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One reporter remembers another on Memorial Day

By JEFF SAUNDERS Reporter Published: May 31, 2017 12:00 AM
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On my office desk is a row of books, most either journalism texts or reference books.

But two are collections of writings by a man who, while not exactly a fighting member of the military, though technically a Navy enlisted man, deserves to be remembered on Memorial Day.

For years, prior to World War II, Ernie Pyle was a roving newspaper reporter. He was often accompanied on trips around the country by his wife Geraldine, known to Pyle's readers as That Girl, writing about whatever and whomever he encountered.

But Pyle's main claim to fame was as first among war correspondents, a man not content with talking to generals behind the lines, but who got down and dirty with the grunts. At a time when newspapers were at the top of the media heap, Pyle connected people on the homefront to their loved ones fighting the war.

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Stow resident Bob Hale, who served as one of the first Army divers during World War II, said he remembers reading Pyle's column and seeing the 1945 film "Story of G.I. Joe" starring Burgess Meredith as Pyle.

"[Pyle] was a neat guy," said Hale. "He was quite a reporter. I would say he was the most well known one, the reporters of World War II."

Stow resident Dick Donze, who served in the Navy at the end of the war and in the Air Force Reserves for 10 years after the war, said he recalls reading some of Pyle's columns while still in high school and being confused by it all.

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"My feeling at the time was why did we need to fight?" said Donze. "Why did Hitler need to conquer France?"

"Those who knew him thought he was pretty good," said Stow resident Bill Schafer, who served in the Army in Europe, then the Pacific, during World War II. "He was well liked."

Listening to 'a small voice'

The two books that I have are "Ernie Pyle in England," his first war-related book, and a later one called "Brave Men." The former is a collection of pieces Pyle wrote while in Great Britain during the winter of 1940-41, when the country was being bombed. The title is somewhat misleading since Pyle also spent time in Scotland and Wales.

"A small voice came in the night and said 'Go,'" Pyle wrote in the first line of "Ernie Pyle in England" to explain his reason for taking the initial step of his four-plus years covering the war.

"Never before have I set out on a long trip with anything but elation in my heart," wrote Pyle a few sentences later. "It is not so with this trip. This one is no lark. It will be tough and I know it. I will be scared. I know I will feel small and in the way among a people who are doing a job of life and death."

This is an especially important book to me because it's what got me into journalism. I bought it at a library book sale years ago when I was still trying to figure out what to do with my life. I read it and was amazed. It was reporting on things that happened more than 50 years earlier and yet it was so immediate that it could have been the week before. I thought, "maybe I could do something like this," and soon after started taking college journalism classes.

Big moments and small

"We walked through a street that was a no man's land," Pyle wrote of Coventry, the English city blasted by Hitler's blitzkrieg (lightning war). "Utter destruction lay on both sides. One side had been brick houses, the other side a warehouse. Now both sides were just piles of broken brick."

Of a bombing of London during a December 1940 night, Pyle wrote, "You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires -- scores of them, perhaps hundreds. There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it."

But amidst the savagery, Pyle managed to find pockets of humor.

"I never get tired of walking around reading the signs put up by stores that have had their windows blown out," wrote Pyle. "My favorite one is a bookstore, the front of which has been blasted clear out. The store is still doing business, and its sign says, 'More Open than Usual.'"

"Brave Men" includes Pyle's coverage of the war in Europe between June 1943 and August 1944, with the invasion of Sicily, the Normandy invasion and the liberation of France among the little skirmishes he witnessed. The man seemed to be everywhere and it includes the kind of pieces that made him especially popular in an America at war.

"Submerged tanks and overturned boats and burned trucks and shell-shattered jeeps and sad little personal belongings were strewn all over those bitter sands," wrote Pyle of his sight of a Normandy beach. "That plus the bodies of soldiers lying in rows covered with blankets, the toes of their shoes sticking up in a line as though on drill. And other bodies, uncollected, still sprawling grotesquely in the sand or half hidden by the high grass beyond the beach. That plus an intense, grim determination of work-weary men to get that chaotic beach organized and get all the vital supplies and the reinforcements moving more rapidly over it from the stacked-up ships standing in droves out at sea."

"Ernie Pyle in England" is dedicated to "That Girl who waited." "Brave Men" is dedicated "In solemn salute to those thousands of our comrades -- great brave men that they were -- for whom there will be no homecoming, ever." Pyle would join their company and That Girl would wait in vain.

He went to the Pacific in early 1945 and died there a few months later. He was 44.

Pyle is buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. I had the opportunity to visit the cemetery, along with the Arizona Memorial, in the summer of 1976. I was unaware at the time that Pyle was buried there and probably did not even know who Pyle was at the time. If I ever make it back, I'll look for his grave.

The cemetery's page on the National Cemetery Administration's website has this to say about Pyle: "Ernest Taylor Pyle, Seaman Third Class, U.S. Navy, Section D, Grave 109, interred on July 19, 1949. Pyle, a World War II correspondent, was killed by a Japanese sniper on Ie Shima, an island off the northern coast of Okinawa on April 18, 1945. He was awarded the Purple Heart by former President Ronald Reagan."

Email: jsaunders@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9431

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