Wednesday, January 18, 2017

`A Large Personal Impress on the Nation'

I grew up reading Ernie Pyle’s World War II dispatches and like to think that in some covert way he steered me toward becoming a newspaper reporter (as did Eric Hoffer, who wrote a syndicated newspaper column in the late nineteen-sixties that I devotedly read and clipped). More importantly, Pyle may have influenced the sort of reporter I became.  Some of the names editors and readers use to describe much of what I wrote are less than enthusiastic – “soft news,” human interest, features, fluff. The big subjects, like government and business, I found tiresome. I liked writing about people, not things, events, ideas or institutions. That was Pyle’s specialty as a war correspondent in North Africa, Europe and the Pacific. In his syndicated column, carried in more than three-hundred newspapers, he wrote not about armies and strategy but about the lives of ordinary Americans who happened to be soldiers. In 1944, he received the Pulitzer Prize. His wartime columns were collected in four books: Ernie Pyle in England (1941), Here Is Your War (1943), Brave Men (1944) and Last Chapter (1946).

On April 18, 1945, Pyle was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire on the island of Ie Shima near Okinawa. In a 1950 tribute in The New Yorker, fellow war correspondent A.J. Liebling credited Pyle with creating the mythic figure of “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 was writing long before the war, at various newspapers, and became one of the country’s first aviation reporters. From 1935 to 1941 he traveled the U.S. for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, filing six columns a week of “human interest” for most of that time. Some of the work was published posthumously in Home Country (1947). Now Indiana University Press has published At Home with Ernie Pyle (2016), edited by Owen V. Johnson, which collects much of the writing he devoted to his home state. I worked as a reporter for the newspaper in Richmond, Ind., from 1983 to 1985.  For me, Indiana was the home of Ernie Pyle, Theodore Dreiser, Hoagy Carmichael and Gennett Records. Pyle was born in Dana, in the west central part of the state, on the border with Illinois. Draw a straight line from Dana to Richmond and you intersect Indianapolis, the state’s capital and largest city.

Much of the work collected in At Home is prelude to the big story (World War II). We see a writer working industriously, learning his trade, turning himself from a dutiful reporter into a storyteller. There’s a folksiness to much of the material, a quality we also find in the war writing, where it’s used to greater effect. On May 17, 1938, Pyle files a story datelined Richmond, with this headline: “Fiend stalking the quiet streets of Richmond, Ind., hurls a dreadful missile at our correspondent’s car.” This is known in the trade as a slow news day. Someone spatters the hood of his car with an egg, and here is Pyle’s “lede”: “Richmond is clear across the state from my home town, and I am sorry it is not a few miles farther, for then it would be in Ohio. Richmond is a blot on the fair, clean name of Indiana.” Pyle stretches the anecdote across two pages. One sentence is eerily prophetic: “The egg had come from the hand of some human sniper on a nearby roof.” The columnist rouses faux enthusiasm for the culprits, praising their “zest for childlike hellishness,” and then turns on them in the final paragraph: “So, I would not have these young men spanked. I would merely have their jaws broken and their teeth knocked out.”

In a footnote to the story, the editor tells us the Richmond Palladium-Item, the newspaper I would work for forty-five years later, published Pyle’s column on June 25, 1938. In a note appended to the beginning of the story, an editor says of the young men who threw the egg at Pyle’s car: “It should be a matter of pride with these young gentlemen for many years to come, that they have so ably assisted in advertising the good name and reputation of their city.”   

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