Today, April 18, marks a little known holiday called National Columnists Day that is celebrated by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in memory of one of the most famous and loved columnists of all time — Ernie Pyle.
Ernest Taylor Pyle was born in 1900 in Indiana and attended Indiana University. He spent time in writing and editing jobs then in the 1930s he traveled across the country reporting from the road for Scripps-Howard newspapers. That is where he first gained a readership, writing about common people and out-of-the-way places in America.
But it was his columns written from the front lines in World War II that made him one of the most widely read writers in the country. He traveled with the troops as a war correspondent for Scripps-Howard. His stories of regular soldiers and the everyday realities of the war in Europe made him a household name here and a hero to soldiers over there because he told their stories. Pyle was an embedded reporter before the term even came into vogue in the Iraq war in 2003. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his reporting.
Many of Pyle’s columns are archived at the Indiana University School of Journalism Web site. There you can find Pyle’s wartime stories on everything from the horrors of D-Day to his recounting of “On the Lighter Side,” where he tells of wartime humor, such as the “funny guy” of the group shaking his finger at a dead man and telling it not to run away, or a colonel who in the dark found a “nice little mound of earth” to use for a pillow while sleeping on the ground that in the light of day turned out to be horse manure.
According to Indiana University, Pyle’s most famous column is “The Death of Captain Waskow.” It is the story of soldiers bringing down the dead on mules from a mountain in Italy. One of the dead was Captain Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas. Captain Waskow was loved by his troops and Pyle, in the most simple words, conveys their respect for their slain leader.
“Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.
“And finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.”
The 1945 movie “The Story of G.I. Joe” starring Robert Mitchum as an infantry commanding officer and Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle was based on Pyle’s wartime writing and “The Death of Captain Waskow.”
Of his time with the soldiers in Europe, Pyle wrote, “For the companionship of two and a half years of death and misery is a spouse that tolerates no divorce. Such companionship finally becomes a part of one’s soul, and it cannot be obliterated.” That column was found in his pocket, unfinished, when he was killed by Japanese sniper fire on the Pacific island of le Shima April 18, 1945.
To celebrate the day that columnists have chosen as National Columnists Day you don’t have to be a columnist or even a fan of George Will or Dave Barry. You just need an appreciation for a good story, simply told, like Pyle might have written.
It seems that most columnists today are arguers. They want to get somebody riled up about something, and whether it’s politics or economics, they have an argument they want to win. And that has its place somewhere in the media’s responsibility to inform. But instead of reading arguments on the page and furthering discord, I’d rather read that good story, simply told, about real people. Even if it’s about a reality that’s hard to accept, such as war. I hope, for the future of journalism, that young writers will still aim for that goal.
Here’s a link to Indiana University’s file of Ernie Pyle’s columns: