War De Facto
Ernie Pyle’s WWII
Journalism on the Harsh Reality
of War and the Life of the Soldier
April 29, 2005
Dr. K. Nordin
Part I. Terra Incognita – A New Approach to Wartime Journalism
From Eleanor Roosevelt to small-town mom-and-pop store owners, from first-year journalism students to lifelong scholars of media studies, almost every person who has read Ernie Pyle knows that his writing style deviates from the traditional path followed by most news writers. Even Pyle’s contemporaries, many of whom were also overseas and covering the war firsthand, knew that there was something different about the unpretentious Indiana-born reporter. Much to the chagrin of rival newspapers’ editors in chief, Pyle’s prose was not one that could be imitated. In part, the reason was that the words were a reflection of his innermost thoughts and feelings. That personal quality functioned in near-perfect harmony with the “less-is-more” approach. Part of the essence of Pyle’s character, in fact, was his simple, keenly perceptive way of describing what he saw. He wrote not what he felt would be interesting to readers but what he found interesting.
Certainly the human-interest genre did not originate with Pyle. As far as wartime journalism was concerned, however, such an approach was virtually unheard-of. Once he began to see the violence firsthand, the small, thin reporter quickly perceived that something was wrong with how war was portrayed. Silver-screen skirmishes and front-page forays liked to paint a glamorized, almost sanguine portrait. No doubt this greatly distressed Pyle, who felt that John Q. Public was not only unaware of the harsh reality of war but being fed nonsense, as well. Back then—and, to some degree, even today—it was considered somehow unpatriotic or in bad taste to depict an injured or killed American soldier unless the image was tasteful. (Yet it was fine to do away with the faceless enemy in almost any fashion.) Pyle set out to expose the truth about war. He believed that only those who were actually experiencing it firsthand could ever begin to describe it—so he traveled overseas, along with other reporters. But unlike the others, he lived and traveled with the soldiers, right up to the front lines of battle. Most of his time was spent with the infantry, about whom he came to feel deeply. There he discovered that the real heroes, the ones who were really doing the most dying and sacrifice, were the infantrymen, also called GIs or doughboys. So Pyle found another, perhaps even more meaningful, reason to be out there on the front lines—not only to see, feel, live and breathe war and paint a more accurate portrait of it, but to remind the folks back home of the “little guy” to whom they really owed their gratitude. With a twofold purpose, then, Pyle set out, armed with little more than a helmet, Army-issue uniform and typewriter—not to mention his quiet, unassuming personality and straightforward, vividly simple way with words.
Pyle decided to lay it on the line, to tell the ugly, unglamorous truth about the war. Nothing was too small or too trivial to write about. In fact, that was a staple of his writing: the mundane, the everyday. Through the eyes of the unassuming journalist people learned about a three-dimensional war, one that was filled with both amusing anecdotes and poignant tales of self-sacrifice. The ironic, the violent, the tragic, the routine … Pyle shared stories that encompassed the panorama of human emotions and experiences, and he told stories of the life of the infantryman, championing the average soldier as the hero. By doing so, Pyle was venturing into uncharted territory.
Now and then, but not constantly, Pyle liked to incorporate lighthearted humor into his columns. After all, not only did millions of people back home read his articles, so did soldiers and other personnel in the service—and they always appreciated efforts to lighten the spirits and boost morale. On one occasion, Pyle recalled with amusement how some grateful Sicilian villagers gave the soldiers some fancy cushions to rest on: “It was funny to march with a sweaty infantry company, and see grimy dough-boys with pink and white lacy cushions tucked under their harness among grenades, shovels and canteens” (Brave 97). Pyle found amusement in the stark contrast between the rugged soldiers and the frilly pillows, and the reader can also see a greater contrast—the complexity of war versus the simplicity of a small European village.
Pyle liked to share amusing stories he overheard. From a soldier whose makeshift pillow turned out to be horse manure, to a high-ranking officer slipping and falling into a foxhole, Pyle had countless stories of goofs and pratfalls. In one instance, he recalled hearing about a shell that exploded behind a theater in which soldiers were watching a movie. The explosion, he said, made a “big boom inside the theater”—and, with perfect timing, “there was a pause in the film’s dialogue, and the heroine slowly turned her head to the audience and said, ‘What was that?’” (Brave 259) As is often the case, the best humor tends to be in the unexpected, as well as in the little day-to-day things that make one chuckle.
Ennui and Exhaustion
Humor was important to Pyle’s style, but it couldn’t be the predominant feature, lest war be made to look too much like it was all fun and games—the type of myth Pyle was attempting to dispel. Although he wholeheartedly acknowledged that the soldiers around him had a tougher, more grueling lifestyle than he did, Pyle conceded that he too was being physically and mentally taxed. At one point he wrote, “Eventually it all works itself into an emotional tapestry of one dull, dead pattern—yesterday is tomorrow and Troina is Randazzo and when will we ever stop and, God, I’m so tired” (Ernie’s War 154). He was open with his audience about how the war affected him, and that openness gave him credibility; his candor was refreshingly honest and made people more inclined to believe that the rest of what he said was genuine as well.
But the soldier’s weariness of body and mind was more profound than his, Pyle said, describing a “weariness that is mixed up with boredom and lack of all gaiety” (Brave 89). He was convinced that the average infantryman reached so intense a level of fatigue that the “folks back home” could not comprehend it. In describing his tiredness, Pyle let his feelings spill out in a kind of stream of consciousness; in describing the troops’ tiredness, however, he described a disheveled array of intertwined feelings. Yet he still contended that the soldiers’ willpower was stronger than his. “I do not pretend that my own feeling is the spirit of our armies,” he told his readers. “If it were, we probably would not have had the power to win” (Brave 492).
Courage and Perseverance
War is a heartless, dispiriting, lonely business, Pyle often wrote, and it takes its toll on these men. Sometimes, he acknowledged, people simply reached the breaking point and could go on no more. Pyle did not blame these people for their breakdown, as he was all too familiar with such feelings himself. More poignant, however, were his stories of bravery and resolve. He once called this “their grand spirit,” and he never ceased to be awed and “flabbergasted” by it. So strong was this spirit, he said, that injured soldiers would “cuss and beg to be sent right back into the fight” (Brave 51).
In one column, Pyle told the story of a group of engineers who had efficiently constructed a crude but sturdy bridge in record time. Not only was Pyle proud of the engineers’ competence and technical prowess, he particularly admired their motivation and selflessness. He said of them, “I don’t know what it is that impels some men, either in peace or in wartime, to extend themselves beyond all expectation, or what holds other men to do just as little as possible. In any group of soldiers you’ll find both kinds” (Brave 75). Pyle’s tactic was to outwardly praise the ones who went the extra mile; and simply by mentioning them in the same breath as the lazy, he silently admonished the latter.
Pyle may not have felt that he was a brave man, but he knew the unmistakable sensation of fear—the adrenaline rush, the heightened sense of awareness to even the slightest stimuli, the invigorating yet chilling sensation. Pyle described fear as a crushing force that “bore down on our hearts like an all-consuming weight” (Brave 376). Reflecting with pity on the times when men had to walk through the inky blackness alone, the gray-haired war correspondent said, “To go up to the brink of possible death in the nighttime in a faraway land, puzzled and afraid, knowing no one, and facing the worst moment of your life totally alone—that takes strength” (Brave 287). Having to travel alone at night was not all that common an event. But Pyle’s feelings are equally meaningful when applied not only to physical isolation but to feelings of emotional remoteness.
At the risk of putting words into his mouth, one might argue that Pyle saw a second, perhaps equally severe, war taking place—an inner conflict, a psychological battle deep within practically everyone, especially the average doughboy. Pyle told his readers that it was their duty to help hearten and encourage the soldiers, adding that “lack of recognition definitely affects morale” (Brave 421). This conclusion might also be seen as Pyle’s reflection on his own role, but as a message to the people back home, it had a second meaning. He often reminded them—sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely—that the men overseas were sacrificing themselves on behalf of the United States and its citizens. These are your men, and don’t you forget it, he insinuated.
To Pyle, morale boosting was not only important but simply the right thing to do. And perhaps nothing so angered him as those who were not appreciative of what was being done for them. Sometimes, in fact, Pyle would devote a column to a story he’d heard about the despicable, heartless people who would take advantage of a soldier. In one instance, he recounted a story of some soldiers who had been sent whiskey for Christmas—only to find that, while the package was in transit, someone had drunk all the liquor, resealed the shipping box and sent it continuing on its path. “Somewhere in the world there is a louse of a man … who should have his neck wrung off,” wrote the livid journalist (Ernie’s War 225).
Pyle’s writing shows the wide range of emotions that exist in war, and how exceptionally capable he was at expressing them. Some of his most poignant pieces dealt with death and how the soldiers coped with it. Certainly Pyle’s most well-known and highly acclaimed composition of was “The Death of Captain Waskow.” Often considered one of the most moving, passionate pieces of wartime journalism ever written, it is the quintessential portrait of the unglamorous truth about war. In the narrative, the body of Captain Henry Waskow, a beloved young company commander, is brought down a hillside, and his companions come to say a sad farewell. Pyle described one of the soldiers: “He reached down 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” (Ernie’s War 197). The story shows what Pyle did best: He simply wrote what he saw. He removed himself from the scene, instead writing about the men as they came by to say goodbye to Waskow. It is the soldiers’ tribute, more real and heartfelt than any that a journalist could write. The terse, staccato sentences set the scene, which in turn provides the ambiance.
Pyle’s willingness to tell the often-grim truth about war is one of the two major characteristics that distinguished him from the other wartime journalists of his time. By writing truthfully, candidly and realistically, he made the public more cognizant and appreciative of what was really taking place. Pyle once wrote a column on wartime cartoonist Sgt. Bill Mauldin, whom he greatly admired. He described Mauldin’s cartoons as not just funny, but “also terribly grim and real. … They are about the men in the line—the tiny percentage of our vast Army who are actually up there doing the dying” (Ernie’s War 197).
In another article, Pyle talked about Lt. Rudolf Charles von Ripper, a painter. Pyle described von Ripper’s artistic goal as being to “take the applesauce out of war” and “eliminate the heroics with which war is too often presented” (Ernie’s War 250). Von Ripper’s sketches, Pyle said, were “sometimes distorted and grotesque,” and the landscapes “sad and pitifully torn” scenes. Both von Ripper and Mauldin were no doubt respected by Pyle because they strove for the same realism and honesty as he did. In the case of all three men, their own personal vision and experiences likely affected how each perceived the war, as well as how they felt it should be portrayed, but the overarching goal was the same—to make people sit up and take notice.
Part II. Championing the “Little Guy”
The second major aspect of Pyle’s writing that made him such a distinctive voice was his enduring praise of ordinary infantrymen. They had his undying gratitude, and to him, they were the true heroes. He said that these young men “live and die so miserably and they do it with such determined acceptance that your admiration for them blinds you to the rest of the war.” And he added, “To me all the war of the world has seemed to be borne by the few thousand front-line soldiers here, destined merely by chance to suffer and die for the rest of us” (Ernie Pyle’s War 132). Pyle was careful not to let his deep feelings run afoul of his intent to not glamorize war. In fact, he did not normally tell stories of great heroism but of great sacrifice. Although sometimes he chose to write about the infantry as a group, Pyle wished his focus to be on the individual.
The Faceless Ones
Pyle knew full well that the people back home had an unfortunate tendency to become psychologically and emotionally detached from the boys overseas, in part because their “identities were obscured by distance” (Ernie’s War xiv). But there was more to it than that. All too often the other war correspondents, caught up in reporting, were so busy throwing around impersonal facts and figures that individuals were lost in a miasma of anonymity and reduced to mere statistics. No wonder the average American citizen didn’t have any real connection with those serving overseas.
Moreover, the war itself was causing a loss of identity in another way. Pyle acknowledged, “Another thing that struck me, as the wounded came through in a ceaseless stream on their stretchers, was how dirt and exhaustion reduce human faces to such a common denominator. Everybody they carried in looked alike” (Brave 58). Pyle told his readers that even he could not always escape the effect war has on the distinctiveness of people. Perhaps he was growing so accustomed to the sight of the dirty, weary faces that he was, gradually, becoming almost unaffected by it all. Could it be that all the violence and injury, which at first so upset Pyle, was now so everyday that he was getting used to it?
Yet Pyle continued to struggle against this loss of individual identity, negating and repudiating the American public’s diminishing familiarity with soldiers as individuals: He wrote about the soldiers—a few thousand of them—by name, occupation, address and family members, sometimes including a little piece of trivia. He wasn’t inherently interested in generals and other high-ranking officers; in fact, they were taking away from the recognition of the “little guy.” One of the countless people he mentioned was a visiting sailor: “His name was Hoyt Tomlinson and his mother and sister lived at 510 West Roma. … He was a cook, first class, and liked it. He used to work in the soda fountain in the Triangle Café out near my home” (Brave 104).
This type of writing reminded readers back home that a soldier wasn’t just a name or a statistic, but a real individual, with a family, a career, a life back home. Hoyt Tomlinson had a real mother and a real sister, both of whom undoubtedly wanted to hear about him. Even more significant, perhaps, is the fact that Pyle made these low-ranking soldiers, and their sacrifice, even more heroic and meaningful by portraying them as they were—ordinary small-town kids. The sort who, a couple years ago, might have once sold you a nickel soda, or played ball with the neighborhood kids.
A Change in Principles
One of the ways in which Pyle discussed the soldiers’ sacrifice was by telling the reader just how the war was psychologically transforming the young men. “They have made the psychological transition from the normal belief that taking human life is sinful,” he explained, “over to a new professional outlook where killing is a craft. To them, now there is nothing morally wrong about killing. In fact, it is an admirable thing” (Ernie’s War 103). Pyle pointed out that these people were not going to return the same. War brings out a terrible change in people; what was once considered morally unthinkable has been turned into a routine, even praiseworthy, action.
Although physical violence went hand in hand with emotional strain, Pyle sometimes kept the two separate—enough so that he could address both (death and destruction; emotional suffering) as two separate problems. Sometimes Pyle took a completely different approach from the expected, one that many people might not have even realized could be related to the experiences of the average soldier: He talked about the suffering of nonmilitary people, such as villagers, and he described the war-torn landscapes around him.
Pyle used the descriptions of the people, places and events surrounding him to make his readers understand what he—and, in turn, the average GI—were faced with and disheartened by. They were the ones who had to constantly live among terrible scenes of destruction: beautiful nature deformed by weapons, towns crushed and reduced to ruins, fearful and impoverished people of all ages. Pyle knew that despite the average soldier’s gruff, hardened exterior, he was still very much human—and affected by what he saw.
For example, Pyle recalled one story: “Our unit told me about a family they had tried in vain to move. Finally a shell killed their tiny baby, just a few days old” (Brave 252). The story shows how even the most innocent people become victims of the cruel war. The boys who were sent overseas were, in some ways, not much less innocent than a baby.
In another article, Pyle contrasted the scenic, tranquil countryside with the ugliness of war. “Those lovely valleys and mountains were filled throughout the day and night with the roar of heavy shooting,” he wrote. “Sometimes there were uncanny silent spells of an hour or more. Then it would start up again across the country with violent fury” (Brave 107-8).
Tenacity and Optimism
Despite all that they were constantly put through, and despite their inner turmoil, the infantrymen generally managed to maintain good spirits and be brave. And they were always proud of their unit, their commanders and their partners. Pyle once said of them, “Nine-tenths of morale is pride in your outfit and confidence in your leaders and fellow fighters. A lot of people have morale confused with the desire to fight. I don’t know of one soldier out of ten thousand who wants to fight” (Brave 194). In that article, Pyle also mentioned that the veterans were sick of fighting and the new recruits terrified of it. These people don’t wish to fight, he said, but they courageously went to battle nonetheless—a testament to their determination and devotion.
But perhaps one of the best examples of a soldier who displays both courage and self-sacrifice is in a story told to Pyle about three men who were killed in combat. One of them, Pyle recounted, had “his legs … blown off clear up to his body. He stayed conscious.” And when the medics came, the mortally wounded soldier told them, “‘I’m done for, so don’t waste time on me. Go help the other boys’” (Ernie’s War 178). Pyle told this story, a gruesomely violent one, not to inundate the reader with a flood of gory imagery, but rather to give him enough of a taste of it that he becomes repulsed by war.
Despite the horrors of war, the men often maintained a surprisingly good attitude. The medical aid man came by one day, Pyle recalled that one day a medical aide came by and asked, “Any sick, lame or lazy in this crew today?” Pyle recalled the response: “Nobody was sick but they all admitted being lazy,” he confided (Brave 114-5).
Physical Sacrifice and Death Revisited
“The Death of Captain Waskow” was an ideal piece of journalism for showcasing just how soldiers were affected by the death of a companion. Equally moving, however, is what may be Pyle’s most powerful portrait of death itself, from the tragedy of D-Day at Normandy. Walking along the silent beach, Pyle wrote of the scene around him: “Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home … Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand” (Ernie’s War 283).
Then, at the end of the same column, Pyle wrote: “The strong, swirling tides … carry soldiers’ bodies out to sea, and later they return them. They cover the corpses with sand, and then in their whims they uncover them. … I walked around what seemed to be a couple of pieces of driftwood sticking out of the sand. But they weren’t driftwood. They were a soldier’s two feet” (Ernie’s War 284). These two passages say more than any analysis could. The personal effects would never again see their owners; the soldiers could never again return home to be greeted by the loving families in the photos. The beach, the infinite grains of sand and the endless waves of the sea, was a silent graveyard of lost memories. Again, Pyle’s use of minimalism—writing what he saw, and little more—spoke volumes.
Part III. Lasting Thoughts
Pyle had a unique understanding and compassion, and those qualities showed in his writing. In addressing his readers, he used “I” and “you” as though he knew them and were conversing with them. In talking about his travels with the army, he frequently refers to himself and the group with the pronoun “we,” indicating his sense of belonging and camaraderie with the infantrymen. He once said, “In the continuously circulating nature of my job, I might never again see the men in that outfit. But to me they would always be ‘my’ company” (Brave 216). Prior to leaving Italy, he said, “I’ve been in that Italian war theater so long that I think of myself as part of it” (Ernie’s War 270).
Pyle frequently admitted his own shortcomings. He once said that he couldn’t record what anyone (amid an intense bombing) was feeling or thinking “during those horrible climaxes,” describing emotions during such moments as “kaleidoscopic and indefinable” (Brave 463).
Pyle was masterful with visual imagery, and he could describe something as both beautiful and terrible or frightening at the same time. Early in the war, he wrote, “The birds sing all night down here, and sometimes I waken deep in the night, and the birds are gay out there in the dark stillness, and I can picture the lovely magnolia tree in the back yard, and everything is so hushed and gentle and sweet, and I wonder if ever again in this world there can be such peace as this” (Ernie Pyle’s War 50). The simple eloquence and thought-provoking contemplations were rich with emotion. Even amidst the menacing blackness surrounding him, a shadowy, dreamlike memory still remains.
Pyle said that he once was asked by a sergeant whether he wrote news stories. He answered that no, he “just sort of tried to write what the war was like.” He added that “there were so many guys who were heroes without there being any stories to it” (Brave 269). His goal was to show the everyday heroes, to tell their stories. He wanted the people at home to “know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive”—those who had served for others (Ernie’s War 278). The quote was actually an introductory remark that prefaced his column on the scene at Normandy. He followed the remark with the terrible, lonely description of what he saw to accentuate his opening comment.
Pyle was deeply troubled by the fact that war reporters “who go in on the first few days of an invasion story … are the only correspondents capable of telling the full and intimate drama and horror of the thing … [but] they are the ones who can’t get their copy out to the world. By the time they do get it out, events have swirled on and the world doesn’t care any more” (Brave 389). Pyle understood the double-edged sword that faces journalists in times of war, and he was greatly troubled by it.
His purpose was to write realistically, truthfully and genuinely, without being too gory, but also without making light of or downplaying the situation. Too much realism never would have survived the censors’ ax, and the people at home would be turned off and stop reading. But if he watered down reality and never showed the grim truth of war, no one would ever appreciate sacrifice. No one would pay attention to the atrocity of war. Basically, his goal was to connect the soldiers and the civilians, in an agreement almost. The combat soldier’s experience was so awful that the civilian could never redeem it, but he had to try to see it, to understand it, and give to the soldiers his gratitude and love (Ernie Pyle’s War 179).
Truth: Another Fatality of War
In 1975, journalist Phillip Knightley published a book titled The First Casualty, subtitled From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker. The book’s title derives from Senator Hiram Johnson, who in 1917 said, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” Beginning with the Crimean War and ending with the Vietnam War, Knightley discusses collusion, censorship, suppression versus freedom of the press, journalistic responsibility and the conflicting emotions that often trouble war correspondents. In talking about wartime reporting, he argues that one of the problems is that many stories begin as rumors, earn a little credibility because they have been reported, and eventually prove to be rumors after all. Knightley is skeptical, even leery, of how much truth there is in war reporting, and he chronicles the challenges and defeats of truth in various wars and their respective eras. Even reporters such as Pyle had their limitations; they could be truthful but not necessarily complete. War journalists are always faced with difficulties, from the logistical hurdles to the dangers of being near a battle zone. Pyle, for example, could not have thoroughly covered the D-Day invasion.
Even since biblical times, those who have ruled countries or nations have exerted control—albeit in varying degrees—over the news that gets reported, and therefore, many journalists are forced to censor what they write and how they say it. World War II, Knightley says, was a highly censored war, although he adds that “after the United States entered the war and the Allied invasion of North Africa took place, American censors showed in general a more liberal attitude to correspondents” (308). He goes on to praise Pyle’s writing because Pyle made the GIs feel important and “was on their side” (326). Knightley, although he does not expressly say so, implies that Pyle’s simplicity, attention to detail and concern with the human-interest angle helped make him a journalist who was not willing to sacrifice the truth for the sake of propaganda.
The End of the War / Goodbye, Ernie
Pyle said that the soldier, at war’s end, would find it odd to have his “spirit released from the perpetual weight that is compounded of fear and death and dirt and noise and anguish … The end of the war will be a gigantic relief, but it cannot be a matter of hilarity for most of us. Somehow it would seem sacrilegious to sing and dance when the great day comes—there are so many who can never sing and dance again” (Brave 491). He added, “I hope that in victory we are more grateful than we are proud. I hope we can rejoice in victory—but humbly. The dead men would not want us to gloat.”
One of Pyle’s most moving descriptions was of war’s effects on the physical landscape around him: “There is nothing left behind but the remains—the lifeless debris, the sunshine and the flowers, and utter silence. An amateur who wanders in this vacuum at the rear of a battle has a terrible sense of loneliness. Everything is dead—the men, the machines, the animals—and you alone are left alive” (Ernie Pyle’s War 200). The intense imagery gives a bitter taste of what war is really like. The silence is deafening and terrifying, and even the flowers and the sun seem stony and dead.
When Pyle’s life was taken by a bullet that struck him on the left temple, word spread quickly. He was deeply mourned by the nation, from children to the newly inaugurated president, Harry Truman. The person responsible for sorting through Pyle’s personal effects discovered on him a column—a rough draft of one—that he had planned to use for V-E Day. The draft was titled “On Victory in Europe.” It summed up the truth about what he and the soldiers had seen, and what the people back home never would. It tells just how disheartening the war really is, especially for those who experience it firsthand:
Dead men by mass production…
Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.
Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them. These are the things
that you at home need not even try to understand.
To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just
didn't come back. You didn't see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in
France. We saw him, saw the multiple thousands. That's the difference… (Ernie's War 418-9)
Pyle did not live to see the end of the war, but he unarguably achieved the goals he had ardently pursued. He was a revolutionary writer of wartime correspondence. War had almost never been shown so graphically, beautifully and truthfully all at once. The common soldier had never been portrayed as a real, living, breathing individual—much less a heroic one. Pyle was a short, thin, graying man with humble roots. Perhaps it was his own simplicity, along with his own compassionate nature, that made him able to see the hero in the everyday “little guy” who was doing something wonderful, serving a noble cause. After all, Pyle was one of those “little guys” himself.
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