– The Dogface’s Best Friend –
He was a friend to every G.I. He was beloved by everyone at the front and at home. He was slight, quiet and unassuming. He was old enough that he didn’t have to be there … but he wanted to … he felt it was his duty. “Ernie”, as he was affectionately known, covered the Second World War in both the European and Pacific Theaters … reporting it like it was. His background as a syndicated newspaper columnist provided him with a unique … “common man” style of writing that endeared him to all who read his words.
Ernie became a war correspondent and applied his intimate style of writing to front line combat troops. Instead of recounting the movements of armies or the activities of generals, Ernie generally wrote from the perspective of the common combat soldier. Describing the life of the combat soldier, he wrote:
“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly – but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.
This “everyman” approach gained him additional popularity, and eventually, the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, news of which he learned while at the front. His wartime writings are preserved in four memorable books entitled: Ernie Pyle In England, Here Is Your War, Brave Men and Last Chapter. Reinforcing his status as the “dogface’s” best friend, Ernie wrote a column in 1944 urging that soldiers in combat get “fight pay” just as airmen were paid “flight pay.” Consequently, Congress passed such a law authorizing $10 a month extra in pay for combat infantrymen. The legislation was called “The Ernie Pyle bill.” However it was his front line reporting during World War II for which he would be most remembered. Among his most widely read and reprinted columns is that entitled, “The Death of Captain Waskow”. This poignant piece recounts the death of the beloved commander of Bravo Company, 143rd Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division during the battle for San Pietro, Italy. It can be read elsewhere on this website.
Ernie covered the war in Europe from North Africa to Normandy, France. He was nearly killed in an accidental bombing incident by the Army Air Force at the onset of Operation Cobra near Saint Lộ in Normandy in July 1944.
In planning to cover the U.S. activities in the Pacific, Ernie butted heads with top Navy brass. The U.S. Navy had a policy forbidding the use of the names of sailors in the correspondent’s reporting. He won an unsatisfying partial victory as the ban was lifted exclusively for him. His first cruise was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Cabot. He thought the crew had an “easy life” in comparison to that of the infantry in Europe and he wrote several unflattering portraits of the Navy. Nevertheless, he went about what he did best … reporting the war for the newspapers and folks back home.
On April 17, 1945 Pyle came ashore with the Army’s 305th Infantry Regiment of the 77th “Liberty Patch” Division on Ie Jima (then known as Ie Shima), a small island northwest of Okinawa. The following day, after local enemy opposition had apparently been neutralized, he was traveling by jeep with Lt. Col. Joseph B. Coolidge, the commanding officer of the 305th, toward Coolidge’s new command post when the jeep encountered enemy machine gun fire. The men immediately took cover in a nearby ditch. “A little later Pyle and I raised up to look around,” Coolidge reported. “Another burst hit the road over our heads … I looked at Ernie and saw he had been hit.” A bullet had entered Pyle’s left temple just under his helmet, killing him instantly. “I was so impressed with Pyle’s coolness, calmness and his deep interest in enlisted men. They have lost their best friend.” Ernie Pyle was 44 years old.
Found in his pocket the day he was killed was this last draft Ernie Pyle was ever to write:
“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.” ~ Ernie Pyle
Ernie Pyle’s open grave
Ernie Pyle was haunted all his life by an obsession. He said over and over again, “I suffer agony in anticipation of meeting people for fear they won’t like me.”
No man could have been less justified in such a fear. Word of Ernie’s death started tears in the eyes of millions, from the White House to the poorest dwellings in the country.
Prior to his death in April 1945, Ernie collaborated on a Hollywood film production dealing with his life as a war correspondent in North Africa and Italy. It was titled, THE STORY OF G.I. JOE and was produced by Lester Cowan Productions. It stared Robert Mitchum as Captain Walker, (a pseudonym for Captain Woskaw used out of consideration for the family of their deceased loved one), and Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle. The supporting cast was made up of the actual veterans who had lived the story in real life. Ernie Pyle collaborated on the script with director William Wellman and worked closely with Meredith for factual character development. Ernie spent a number of days on the set of the film as technical adviser before returning to war correspondent duties in the Pacific where he continued to cover the war for the folks back home. The film was released on July 13, 1945. Ernie never lived to see it.
The following quotations provide some vivid insight into the war as Ernie saw and experienced it. His words shall not pass away as must we all. They will remain eternal. They will ring true and echo throughout time as an enduring legacy to the spirit of the combat soldier … a true look into the life of those who have experienced the hardship and horrors of war.
“In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory — there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.” ~ Ernie Pyle
“Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people … the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights … they are bound to be different people from those you sent away. They are rougher than when you knew them. Killing is a rough business.” ~ Ernie Pyle
“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 wars can’t be won without.” ~ Ernie Pyle
“There are no atheists in the foxhole.” ~ Ernie Pyle
That is our war, and we will carry it us as we go on from one battleground to another until it is all over, leaving some of us behind on every beach, in every field. We are just beginning with the ones who lie back of us here in Tunisia. I don’t know if was their good fortune or their misfortune to get out of it so early in the game. I guess it doesn’t make any difference, when a man has gone. Medals and speeches and victories are nothing to them anymore. They died and others lived and nobody knows why it is so. They died and thereby the rest of us can go on and on. When we leave here for the next shore, there is nothing we can do for the ones beneath the wooden crosses, except perhaps to pause and murmur ….“Thanks pal …. thanks”. ~ Ernie Pyle
And so a vanishing generation pauses to remember….and softly murmurs …. Thanks Ernie …. Thanks”.