Shnay: Remembering the hero who told the stories of war
By Jerry Shnay Citizen Journalistfirstname.lastname@example.org. May 24, 2012 12:44PM
Updated: July 2, 2012 9:19AM
Monday, we observe Memorial Day. Park Forest will have its annual tribute at 11 a.m.
Appropriate words will be spoken, patriotic music and the sad sound of taps will be heard. I will spend part of the day reading some of Ernie Pyle’s stories of war.
Pyle was a war hero who never carried a gun, never threw a grenade and never dropped a bomb. He was a World War II war correspondent who wrote about war and what war did to brave men.
He wrote of the senseless accumulation of death on the battlefields. He wrote how difficult it was to walk past bodies on the side of the road.
In Italy, he wrote of the death of Capt. Henry Waskow in a column that was so emotionally powerful that it made many front pages of newspapers and is considered the single finest piece of writing to come out of the war. In France, he wrote of anger and fear when being mistakenly bombarded by American bombers. He understood and felt the terror that is a constant companion for soldiers.
Pyle won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting. His columns were almost required reading in hundreds of newspapers nationwide.
When he was killed by machine-gun fire on a tiny Pacific island on April 18, 1945, the nation mourned. He was one of the few civilians ever awarded the Purple Heart, and he was buried in the National Memorial Cemetery in Honolulu after the war.
He is all but forgotten now.
Pyle was gaunt and gray-haired and, when not crouching in trenches or slouching in tents, the 5-foot, 6-inch, 110-pound reporter never could be mistaken for a soldier. But I knew a high school superintendent who said the one award he prized most about his service in the war was, “I was in one of Ernie’s columns.”
To know something about that war, you must read Pyle. There may be a book or two of his collected columns in the library. You can read some 40 of his best columns by going online to the Indiana University Pyle School of Journalism. You can buy books by and about Pyle on the Internet. You even can visit a small museum dedicated to him in his hometown of Dana, Ind.
It is impossible to select the best of Pyle’s writings. There is not enough room in this newspaper for that. But I will pick one excerpt.
After his death, they found a half-written and death-haunted column he was planning to complete when the war in Europe was over. He was in the Pacific, a half-world away from Europe, but his heart was still with his old comrades.
“For the companionship of 21/2 years of death and misery is a spouse that tolerates no divorce,” he wrote. “Such companionship finally becomes a part of one’s soul, and it cannot be obliterated.”
It ends as he explains what he witnessed there: “Dead men by mass production — in one country after another — month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.
Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.
Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.
These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.
We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference.”
His name was Ernie Pyle.