A Gripping Account of 54 War Correspondents K.I.A. in WWII 1940-1945 by Doral Chenoweth


Chapter XVII
Ernie Pyle
A single chapter on the life of Ernie Pyle is meager for the man. This biographer has approached each of the war correspondent's careers with humility, but never with such a sense of incapacity as here. Each of these men was to be dealt with rather summarily, giving only an account of his experiences, something of his background, and samples of the material he had prepared. Pyle was a prolific writer. His experiences of major consequence to this work were many. His background was unique -- strange. His impact upon the whole war scene, both at home and with men in conflict, was unparalleled. It presented a difficult task. Pyle's work is compiled in five volumes, three of which deal with America at war. A fourth one, Ernie Pyle in England, (21) was used for its background material. The others, Brave Men, Here Is Your War, and Last Chapter, told Ernie's story of war. The fifth, Home Country, is not represented in this chapter. With a full sense of humility in this instance, it is hoped the reader will appreciate the limitations of writing about the greatest of all war correspondents -- Ernie Pyle. An almost pathetic little figure sloshed along the road that pointed toward Rome. It was bitter cold and the rain drove into his face in sheets. There wasn't a dry spot on his body. He had had nothing to eat since an hour before dawn and it was now late afternoon.

The line of men that marched with him spoke to him bitterly from time to time -- cursing the rain -- the cold -- their hunger -- and the war. They called him "the little guy" or more often, "Pop." The pad in his pocket was soaked, but he already knew all of the men in the company except the most recent replacements.

As the leader of the column signaled from the front to rest, the wrinkled little man almost fell to the wet ground. The men began to crowd around him. Cigarettes were shared by those who still had dry ones and chocolate bars were distributed to the group. The 10 minute rest was soon over and the tormented figure pulled himself into the road and marched on, always frontward.

ernie pyle
 Ernie Pyle

Ernie Pyle was covering the war. The little man from Dana, Indiana, was doing the thing his nature demanded of him. He was writing about the underdog, and living with him to get his story. The man whose life was a maze of personal sickness, domestic worries and numberless fears was listening to the moans of wounded men, writing of their homes and their ambitions, and braving the fears they felt. The man whose mind was constantly full of concern for an almost neurotic wife whose illness plagued him at every hand, and whom he had divorced as an unsuccessful therapeutic shock, was trying to comfort the other guy, just by his presence.

Pyle once wrote, "I am a professional traveller but it was not the desire to 'see what it was like' that made me want to go. And I am a newspaperman, yet the story I might send back hardly entered my mind at all. I simply wanted to go privately -- just inside myself I wanted to go -- there was occurring a spiritual holocaust -- a trial of souls -- that never again in our day could be reenacted. I felt that to live your span in this time of ours, and to detour around an opportunity of sharing in the most momentous happening of that time was simply to be disinterested in living."
Ernie Pyle home in Dana, Indiana

Pyle had a background of newspaper work of every type from police reporter to managing editor. He had for the past six years been a roving reporter for Scripps-Howard, with a column syndicated all over the nation. In his "roving" assignment, he had in almost every case been able to take his wife, the former Geraldine Siebolds, referred to as "That Girl" with him. Her frail health was worrisome, and it was with great hesitancy that Ernie left her in his recently acquired home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and turned to roving the war-torn areas of the world.

His first trip was to England, where he "covered" the Battle of Britain. Out of "the holocaust that was Britain " came one of his most quoted and read works.

"Some day when peace has returned to this odd world I want to come to London again and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges. And standing there I want to tell somebody who has never seen it, how London looked on a certain night in the holiday season of the year 1940. "For on that night this old, old city was -- even though I must bite my tongue in shame for saying it -- the most beautiful sight I have ever seen.

"The thing I shall always remember above all the other things in my life is the monstrous loveliness of that one single view of London on a holiday night -- London stabbed with great fires, shaken by explosions, its dark regions along the Thames sparkling with the pin points of white-hot bombs, all of it roofed over with a ceiling of pink that held bursting shells, balloons, flares and the grind of vicious engines.

"These things all went together to make the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known." This account was reprinted in the London papers.

After a brief rest in this country, he projected a trip over the new air route to Alaska when word reached him that "That Girl" was dangerously ill. He returned until she mended, and planned a trip to the South Pacific. His clipper booking was cancelled. The clipper soared over the Hawaiian Islands as Japanese airplanes bombed Pearl Harbor. In the summer of 1942 he returned to the British Isles to watch our troops prepare for the invasion of North Africa.

He went ashore early in the North African campaign.

Africa was the birthplace of the mutual love that never died between Ernie and "The Infantry -- the God Damned Infantry," as they like to call themselves.

"I love the infantry," he explained, "because they are the underdogs. 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. "All along the length of a narrow mountain pathway there is a thin line of men. For four days and nights they have fought hard, eaten little, washed none, slept hardly at all. Their nights have been violent with attack, fright, butchery, their days sleepless and miserable with the crash of artillery.

"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 unshaved. 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 there as if they had been doing that forever, and nothing else.

"The line moves on, but it never ends. All afternoon men keep coming round the hill and vanish eventually over the horizon. It is one long tired line of ants like men.

"There is agony in your heart and you feel almost ashamed to look at them. They are just guys from Broadway and Main Street, but maybe 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 in pace with these infantrymen in Tunisia.

"At night -- there is not a sound as they move like wraiths in single file down tortuous goat paths, walking slowly, feeling the ground with their toes, stumbling, and harshfully cussing. They will walk all night and attack before dawn.

"They move like ghosts. You don't hear or see them three feet away. Now and then a light flashes vividly from the blast of our big guns, and for just an instant you see a long slow line of dark helmeted forms silhouetted in the flash.

"Then darkness and silence consumes them again, and somehow you are terribly moved."

Continuing through the North African campaign with frequent illnesses, Ernie went ashore on Sicily, staying there until the end of that campaign. Following that campaign he returned to the United States for a reunion with his rewedded (22) wife. He was much in demand during his stay and refused all speaking engagements but a single bond promotion campaign -- and posed for one cigarette ad, a mistake which he later bitterly regretted.

He returned to Italy in December 1943. For his work in 1943, he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished correspondence. Perhaps his most famous writing was that column which appeared in January 1944, describing the death of Captain Henry T. Waskow, The (Washington) News devoted its entire front page to that column.

"By Ernie Pyle

"AT THE FRONT LINES IN ITALY, JAN. 10 (BY WIRELESS) -- 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 at Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas.

"Capt. Waskow was a company commander in the 36th Division. He had been in this company since long before he 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 comes 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 known him to do anything unkind,' another said.

"I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow down. The moon was nearly full, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley. Soldiers made shadows 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 packsaddle, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking 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, when they got to 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. In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there leaning on the other. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the stone wall alongside of the road.

"I don't know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, 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 watercans 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 him. We talked for an hour or more; the dead man lay all alone, outside the shadow of the 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 Capt. Waskow,' one of them said quickly.

"Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally there were five lying end to end in a long row. You don't cover up dead men in the combat zones. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.

"The uncertain mules moved off to their olive groves. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving, one by one, 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!'

"Another one came, and he said, 'God Damn it to hell anyway!' He looked down for a few last moments and then turned and left.

"Another man came. I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the dim light, for everybody was grimy and dirty. The man looked down into the dead captain's face and then spoke directly to him, as tho he were alive: 'I'm sorry old man.'

"Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer and bent over, and he too spoke to his head captain, not in a whisper, but awfully tender, and he said: 'I sure am sorry, Sir.'

"The the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the Captain's hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face. And he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there. "Finally he put the hand down. He reached up and gently straightened the points of the Captain's shirt collar, and then 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.

"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."

Many correspondents consider this story of Capt. Waskow to be Ernie Pyle's greatest battle front story.

Before the fighting in southern Italy had subsided, another major battle of the war was in progress -- Anzio. Ernie Pyle wanted to go.

"A correspondent who wanted to go to Anzio simply drove to the dock where the ships were loading, told the Army captain in charge, and the captain said, 'Okay, get on this boat here.'

"The day was gray. Heavy clouds covered the sky, and rain occasionally drenched the landscape. That meant another day for our troops on the beachhead to go without air support, but it also meant the Germans would be grounded too and our ships could land without being bombed. And for that we were selfishly glad.

"On the beachhead every inch of our territory was under German artillery fire. There was no rear area that was immune, as in most battle zones. They could reach us with their 88s, and they used everything from that on up.

"The land of the Anzio beachhead is flat, and our soldiers felt strange and naked with no rocks to take cover behind, no mountains to provide slopes for protection. It was a new kind of warfare for us. Distances were short, and space was confined. The whole beachhead was the front line, so small that we could stand on high ground in the middle of it and see clear around the thing. That's the truth, and it was no picnic feeling either.

"One gigantic explosion came after another. The concussion was terrific. I jumped into one corner of the room and squatted down and just cowered there. I definitely thought it was the end. Suddenly one whole wall of my room flew in, burying the bed -- where I'd been a few seconds before -- under hundreds of pounds of brick, stone and mortar. I was astonished at feeling no pain, for debris went tearing around every inch of the room and I couldn't believe I hadn't been hit. But the only wound I got was a tiny cut on my right cheek, from flying glass, and I didn't even know when that happened. When the bombing was over, my room was a shambles -- the sort of thing you see only in the movies.

"In the next few days little memories of the bombing gradually came back into my consciousness. I remembered I had smoked a whole pack of cigarettes that morning. And I recalled how I went to take my pocket comb out of my shirt pocket, to comb my hair, but instead actually took my handkerchief out of my hip pocket and started combing my hair with the handkerchief." Ernie stayed some months with the Fifth Army in Italy, but a bigger show was coming up. He returned to England to await the invasion. Excerpts from his dispatches recount his experiences here until his return to the States after the liberation of Paris. Before he left Italy, though, he "summed up" what, in his mind, had been the overall picture of Italy.

"There was some exhilaration there in Italy, and some fun along with the misery and the sadness, but on the whole it had been bitter. Few of us can ever conjure up any truly fond memories of the Italian campaign. The enemy had been hard, and so had the elements. Men had had to stay too long in the lines. A few men had borne a burden they felt should have been shared by many men. There was little solace for those who had suffered, and none at all for those who had died, in trying to rationalize about why things happened as they did.

"I looked at it this way -- if by having only a small army in Italy we had been able to build up more powerful forces in England, and if by sacrificing a few thousand lives there that winter we would save half a million lives in Europe -- if those things were true, then it was best as it was.

"I wasn't sure they were true. I only knew I had to look at it that way or else I couldn't bear to think of it at all. Personally, I thought they were true.

"It was wonderful in a grim, homesick, miserable sort of way to have been with them. There was not one single instance, from private to general, when they were not good to me.

"I hated the whole damned business just as much as they did, who suffered so much more. I often wondered why I was there at all, since I didn't have to be, but I found no answer anywhere short of insanity, so I quit thinking about it. But I'm glad I was there."

In England -- "The top commanders who toiled and slaved for months planning the second front were under a man-killing strain of work and responsibility. Thousands of men of high rank labored endlessly. They were up early, they worked all day, and after supper they went back to work far into the night. Seldom could you get them to take a day off.

"Everywhere I went around our camps and marshalling areas, everything was being waterproofed for the invasion. That was perfectly natural, of course, since land vehicles won't run through water onto beaches unless all the vital mechanisms are covered up.

"We (correspondents) felt our chances were not very good . . . and we were not happy about it.

"The call (to prepare for invasions) came at nine o'clock one morning and we were ordered to be at a certain place with full field kit at 10:30 a.m.

"Along toward evening (of the next day) we reached our ship. From a vague anticipatory dread the invasion now turned into a horrible reality.

"My devastating sense of fear and depression disappeared when we approached the beachhead. Angry shells hitting near us would make heavy thuds as the concussion carried through the water and struck the hull of our ship. But it wasn't like that ashore.

"Ashore, facing us were more enemy troops than we had in our assault waves. The advantages were all theirs, the disadvantages all ours.

"War in the Normandy countryside was a war from hedgerow to hedgerow, and when we got into a town or city it was a war from street to street. Usually, when the pressure was on the German defenders, the hedgerow started pulling back. They would take their heavier guns and most of the men back a couple of fields and start digging in a new line. They left about two machine guns and a few riflemen scattered through the hedge to do a lot of shooting and hold up the Americans as long as they could.

"In wandering around our far-flung front lines we could always tell how recently the battles had swept ahead of us. There was nothing left behind but the remains -- the lifeless debris, the sunshine and the flowers, and utter silence. An amateur who wandered into this vacuum at the rear of a battle had a terrible sense of loneliness. Everything was dead -- the men, the machines, the animals -- and he alone was left alive.

"Surely history will give a name to the battle that sent us boiling out of Normandy, some name comparable with Saint-Mihiel or Meuse-Argonne of the last war. But to us there on the spot at the time it was known simply as the 'break-through.' "The attack was to open with a gigantic two-hour bombardment. I went with the infantry because it is my old love, and because I suspected the tanks, being spectacular, might smother the credit due the infantry. The first glances of the mass onslaught came over a little before 10 a.m. They were the fighters and the dive-bombers. The main road, running crosswise in front of us was their bomb line. The dive bombers hit it just right. The air was full of distinct sounds of cracking bombs and the heavy rips of planes' machine guns and the splitting screams of diving wings. And then a new sound gradually droned into our ears, a sound deep and all-encompassing with no notes in -- just a gigantic faraway surge of doomlike sound. It was the heavies.

"The first huge flight passed directly overhead and others followed. The thundering of the motors in the sky and the roar of bombs ahead filled all the space for noise on the earth. Nothing deviated them by the slightest.

"As we watched, there crept into our consciousness a realization that the windrows (23) of exploding bombs were easing back toward us, flight by flight, instead of gradually forward, as the plan called for. An indescribable kind of panic came over us. And then all of an instant the universe became filled with a gigantic rattling as of huge ripe seeds in a mammoth dry gourd. There is no description of the sound and fury of those bombs except to say it was chaos, and a waiting for darkness. "During the bad part a colonel I had known a long time was walking up and down behind a farmhouse, snapping his fingers and saying over and over to himself, 'goddammit, goddammit!' And yet Company B attacked -- and on time, to the minute. "They attacked and within an hour they sent word back that they had advanced 800 yards through German territory and were still going. Around our farmyard men with stars (24) on their shoulders almost wept when the word came over the portable radio. The American soldier can be majestic when he needs to be.

"As usual, those Americans most deserving of Paris will be last ones to see it, if they ever do. By that I mean the fighting soldiers. Only one infantry regiment and one reconnaissance outfit of Americans actually came into Paris, and they passed on through the city quickly and went on with their war.

"The first ones in the city to stay were such non-fighters as the psychological-warfare and the civil-affairs people, public relations men and correspondents. I heard more than one rear-echelon soldier say he felt a little ashamed to be getting all the grateful cheers and kisses for the liberation of Paris when the guys who broke the German army and opened the way for Paris to be free were still out there fighting without the benefit of kisses or applause.

"But that's the way things are in the world."

After Paris, Ernie felt that he had 'had it.'

"For some of us the war has already gone on too long. Our feelings have been wrung and drained; they cringe from the effort of coming alive again. Even the approach of the end seems to have brought little inner elation. It has brought only a tired sense of relief.

"I do not pretend that my own feeling is the spirit of our armies. If it were, we probably would not have had the power to win. Most men are stronger. Our soldiers still can hate, or glorify, or be glad, with true emotion. For them death has a pang, and victory a sweet scent. But for me war has become a flat, black depression without highlights, a revulsion of the mind and an exhaustion of the spirit."

Ernie Pyle home in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ernie Pyle had experienced more war than most of the men at the front. He had turned out more copy than most correspondents. He had encountered more personal trouble than most. His cup was dry. Completely fatigued in body and mind, he was flown home. He wanted to relax with Jerry -- his wife, and enjoy his home once more.

Despite the hectic trails accompanying his nationwide popularity, he was able to enjoy life once more with his wife, his dogs, and friends in Albuquerque. Even discussion of the film based on his experiences in Italy were not distasteful. Technical adviser for the film, The Story of G.I. Joe, was Paige Cavanaugh, true friend of Ernie's and one of the few men Ernie could relax with after war.

This task was as distasteful to Ernie as it was to Jerry. He never denied the fear that constricted his heart. But he could never feel comfortable at home while millions were still offering their lives. He volunteered service in the Pacific.

Jerry was weak and morbid, approaching her last illness. It was no picnic that Ernie was going into. Whatever the driving force behind Pyle, he was one of the most inspired men to ever cross the span of journalistic history.

He kept up his usual prolific work in his Pacific tour. His columns, however, dealt less with the infantry at first, for he did not join front line troops until he had caught up with the background necessary to put him in gear with the war.

When he caught onto the pace of the war in the islands he went with troops to invade Okinawa. The sector of the Okinawa invasion in which Pyle went ashore found no enemy activity at all. Pyle felt restores, in a measure, to his old self. He was back into the swing of life as he loved it -- marching along with men whose daily bread was death, and yet without the mind-searing personal experiencing of war at first hand. Perhaps therein lies a clue to the urge that drove the little Hoosier further and further. As one reads his work, there is a feeling that his interest lay in people, not events, and to him, the only people who could live were those who had approached death.

"Covering this Pacific war was, for me, like learning to live in a new city," he remarked. "The methods of war, the attitudes toward it, the homesickness, the distances, the climate -- everything was different from what we had known in the European war.

"Distance was the main thing. A man can be on an island battlefield and the next thing behind him is a thousand miles away. "And another enemy out here is one we never knew so well in Europe -- monotony. It's sometimes called 'pineapple crazy.'" Pyle felt that the Pacific war was nearing a close. It was. Even nearer was the end of Europe's battle against the Hun. In these final days, America read this story:

ernie talking to the troops
Ernie Pyle, center, talks with Marines on a U.S. Navy Transport, one month before his death, on April 18, 1945.

"AT A COMMAND POST, IE SHIMA, RYUKYUS ISLANDS, April 18 (AP) Ernie Pyle, war correspondent, beloved by his co-workers, G.I.s and generals alike, was killed by a Japanese machine-gun bullet through his left temple this morning. "The famed columnist, who had reported the wars from Africa to Okinawa, met his death at 10:15 a.m. about a mile forward of this command post.

Even death had a meaning for Ernie Pyle. He wrote in Here is Your War, 'I don't know whether it was their good fortune or their misfortune to get out of it so early in the game. I guess it doesn't make any difference, once a man has gone. Medals and speeches and victories are nothing to them any more. They died and others lived and nobody knows why it is so. They died and thereby the rest of us can go on and on.'

The great men of the Allied world paid final tribute to Ernie Pyle. President Truman said: "The nation is quickly saddened again by the death of Ernie Pyle." Franklin D. Roosevelt had died six days before Pyle.

Admiral Chester Nimitz called him "one of the greatest heroes of this war."

General Eisenhower said, "Every G.I. in Europe -- and that means all of us -- has lost his best and most understanding friend." Ernie's greatest tribute was the one that marked the spot where he fell. A simple crude battle field marker read:

18 APRIL 1945

ernie pyle tomb

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PROTECTION: Filed with Writers Guild of America, 2003.
Renewed Copyright Pending