Ernie Pyle Essay - Critical Essays

Pyle, Ernie


Ernie Pyle 1900-1945

(Full name Ernest Taylor Pyle) American journalist.

A career newspaper man, Pyle is best remembered as a populist war correspondent who documented the experiences of the regular soldier. Unlike his contemporaries, who reported the war in terms of broad strategic events, or by profiling generals and political leaders, Pyle focused on the many small struggles of infantrymen and tried to give the war a human face. His compassion earned him great popularity in the United States, and his death in battle elevated him to the status of war hero.

Biographical Information

Pyle was born on his parents' small farm outside Dana, Indiana, on August 3, 1900. He enlisted in the navy immediately after graduating from Helt Township High School in 1918, but he was never sent overseas. The following year he enrolled at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, where he took his first post as a reporter, working for the school newspaper, The Student. He eventually rose to become editor-in-chief of both The Student and the campus humor magazine, The Smokeup. Without completing his senior year, Pyle left college to take a job reporting for the La Porte Herald. During his three-month tenure there he placed an article in the paper describing a Ku Klux Klan rally, despite attempts to intimidate him. Pyle left Indiana to work for the Washington Daily News, first as a reporter and later at the copy desk. In 1925, Pyle married Geraldine Siebolds. They settled briefly in New York, but Pyle was back at the Washington Daily News by 1927. He was made a full-time aviation columnist in 1929, and managing editor three years later. Pyle wrote a popular column about his travels throughout America, criss-crossing the country a number of times in the process, and in 1939 Scripps-Howard syndicated the column. By this time, Pyle determined to go to Europe to cover the war first-hand. He left for London in late 1940 and his dispatches were a great success back in the United States. The columns were collected and published by Scripps-Howard in 1941 after Pyle had returned. During his absence, Geraldine had become increasingly depressed and alcoholic, and they divorced in 1942. Pyle returned to Europe, then moved on to North Africa, but he remained in contact with Geraldine and eventually remarried her by proxy in 1943. In the months that followed, Pyle traveled to Italy and then back to England. He was one of the twenty-eight correspondents who covered the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944 and followed the Allied armies to Paris. His distinguished correspondence during this period won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1944, as well as two honorary degrees. After a brief sojourn in the United States, during which Geraldine suffered a relapse and was hospitalized, Pyle went to cover the war in the Pacific in 1945, landing with the troops at Okinawa. There, on the island of Ie Shima, he was shot in the head by a Japanese sniper. President Truman awarded him the Medal of Merit posthumously, and his remains were moved from Ie Shima to the National Memorial Cemetery in Punchbowl Crater, Hawaii.

Major Works

Pyle's most famous single column, describing the death of Captain Henry T. Waskow at San Pietro, appeared on front pages across the country in 1943, filling the entire front page of the Washington Daily News. Scripps-Howard released a number of compilations of his columns; his London visit is documented in Ernie Pyle in England; the collection of his African correspondence, Here is Your War, became a bestseller and was adapted for the screen as "The Story of G.I. Joe." Around this time the U. S. Congress passed "The Ernie Pyle Bill," raising combat pay by ten dollars a month. His account of D Day and the European war was released in 1944 under the title Brave Men. Pyle's Pacific dispatches were posthumously collected in Last Chapter. His prewar writings were assembled and published by Scripps-Howard in the 1947 collection, Home Country.

Critical Reception

Pyle wrote columns that met with popular approval. One of his earliest columns, reporting the death of pilot Floyd Cox in a plane crash, brought in a flood of letters from readers across the country; this was the type of success Pyle enjoyed. He avoided polarizing political questions, and he did no historical evaluation of the events he covered. Modern historians regard him more as a contemporary source of information about public opinion than as a critical observer.

Principal Works

Ernie Pyle in England (journalism) 1941

Here Is Your War (journalism) 1943

Brave Men (journalism) 1944

Last Chapter (journalism) 1946

Home Country (journalism) 1947

Ernie Pyle's Southwest (journalism) 1965

Ernie's War: The Best of Ernie Pyle's World War II Dispatches (journalism) 1987

Ernie's America: The Best of Ernie Pyle's 1930s Travel Dispatches (journalism) 1989


Edward Streeter (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: "Ernie Pyle's Story of G. I. Joe," in The New York Times Book Review, October 31, 1943, pp. 1, 34.

[In the following essay, Streeter praises Pyle's "deeply human portrait of the American soldier in action."]

Ernie Pyle has drawn a graphic and absorbing picture of the fighting in Tunisia. [in Here Is Your War]. He has also achieved something far more difficult and important—a full length, deeply human portrait of the American soldier in action.

This ability to disclose the individual beneath the war-stained uniform of the soldier is what has made Pyle one of the most popular of the war correspondents. He writes only of what he sees, and he sees the tilings that those at home want most to know: what their boys eat, where they sleep, what they talk about, and how they react to the fatigue, dirt and danger of a fighting front.

Pyle spent most of his time in North Africa with the men who were shooting and being shot at. He sees them not as "soldiers," but as boys from the farms and the cities, the plains and the uplands of forty-eight States. He sees them as ex-storekeepers, soda jerks, truck drivers, clerks, cowpunchers, farmers and gas station attendants—dumped into a small segment of North Africa, called upon to perform dangerous and unaccustomed tasks—yet still civilians at heart.

From the general staff point of view, a military campaign consists of a carefully worked-out plan, executed with precision and skillfully timed. A campaign is also composed of myriads of incidents, small in themselves but vitally important to those who take part in them. History is written as much by the reaction of individuals to the impact of relatively trivial things as it is by the leaders.

It is this phase of war which interests Ernie Pyle:

I haven't written anything about the Big Picture, because I don't know anything about it. I only know what we see from our worm's-eye view, and our segment of this picture consists only of tired and dirty soldiers who are alive and don't want to die; of long darkened convoys in the middle of the night; of shocked, silent men wandering back down the hill from battle; of chow lines and atabrine tablets and foxholes and burning tanks and Arabs holding up eggs and the rustle of high-flown shells; of jeeps and petrol dumps and smelly bedding-rolls and A rations and cactus patches and blown bridges and dead mules and hospital tents and shirt collars greasy-black from months of wearing; and of laughter, too, and anger and wine and lovely flowers, and constant cussing. All these it is composed of; and of graves and graves and graves.

These are the materials from which the story is woven; innumerable strands which, when drawn together, disclose the magnitude of the over-all accomplishment. It is the story of thousands of bewildered, frustrated and very human beings, who through their daily actions and reactions merged into an irresistible fighting machine.

There is no embellishment, no fine writing. This is not a book of memories, revived and polished on a sunny terrace in Connecticut. It was written behind rocks scarred by snipers' bullets, in pup tents, foxholes and dugouts, in freezing cold and...

(The entire section is 1371 words.)

Time Magazine (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "The Guy the G.I.s Loved (Ernie Pyle's War)," in This Was Your War: An Anthology of Great Writings from World War II, edited by Frank Brookhouser, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1960, pp. 434-41.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1944, the writer argues that Pyle's success at capturing the often mundane realities of war sprang from his own averageness.]

From Hollywood: I had a long talk last night with Chris Cunningham of the United Press, who was with Ernie in England and North Africa. He is here advising the United Artists studios on the production of a movie based on Pyle's book, Here Is Your War. He says that the studio...

(The entire section is 3358 words.)

Bruce Rae (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "America as Ernie Pyle Observed It," in The New York Times Book Review, June 8, 1944, pp. 4, 28.

[In the following essay, Rae praises Pyle's depiction of the diversity of American life in Home Country.]

Before he left on his last journey to the Pacific, Ernie Pyle said to his publishers: "I hope some day you people will publish the book of mine that I like best myself. That's the book with all the stuff I wrote before the war, the book about my own country. About home. I think that's the best writing I've ever done."

Home Country is that book. It tells the story of five years of wandering across the continent, and throughout its...

(The entire section is 1006 words.)

C. L. Sulzberger (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "World War II—The Human Side," in The New York Times Book Review, November 26, 1944, pp. 1, 22.

[In the following essay, Sulzberger reviews Brave Men, suggesting that Pyle's main contribution to wartime journalism was "a more concrete recognition of GI Joe's services."]

A skinny little fellow with weather-beaten face, querulous expression and thinning gray hair is not only without doubt the best-known American war correspondent reporting to the United States public, he is also far and away the best known to the United States armed forces serving in the general European area. His name is Ernie Pyle.

The first category of popularity...

(The entire section is 1646 words.)

Charles Fisher (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "Ernie of the Warm Heart," in The Columnists, New York Publishers, 1944, pp. 296-317.

[In the following essay, Fisher discusses Pyle's World War II journalism, noting that Pyle's concentration on the details of soldiers' lives and experiences made him an exceptional war correspondent.]

Ernie Pyle is a columnist only in the sense that he has available each day a certain amount of newspaper space which he may fill with such matter as seems proper to him at the time. By the Big Think standards, he is no columnist at all.

After a couple of years on virulently active battle fronts, he has neglected to evolve seven better ways to win the war. Heads...

(The entire section is 5684 words.)

Graham B. Hovey (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "This is Ernie Pyle's War," in The New Republic, Vol. III, No. 24, December 11, 1944, pp. 804-06.

[In the following essay, Hovey attempts, through a review of Brave Men, to explain why Pyle was the most popular war correspondent in America during World War II.]

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 Germans in this war, and his popularity has steadily increased. The explanation, I think, is simple: Ernie Pyle consistently has contributed the best job of reporting and writing about the Americans who...

(The entire section is 1210 words.)

John Mason Brown (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "Brave Man," in Seeing Things, Whittlesey House, 1946, pp. 46-53.

[In the following essay, which was first published in 1945, Brown provides a personal remembrance of Pyle, commenting on Pyle's motivation in writing about "the common frontline soldier."]

"Hi-ya, Ernie?" That's what they used to cry when they saw him. In their throats this was more than a salutation. It was also a question; a question which came from their hearts, and brightened their eyes. They really cared. They wanted him to be feeling "fine."

No other military figure held a higher place in their affections than did this unmilitary little man. They knew that in Ernie they...

(The entire section is 2352 words.)

Randall Jarrell (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "Ernie Pyle," in Kipling, Auden & Co.: Essays and Reviews 1935-1964, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, pp. 112-21.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1945, Jarrell praises Pyle's ability to evoke in his writing the experience of war.]

He wrote like none of the rest. The official, pressagent, advertising-agency writing that fills the newspapers, magazines, and radio with its hearty reassuring lies, its mechanical and heartless superlatives; the rhetorical, sensational, and professional pieces of ordinary Time-Life journalism—the same no matter what the subject, who the writer; the condescending, preoccupied work of "real writers"...

(The entire section is 4424 words.)

Charles Angoff (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: A review of "Brave Men," in The American Mercury, Vol. LX, No. 254, 1945, pp. 244-46.

[In the following essay, Angoff reviews Brave Men, distinguishing Pyle from the "political philosophers" whose less emotional understanding of war distances them from its true tragedy.]

Among the hopeful things about contemporary American journalism are the wide popularity of Ernie Pyle and the recognition of his excellence, at long last, by the "serious" arbiters of literary taste. Some of these arbiters still speak of him with a bit of condescension, claiming that his pieces are merely "reporting of a special kind," very good, of course, but rather deficient in the...

(The entire section is 1236 words.)

David Dempsey (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Ernie Pyle's Last Stories of GI Joe," in The New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1946, pp. 3, 20.

[In the following essay, Dempsey reviews Pyle's last book, Last Chapter, published thirteen months after the author's death, commenting that while its fragmentary nature may disappoint some readers, Last Chapter continued Pyle's effort to make the experience of the American soldier in battle real to civilians.]

Ernie Pyle is the greatest and best loved of all that army of camp followers who traded green eye shades for tin helmets and fought the war with typewriters. The publication of this brief volume [Last Chapter], thirteen months...

(The entire section is 1256 words.)

Bill Mauldin (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Ernie Pyle's Last Book," in The Nation, Vol. 162, No. 25, June 22, 1946, pp. 754-56.

[In the following essay, Mauldin, a fellow journalist during World War II, offers praise for Pyle's last book, Last Chapter.]

It is standard operating procedure to find someone who knew Ernie Pyle to write reviews about his books. In the hundreds of reviews, each tried to be original, but it was hard because Ernie was not a man you kick up controversies over—if you knew him you loved him. He didn't hurt any feelings, follow any party lines, accuse any generals, nor were his personal feelings or motives a mystery. As far as I know not a single review was unfavorable to him....

(The entire section is 1260 words.)

David Nichols (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: An introduction to Ernie's War: The Best of Ernie Pyle's World War II Dispatches, edited by David Nichols, Random House, 1986, pp. 5-37.

[In the following essay, Nichols provides an overview of Pyle's life, focusing on his relationship with his wife.

Ernie Pyle was born August 3, 1900, on a farm a few miles outside Dana, Indiana, the first and only child of Will and Maria Pyle. He was a senior in high school when a neighbor boy went off to World War I. Pyle wanted to go, too. Bored with the steady rhythms of farm life and enamored of men of action, he found the prospect of marching off to war in storied Europe irresistible. He shared with countless other...

(The entire section is 14181 words.)

Lance Bertelsen (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "San Pietro and the 'Art' of War," in Southwest Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, Spring, 1989, pp. 230-256.

[In the following essay, Bertelsen discusses the literary and cinematic influences of Pyle's "The Death of Captain Waskow, " and parallels similarities between Pyle's piece and John Huston's war film San Pietro.]

"In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas." So begins Ernie Pyle's most famous World War II dispatch, "The Death of Captain Waskow"—a piece that describes the reactions of troops from the 36th...

(The entire section is 8585 words.)

David Nichols (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: A biographical essay in Ernie's America: The Best of Ernie Pyle's 1930s Travel Dispatches, edited with an introduction by David Nichols, Random House, 1989, pp. xvii-1.

[In the following essay, Nichols provides an overview of Pyle's career.]

Rare is the American who has not dreamed of dropping whatever he is doing and hitting the road. The dream of unrestrained movement is a distinctly American one, an inheritance bequeathed to subsequent generations by those restless souls who populated the American continent. Travel—away from here, toward a vague and distant destination—is part of our national folklore.

Economic hardship has been a...

(The entire section is 13641 words.)

Further Reading


Lord Halifax. "A Tribute to Ernie Pyle" from The American Speeches of Lord Halifax, pp. 409-10. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.

A brief account of the single meeting of Lord Halifax with Ernie Pyle.

McNamara, John. Chapter 13: "Worm's Eye View of the World," from Extra! U.S. War Correspondents in Action, pp. 178-92. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945.

Patriotic, war-story biography.

Miller, Lee G. The Story of Ernie Pyle. New York: The Viking Press, 1950.

Biography by a longtime friend of Pyle's, who worked with him at the Washington News, based primarily...

(The entire section is 205 words.)