You’d think that as both a WWII junkie and a newspaper guy I’d have read Ernie Pyle before. I’ve read a few of the war correspondent’s columns in anthologies, but never the bulk of his work until I came across two of the three collections of his famed syndicated columns in book form at an antique store.
So, 70 years after Pyle sent his stories from North Africa back to the 300 newspapers who ran his stuff, I ate up “Here Is Your War.”
Pyle’s brisk newspaper prose, the short, tight sentences, the reader-friendly language, the storytelling format combined with the folksy, guy-next-door tone helped me understand why he became a legend both to soldiers, sailors and airmen and to mom and pop back home.
His great technique of identifying sources not just with their name and rank but with their street address back home — “The navigator was Lieutenant Davey Williams, 3505 Miller Street, Fort Worth, Texas.” — was not simply a feel-good for the man in uniform and a way to sell newspapers around the country but a tool that brought reality and truthfulness to the reporting Pyle did. These weren’t fictional characters fighting this war but real people, sons and daughters, neighbors, someone to care about.
Although flatly unable to write about strategy due to war-time censorship, Pyle doesn’t let that stop him from giving the folks at home an understanding of what life was like for those at war. A foxhole is a foxhole, and he doesn’t sugarcoat the drudgery, the terror of shells exploding nearby and especially the destruction and death war causes.
Yet, as good as all these columns are about the early portion of the U.S. involvement in World War II, it’s at the back of “Here Is Your War” that Pyle may have made his best contribution, and that’s not to slight all those earlier columns.
Because as the Allies pushed the Germans out of North Africa, Pyle is able to add analysis to the stories he shares, to give people back home a perspective on the war that might have been perfectly timed. Take this excerpt:
“In the final phase of the Tunisian campaign I never heard a word of criticism of our men. They fought like veterans. They were well handled. They had enough of what they needed. Everything meshed perfectly, and the end was inevitable. . . . Even though they didn’t do too well in the beginning, there was never at any time any question about the Americans’ bravey. It was a matter of being hardened and practiced by going through the flames. Tunisia was a good warm-up field for our armies. . . . The greatest disservice the folks at home did our men over here was to believe we were at last over the hump. For actually — and over here we all knew it — the worst was yet to come.”
Pyle’s columns from the war in Europe went into another book, “Brave Men,” that I’ll be searching for soon. He went to the Pacific Theater afterward, and his columns from there are collected in “Last Chapter.” That book, published posthumously, is just as good as the collection from North Africa, but much shorter. His stories of how an aircraft carrier got flights off — and on — are exactly the kind of reporting we see in the Twin Cities with the “Good Question” segments on the CBS affiliate, WCCO-TV.
This war the United States had been in for four years came to an end for Ernie Pyle just four months before the war itself was to end. A Japanese bullet found him in April, 1945.