Book: Ernie Pyle's War

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Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II

Author: James Tobin
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Publisher: University Press of Kansas

When a machine-gun bullet ended the life of war correspondent Ernie Pyle in the final days of World War II, Americans mourned him in the same breath as they mourned Franklin Roosevelt. To millions, the loss of this American folk hero seemed nearly as great as the loss of the wartime president.

If the hidden horrors and valor of combat persist at all in the public mind, it is because of those writers who watched it and recorded it in the faith that war is too important to be confined to the private memories of the warriors. Above all these writers, Ernie Pyle towered as a giant. Through his words and his compassion, Americans everywhere gleaned their understanding of what they came to call “The Good War.”

Pyle walked a troubled path to fame. Though insecure and anxious, he created a carefree and kindly public image in his popular prewar column—all the while struggling with inner demons and a tortured marriage. War, in fact, offered Pyle an escape hatch from his own personal hell.

It also offered him a subject precisely suited to his talent—a shrewd understanding of human nature, an unmatched eye for detail, a profound capacity to identify with the suffering soldiers whom he adopted as his own, and a plain yet poetic style reminiscent of Mark Twain and Will Rogers. These he brought to bear on the Battle of Britain and all the great American campaigns of the war—North Africa, Sicily, Italy, D-Day and Normandy, the liberation of Paris, and finally Okinawa, where he felt compelled to go because of his enormous public stature despite premonitions of death.

In this immensely engrossing biography, affectionate yet critical, journalist and historian James Tobin does an Ernie Pyle job on Ernie Pyle, evoking perfectly the life and labors of this strange, frail, bald little man whose love/hate relationship to war mirrors our own. Based on dozens of interviews and copious research in little-known archives, Ernie Pyle’s War is a self-effacing tour de force. To read it is to know Ernie Pyle, and most of all, to know his war.

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When World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle left for the Pacific Theater in 1945, he told friends and colleagues that he felt sure he would die there. Pyle was right; on April 18th, a Japanese machine gunner killed one of America’s most beloved personalities, sending the entire nation into shock and mourning. In the years since Pyle’s death, his particular brand of journalism has been criticized: he’s been accused of ignoring the stupidity of generals, of downplaying the horror of battle, and of presenting the war in a better light than it actually deserved to be portrayed. James Tobin, author of the impressive biography Ernie Pyle’s War, does not deny that his subject often smoothed the jagged facts of war, but he provides both the context—an era and a war in which correspondents were expected to be “team players” who helped their side to win hearts and minds at home—and the personal conflict raised for Pyle by the often irreconcilable demands of telling the truth and building morale.

In addition to detailing Pyle’s mostly unhappy personal life, Tobin also includes samples of his columns, proving once and for all that Pyle was more than just a hick who fell into reporting; the man had real, substantial talent, evidenced by his ability to put words together and his sensitivity to the subjects he wrote about. More than just a biography, Ernie Pyle’s War is also a study of war, and the peculiar, twilight world of suffering and half-told truths to which men like Ernie Pyle were drawn.

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