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The GI's War Correspondent | March 27, 2015 By Todd Nebel On the homefront of World War II, Americans were news-hungry and craved to know more about the fate of their sons on battlefields, in air battles and battles on the high seas. The war brought many new names to prominence in radio newscasting. Among them were Edward R. Murrow, Howard K. Smith, Charles Collingwood, Lowell Thomas, Eric Severeid and George Fielding Elliot; men who broadcast from the scenes of warfare as well as men who analyzed the events on the fronts. Certainly the most widely loved of all the correspondents was a newspaper-man who best conveyed the stark realities of the GI's world, not a world of soldiers in the military but of civilians in uniform, in short, us. Without ever turning their radios on, the homefolks read in their newspapers the frontline dispatches of a modest little homespun man named Ernie Pyle.  Ernie Pyle was the most widely read war correspondent in the world; a wedge of American apple pie in the battlefields where his countrymen were fighting, bleeding and dying. But, he didn't write much about the dying, he wrote about the living. Pyle was an Indiana farm boy who spent his pre-war years as a "tramp" newspaperman in the Southwest writing features. A small dapper man in his early forties, terribly shy, suffering from an array of ailments, real or imagined, he found himself in war writing about what the ordinary soldier felt, thought, saw and said. At the beginning though, Pyle entered the war as a correspondent for Scripps-Howard papers, covering the London blitz and trying to conform to the war correspondent's style of hard reporting. The turning point came one day in North Africa when Pyle and an-other soldier jumped into a ditch when a force of Stukas covered their airfield with a rain of bullets. When it was over, Ernie put his hand on his companion's shoulder and said, "Wow! That was close, eh?" The soldier fell backwards into the ditch; he was dead. Dazedly, Pyle went on to his assignment, a press conference for a French general, but was unable to write his story. Pyle cabled his editor that he could not carry out the assignment and instead wrote about the soldier who had died with him in the ditch. Ernie Pyle had found his point of view.  From that point on, although he hated the war and the life he lead, Ernie Pyle wrote about the people, not of admirals or generals or upper level government officials, unless they just happened to be sharing his lot with his GI's. Pyle's war was an anti-heroic war, in tune with the men who were fighting in it—men like those two GI's, Willie and Joe, whom cartoonist Bill Maudlin had depicted so well with his pen. He also concentrated on the details; the debris of shoes, cigarettes, and writing paper left behind by the dead on Normandy beach, for example. Ernie conveyed a quick, ingenious sympathy for the GI's and he made individual deaths as important as the loss of a friend. He was not a civilian in the ranks; he was no chaplain who relayed gripes; he was simply one of the guys in the outfit, and the guys loved him. They talked with him, providing him with the greatest news stories of the war.  By 1944, Ernie's reputation was established and his column was appearing in more than 400 newspapers, giving him a total readership of something like 60 million. The folks on the home front worried about him and cabled their newspapers to inquire about his health while they prayed for his safety. Repeatedly, Ernie Pyle had narrow escapes from death, some of which he wrote about in his columns. One of Ernie's best columns told of a company commander named Captain Waskow, who was respected and loved by his men. Captain Waskow had been killed in the hills of Italy near Monte Cassino where the Germans held a superior position in an ancient abbey atop a high hill. Captain Waskow's body was brought down by muleback and laid beside the road. The men in the company passed by slowly and somberly, one by one. Ernie wrote: One soldier came and looked down and said out loud, "God damn it!" That's all he said, and then he walked away. Another one came and he said, "God damn it to hell anyway!'' He looked down for a few last moments and then turned and left. Another man came. I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell in the dim light, for everybody was grimy and dirty. The man looked down into the dead Cap-tain's face and then spoke directly to him, as though he were alive, "I'm sorry, old man!" Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer and bent over, and he spoke to the dead Captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said, "I sure am sorry, sir!" Then the first man squatted down, and he reached and took the Captain's hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face. And he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there. Finally he put the hand down. He reached up and gently straightened the point of the Captain's shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound, and then he got up and walked away down the road into the moonlight.  Ernie's column about the death of Captain Waskow was instrumental in causing General Eisenhower to reverse his decision and order the bombing and shelling of the 1,400-year- old Cassino Abbey. The column also inspired a movie, released in 1945, and a script which Ernie Pyle supervised. The film was called, "The Story of GI Joe", and it starred Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle and Robert Mitchum as Captain Waskow (called Captain Walker in the film).  After Ernie had left the hills of Italy in 1944, he joined the invasion troops at Normandy Beach. In September of I944, he left France to go to the United States to be lionized for a couple of months and look over the script of the GI Joe picture. Then, early in 1945, Ernie left for the war in the Pacific. On March 31st, from Okinawa, Ernie wrote to his wife: "I've promised myself and I promise you that if I come through this one, I will never go on to another one." To fellow correspondent Pyle confided, "I have begun to feel I have about used up my chances."  On April 18, 1945, on the tiny Pacific islet of le Jima, off the coast of Iwo Jima, Ernie Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper. Ernie Pyle's war was over. So was his coverage of it, which had been cherished by so many millions of Americans.
Ernie Pyle
Burgess Meredith and Ernie Pyle
Ernie Pyle in death