Ernie Pyle: Correspondents Compared
Like his friend, Steinbeck, Ernie Pyle was a correspondent during World War II. Pyle was born was born in 1900 in Indiana and grew up working on his family’s farm. He did not enjoying farming. As an adult, he remembered "town boys" looking down on him because he was from the countryside. Pyle later left the farm to attend Indiana University. He decided to major in journalism, which he thought would be easier than farming. After graduation, Pyle covered a variety of beats as a journalist, including editing the aviation section of the Washington Daily News (Tobin 8-11, 18).
As a correspondent during World War II, Pyle won a Pulitzer Award for his coverage of “everyman” on the warfront. He also befriended Steinbeck during the war. The two writers corresponded with each other daily until Pyle died. Journalist Quentin Reynolds remarked that Pyle and Steinbeck “…acted like a couple of lovebirds courting each other” (Simmonds 187). They discovered a mutual respect in one another as people and as writers.
While both Steinbeck and Pyle held similar views toward the war, they wrote about it in different ways. Both men had a profound respect for the frontline soldier, but chose to write their dispatches about them in their own ways. Steinbeck was a novelist, and his dispatches were written with a narrative in mind. He tended to discuss the conflict as a whole, rather than its individual participants. For instance, he wrote, “the men wear their helmets, which make them all look alike, make them look like long rows of mushrooms…. The men are units in an army. The numbers chalked on their helmets are almost like the license numbers on robots”(Once There Was a War, 13). He explained this approach to writing, saying “Men cannot be treated as individuals on this troopship. They are simply units which take up six feet by three feet by two feet, horizontal or vertical. So much space must be allotted for the physical unit” (Once There Was a War 18).
Pyle, on the other hand, was almost solely focused on individuals. A passage from Brave Men illustrates this. “Another was Fred Moore, who was little and meek. Fred had a tiny mustache and a perpetually startled look on his good-natured face. He was very quiet and shy” (Pyle 43). His descriptions tapped into the relationships, personalities, and experiences of troops on and off the battlefield. In another passage of Brave Men, Pyle wrote, “Every night I’d hear the boys conjecturing about what she looked like. Some thought she was probably an old hag with a fat face and peroxide hair, but the majority liked to visualize her as looking as gorgeous as she sounded” (Pyle 45). Together, these quotes show the ways that Steinbeck attempted to build a larger, plot-driven narrative, whereas Pyle tried to create vivid vignettes that captured brief moments as they were happening.
Steinbeck shared his take on Pyle’s writing, noting the author’s interest in people fighting the war.
There are really two wars and they haven’t much to do with each other. There is the war of maps and logistics, of campaigns, of ballistics, armies, divisions and regiments – and that is General [George] Marshall’s war. Then there is the war of the homesick, weary, funny, violent, common men who wash their socks in their helmets, complain about the food, whistle at the Arab girls, or any girls for that matter, and bring themselves through as dirty a business as the world has ever seen and do it with humor and dignity and courage – and that is Ernie Pyle’s war (Benson 520).
Tragically, the friendship between Pyle and Steinbeck was cut short when Pyle was killed by enemy fire on an island off the coast of Japan in 1945. American infantrymen found Pyle’s final words on the war written on a few pages in his pockets. A fitting example of Pyle’s perspective, this piece was intended for publication upon the end of the war in Europe. Pyle said he would never forget “the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world” (McCloskey 197). Pyle continued, saying, “Dead men by mass production—in one country after another—month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer. Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them” (McCloskey 197).
Benson, Jackson J. The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography. Viking Press, 1984.
McCloskey, Barbara. Artists of World War II. Greenwood Press, 2005.
Pyle, Ernie. Brave Men. University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
Simmonds, Roy S. John Steinbeck: The War Years, 1939-1945. Bucknell University Press, 1996.
Tobin, James. Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II. Simon & Schuster, 1997.