The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.
That's the title of a 1943 book written by World War II embedded journalist Ernie Pyle. His stories put the folks back home as close to the war as words could -and contained the warning that the boys who'd gone off to war would be different when they returned.
All of America mourned the passing of 44-year-old journalist Ernie Pyle when he was killed by a Japanese sniper in April 1945. By then he'd traveled with American soldiers in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France, from Normandy to Paris. Then came Okinawa and, days later, death. Like the soldiers he wrote about, he too had changed.
In 1941, when the United States entered the war, Ernie Pyle was already a well-respected, widely-read journalist. He'd perfected an appealing, simple, and straightforward writing style and an approach to his topics that would carry over into his 600 newspaper reports from the battle lines. From 1935, he'd been writing a travel column for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. He'd traveled the United States by car, going off the beaten track to meet people in out-of-the-way small towns. The towns and their people were his subjects. His columns read almost like diary entries but focused on the small details of life.
Pyle went to war in 1942 as a correspondent for Scripps-Howard. He wrote his first overseas column in November 1942 and continued -six columns a week with few interruptions- until his death. The columns, which appeared daily in more than 800 newspapers, were the most widely read reports of the war.
By the end of 1943, Pyle was the country's foremost war correspondent. In 1944 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. And his story was the basis for the 1945 movie The Story of G.I. Joe, starring Burgess Meredith.
Pyle's articles put a human face on the war. He let people know that great battles weren't merely abstract strategies of remote generals and heads of state plotting victories with stickpins on maps. Of the transition from young man to soldier, he wrote:
The last of the comforts are gone. From now on you sleep in bedrolls under little tents. You wash whenever and wherever you can. You carry your food on your back when you are fighting.
You dig ditches for protection from bullets and from the chill north wind off the Mediterranean. There are no more hot-water taps. There are no post exchanges where you can buy cigarets. [sic] There are no movies.
He wrote about individual soldiers, quiet heroism, and solitary doubt and pain. Pyle's soldiers were husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers from across America, from small towns and farms and big cities. His soldier's concerns were mundane -their next meal, sleep, a real bath- and focused on getting the job done, surviving, and getting home. Overriding these concerns was fierce loyalty to the men beside them, men with whom they were sharing this intense horror, minute by minute, day by day. Deeply touched by their experiences on the front lines, Pyle successfully lobbied to have troops be given combat pay, just as airmen received flight pay. The bill approving the funding became popularly known as the "Ernie Pyle Bill."
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Worried that the soldiers would be unrecognized -if not forgotten- by people back home, Pyle threaded his articles with the names and hometowns of the soldiers he encountered and the violent realities they were facing. This practice also helped to drive home Pyle's core message -that these soldiers were now much different from the men and women America shipped to North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific. In his April, 1943, article, he wrote:
They have made the psychological transition from the normal belief that taking human life is sinful, over to a new professional outlook where killing is a craft. To them now there is nothing morally wrong about killing. In fact it is an admirable thing.
NO ONE LEAVES UNSCATHED
Ernie Pyle was human, too. Although riding high on the crest of public acclaim, he experienced personal tragedy. His troubled marriage to an alcoholic wife (since diagnosed as a probable manic-depressive) collapsed. The two were divorced in 1942, but stayed in contact. In a 1945 letter to his ex-wife, he sounded like a battle-weary soldier: "I am very sick of the war and would like to leave it, and yet I know I can't. I've been part of the misery and tragedy of it for so long that I feel if I left it, it would be like a soldier deserting."
In the last column he wrote from the European theater, he told his readers: "I've been immersed in it too long …it seemed to me that if I heard one more shot or saw one more dead man, I would go off my nut." All the same, a few months later he was reporting from the Pacific theater. The few columns he wrote there seemed uninspired, and none of them are among his famous ones. He was a man doing his duty, just like the soldiers he wrote about. Just like them, he'd changed. He'd lost his taste for battles and longed for the war to be over.
And soon it was for him when, on the island of Ie Shima, near Okinawa, a jeep he was riding in was hit by machine gun fire. Everyone dived for the dirt. Pyle raised his head to see if any of his party had bee hit and was shot in the temple by a sniper. He was first buried on Ie Shima, and later reburied in 1949 at Punchbowl cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.
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