Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ernie Pyle's Last Byline

My old friend Mo Stevenson, who I have written about previously, once told me a story about how he came to know Ernest Hemingway back in July 1944. Gen. Raymond O. Barton, commander of the Fourth Infantry Division during the Normandy campaign, called him to his tent one day and asked him if he knew any war correspondents. Stevenson replied, “I know the good ones.” And that’s how Mo ended up riding into Paris with Hemingway a few weeks later.

But the Ernie who was at the top of Mo’s list wasn’t Hemingway. It was Ernie Pyle.

As an old newspaperman and World War II history buff, I have found myself more interested in the past couple of years in going back to the first-hand accounts of the newspapermen (and women) who covered the war.

Some of this fascination came from reading the excellent two-volume set of World War II reportage from Library of America where the reporting of Robert Sherrod, Lee Miller, A.J. Liebling, Mack Morris and Carl Mydans still crackles like rifle fire.

But as great as some of this work is, the work of Ernie Pyle still exists on a different plateau.

Pyle’s ability to tell the stories of ordinary people and capture small moments allowed millions of American readers to understand the war in a different way. The headlines might show readers the movements of armies as giant arrows on a map, but Pyle put you inside the thoughts of the soldier in the foxhole in the rain. The human-scale portraits he painted with his words helped his readers catch a glimpse they could never understand without actually living it.

One example of this is his story of Omaha Beach. If you’ve seen the movie Saving Private Ryan, you know what happened. But although Pyle spent more than his share of time under fire, he wasn’t there on D-Day for that horror. Instead, he wrote a story a few days later about walking down the beach in the midst of the detritus of war. His words bring home the magnitude of the loss in an understated, dignified manner.

It wasn’t the destroyed landing craft or the burned out tanks he wrote about, it was personal affects that washed ashore, “this long thin line of personal anguish” as he called it. It was backpacks, Bibles, shaving kits and snapshots. It was tennis racket. It was a dog looking for its master.

Pyle writes:

“I stepped over the form of one youngster whom I thought dead. But when I looked down I saw he was only sleeping. He was very young and very tired. He lay on one elbow, his hand suspended in the air about six inches from the ground. And in the palm of his hand he held a large, smooth rock.

“I stood and looked at his for long time. He seemed in his sleep to hold that rock lovingly, as though it were his last link with a vanishing world. I have no idea at all why he went to sleep with that rock in his hand, or what kept him from dropping it once he was asleep. It was just one of those things without explanation, that a person remembers for a long time.”

That kind of writing, that kind of empathy earned the appreciation of millions of readers and the affection of the soldier whose stories he told. He shared their dangers and seemed to understand their lives. I understand that sense affinity for the man and his writing because I still feel it today some 60 years later.

That’s why I had mixed feelings about the publication earlier this month of the photograph of the dead Ernie Pyle stretched out on the volcanic rock of a little island off Okinawa where he was killed. Although it was thought that the photo had never been published, it actually had been in 1979. Nonetheless, it was a shocking photo. If you want to see it, go to USAToday

Is this exploitation? Is this sensationalism? Do we really need to see this picture?

I’ve pondered this question for a while. What I have wondered is what this photo tells us about the man. How a person dies doesn’t always tell us anything about the way they lived. But in this case, I believe it does.

Pyle spent the war years reflecting the world he experienced. He wrote often about violent death coming suddenly and unexpectedly to those around him. Pyle knew you couldn’t write about the war and not write about the price that soldiers pay. He probably did that most eloquently in his column “The Death of Captain Waskow.”

In that column, he wrote, “You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don't ask silly questions.” I feel a little of that when I look at that photo of Ernie Pyle. For a man who sought to tell the stories of Americans at war, you have to be able to tell The Story of war – people die. Pyle didn’t learn these stories from a distance. He learned them from close up.

One of Pyle’s colleagues – the great combat photographer Robert Capa touched on this in his memoir Slightly Out of Focus. As he was taking a picture of a wounded pilot crawling out of his damaged bomber at an airfield in England, the pilot held the gash in his forehead and cried, “Are these the pictures you were waiting for, photographer?”

Capa was stung by this. “On the train to London, with those successfully exposed rolls in my bag, I hated myself and my profession. This sort of photography was for undertakers, and I didn’t like being one. If I was to share in the funeral, I swore, I would have to share the procession.”

Capa certainly took part in the procession, and so did Pyle. And I think that is part of what this picture of Pyle shows. You do not see a reporter, you see a soldier.

Also, this man is not an anonymous victim of war. When you read this man’s writing today, the words are still living. His thoughts and observations are as real as something that happened this afternoon. And this photograph serves to magnify the tragedy.

Ernie Pyle was very much an everyman – a quiet, unassuming regular guy, a bit of a loner. He hated the war as much as any soldier he wrote about but understood that there was a job to do. When he left Europe at the end of 1944 to go home to Albuquerque, N.M., he could have stayed there. He didn’t have to go back out to the war, but he did. Maybe it was a sense of duty, a longing to escape a less than happy marriage or his innate restlessness. Whatever it was, it led him to that little island off Okinawa where he met his end.

And maybe that is why this photo is necessary to see. We know Ernie Pyle. We can read his thoughts and we still find him to be a hell of a guy. This photo is his last byline and it helps to make the immense scope of tragedy much more real and personal.

To understand a little more about the man Ernie Pyle was, take a few moments to read this excellent look at his life before the war.

1 comment:

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Great post.
I think we need to see the picture. There are times when we should probably fight, but we should always see the picture.

Allen in Fort Worth