Inside the Capitol

Friday, October 14, 2005

10-26 Ernie Pyle

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- New Mexico can claim the nation's two top war correspondents. We're talking about World War II, but Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin were arguably the best of any war. Except for Geraldo Rivera, of course.
Mauldin was a cartoonist whom we discussed in another column. Ernie Pyle was a columnist. Both won Pulitzer Prizes for their war reporting.
Although different in many ways, their coverage of the war was very similar. They reported from the front about "the guys who were doing the fighting and dying," as Pyle put it.
Like Mauldin, Pyle was criticized by some for his reporting because it wasn't the image the White House and War Department wanted Americans to have of the conditions under which their boys were fighting. But somehow, the public knew that this was the truth.
Another reason Pyle wasn't criticized as severely is that he wasn't a soldier, as Mauldin was. Pyle was a seasoned columnist, who had made a name for himself touring the country with his wife, writing "on the road" columns for the Scripps-Howard chain of newspapers.
The Pyles cris-crossed America some 35 times while Ernie wrote folksy columns about ordinary people in small towns. They enjoyed the freedom of a mobile life.
Pyle once wrote "I have no home. My home is where my extra luggage is and where the car is stopped, and where I happen to be getting mail this time. My home is America."
Eventually, however, the Pyles sensed a lack of something in their lives. They somewhat reluctantly decided to settle down. Pyle wrote of all the places they talked of landing, but concluded that if they were going to do it, it had to be in New Mexico for which they had developed "a deep unreasoning affection."
It also had a lot to do with a friendship the Pyles had developed with Edward Shaffer, editor of the Albuquerque Tribune, and his wife Liz. And it had something to do with the Scripps-Howard Company's feeling that the Shaffers might be able to help the Pyles develop some stability in their lives.
They built a house at 900 Girard SE, in Albuquerque. Being Midwesterners, they built a white picket fence, of which Ernie fondly spoke in many columns.
But stability was not to be. Pyle left his wife Jerry at home and went to Europe to work as a war correspondent for United Features Syndicate. There, the Pyle grab-you-by-the-throat style burst into full bloom.
Many of his pieces were written in foxholes, often under fire, describing the typical soldier's worries, fears, loneliness, pain and homesickness. In 1942, he won the Pulitzer Prize.
By late 1944, Pyle was mentally exhausted. He returned to Albuquerque, but wasn't happy their either. In January 1945, he left to cover the Pacific Theater in Okinawa. Again, he stalked enemy positions with Marine patrols, usually positioned just behind the point man.
In mid-April, the action took Pyle to the little island of Ie Shima, off the coast of Okinawa, where the Japanese had mounted a ferocious defense. On April 18, 1945, he was headed to the front in a jeep that was sprayed with machine gun fire. They dove for cover in a nearby ditch, but Ernie was hit and died instantly.
Two days later, he was buried near the scene of the battle that was still raging. After the war, he was reburied at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, better known as "Punchbowl," in Honolulu. Four months later, his wife, Jerry, died.
The city of Albuquerque acquired the house from the Pyle estate and in 1948 opened it as a branch library. It has been carefully preserved the past 60 years and displays Ernie's memorabilia alongside the library's books.
This only home that Ernie ever owned is visited regularly by journalists from throughout the nation making a pilgrimage to capture something from the most popular columnist of the 20th century.
WED, 10-26-05

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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