Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ernie Pyle Reflections

by Bill Doughty

Published two days before he was killed on Ie Shima, a small island near Okinawa, war correspondent Ernie Pyle offered reflections on the "bedlam of war."  This excerpt, one of Pyle's final observations/contemplations, is republished in "Ernie's War," edited by David Nichols.
April 16, 1945 – We camped one night on a little hillside that led up to a bluff overlooking a small river. The bluff dropped straight down for a long way. Up there on top of the bluff it was just like a little park. The bluff was terraced, although it wasn't farmed. The grass on it was soft and green. And those small, straight-limbed pine trees were dotted all over it. Looking down from the bluff, the river made a turn and across it was an old stone bridge. At the end of the bridge was a village – or what had been a village.     It was now just a jumble of ashes and sagging thatched roofs from our bombardment. In every direction little valleys led away from the turn in the river.     It was a pretty and gentle a sight as you ever saw. It had the softness of antiquity about it and the miniature charm and daintiness that we see in Japanese prints. And the sad, uncanny silence that follows the bedlam of war.     A bright sun made the morning hot and a refreshing little breeze sang through the pine trees. There wasn't a shot nor a warlike sound within hearing. I sat on the bluff for a long time, just looking. It all seemed so quiet and peaceful. I noticed a lot of the Marines sitting and just looking too....
Ernie Pyle with Marines aboard a Navy ship in 1945.
At the time of his death, 70 years ago today at the hand of a Japanese machine gun sniper, the great reporter had been inspired by soldiers in Europe, welcomed by Sailors at sea in the Pacific and finally embedded with Marines. He had lived and seen the tragedy of a necessary war.

A rough draft of a column Pyle had been preparing was found on his body. It was about the end of the war in Europe. Anticipating Germany's surrender, which would come less than three weeks later, and presuming great national relief and elation about the war's end, Pyle called for remembrance:
     In the joyousness of high spirits it is easy for us to forget the dead. Those who are gone would not wish themselves to be a millstone of gloom around our necks.  But there are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world. 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....
Ernie Pyle at work.
Pyle was the ultimate patriot – one who championed American warfighters, immortalized their sacrifices and shared "the agony in your heart" war creates. He could and did simultaneously hate war and love those who fought for freedom in war.

Strongly tied to his soldiers in Europe, he was exhausted by the time he came to the Pacific and frustrated by Navy censors of the time, according to biographer Nichols. The exhaustion may have colored his writing toward the end.

There is a disturbing element to Pyle's later writing in how he describes the Japanese, or "Japs," generally; however, that can perhaps be understood in the context of the times. Had he lived, one can imagine Pyle reconsidering his view and writing insightful columns about the forged friendship with America's now strong ally.

Pyle was the great humanizer of the war for Americans, telling the story of the average American warfighter, sharing his reflections and explaining to homefront readers why young Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines fought – in hopes we would never forget the sacrifices of our military in World War II.

His clear and evocative writing was rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize in 1944. Pyle inspired not only American warfighters but also the American public, educating them on the details of war, such as why men fought and risked their lives.

In the book's foreword Studs Terkel writes of Pyle: "He knew, too, that it was neither God nor Flag nor Mother that impelled a pimply faced kid to risk, to lose his life in an obscene adventure. He did it for the kid next to him; he couldn't let him down. They needed one another so bad. 'I lay there in the darkness ... thinking of the millions far away at home who must remain forever unaware of the powerful fraternalism in the ghastly brotherhood of war.'"

A joint honor guard pays tribute to Ernie Pyle at Punchbowl April 18, 2015; photo from
Ernie Pyle's remains at rest at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, "Punchbowl," on Oahu, Hawaii. A remembrance ceremony was held there this morning.

KITV(ABC) covered the ceremony.

Ernie Pyle was born in 1900.

("Ernie's War: The Best of Ernie Pyle's World War II Dispatches," edited with a biographical essay by David Nichols, 1986, Random House.)

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