BLOOMINGTON — The atmosphere in a stately hall felt so American.
Boy Scouts stood still, lined up to present the U.S. and Indiana flags.
Chatting alongside rows of chairs were veterans, both those currently serving in crisp, bold dress uniforms and dozens of others with silvery hair neatly combed beneath VFW and American Legion caps. Journalists popped open notebooks and talked with men steadied by walking canes and women neatly dressed for a ceremony. History buffs, professors and a sprinkling of young people found places to sit inside Presidents Hall, inside Franklin Hall, the home of the Indiana University Media School.
They came to hear the thoughts and stories of people committed to preserving the memory of a beloved newspaper columnist who grew up in tiny Dana, Indiana, learned the craft of journalism at IU, served in World War I and decades later earned a place in the nation’s heart as “the voice of the common American soldiers” of World War II.
Friday was National Ernie Pyle Day. Pyle was born 118 years earlier, to the day. He died 44 years later, killed by a Japanese bullet in a fox hole on Okinawa. This Aug. 3 was the first official observance of Pyle Day, after the U.S. Senate gave its seal of approval in December, prodded by Indiana Sens. Todd Young and Joe Donnelly.
The event toasted not only Pyle’s life and work, but also his vocation – journalism.
An actor who penned a play about Pyle recited a touching column the Hoosier legend wrote about his mother and father and their farm in Dana. Pyle wrote that piece years before his war correspondent days. In both eras, he did what journalists do every day, tell the stories of people – the happy and the downtrodden, school board drama, Veterans Day recollections, high school basketball games, the rough and tumble of the street on the police beat, obituaries and 100th birthdays.
Applause for journalists echoed in that hall Friday morning and seemed so strange and refreshing in a time when the current occupant of the Oval Office demeans daily the role of the free press.
Somewhere, I hope, Ernie was listening and smiling when … Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton read an Ernie Pyle Day proclamation, describing journalists as “voices of the people, friends of the people, the conscience of the people.”
Senator Young, a veteran himself, powerfully explained that Pyle’s columns from the trenches of Europe, Africa and Asia “neither glorified war, nor shied away from the brutality,” and that war correspondents are “an important part of holding our military and leadership accountable.” Pyle wrote about “the grunt” soldiers, Young said.
And finally, Joseph Galloway, the son and nephew of World War II veterans, said he was inspired to become a war correspondent by Pyle’s gutsy reporting of the average G.I. Joes. As a kid, Galloway pulled a book of Pyle columns from his dad’s shelf. It captivated Galloway. Galloway wound up reporting for newspapers on wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan. The soldiers “always welcomed me,” he said, even though they thought he was crazy for immersing himself in the battlefields for an average paycheck. They recognized him “as somebody who cares whether he lives or dies,” staying with them in combat zones.
He retired upon turning 65, with his final dispatches filed from the Middle East in 2006. He knew he was fortunate. Galloway on Friday recounted how Pyle was shot and killed just five months before the war ended. Galloway’s booming Texas voice broke as he said Pyle “was so close to the end.” That voice rose in volume as Galloway rebuked the idea of a president dismissing reports that displease him as “fake news.” “Now more than ever, good, honest journalism is desperately needed,” he said, “and we will stand in our defense.”
As Friday’s ceremony ended, veterans posed forpictures beside Senator Young, Galloway and Pyle’s descendants who form the backbone of the Ernie Pyle Legacy Foundation, the group that spearheaded the push for a national observance, along with others including the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum in Dana. Galloway offered words of encouragement to journalists who also stand on Pyle’s shoulders.
“Stand firm. Stand tall.
"Tell the truth and the hell with people who are throwing slings and arrows at you,” Galloway said.
“You have a place in the Constitution of the United States of America and the amendments of that Constitution,” he continued.
“You have a profession that a Founding Father saw fit to protect specifically by name.” Then Galloway repeated, “Stand tall. Stand for the truth.”
Ernie would be proud.