Ernie Pyle understood invasions, from the initial landing to the ultimate occupation. Before D-Day, the war correspondent had documented the process more than once. And he understood the steepest cost of invasions: not just death — but the irrevocable attachment of a life to a particular time and place.
When the American military invaded North Africa in 1942, Ernie Pyle invaded with them. He followed the Allied soldiers throughout the North African campaign until General Rommel’s remaining forces surrendered in 1943.
Then the Allied soldiers pressed on to other countries, other battlefields, and other stories. They invaded Sicily, the Allies’ Mediterranean stepping-stone to Axis-occupied Europe. Once again, Pyle was there. He continued reporting the soldiers’ personal stories until his own death by enemy fire when occupying an un-cleared island in the Pacific theater during the spring of 1945.
Through these experiences, Pyle made a name for the men around him and, inadvertently, for himself.
Graham Hovey, a fellow correspondent, wrote in a 1944 issue of The New Republic, “I constantly asked myself why Ernie had done a better job than the rest of us; how he had gotten closer to the American soldier and his thoughts, hopes, fears, and reactions; why he had been able to portray better the tragedy of war.”
Hovey explained, “Like Franklin Roosevelt and the Brooklyn Dodgers, Ernie Pyle is the people’s choice. They elected him their favorite war correspondent for the duration shortly after Americans first began to fight the Germans in this war, and his popularity has steadily increased.”
But this is no longer the case.
Pyle’s fame has waned over the years. His face and his work are no longer widely identified. If alive, a safe bet says Pyle would no longer be stopped on the street for his autograph. He slid from the forward-floating sphere of public consciousness.
Readers’ familiarity with Pyle’s work continues to fade — fade with the generation who lived in his time and place. Today, even in a journalism classroom, students and professors will not necessarily recognize the name Ernie Pyle.
But Pyle, informed by the selfless soldiers around him, would probably accept this reality better than any columnist.
By all accounts a slight and oft-times sickly man, the journalist had a well-developed sense of his own mortality. This sensibility eventually brewed into a numbing sense of dread as Pyle watched the bodies of Allied soldiers laid out, row after row, throughout the Blitz and then the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Italy proper, France, Germany, and the Japanese-held islands.
“This was the way it went,” Pyle once wrote in “Here Is Your War” after watching a young tank commander killed in the desert. “After a while a man didn’t feel too deeply about it. He didn’t dare.”
With the same humble understanding demonstrated by the fighting men compelled to serve a necessary function, particular to their time and place, Pyle might embrace the receding recognition of his work as a fitting and lasting echo of the men he wrote about — men who lived, fought and died with less recognition than Pyle ever received.
This sentiment lingers in the last lines of the correspondent’s first collection of dispatches.
“I guess it doesn’t make any difference once a man is gone,” wrote Pyle. “They died and thereby the rest of us can go on and on. When we leave here for the next shore, there is nothing we can do for the ones beneath the wooden crosses, except perhaps to pause and murmur, ‘Thanks, pal.’”
Times Reporter Robert Allen spent two years researching Ernie Pyle for his master’s thesis at Stetson University in Deland.