Ernie Pyle (1900-1945) was America's most beloved and famous war correspondent during World War II. His sympathetic accounts of the ordinary GI made him the champion of American fighting men.
Born in a little white farmhouse near Dana, Indiana, on August 3, 1900, to William C. and Maria Pyle, Earnest (Ernie) Taylor Pyle later wrote in one of his columns: "I wasn't born in a log cabin, but I did start driving a team in the fields when I was nine years old, if that helps any." He attended Indiana University for three and a half years, majoring in journalism because his classmates considered it "a breeze."
A few months before graduation in 1923 he quit college to take a job as a cub reporter on the La Porte (Indiana) Herald-Argus. Soon after, he was hired as a copy editor by the Washington Daily News. There he met Geraldine Siebolds of Stillwater, Minnesota. In 1926 they were married. Pyle quit his job, drew out his savings to purchase a Model-T Ford roadster, and the young couple began the first of their many driving trips together around the United States. Ending their vacation in New York City, Pyle went to work as a copyreader on the Evening World and on the Evening Post. In 1928 he returned to the Daily News as telegraph editor, then aviation columnist, and from 1932 to 1935 as managing editor.
Wearied of desk work, Pyle started writing pieces as a roving reporter for the Scripps-Howard chain of newspapers in 1935. In the next six years he and his wife, known to millions of readers as "that girl who rides with me, " travelled over 200, 000 miles "by practically all forms of locomotion, including piggyback, " Pyle wrote in one of his columns in 1940. Visiting every country in the Western Hemisphere but two and crossing the United States some 30 times, "we have stayed in more than eight hundred hotels… flown in sixty-six different airplanes, ridden on twenty-nine different boats, walked two hundred miles, gone through five sets of tires and put out approximately $2, 500 in tips." Each day's experience became material for a column: a Nebraska town on relief, old men with wooden legs, a leper colony, Devil's Island, zipper-pants difficulties. Written simply and sensitively, like a letter to a friend back home, they revealed the world to millions of farm-bound and pavement bound Americans who could never make such journeys.
In the fall of 1940 Pyle flew to London to report the Battle of Britain. His vivid, grim accounts of England under Nazi German bombings tore at his readers' hearts, and the "little fellow"—I weigh 108 pounds, eat left-handed, am 28 inches around the waist, and still have a little hair left"—previously content to write about little things soon eclipsed the seasoned war correspondents in his cables back home. When American troops arrived in Europe, Pyle lived with them in Ireland; when they went into combat in Africa, his columns communicated all the hurt, horror, and homesickness the soldiers felt. Then Pyle marched with American troops in Sicily and Italy and landed with them in Normandy, France.
His warm, human stories about the Gls became a daily link between the fighting men and millions of American newspaper readers. His writings were read in some 300 newspapers in the United States like personal letters from the front. Throughout the war Pyle championed the common soldier; he spoke the ordinary Gl's language and made it a permanent part of American folklore. His published collections of columns, Here Is Your War and Brave Men, quickly became best-sellers and were purchased by Hollywood as the basis for a motion picture on Pyle's wartime career entitled "Gl Joe." Although his dispatches never glorified war, Pyle, more than any other correspondent, helped Americans to understand the true heroism and sacrifices of the Gls in battle.
In January 1945 Pyle went to report on the war in the Pacific. He did not relish going. He had already achieved fame and wealth. He had frequent premonitions of death—"I feel that I've used up all my chances, and I hate it. I don't want to be killed." But he journeyed across the Pacific to begin writing from foxholes again "because there's a war on and I'm part of it.… I've got to go, and I hate it." He landed in Okinawa with the Marines and trudged along the trails with the foot soldiers. On April 18, 1945, while riding a jeep toward a forward command post on the island of le Shima to cover the front-line combat, Ernie Pyle was hit by a Japanese machine-gun bullet in his left temple. He died instantly. Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal announced Pyle's death the next day, saddening the many Americans who eagerly read his column each day and all those servicemen who thought of him as their friend and spokesman. President Harry Truman best summed up Pyle's meaning to the World War II generation of Americans: "No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told. … He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen."
Further Reading on Ernie Pyle
Ernie Pyle's character and personality are clearly communicated in his writings: Ernie Pyle in England (1941), Here Is Your War (1943), and Brave Men (1944). His wartime reporting is analyzed in John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory, Politics and American Culture During World War II (1976) and in Richard R. Lingeman, Don't You Know There's a War On? The American Home Front 1941-1945 (1970). In a title that highlights Pyle's work, David Nichols edited Ernie's War: The Best of Ernie Pyle's World War II Dispatches (1986). Biographical data appears in his obituary in the New York Times (April 19, 1945).
Additional Biography Sources
Faircloth, Rudy, "Buddy, " Ernie Pyle, World War II's most beloved typewriter soldier, Tabor City, N.C.: Atlantic Pub. Co., 1982.
Melzer, Richard, Ernie Pyle in the American Southwest, Santa Fe, N.M.: Sunstone Press, 1996.