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Dan Wegmueller: Ernie Pyle, troubled and heroic
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"At this spot the 77th Infantry Division Lost a Buddy." So reads the inscription on the simplistic, but enduring half-obelisk. Just below, a proviso is etched in stone: "This is a Replica of the Original Built at Ie Shima by the Engineer Combat Group United States Army." This memorial can be found at a rest stop just outside Dana, on the western border of Indiana.

The memorial commemorates one of World War II's most celebrated and recognized correspondents, Ernie Pyle. Pyle's wartime correspondence began in 1940 when he covered the Blitz in England. Two years later, Pyle began writing on the North Africa Campaign, and marched with U.S. troops through Sicily, Italy, and France. His columns were published in as many as 400 daily newspapers, and Pyle even was featured on the cover of Time magazine. In 1944, the "Soldier's Soldier" won the Pulitzer Prize before shipping to the Pacific to cover combat against the Japanese Imperial Army.

Despite Ernie Pyle's fame and reputation, he was deeply troubled. Writes Rick Atkinson, in "The Day of Battle," "(Ernie Pyle) was forty-two, but looked and felt 'older and a little apart'. ... His expression [was] fundamentally sad. War made him sad. ... [Pyle] wondered how anyone who survived war could 'ever be cruel to anything, ever again'" (Battle, 61).

What made Ernie Pyle's work gain such prominence was his remarkable ability to portray the real-life existence of a front-line soldier. Ernie Pyle put all of the sorrow, misery, viciousness and unimaginable complexities that typified existence on the front lines into understandable, intimate prose. Folks, for just one moment, take a break from whatever you are doing and try to consider the circumstances surrounding these firsthand passages, written about and by Pyle during the Sicily/Italy campaign:

Like so many others, Pyle had witnessed sights that gnawed at him, body and soul. ... "Dying men were brought into our tent, men whose death rattle silenced the conversation and made all of us thoughtful," Pyle wrote. A trench outside a surgical tent was "filled with bloody shirt sleeves and pant legs the surgeons had snipped off wounded men." Pyle noted "how dirt and exhaustion reduce human faces to such a common denominator. Everybody they carried in looked alike." Among litter patients only "an extreme blond" seemed distinct, "like a flower in a row of weeds" (Battle, 146).

Possibly the most chilling passage Pyle wrote pertained to a dying man in the field hospital:

"The dying man was left utterly alone, just lying there on his litter on the ground, lying in an aisle, because the tent was full. ... The aloneness of that man as he went through the last minutes of his life was what tormented me" (Battle, 146).

Well before heading to the Pacific, Ernie Pyle had seen his share of battle. But, despite his exhaustion, he kept writing. Following the bombardment and near destruction of yet another Italian town, Pyle wrote, "You just get damned sick of it all." Continuing, he added with a hint of despair, "On especially sad days it's almost impossible to believe that anything is worth such mass slaughter and misery" (Battle, 174).

Despite exhaustion and having admitted to seeing enough, Ernie Pyle shipped off to the Pacific Theatre, now a star to soldiers and civilians alike. Despite his celebrity-status, Ernie Pyle still lived among the front-line troops. Thus, it was not surprising when my friend Jerry recounted his sad encounter with Ernie Pyle:

"I was on Ie Shima, and my brother Ike and I were on the beach with our radio. Well, Ernie Pyle and some officers, I think four or five of them, walked past us. (Pyle) wanted to see what was going on, even though it was still dangerous. They walked down past us because he wanted to start writing about (the battle). We knew there were a lot of sniper fire, machine gun and mortar fire coming at us. It's just too bad - (Pyle) stood up and looked over a ridge, and he just fell down dead. You know, there wasn't too much published about him at the time. They didn't inform the public or the press about his death at the time because his wife was sick - they didn't want to upset her more. In fact, I didn't even know who he was, or go over to see him until someone said that a reporter had just gotten shot. So I went over and looked; they had a half-shelter over him. He was just a short little guy."

Jerry continued, "Where Ernie Pyle was killed we made a temporary cross. We put his helmet on top and hung his rifle, with 'Ernie Pyle' written on it. Later, the engineers built this little pyramid-thing for his grave, where he was buried on Ie Shima. Later, his body was moved to Hawaii."

In one of his most enduring dispatches, Ernie Pyle wrote of World War II:

"You feel small in the presence of dead men, and you don't ask silly questions."

- Dan Wegmueller is a columnist for The Monroe Times. He can be reached at