Saturday, April 18, 2015

This Day in WWII History (‘G.I. Joe’ Chronicler Ernie Pyle Killed at Okinawa)

Apr. 18, 1945—Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize for dispatches chronicling the privations and heroism of the ordinary American serviceman, died among the soldiers who had come to revere him when he was cut down by a sniper’s bullet on the small Japanese island of Ie Shima off Okinawa.

I became interested in the life and career of this World War II correspondent entirely by chance while on vacation late in the fall. Early in the morning, before the day’s adventures were to start, I flipped the station to Turner Classic Movies and came about five or 10 minutes into a black-and-white film. Initially intending to channel surf, I instead became transfixed and profoundly moved by The Story of G.I. Joe, starring Burgess Meredith as Pyle and, in the first big-screen role to win him significant notice, in the form of an Oscar nomination, 28-year-old Robert Mitchum as a tough but thoughtful lieutenant.

Pyle was killed two months before the release, but after the conclusion of shooting, of the film, with which he had been heavily involved. He had helped select Meredith to portray him; work with screenwriters; and persuaded William Wellman, initially reluctant to cast infantry soldiers in a positive light given his own negative experiences with them as a WWI pilot, to accept the assignment as director, once he grasped how lionized Pyle was by the men he covered.

It is easy to understand how the Scripps-Howard columnist came by this affection after reading passages such as the following: "I love the infantry 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 war can't be won without."

Scoops about the war (hard to come by, in any case, given generals’ penchant not to disclose information that could reveal troop movements) interested Pyle less than the human-interest stories of ordinary men who wanted to finish their awful jobs quickly and get home.

One of Pyle’s most read columns was “The Death of Captain Waskow,” an account of the death of a much-loved Texas officer in Italy. It contains the kind of low-key rhythms, vivid scene-making, and concluding sentences of overwhelming power reminiscent of another Ernie—Hemingway—at his best, in A Farewell to Arms.  Here, Pyle describes the awful details of corpses brought together for viewing:

“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.”

Even before he was struck down by a sniper’s bullet, Pyle had, in a sense, already become a casualty of the war. He had covered London during Nazi air raids, North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France. He had even received a Purple Heart for being wounded on the Anzio beachhead.

Forty years old when he first went abroad, Pyle had aged rapidly. Four years later, his hair had grown thin and was turning gray, and his clothes had grown too big for him. Above all, he felt troubled that a war that had killed so many young men who hadn’t reached their prime yet had left him rich (at its height, his column appeared in some 400 daily and 300 weekly newspapers).

After the Normandy campaign, Pyle told readers that he had "lost track of the point of the war," and hoped that a short stay in his Albuquerque, N.M., home would revive him. That didn't really happen, though: though his trips abroad left him at a loss over how to deal, while thousands of miles away, with his alcoholic, depressed wife Geraldine, matters were no different on his hiatus from the war, as she attempted suicide again.

And yet, Pyle was drawn back, compulsively, by the war. As he tried to explain to Geraldine in 1944: "Of course I am very sick of the war and would like to leave it and yet I know I can't. I've been part of the misery and tragedy of it for so long that I've come to feel a responsibility to it or something. I don't know quite how to put it into words, but I feel if I left it would be like a soldier deserting." 

This time, Pyle went out to the Pacific theater of operations. On the day he died, he was traveling in a jeep with Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Coolidge when enemy fire opened up on them. Pyle’s last words, said to Coolidge, were, like the correspondent himself, centered on someone else: “Are you all right?” Suddenly a machine gun opened fire again. A bullet penetrated the left side of Pyle’s helmet and entered his left temple, killing him almost instantly. 

Still, it would not have surprised Pyle that death would take him unexpectedly. A little over a year before, explaining “the sounds of warfare,” he wrote: “Sometimes you hear them coming, and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you hear the shell whine after you’ve heard it explode. Sometimes you hear it whine and it never explodes. Sometimes the house trembles and shakes and you hear no explosion at all.”

Pyle was one of 36 American war correspondents killed in action during WWII. Such reporting remains a dangerous occupation, though an unfortunately necessary one any time a democracy chooses to put its young people into harm’s way and its citizens need to understand the dangers being faced. 

The relationship between the military and the reporters who write about it might have changed over the years, but not the dangers the media have faced. Columnist Michael Kelly, for instance, lost his life in his second time covering U.S. action against Iraq in 2003. Nobody questioned the accuracy of Pyle’s stories—unlike, this year, Brian Williams—because his stories were never about the bombs and other daily dangers he faced, but of the men he covered and celebrated.

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