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Books: Journalist as hero

Books | Ernie Pyle: a reporter the public could respect

Issue: "Honest Abe Rosenthal," March 14, 1998

Ernie Pyle followed the troops onto the beaches of Normandy after watching the initial landings the day before from a ship. Like everyone else-soldier, sailor, journalist-he was overwhelmed by the enormity of the invasion.

In an age of journalistic hyperbole, Ernie Pyle chose to capture the beaches in quite a different way: "I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France," he wrote. "It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping in the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn't know they were in the water, for they were dead."

He wrote of the enormous amounts of waste on the beach -the trucks and tanks and landing craft bashed by waves and enemy fire into litter. "But there is another and more human litter," he continued. "This is the strewn personal gear, gear that will never be needed again, of those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe.... Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles, and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out-one of the security precautions enforced before the boys embarked."

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"I picked up a Bible with a soldier's name in it, and put it in my jacket," he wrote. "I carried it half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach. I don't know why I picked it up, or why I put it back down."

Ernie Pyle was an unlikely war hero, as Detroit News writer James Tobin shows in Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II. That's just what he was to millions of readers back home. While other war correspondents sent home quotes from generals and politicians, Ernie Pyle told of dogfaces slogging through mud and artillery fire and doing the hardest job in the world. He wrote about real kids in real foxholes, and reading his columns was the closest thing many parents had to reading letters home from their sons. He didn't try for the Big Picture; he just wanted to "make people see what I see."

He changed the way war is covered: Turn on the television during any military operation, and you'll see cameras trained on the homesick-but-determined soldier; Mr. Pyle founded this school of journalism. He proves the power of specific detail in stories; as Mr. Tobin writes, "Ernie knew the literary value of a simple, solid fact."

An Indiana farmboy, Ernie Pyle was a thin man who seemed even smaller than he was because of his shyness and his reluctance to assert himself. He was also a nervous hypochondriac. (Mr. Tobin makes much of this point and helps to feed the negative stereotype of writers-as-hypochondriacs. I would take strenuous issue with this, but may pull a muscle.)

In this fine biography, Mr. Tobin also shows us that Ernie Pyle was a spiritually empty man, with a troubled marriage and frequent bouts of depression. Ernie Pyle died in the waning months of World War II, on a South Pacific island called Ie Shima. He was killed by a sniper's bullet. America mourned him as a soldier.

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