Letter to the Editor: Remembering Ernie Pyle

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Ernie Pyle was a Pulitzer Prize -winning American journalist and one of many war correspondents in WWII, but easily the most famous because of what he wrote and how he wrote it. His columns were syndicated across the country and brought home the tragedy of war and those who fought and died in it in a way that no other reporter did. He is also the subject of a new book The Soldier’s Truth by David Chrisinger from which some of the following material has been drawn.

Ernie Pyle was born on August 3, 1900, but, considering his later presence close to the action on the front lines during the Battle of Britain, the Invasion of Normandy and in places like North Africa, France, Monte Cassino and Anzio in Italy, he never expected to live very long and, sadly, he was right. He was killed by a Japanese machine gunner on April 18, 1945 near the island of Okinawa in the Pacific.

Pyle wrote many columns, tending to focus on soldiers for whom battle was a daily challenge and the personal loss of friends and fellow comrades was all too common. Occasionally, Ernie Pyle returned home on leave, but always seemed anxious to go back to the war and never seemed fully comfortable being safe and protected while others fought and died in battle. Pyle never forgot that when Duty calls, it must be answered. There were stories to tell, columns to write, witness to bear about the personal face of battle, including the loss and sacrifice lest they be forgotten – all solemn obligations that had to be fulfilled.

Pyle’s best-known and most widely-reprinted column at the time was about the death in Italy 1944 of Captain Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas, a young officer and company commander in the 36th Infantry Division. Like many others under fire at the time, Captain Waskow was taking cover during an artillery barrage, but death in battle can be sudden, without time to prepare or react. One moment Waskow was alive. The next moment he wasn’t – his life suddenly taken by an exploding mortar shell.

Pyle’s language about the Captain’s fate is so moving and timeless that what he described almost eighty years ago – a little more than a year before his own passing – could have happened yesterday. What follows is an excerpt from that remarkable account:

“. .I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought a body down. The moon was nearly full at the time, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley below. Soldiers made shadows in the moonlight as they walked. I didn’t know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don’t ask silly questions. “This one is Captain Waskow,” one of them said quietly.

Another man came; I think he was an officer. . The man looked down into the dead captain’s face, and then he spoke directly to him, as though he were alive. He said: “I’m sorry, old man.” Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said: “I sure am sorry, sir.”

Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.And finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.

After that the rest of us went back into the cowshed, in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.”

Perhaps in some way, Pyle viewed the captain’s death as a precursor of his own. He certainly would have been aware that the odds against survival always increase the longer one is exposed to danger. One day without warning, they ran out for Ernie Pyle, many years ago in a faraway country in a war that he must have known was nearly over.

A bullet finds its target. A life is ended – or is it? In many ways Pyle’s legacy is his power of expression and his ability to inspire a worldwide readership that has lasted over many years, and is still relevant and poignant which is why his columns can still be found on line and in print, unaffected and undiminished by the passage of time.

While Captain Henry T. Waskow is only one of the more than seven thousand American soldiers buried at the Sicily-Rome cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, he is by far one of the best known, thanks in large part to what Ernie Pyle so memorably described – the deeply human side of grief and suffering, the sorrow, regret, loss and even love amid the awful violence of war.

Don Loprieno
Bristol, Maine


Opinion pieces reflect the views of the individual author, and do not reflect the views of the Daily Bulldog, Mt. Blue TV, or Central Maine Media Alliance. Publication of an opinion piece does not equate to endorsement of the content of the piece.


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