Ernie Pyle—The GI’s Favorite Reporter
Updated: Apr 21, 2022
It has been almost seventy-seven years since World War II ended in Europe. Back then, information about the war came to Americans via newspapers and magazines and radios and movie theater newsreels. That was about it. Sadly, war and its consequences have returned to Europe once again. Today we learn about the war in Ukraine from dozens of sources—maybe hundreds—television and radio and newspapers, certainly, but we also hear it from and read it on our devices. The news is there 24/7, always ready and available for our eyes and ears to consume, to be sickened by, to be livid and sad and disgusted about. At times, we find ourselves disbelieving. How can it be happening? It’s unreal.
Earlier this month, Joe and I watched Scott Pelley’s interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” During the segment, as Pelley walked alone through the devastation of a Ukrainian city, I was reminded of another war time correspondent, Ernie Pyle. Many of you have no doubt heard the name, but do you know his story?
Ernest “Ernie” Taylor Pyle was born on an Indiana farm on August 3, 1900. An only child, Pyle graduated from high school in Bono, Indiana (about fifty-three miles northwest of Louisville, Kentucky) and enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War I. The war ended before he finished his training, thus ending his brief military career. In 1919, he enrolled at the University of Indiana in Bloomington where he majored in economics and completed all the journalism courses that were offered at that time. During his sophomore year, he joined the staff of the student newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, eventually becoming its city and news editor.
During his junior year at Indiana, Pyle took a semester off so he could accompany the school’s baseball team to Japan. (Not an easy feat in the early 1920s.) His interest in exploring other cultures and meeting people in foreign lands was cultivated during that trip to the Far East. Travel—foreign and domestic—and writing about what he saw and the people he met and how they lived their lives would ultimately define his career.
Pyle didn’t finish his degree at Indiana, leaving with just one semester remaining. He took a job at the Daily Herald in La Porte, Indiana before moving to Washington, DC to join the staff of the Washington Daily News, a new Scripps-Howard newspaper. He met his future wife Geraldine “Jerry” Siebolds at a party, and after their marriage in July 1925, they quit their jobs and traveled the country together in their Ford Model T roadster. (Try to imagine that!) Pyle eventually returned to the Daily News and, using his keen interest in aviation, began writing one of the first aviation columns in the country, “D.C. Airports Day by Day.” Although he never became a pilot, he did fly an estimated 200,000 passenger miles throughout his career as a civilian journalist and war correspondent.
In 1935, Pyle resigned his position as managing editor of the Daily News. Over the next six years, he and Jerry traveled throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America. His human-interest column, “Hoosier Vagabond,” was found in Scripps-Howard newspapers six days a week. His popularity with his readers was already established when World War II broke out. He continued writing his travel columns until 1942, but by then, he was also writing about the war experiences of America’s soldiers.
Pyle first went to London in 1940 to cover the Battle of Britain. After the United States entered the war in late 1941, he spent time with American troops in North Africa and Italy. Eventually, he returned to England where the Allies were preparing for the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. He didn’t plan to be a part of the first wave during the invasion, but he was invited to observe the landings from General Omar Bradley’s ship, the USS Augusta. He did go ashore in an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) with almost one hundred infantry troops who reminded him of the men he had accompanied in North Africa and Italy. While writing about the death and destruction he witnessed on Omaha Beach, he also helped with the cleanup on the Normandy shore.
Before he left England for France in 1944, Pyle was informed he’d been awarded the Pulitzer Prize “for distinguished war correspondence during the year 1943.” He was stunned and amazed. Other Pulitzer winners that year included The New York Times, poet Steven Vincent Benet, composer Howard Hanson, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II for their Broadway musical Oklahoma!
By September 1944, Ernie Pyle needed a break from the war. He was exhausted and wanted to return to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he and his wife had built a modest home a few years earlier. After a relatively short R&R, he and Jerry left New Mexico and headed west to California. Jerry’s health had declined, and she entered a private hospital while her husband arranged to join American forces in the Pacific for what would become his final writing assignment. Travelling aboard the aircraft carrier USS Cabot, he resumed writing during the Battle of Okinawa, the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific theater during the war.
On April 17, 1945, Pyle found himself with the U.S. Army’s 305th Infantry Regiment of the 77th Infantry Division on Ie Shima, a small island northwest of Okinawa. The Allies had captured the island, but there were still pockets of enemy soldiers in place. The following day, Pyle was traveling in a Jeep with Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Coolidge, commanding officer of the 305th, when they came under fire from a Japanese machine gun. They took cover in a nearby ditch, and when Pyle slowly raised his head to look around, he was shot in his left temple and was killed instantly. He was forty-four years old.
Initially buried on Ie Shima, Pyle’s remains were eventually moved to a U.S military cemetery on Okinawa. His final resting place would be the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii. The site, an extinct volcano, is known as the Punchbowl. Over 13,000 World War II soldiers, sailors, and airmen are buried there. Even today, Pyle’s grave is one of the most visited and photographed in the cemetery.
While researching for my blog, I wasn’t too surprised when I discovered this movie, “Ernie Pyle’s ‘Story of G.I. Joe’.” However, I was surprised that our local public library had the DVD in their collection. (Yes, I checked it out; yes, we’ve watched it; yes, it’s actually pretty good.) The movie was premiered in 1945, two months to the day after Pyle’s death. In a February 1945 column, he wrote about the movie and confessed, “I never did like the title, but nobody could think of a better one, and I was too lazy to try.” Burgess Meredith stars as Ernie Pyle and Robert Mitchum, who received an Oscar nomination in 1946 for Best Supporting Actor, portrays Lt./Cpt. Bill Walker. Some of the dialogue in the movie comes directly from some of Pyle’s columns. (And yes, there is a dog in the movie. He doesn’t resemble the dog in the movie poster, but he’s darn cute, nonetheless.)
Jerry Pyle died from influenza in November 1945, just seven months after her husband’s death. Their home was bequeathed to the City of Albuquerque, and since October 1948, it has served as the first branch of the Albuquerque Public Library system. Visitors come from far and wide to glimpse the photographs, scrapbooks, and other memorabilia on display. A memorial by Willard Schroeder was placed on the south lawn near the grave of the Pyle's dog, Cheetah.
Ernie Pyle’s most famous article, “The Death of Captain Waskow,” was published on January 10, 1944. Later, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists selected it as “the best American newspaper column of all time.” Robert Mitchum’s character in the aforementioned movie is based on Cpt. Waskow. You can find the article here:
For a short time after his death, Pyle’s “Roving Reporter” columns continued to appear in the Scripps-Howard newspapers. He was in the habit of writing columns ahead so there would be no interruptions while he was collecting material for subsequent columns. His last column was published on April 28, 1945. This Editor’s Note appears at the end.
This is Ernie Pyle’s last column. The Press has printed all the stories written before he was killed by Jap machine gun bullets on Ie Island off Okinawa.
For the second time in more than a year we publish with sadness and deep regret the final column of a great reporter and a splendid human being. In February, 1944, we printed the last column of Raymond Clapper who, like Ernie, met death covering the Pacific warfare.
It has been suggested that The Press publish some of Ernie’s former columns. But we have done this in the past when he was on vacations, and another publication of those columns would, we believe, probably be something of a let-down after the stories which led to his death.
Hence, this is goodbye to Ernie. As he, himself, wrote in the concluding sentence of his book, “Here Is Your War.”
“When we leave here for the next shore, there is nothing we can do for the ones beneath the wooden crosses, except perhaps to pause and murmur: “Thanks, pal’.”
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her (as yet unpublished) debut novel. You can find her web site, with links to all her blogs, here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.