Friend of the common soldier

I like to think that everyone knows who Ernie Pyle is, but perhaps that is not true.

I started out as a journalism major, trekking to the freshman introductory class at Ernie Pyle Hall at Indiana University. I knew in broad outlines about the man: he was the beloved war correspondent of World War II. He wrote newspaper articles from the perspective of and about the common soldier. Through his reports, the American public learned about what life was like for the soldiers fighting in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific.

I stopped the other day to get my bearings in a small town on the western border of Indiana, and in my rearview mirror I saw it: the sign to the Ernie Pyle WWII Museum. Without knowing it, I had found myself exactly where I wanted to be.

Ernie Pyle actually only lived outside Dana for the first couple years of his life in a small farmhouse. His parents were tenant farmers. Not an easy life, I imagine. The small farmhouse has since been moved into town, across the street from railroad tracks. Two Quonset huts stand to the side, housing a museum.

I rang the bell to the house and waited. A volunteer greeted me and led me to the museum, where she gave me a brief intro and explanation of the museum layout before starting a video. The museum is well designed with cases of artifacts from Pyle’s time reporting from the front, video and audio stations, and copies of columns he wrote.

I didn’t realize how devoted he was in his war reporting. He wasn’t at the front for short stints, but for long periods of time throughout the war. He reported from London during the blitz in 1940. He accompanied the troops through North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. He was at Normandy and the liberation of Paris. And then he went home to Indiana for what turned out to be a brief rest.

He didn’t plan on going back to the war. He had had enough of death. But then he felt drawn to cover the soldiers fighting in the Pacific theater. He was there at the invasion of Okinawa. Not too long later, on April 18, 1945, he was killed on Iejima. The voice of the soldiers was silenced.

The articles he wrote for people back home showed the human face of the war: the soldiers themselves. His descriptions of events, people, and feelings had a folksy, intimate feel to them. What did the soldiers face? What were their days like? Pyle’s articles connected the American public with the soldiers.

I was surprised to learn about his life and writings before the war. He travelled with his wife around the country, writing columns about what he encountered. This was in the 1930s, several decades before Steinbeck would write his own travelogue.

Of course, there are also a slew of books about Ernie Pyle and collections about his dispatches. I invite you to dive into them. His dispatches open a window into that time period and the war as seen through the common soldier’s experience.


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