Up until his death in 1945, newspaper correspondent Ernie Pyle mesmerized the nation with his personal and genuine stories about everything from pilots to bellboys to WWII soldiers. Through his reporting, he became a national folk hero and eventually the voice of the American soldier. By 1944, his articles for Scripps-Howard Newspapers had earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
There was even a Hollywood movie about him called Ernie Pyle’s Story of G.I. Joe, which starred Burgess Meredith as the thin and aging 44-year-old reporter. A humble man, Pyle insisted that the film include fellow war correspondents playing themselves, as opposed to actors. But, unfortunately, he was killed before the film was ever released. And, in an almost prophetic way, he knew it was coming…
On April 18, 1945, the Associated Press reported: “Ernie Pyle, war correspondent beloved by his co-workers, G.I.s and generals alike, was killed by a Japanese machine-gun bullet through his left temple this morning.” This piece of news wasn’t just a regular report of yet another casualty of war. No, this news stunned the nation – a country that was still mourning the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt six days earlier.
The newspaper’s switchboards were off the hook as callers kept phoning in. The public, as well as the Army, were in mourning. The troops especially were beside themselves, and that’s because Pyle wasn’t just any reporter – he had been a household name during the Second World War and for years afterward.
But what proved to be even more shocking than the news of his death was the photo of it, which only resurfaced 63 years later…
When the US entered World War II, Americans everywhere joined forces to support the war effort, including journalists, novelists, and academics. Famous authors like John Steinbeck and John Hersey lent their talents to the war effort. However, the most famous American writer in the war was the soft-spoken journalist from Dana, Indiana.
Ernest Taylor Pyle, an only child, was born on August 3, 1900. He grew up working on his parents’ rented 80-acre grain farm. He was remembered as a shy and intelligent boy who wanted nothing more than to travel the world. After high school, Pyle enlisted in the US Naval Reserve in October 1918, but it was too late – he never got to serve overseas before the end of World War I.
With his hopes of military glory now a pipe dream (or so he thought), Pyle decided to go to college at Indiana University in the fall of 1919, majoring in economics. But with several journalism classes in his repertoire, he became editor of the school newspaper. During his college days, Pyle took every opportunity to travel.
He worked in a Kentucky oil field in the summer of 1920 and accompanied the Indiana University baseball team on a trip to Japan, as a cabin boy, in the spring of 1922. He was happy to hear that he could stay on the ship and head to China and the Philippines. When he got back to the US, with one semester left before graduation, he quit school…
Instead of graduating, Pyle became a reporter for the LaPorte County Herald-Argus. His self-deprecating and sincere personality made him likable to those around him. Not to mention that his work ethic made him a favorite of his superiors. He worked for the paper for four months before moving to Washington, D.C., to take on another job, this time as a copy editor for The Washington Daily News (a newly created tabloid in the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain).
In 1923, Pyle met a rebellious young woman by the name of Geraldine “Jerry” Siebolds, and the two became a pair. Less than a year into his job in Washington, he felt restless and took a job working on a Caribbean freighter.
When he came back two years later, he and Siebolds married modestly in a civil ceremony in Virginia. The newlyweds then bought a Model T and embarked on a three-month road trip across the country. They ended up in New York City, where they sold the car to pay for food. Pyle found work with The Evening World and later The Evening Post.
His measly paycheck was enough for the two of them to survive on, but it wasn’t enough for them to enjoy the Jazz Age city. In 1927, Pyle found himself working at his old desk in Washington, D.C. But he didn’t want to do the same work as before, so he came up with the idea of writing an aviation column.
The editor agreed, and Pyle started a new daily column that covered all aspects of aviation. It was called D.C. Airports Day by Day. After his eight-hour shifts, he took the streetcar to airfields around Washington to have chats with pilots and hear their stories. His column portrayed the excitement and romanticism of an aviation era (that today is mostly remembered for Charles Lindbergh’s infamous solo transatlantic flight).
After the chats at the hangars and the late-night discussions over cigarettes, Pyle became fast friends with several pilots. And slowly, his column started to provide the nation with a fresh new voice and perspective on topics that not everyone associated with enthusiasm and nostalgia.
Since he was so unimposing and quiet, he would get inside tips before the other, more aggressive reporters with their typical method of interrogating pilots. Pyle liked investigating – and reporting on – the anonymous “average Joe” working man in the growing field of aviation.
His favorite people to write about were the mail pilots who braved it out under extreme conditions and intense fatigue – just to deliver the mail on time. To give you an idea of the stuff he wrote about, in one particular column, Pyle wrote about a mail pilot named Bill McConnell. In the article, he described McConnell’s work and, more importantly, the person behind it…
He wrote that McConnell “has never been to the North Pole, or the South Pole, or flown across the ocean at midnight with a pig in his lap, or stayed in the air a week without changing his socks… No, all he ever did was fly the night airmail between Cleveland and Cincinnati every night for 34 consecutive nights last winter. 238 hours in the air in a month.”
Pyle profiled men like McConnell to demonstrate that it wasn’t just the daredevil stuntmen grabbing headlines who were the heroes of the air. Unlike other columns of the times, Pyle told brief yet compelling stories about incidents that pilots struggled through, such as a sudden storm or mechanical difficulties.
Pyle was finding his niche by writing human interest stories as opposed to the more common hard-hitting news. Soon, Pyle left his copyediting duties completely and focused entirely on being the aviation editor for all Scripps-Howard outlets. Shortly thereafter, he became the most prominent aviation writer of the era. He frequently met with congressmen, army officials, and famed aviators, such as the one and only Amelia Earhart.
Four years into his aviation column, in 1932, Pyle became the managing editor of The Washington Daily News. While he knew it meant a return to the dull, daily routine he hated so much as well as an end to the travel and writing he loved, he still accepted the position. Why? Because he didn’t want to let his employer down. Pyle was, after all, a hard-working, ethical, and devoted man.
For the next three years, he threw himself into the work, and hated most of it. He craved an escape, and so he proposed an idea for a roaming, international reporter who writes stories about the people he meets along the way. Ernie nagged the chief editor about his idea until he finally relented, in 1935.
For the next six years (during the Great Depression, mind you), Pyle and his wife traveled the world. By 1940, the couple had “covered 200,000 miles and… five of the six continents and crossed both oceans and delved into every country in the Western Hemisphere and written upward of 1,500,000 words,” he wrote. On their journey, he spoke with people from all walks of life.
He spoke to the rich, the poor, movie producers, millionaires, steelworkers and sheepherders: They all made their way into his column. His pieces captured the essence of the nation and its people. In addition to the interesting individuals that he wrote about, Pyle took an “aw shucks” kind of stance – a simple man who writes for the average folk.
Throughout this years-long road trip, Pyle captured the despair of the Dust Bowl. He saw with his own eyes the devastation that the drought and locusts wrought on the land. After he and Jerry drove through a dust storm, he wrote that “the sand-laden wind cut across the highway like a horizontal waterfall. Sand was not drifting, or floating, or hanging in the air — it was shooting south, in thick veins, like air full of thrown baseballs.”
Pyle was also humorous and uplifting when it suited the matter. When he visited Pittsburgh, he declared the place to be “undoubtedly the cockeyedest city in the United States.” Why? Because even the “people who live there can’t find their way around.” And Pyle didn’t worry about being objective. For instance, when he met Dr. George Washington Carver, Pyle stated plainly that the famed scientist “surpassed every other man in nobility and intelligence.”
Not only were his pieces compelling, but they also roused readers to action, like when he told the story of a bellhop in Miami. After that article was published, letters poured into Scripps-Howard offices from around the country, offering to help the bellhop.
Although Pyle loved his job, it was still stressful to write six columns a week. After touring Central America, his editor ordered him to rest for several weeks. He was still on sabbatical in Florida when Germany invaded France in May of 1940. At this point in the war, most Americans seemed to lack any reaction – something that shocked the well-traveled journalist.
For him, the conflict was nothing short of fascinating. As crazy as it must have sounded to those around him, he wanted to see the front lines for himself. Despite his editor’s initial objections, Pyle managed to get permission to sail for England. He was about to embark on a journey that would ultimately take his life…
Pyle landed in England in December 1940 and fell in love with the country instantly. He expected a bomb-battered London, but what he found instead was a bustling city. Still, a few days after he arrived, he experienced his first big air raid. From a balcony, he watched as bombs rained down on the city. He felt the tremble of the bombs and the blows of the anti-aircraft guns.
He wrote about the “savage” bombings and the anonymous heroes who would race across rooftops to douse the incendiaries with sand before they were able to set the buildings on fire. His time in London didn’t change his soul in the way he hoped. It did, however, make him a revered American newspaper correspondent.
Pyle did in print what broadcaster Edward Murrow did on the radio: give Americans a real look at the war that was still, at that point, a distant reality. What made his writing exceptional, at least in part, was that he didn’t try to give his readers a definitive account of the battle.
Instead, he offered his own thoughts and feelings about the matter, saying that London was resilient and would survive when most Americans had doubts. Ernie’s columns from London were received with universal acclaim. When he came back to the US, he realized he was a household name.
His columns from across the pond were made into a book called Ernie Pyle in England, which was released at the end of 1941 (and dedicated to “That Girl Who Waited”). Once he was back in his home in Albuquerque, he took a three-month leave of absence to care for his wife, who was suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts.
After his hiatus, his plan was to visit China, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies. He was supposed to leave in November 1941, but the State Department delayed his trip at the last minute. A few weeks later, the Japanese army bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States officially entered World War II.
Pyle drove to California where anxiety over the war was at a fever pitch. He waited there for a month but grew bored. And to make matters worse, his wife – and his marriage – was suffering from the stress of the long-term separations. That April, Pyle and his wife divorced (they remarried in 1943). He tried to join the Navy, but he was rejected for being too small.
Instead of resuming his traveling journalist column (to serve as a distraction), Pyle decided instead to embark on a tour of war-torn England. By August 1942, the brave yet modest journalist was back in England. This time, though, he was writing about American soldiers’ lives and their relationship with the British.
He then followed American and British soldiers during the invasion of North Africa in November 1942. By this point, Pyle was 42 years old with graying hair and a slender build. He stood out like a sore thumb next to the average G.I., but his kind and endearing nature meant he was welcome wherever he went.
The officers saw his presence as a way to encourage support for their campaigns, whereas the soldiers wanted their names in the papers so that their friends back home would know they were alright. He wrote about military policemen, quartermasters, and airmen, but his sympathy was reserved for the foot soldiers.
Back home, Americans eagerly read his descriptions of the battlefields and the soldiers – their husbands, fathers, and sons – to see what they were experiencing. The soldiers themselves were also fans of the column. Lieutenant Charles F. Marshall, of the US 6th Corps, wrote in his diary that Pyle’s writing was “Quite good. He catches the spirit. Nothing phony in it anywhere.”
Pyle put into words what soldiers wanted to say but couldn’t, and he kept a nice balance, too. He didn’t indulge in despair but didn’t gloss over the reality of war either. He mentioned in one piece that while the battlefield medics were heroic in their services, the shortage of stretcher carriers meant that some of the wounded went untreated for 24 hours.
More often than not, Pyle was just a few miles from the front lines, and he survived a number of German artillery barrages and bombing raids along the way. In one column, he mentioned a conversation he had with a tank crewman minutes before he took part in an advance. Within two hours, Pyle watched from a hill as the man he had just spoken to was killed after his tank was hit.
Pyle liked to mention specific units, which made the soldiers very proud. He described a feeling of “loyalty to the First Division,” yet was also saddened because “the men go, and new ones come and they go, and other ones come until at last only the number of the division is left.” He stated: “As long as we have an army, the First Division will exist, but my friends in it may not.”
While it may feel depressing to read such columns, his honest depictions of soldiers were exactly what the American public wanted. When the campaign in North Africa ended, Ernie followed US forces into Sicily in July 1943. A month later, as the campaign ended, Pyle was suffering from exhaustion and “a state of mental dullness.”
In August 1943, Ernie returned the states to rest. He was surprised to find that back home, he was a national celebrity. His North Africa columns were published under the title Here Is Your War. He was being bombarded with people who wanted his autograph, not to mention all the requests he got to give lectures and interviews. A naturally modest man, the sudden fame and success made him uncomfortable.
Ernie returned to Europe in December 1943 not out of a longing for the front lines, but rather out of a sense of guilt. He felt responsible for doing his part when millions didn’t have the option to just stay home. During the following three months, Pyle wrote some of his most moving pieces of the war.
His most famous column portrayed the reactions of soldiers to the death of their beloved company commander, Captain Henry T. Waskow. He nearly escaped a bombing raid and followed the company’s slow advance in Italy until February 1944, when he went back to England to wait for the expected invasion of France.
In May, Ernie was shocked when he learned he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize “for distinguished war correspondence during the year 1943.” The next month, Allied forces landed in Normandy. Pyle wanted to go ashore several weeks after the landings, but he couldn’t refuse an invitation to watch them from the bridge of General Omar Bradley’s flagship cruiser the USS Augusta.
The following day, he saw the wreckage as he walked on Omaha Beach. He descried “submerged tanks and overturned boats and burned trucks and shell-shattered jeeps and sad little personal belongings were strewn all over those bitter sands.” He continued: “After it was over, it seemed to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all.”
He stayed in France two months longer, up until he reached his breaking point. The 43-year-old was suffering from the stress of living by the front lines, as well as from seeing so many young men killed and grotesquely injured. By the fall of 1944, he returned home to a hero’s welcome. But, after a few months (as old habits tend to die hard), he was compelled to return to the front.
He made a public statement that he felt compelled to rectify his previously one-sided focus on the forces in Europe and would now cover the Pacific theater. And so, he headed back to Europe in January 1945, and from there was brought to Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan, where he wrote about the B-29 crews who bombed Japan.
Amazingly, Pyle didn’t take notes; he was able to recall conversations verbatim.
With Germany on the verge of surrendering, he knew he had to see the war to its end. Apparently, Pyle confided to colleagues that he didn’t expect to survive it. In March, he sailed with the Allied invasion fleet headed for Okinawa. Once there, he reported that being in Okinawa, “is like having your foot in the kitchen door.”
At Okinawa, he found US forces fighting the Japanese while kamikaze pilots wreaked havoc on the Allied fleet offshore. On April 17, the 77th Infantry Division landed on Ie Shima, a small island by Okinawa, to capture an airfield. Although it was a “side battle,” it was nonetheless “warfare in its worst form,” as photographer Alexander Roberts wrote. “Not one Japanese soldier surrendered, he killed until he was killed.”
On the third morning on the island, a jeep transporting Pyle and three officers came under fire. They all scrambled for cover in the ditches off the road, but in the millisecond that Pyle raised his head, a .30 caliber bullet hit his left temple. He was gone in an instant.
Roberts and two other photographers were at a command post just 300 yards away from them when Col. Joseph Coolidge, who was with Pyle in the jeep, reported what happened. Roberts arrived on the scene, and despite the ongoing enemy fire, crept toward his colleague. He made a “laborious, dirt-eating crawl,” as he later referred to it. He was intent on recording the scene with his camera.
His risky move ended up earning Roberts a Bronze Star medal for valor. That particular photograph, however, was never seen by the public. As it turns out, the War Department withheld the photograph “out of deference,” in respect of Pyle’s widow.
According to Roberts, “It was so peaceful a death that I felt its reproduction would not be in bad taste,” but evidently there were others – those with the power of distribution – that disagreed. The much-talked-about photo shows a figure clad in an army uniform, with boots and a helmet, lying on his back in what looks like a peaceful sleep – his hands folded holding a military cap. But what may not be apparent at first glance is the very thin trickle of blood that is dripping from the corner of his mouth.
NOTE: Please be aware that while we wanted to place the actual photo of his death, we weren’t able due to both copyright and censorship laws.
If you don’t notice the blood, you would think he was sleeping. But he wasn’t asleep; he was dead. The controversial photo was never published. And it took 63 years for it to resurface. He was 44 years old and had no children. It looks as though it was quite fitting that the most celebrated war correspondent of World War II passed away in such an elegant way.
Nevertheless, once the photo resurfaced after all those decades, it’s not surprising that it stunned historians, who hadn’t forgotten the famous yet humble correspondent who passionately told the story of war from the trenches. “It’s a striking and painful image,” Ernie Pyle’s biographer, James E. Tobin, said.
“But Ernie Pyle wanted people to see and understand the sacrifices that soldiers had to make… so it’s fitting, in a way, that this photo of his own death drives home the reality and the finality of that sacrifice.” Tobin noted that the photo’s negative is long lost, and there are only a few prints known to exist.
Retired naval officer Richard Strasser recalled Pyle visiting the ship just before he was killed. Strasser said a friend of his named George, who worked in the ship’s darkroom, gave him a packet of photos after Japan surrendered in August 1945. Months later, when he was back in civilian life, he finally opened that envelope and was surprised to find a picture of Pyle.
At the time, he said, Jerry was still alive, and he considered sending her the photo, “but had mixed feelings about it. In the end I did nothing.” Strasser was the one who provided his the 4-by-5-inch negative to the AP. At first, Pyle was buried among soldiers on Ie Shima. Then, in 1949, his body was moved to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater, close to Honolulu.
Ernie Pyle’s death was a real blow to Americans who were still reeling from the loss of President Roosevelt on April 12th. President Truman as well as Eleanor Roosevelt paid tribute to the fallen war correspondent. In 1946, a selection of Pyle’s articles from the Pacific theater were published under the title Last Chapter.