Ernie Pyle: The Dogface that became the GI’s best friend - We Are The Mighty

Ernie Pyle: The Dogface who became the GI’s best friend

Like all geniuses, Ernest “Ernie” Taylor Pyle grappled with what Churchill called the “black dog of depression” at various points in his life, even as the Indiana boy moved among presidents and entertainment figures, in the many exotic locations he traveled to in a too-short life.

The best stories of icons are those of people that didn’t set out to be that. Fairly ordinary people that became extraordinary. Ernie Pyle was like that. Eschewing the farming life of his parents, he craved adventure. Journalism seemed to be his ticket to faraway lands and cultures. He studied journalism at Indiana University, then fell into various writing assignments for newspapers, all carried along by his self-effacing style wrapped in brilliant writing. 

Ernie Pyle connected with people.

The connections he formed and catalogued in his mind would serve as the basis for his timeless body of work, capped by stints as a war correspondent in the almost-cosmic World War II. Pyle first served in the European Theatre, and actually landed at (“Bloody”) Omaha Beach on D-Day. His dispatches from the front captivated readers back home, warmed the regular soldiers he wrote about in the frozen reaches of Italy and France, and caught the attention of the Roosevelts and Harry Truman.

It is clear from his personality and his legacy that Pyle was a genuine low-key guy, a fellow that really didn’t think he was any great shakes. That kind of honor, for him, went to the guys in the grime, slogging through foreign cities and towns, and eager above all else to return home one day. He really was just Ernie. Those regular soldiers, nicknamed “dogfaces,” loved having Pyle with them.

Ernie Pyle in 1945
Ernie Pyle in 1945.

Pyle preferred to be at the front with the men, and not shifting uncomfortably at a green desk back at headquarters. His writing found its way to the pages of The Stars and Stripes, and in books he wrote about his experiences. His most famous column was titled, “The Death of Captain Waskow,” something of a paean to Captain Henry Thomas Waskow, killed from shrapnel at San Pietro, Italy, in 1943. Pyle’s recollections of the men make men weep.

In Brave Men, a compilation of his columns published in late 1944, Pyle’s peerless style is evident with every line. In the Waskow piece, Pyle vividly describes the horrors of war:

“I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Captain Waskow down. The moon was nearly full, and you could see far up the trail, and even partway across the valley below.

“The Italian mule skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies when they got to the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself and ask others for help.”

He wrote of the monumental moments and seconds related to the invasion of Europe in the summer of 1944. At one point, Pyle wrote, the Germans were burying their dead with bulldozers, there were so many. 

“I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France. It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever.”

Pyle described the arduous and dangerous “hedgerow fighting,” which took the Americans a month to slog through. Thick hedges surrounded Norman fields in the area an they had to be cleared of Germans hiding in them, firing every which way.

“We had to dig them out. It was a slow and cautious business, and there was nothing dashing about it.”

Pyle was killed by machine gun fire on a thankless tiny island just off Okinawa, in April 1945. Men he covered never completely got over this loss, even those that returned home.

Brave Men opens with Pyle’s dedication: 

“In solemn salute to those thousands of our comrades—great, brave men that they were—for whom there will be no homecoming, ever.”

Those lines were prescient for the writer, too. He still lies in a faraway land, among the men he loved as brothers.

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