"At this spot, the 77th Davison lost a buddy". This text appeared on a wooden sign on a field grave on the Japanese island of Ie Shima on the Okinawa islands in the East-Chinese Sea. On April 18, 1945, while the battle for Okinawa raged in full, an American died for whom this sign was erected. He was neither a rifleman nor a Marine but a civilian. Not just any civilian; at the front as well as in the United States, he was the most popular war correspondent and Ernie Pyle was his name.
The road to national fame was a long one for Ernest Taylor Pyle, born August 3, 1900. His place of birth was a desolate farmhouse in the vicinity of the small village of Dana, 850 inhabitants in western Indiana. Endless agricultural fields, bisected by arrow straight roads made up the less inspiring landscape of Ernieís youth. His father Will, a taciturn man, was the tenant of the farm as he could not find employment as a carpenter. Ernieís mother, Maria Taylor-Pyle was quite different from her submissive husband. She was an outgoing and social farmerís wife who pulled all the strings at home. Ernie was the coupleís only child. He was a dreamer who devoured adventure stories but he also worked hard at ploughing the land. Probably like so many of his contempories in a state with a yearly highlight, the Indianapolis 500, he dreamt of a career as racing driver.
At school, Ernie was an outsider, a country boy who looked up at boys from the city. Ernie got his first chance to escape from dreary rural life when America entered World War One in 1917. To his dismay, he was one year below the age limit. One month after he finally joined the Naval Reserve in 1918, the armistice had already been signed. Ernie was yet to see the front during the next world war. In 1919, the intelligent youngster started his curriculum at Indiana University in Bloomington. He selected economics as his main subject but in addition he attended classes in journalism. During his student period, he made contributions to the student paper "Indiana Daily Student." His journalistic example was Associated Press reporter Kirke Simpson who was awarded the Pullitzer prize in 1922 for an article on the burial of the "unknown soldier" at Arlington National Cemetery.
Restless young man
In order to broaden his horizon, Ernie traveled up and down the country during summer holidays. In the spring of 1922, he crossed the national border when he accompanied the university basketball team during its sea voyage to Japan. As he was not in possession of the required documents to enter Japan, he continued his voyage through China and the Philippines. With just one semester left, he dropped out of university, possibly following an incident with a teacher. In January 1923, he applied for the real journalistic work to the editorial staff of the Herald in La Porte in northwestern Indiana. His journalistic high during his tenure of only four months with the local paper was probably his infiltration in a meeting of the racist Ku Klux Klan.
In May 1923, Pyle made the transfer to "The Washington Daily News", a tabloid established in 1921 by the publishing firm of Scripps-Howard. The young journalist, who sometimes went to work in a logging shirt and woolen cap, was considered a little eccentric by his colleagues. However, he proved himself an excellent chief editor giving someone elseís work the drive the editor in chief wanted. Within a year, the restless young man had enough of the routine and he resigned in order to work as a sailor in the Caribbean for the next two years. Back in the U.S., he married Geraldine Siebolds from Minnesota whom he had met during his stay in Washington. Together with Jerry, his wifeís nickname, he traveled all across the U.S. in a T-Ford and a shelter. Their voyage ended in New York where they were to stay for the next 16 months and Ernie found employment as chief editor of "The Evening World" and the "New York Post."
Ernie could not find his feet in the Big Apple. Christmas 1927, he and his wife returned to Washington after a befriended editor in chief had made him an offer to return to the editorial staff of the Washington Daily News. This friend was Lee Graham Miller and until Ernieís death, he would be an important associate and business representative of his. Manning an editorís desk again did not appeal to Ernie at all and therefore he got Millerís permission to write columns on aviation, apart from his function of editor in chief of telegraph messages. That turned out to be a lucky shot as everything pertaining to aircraft could count on lively public interest. When Ernieís first column appeared in March 1928, aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh had been the first to cross the Atlantic from New York to Paris non-stop ten months before. Civil aviation was developing fast and Pyle became a welcome visitor of air fields in Washington and surroundings.
Pyle felt like a fish in water among the air field personnel and the pilots. He was accepted as one of them for his straightforward and unpretentious attitude. His columns were widely acclaimed by a diverse audience for his informal language and his special attention to human interest. They soon appeared on a daily basis and later on, Pyle was appointed aviation editor for all the papers published by Scripps-Howard. Among the prominent persons he met as an aviation journalist were Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1932 and who did the same in 1935, the first human to cross the Pacific Ocean. As much as he liked being a columnist, in the spring of 1932, Pyle did accept the offer to become editor in chief of the Washington Daily News. He would hold this function for three years but he did not really feel at home in it. "It is a short-cut to insanity," he remarked once, referring to the organizational aspect.
A roving existence
It was far from obvious Ernie would spend the rest of his career as editor in chief of the Washington Daily News. He missed the writing that gave him the most satisfaction. In private life, things did not go too smoothly either. Jerry was pregnant but opted for abortion while Ernie would have liked to have kept the child. He was worried about his spouse who retreated ever further into herself and was fighting an alcohol addiction and psychic problems. Therefore, he changed course drastically in 1935. Inspired by a three-week journey through America, which had yielded good columns, Ernie got permission to write a six-day column while traveling which would appear in all Scripps-Howard publications. From 1935 to 1942, he and his wife crisscrossed a large part of the western hemisphere in a Dodge Convertible Coupe. The couple visited each American state and called on special geographical locations such as the lowest point of the United States in Death Valley and the southernmost point of Key West (Hawaii joined the Union as late as 1959). Everywhere he turned up, Pyle spoke to local representatives from all walks of life: young, old, poor or rich.
Pyle was to write 2.5 million words during his years as roving columnist. "News does not have to be important but has to be interesting," was his adagium. "Always look for the story, for the unexpected human emotion in the story. Try to write the way humans talk." He wrote in the "I" form and never raised himself above the people he wrote about. As a neutral observer, he reported on American society at the time of the Great Depression and Presidentís Rooseveltís New Deal. (Bio Roosevelt). His stories about the freedom to travel to any corner of the nation, about common Americans holding on in difficult times and about rural living, touched the American souls in a fast changing period of modernization and urbanization. By his expressive way of writing, he took his readers to places where they had never been themselves. His columns were very popular among a broad section of readers and from the spring of 1939 onwards, they also appeared in other major newspapers outside the Scripps-Howard stable.
Ernie and Jerry enjoyed their roving existence. Ernie however suffered from the pressure to deliver his columns on time and the fear whether they were good enough. Abusive use of alcohol was his answer to the stress, the despondency and exhaustion he struggled with. This tenacious worry and the fear of success was to remain with him throughout his entire career as an author. Quitting his columns was no option to him nevertheless. After a tour of two months through Central America he returned to the U.S. in February 1940. Six months before, the armies of Adolf Hitler (Bio Hitler) had invaded Poland, unleashing a new global war. Pyle had wanted to travel to Europe before in order to report on the war and he pressed home his plan towards the end of 1940 but not before he had a house built in Albuquerque, New Mexico with a view on the Rio Grande Valley. He hoped Jerry could find peace there because when they had ended their roving existence, she again struggled with psychic problems that would deteriorate over time, despite the new house.