties.
Ernest Taylor Pyle was born on Aug. 3, 1900, on the Sam Elder farm, located south and west of Dana, Indiana, where his father was then tenant farming. Pyle, the only child of Will and Maria Pyle, disliked farming, once noting that “anything was better than looking at the south end of a horse going north.” After his high school graduation, Pyle – caught up in the patriotic fever sweeping the nation upon America’s entry into World War I – enlisted in the Naval Reserve. Before he could complete his training, however, an armistice was declared in Europe.
In 1919, Pyle enrolled at Indiana University in Bloomington with no particular vocational ambition. All he knew was that he heartily disliked the rigors of working his family’s farm, and anything else had to be better. Learning from a friend that journalism courses were a cinch, he enrolled in the university’s journalism curriculum as a means to escape the plow. He ended up enjoying his classes, but just short of finishing his journalism degree in 1923, he left the university to accept a reporter’s job at the La Porte Herald.
His stay in La Porte was short. Within six months, a connection from his university days helped him get a job in Washington D.C. with the Washington Daily News. From there he went on to short stints with two newspapers in New York, and by 1928 he was back at the Washington Daily News as a copy editor.
In Washington, he met Geraldine “Jerry” Siebolds, and they married on July 25, 1925. “Jerry” suffered from intermittent bouts of mental illness and alcoholism, resulting in a rocky and tempestuous marriage. The next year, Pyle quit his job, and they criss-crossed the country for two years, covering over 9,000 miles. In 1928 he returned to The Washington Daily News, and for the following four years he served as the country’s first and best-known aviation columnist.
In 1932 Pyle once again became managing editor of The Washington Daily News. Two years later he took an extended vacation in California to recuperate from a severe bout of flu. Upon his return, to fill in for the paper’s vacationing syndicated columnist Heywood Broun, he wrote a series of 11 columns about his stay in California and the people he had met there.
The series proved unexpectedly popular with both readers and colleagues. G.B. Parker, editor-in-chief of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, said he had found in Pyle’s vacation articles that “They had a sort of Mark Twain quality and they knocked my eyes right out”. On August 2, 1935, the day before his thirty-fifth birthday, he and Jerry started an epic journey of five years, during which they crossed the continent twenty times, touched down at least three times in every state, and visited every country but two in the Western Hemisphere. “We have worn out two cars, five sets of tires, three typewriters, and pretty soon I’m going to have to have a new pair of shoes” he later wrote. He filed something like 2.5 million words. The results were immensely popular and breezily chatty vignettes about his encounters with sheepherders and lumberjacks, celebrities, farmers, and hotel bell hops.
With the advent of World War II, Pyle’s fortunes began moving upward, first by inches and then by quantum leaps. Initially, he had been too preoccupied with his nomadic pursuits of local color to pay much heed in the late 1930s as Hitler’s aggressive grab for lebensraum (additional territory considered necessary for national survival) moved Europe toward a continent-wide conflict. But the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 suddenly changed all that. Pyle’s ambition became that of being a war correspondent. However it wasn’t until late 1940 that he finally arrived in England to begin his career as a wartime columnist.
There Pyle experienced his first significant taste of success with his accounts of the devastating effects of theLuftwaffe’s relentless bombing raids on Great Britain’s citizens during “The Blitz”. Witnessing a German fire-bombing raid on London, he wrote that it was “the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known.” A book of his experiences during this time, “Ernie Pyle in England,” was published in 1941. However gratifying all this might have been for Pyle, the most impressive chapter in the story of his rise did not really begin to unfold until he and other members of the wartime press landed with American troops in North Africa in November 1942.
As his daily columns on Allied operations in Africa started finding their way into print back in the United States, Pyle’s reputation soared like a meteor. Almost overnight he became the most talked about, sought after, and revered member of his profession. The veteran Colliers reporter, Quinton Reynolds, called him “unquestionably the greatest correspondent in Africa.” An editor for the Indianapolis times declared his column “the hottest feature we’ve got,” and an assistant editor whose paper did not have the good fortune to be carrying his column confessed to Pyle, “I wish to God I had you”.
But perhaps the most singular manifestation of Pyle’s escalating fame was the ordinary soldier’s curiosity about him. The question most commonly asked by enlisted men at the front, whenever they encountered members of the press, was, “Do you know Ernie Pyle?”.
Pyle interrupted his reporting several times during the war with leaves to return home to care for his wife while they were still married. After his return to the United States for a vacation, he wrote to his college roommate, Paige Cavanaugh: “Geraldine was drunk the afternoon I got home. From there she went on down. Went completely screwball. One night she tried the gas. Had to have a doctor.” The two were divorced on April 14, 1942. They remarried by proxy while Pyle was in Africa on March 10, 1943.
After Africa, Pyle went on to cover the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy and in mid-1944 was with American forces as they established a foothold on the beaches of Normandy and began the march toward Paris to drive the Germans from France. With each change of venue his reputation seemed to wax only more. By early 1945, having won a Pulitzer Prize the previous year, this one-time travel columnist, who had once had trouble interesting newspapers in his work, was being carried in nearly 400 American dailies plus nearly 300 weekly publications.
The explanation for Pyle’s success as a war correspondent contained several elements. He had a low-key and self-effacing manner of dealing with people that enabled him to elicit the makings of a story, where a more aggressive approach might have failed. He also instinctively knew how to spot a story’s potential in situations which most journalists would have dismissed as too trivial to deal with. An equally important ingredient to the success of Pyle’s columns was what he once called their “worm’s-eye view of the war”.
Also contributing to his popularity was the matter-of-fact and sometimes beguiling simplicity of his journalistic style, which imbued his words with a remarkably graphic sense of the horror and waste of the war, without engaging in histrionics or being maudlin. This is not to say that his columns did not on occasion draw tears.
Although Pyle’s columns covered almost every branch of the service – from quartermaster troops to pilots – he saved his highest praise and devotion for the common foot soldier. “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.”
Noble Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, a Pyle friend, perhaps summed up the reporter’s work best when he told a Time magazine reporter: “There are really two wars and they haven’t much to do with each other. There is the war of maps and logistics, of campaigns, of ballistics, armies, divisions and regiments – and that is General George Marshall’s war.
“Then there is the war of the homesick, weary, funny, violent, common men who wash their socks in their helmets, complain about the food, whistle at the Arab girls, or any girls for that matter, and bring themselves through as dirty a business as the world has ever seen and do it with humor and dignity and courage – and that is Ernie Pyle’s war.”
Despite the warmth he felt for the average G.I., Pyle had no illusions about the dangers involved with his job. He once wrote a friend that he tried “not to take any foolish chances, but there’s just no way to play it completely safe and still do your job.”
Returning to the United States in the late summer of 1944 after witnessing the liberation of Paris, Pyle knew this much-needed respite from the war, however much he wished otherwise, must be only temporary. By early the next year, having succumbed to the Navy’s urging, he agreed to cover operations in the Pacific. “I’m going simply because there is a war on and I am part of it,” he wrote.
By the time he accompanied a group of Marines on their landing at Okinawa early in April 1945, he was beginning to take a decidedly more optimistic view of his work. Even the premonition of his own death begin to fade, and shortly after his Okinawa sorties he observed in a letter, “I feel now that at last I have a pretty good chance of coming through the war alive.” Then on April 17, 1945 he arrived on the recently occupied island of Ie Shima and the next day set out with some soldiers in a Jeep to survey the terrain, which still contained pockets of Japanese resistance. Suddenly, the party encountered a Japanese machine gun, and its withering fire quickly drove them to dive into a ditch. Pyle briefly lifted his head from the ditch to look, and seconds later an enemy bullet entered his left temple just under his helmet, killing him instantly.
Pyle was buried with his helmet on, among other battle casualties, with an infantry private on one side and a combat engineer on the other. The men of the Army unit he was covering erected a monument, which still stands, at the site of his death. Its inscription reads, “At this spot the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy. Ernie Pyle, 18 April 1945.”
Eleanor Roosevelt, who frequently quoted Pyle’s war dispatches in her newspaper column, My Day, paid tribute to him there the following day: “I shall never forget how much I enjoyed meeting him here in the White House last year,” she wrote, “and how much I admired this frail and modest man who could endure hardships because he loved his job and our men.”
Though newspapers reported that Geraldine “took the news bravely,” her health declined rapidly in the months following Pyle’s death. She died on November 23, 1945.
The infantrymen who received Pyle’s body after his death found in his pockets a draft of a column he intended to release when the war in Europe ended. In that column, Pyle wrote that he would not soon forget “the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.
“Dead men by mass production – in one country after another – month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.”
“Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.”
“Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.”
After the war Pyle’s remains were re-interred at the Army cemetery on Okinawa, and later at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. In 1983 he was awarded the Purple Heart – a rare honor for a civilian – by the 77th Division’s successor unit, the 77th Army Reserve Command.
In 1947 – after the war that brought Pyle such fame and adulation, and two years following his death – his editor, friend, and fellow Hoosier, Lee G. Miller, culled selected columns from Pyle’s 5-year journey throughout the Americas with his wife Jerry, and stitched them together into a book titled “Home Country,” a posthumous contribution to a familiar and persistent genre of American nonfiction: the road book. It became his final legacy, but not his most lasting one.
Grown men have been known to cry while reading Pyle’s most widely-reprinted and famous column, “The Death of Captain Waskow,” which related the passing of a beloved officer and its impact on his men. This column moved a nation, and was recreated in the widely-acclaimed movie about Pyle’s epic WWII passage through the European theater, called “The Story of G.I. Joe,” starring Burgess Meredith, and premiering just 2 months to the day after Pyle was killed in action. Robert Mitchum played Waskow.
In his documentary film, “The Battle of San Pietro,” John Huston depicted the action in which Capt. Henry T. Waskow died on December 14, 1943.
The editors of the Washington Daily News devoted their entire front page to the memorializing of Waskow on Jan. 10, 1944. Below is the complete article.
AT THE FRONT LINES IN ITALY, January 10, 1944 – In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas.
Capt. Waskow was a company commander in the 36th Division. He had led his company since long before it left the States. He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.
“After my own father, he came next,” a sergeant told me.
“He always looked after us,” a soldier said. “He’d go to bat for us every time.”
“I’ve never knowed him to do anything unfair,” another one said.
I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow’s body down. The moon was nearly full at the time, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley below. Soldiers made shadows in the moonlight as they walked.
Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack-saddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.
The Italian mule-skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies at the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself, and ask others to help.
The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment, while they got a new grip. In the half-light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road.
I don’t know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don’t ask silly questions.
We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.
Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about it. We talked soldier talk for an hour or more. The dead man lay all alone outside in the shadow of the low stone wall.
Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there, in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting. “This one is Captain Waskow,” one of them said quietly.
Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the low stone wall.Other men took the other bodies off. Finally there were five lying end to end in a long row, alongside the road. You don’t cover up dead men in the combat zone. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.
The unburdened mules moved off to their olive orchard. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually one by one I could sense them moving close to Capt. Waskow’s body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him, and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.
One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, “God damn it.” That’s all he said, and then he walked away. Another one came. He said, “God damn it to hell anyway.” He looked down for a few last moments, and then he turned and left.
Another man came; I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the half light, for all were bearded and grimy dirty. The man looked down into the dead captain’s face, and then he spoke directly to him, as though he were alive. He said: “I’m sorry, old man.”
Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said:
“I sure am sorry, sir.”
Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking int ently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.
And finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.
After that the rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the five dead men lying in a line, end to end, in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.