He made his mark living in a battlefield tent or sleeping in a foxhole. He transformed a portable typewriter into a means of understanding the woes of war and the character of combatants. With a Pulitzer Prize and a prize-winning personality, Ernie Pyle was the witness of warfare for 14 million people.
Ernest Hemingway called himself “the rich-man’s Ernie Pyle.” But Ernie Pyle was more than the poor man’s Ernest Hemingway. With a column that ran in 400 daily newspapers and 300 weeklies, he was, as David Chrisinger puts it in his new biography of the World War II reporter, “perhaps the most famous and most loved American war correspondent before or since.”
He appeared on the cover of Time magazine when that meant something. But, more importantly, he appeared, almost out of nowhere, in battle encampments and in the assaults on Italy and Normandy, when that meant everything. He did not do war strategy or power politics. His strategy was harnessing the power of accounts of ordinary men fighting, and suffering, and dying; and, on nearly every occasion, showing the raw courage of soldiers, sailors, and aviators struggling to preserve the values of democracy at a time when they were in their greatest 20th century peril.
He did so not with the rat-tat-tat of a weapon but with the tick-tick-tick of a typewriter, which he transformed into a weapon of morale on the various wartime foreign fronts, and for deep understanding on the home front. “In the hands of a less talented writer, the subject of Ernie’s columns could have come across as hopelessly trivial,” Chrisinger writes. “Instead, his keen attention to detail gave his columns a granularity and an immersive feel that was easy for many readers to connect with.”
He knew nothing of the great tides of history and little of the broader scope of the war. But he knew human nature, and was possessed of a deep sense of humanity, and so while some — Hemingway, for example — saw great drama in the grand sweep of events during the war, Pyle saw drama in the great travail of the grunts on the ground, the worries of the men in the field, the small sufferings amid the great sufferings of the conflict.
Chrisinger, the executive director of the Public Policy Writing Workshop at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and the director of writing seminars for The War Horse, a nonprofit newsroom concentrating on the human aspects of military life, sets out how Pyle concentrated on what he called the “worm’s eye view” of the war. But he was, as Winston Churchill described himself, a glowworm. He wrote about the common soldier but his work was not common.
Nor was his role in the war years. “Americans at home needed him to explain the war to them, and what life for their sons and husbands was really like,” Chrisinger writes. “If those who made it home were ever going to find some semblance of peace, Pyle realized, the American people needed to understand why their boys froze at the sound of trucks backfiring, why the smell of diesel or copper transported them back to some shell-pocked battlefield, why they were coarsened and reluctant to talk about all they endured.”
Did the sentimentality of Pyle’s work make him, as his critics charged, a mere propaganda agent for the war effort? His work may have had that effect, but it did not have that intent. The onetime wandering travel writer mastered the art of making the ordinary seem extraordinary. In telling the stories of others he told his own story, one pockmarked by a broken marriage to a broken woman, one shaped by self-doubt and bouts of depression.
Dressed in Army coveralls and a knit cap, he strolled among the troops, lingered in the mess tent, and took notes. Then he wrote sentences like this: “I couldn’t help feeling the immensity of the catastrophe that has put men all over the world, millions of us, to walking in machinelike precision throughout long foreign nights — men who should be comfortably asleep in their own warm beds at home.”
He wrangled with censors, sometimes outwitting them but mostly submitting to their demands. Once, during the Africa campaign, he wrote a draft saying that “never were so few commanded so badly by so many.” It never made it into print. What survived, time after time, was newspaper copy like this:
“Men at the front suffering and wishing they were somewhere else, men in routine jobs just behind the lines bellyaching because they can’t get to the front, all of them desperately hungry for somebody to talk with besides themselves, no women to be heroes in front of, damn little wine to drink, precious little song, cold and fairly dirty, just toiling from day to day in a world full of insecurity, discomfort, homesickness and a dulled sense of danger.”
All this made him weary. (“I had come to despise and be revolted by war clear out of any proportion.”) Surrounded by death (he wrote of D-Day’s “shoreline of carnage”), he was plagued by thoughts of his own death. And death finally came to him, in a ditch on the island of Ie Shima in April 1945. In sadness Harry Truman told the country that “no man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told.” He might have said, simply, that Ernie Pyle died as he lived.
THE SOLDIER’S TRUTH: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II
By David Chrisinger
Penguin, 400 pages, $30
David Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.