Good journalists employ all of their senses to tell a story.
Ernie Pyle mastered that skill. His readers saw what Pyle saw, and touched, smelled, heard and tasted right along with him.
He’s revered as a war correspondent, writing with Pulitzer Prize-winning style from the battlefields of World War II for readers of Scripps-Howard newspapers, including more than 400 dailies and 300 weeklies. Yet, his columns were essentially people stories. He wrote in a frank, folksy method through the eyes of soldiers.
It’s inspiring to realize that the first-ever celebration of National Ernie Pyle Day unfolded on Thursday, his 117th birthday, in a town 1,200 miles from his birthplace in Indiana. The Ernie Pyle Legacy Foundation formed four years ago and spearheaded the effort. The goal of the foundation, which includes Pyle family members, is to “continue and ensure the legacy of Ernie Pyle,” said Gerald Maschino, whose wife, Wynne, is the late journalist’s first cousin once removed.
To accomplish that, Pyle’s own story must become known on a “broader” scale, Maschino said in a phone interview last week from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The National Ernie Pyle Day festivities were conducted at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial in Albuquerque. Nearly 400 people attended. The New Mexico governor and Albuquerque mayor issued proclamations. The foundation awarded a scholarship to a journalism student at the University of New Mexico. A historian impersonated Pyle for a one-man show.
And, a Vietnam War correspondent, Joe Galloway, explained that line of work. “He had a really good insight of what it’s like to follow in Ernie Pyle’s footsteps,” Beth Hemmerich, who works at the Veterans Memorial for the City of Albuquerque, said by telephone Thursday afternoon.
It might seem curious to Hoosiers why Albuquerque was the site of an inaugural National Ernie Pyle Day observance. After all, Pyle was born Aug. 3, 1900, in Dana, Indiana, a Vermillion County town of 600 residents 30 miles north of Terre Haute. His birthplace is now the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum. The Ernie Pyle Festival, hosted by the Dana Volunteer Fire Department, runs Thursday through Saturday later this week. Down in Bloomington, Ernie Pyle Hall sits on campus at Indiana University, where he studied journalism. So, how does Albuquerque fit into Pyle’s story?
The famed writer and his wife, Geraldine (”Jerry”), criss-crossed America 35 times in the 1920s and decided the place they’d like to build a house and live was Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico. Its horizon is dominated by the Sandia Mountains, named for the watermelon color of the sunsets. When the Pyles finally built their home in 1940, the picture window in the family room faced west, perfect for viewing sunsets.
“So he would get that western sunset in his picture window every night,” Deb Slaney, curator of history at the Albuquerque Museum, said by phone last week. Slaney’s home has a similar vantage point. “I could send you sunsets that would make you cry,” she said.
Pyle lived in Albuquerque when he accepted the assignment of covering the Pacific portion of World War II. He took the job after he’d become a household name covering the European war in the trenches. In the Pacific, Pyle wrote about the Navy and Marines. On April 18, 1945, a Japanese machine gunner’s bullet instantly killed Pyle after he and an Army regiment commander ducked into a ditch at Iejima, Japan, during the Battle of Okinawa.
Pyle was 44. He was buried at the site, with his helmet on.
His columns put the war in human perspective. “We don’t have that intimate level that Ernie Pyle provided,” Maschino said of modern journalism. “He just went out in the field and in the fox hole with the soldiers and reported what they did.”
The affection he stirred left enough of an impression on Albuquerque, his adopted home, that his name remains well-known there. A middle school bears his name. His home became a branch of the Albuquerque public library after his death and that of Pyle’s wife a few months later in 1945. Today, it is the Ernie Pyle Library. “I would say every archive in Albuquerque has something from him in it,” Slaney said.
Still, the level of journalistic excellence Pyle embodied may not be remembered by younger generations as well as his name. “People know he’s got some significance here,” said Hemmerich of the New Mexico Veterans Memorial. “I’m not sure most Albuquerqueans realize what his impact is on journalism.”
National Ernie Pyle Day is meant to address that need. The Legacy Foundation hopes the national day can be formally etched into the calendar through an act of Congress. In the meantime, it will be celebrated annually by the grassroots effort. Thursday’s event enlightened people. “Today was a very good eye-opening day for our community,” Hemmerich said.
Journalists play a crucial role in telling the story of life around the globe, including the grim, dangerous and horrifying. Here is a snippet of Pyle’s journalistic skill, reprinted from the Ernie Pyle Library website… “A bombed building looks like something you have seen before — it looks as though a hurricane had struck. But the sight of thousands of poor, opportunity- less people lying in weird positions against cold steel, with all their clothes on, hunched up in blankets, lights shining in their eyes, breathing fetid air — lying there underground like rabbits, not fighting, not even angry; just helpless, scourged, weakly waiting for the release of another dawn — that, I tell you, is life without redemption.