News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 4, 2008

Historian says Dana historic site has had copy of death photo

By Deb Kelly

DANA — A local historian says a photograph of a post-mortem Ernie Pyle that has surfaced is nothing new.

Ray E. Boomhower, senior editor for the Indiana Historical Society’s Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, said during an interview Sunday that a copy of the photograph has been in the collection at the Indiana Historical Society for years.

Another copy is at the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site in Dana.

Boomhower, who also wrote the book, “The Soldier’s Friend: A Life of Ernie Pyle,” said, “I had known about the photo even before I did the book, because the folks in our library knew it was in our collection.”

The photo shows Pyle, in his Army fatigues, lying dead, just after he was struck in the temple by a .30 caliber bullet from a Japanese machine gun during World War II. It was April 18, 1945.

Historians who were unaware of the photo until just recently are calling it a “real treasure of American history.”

The photograph was taken by the Associated Press’ Alexander Roberts, who then withheld it “out of deference” to Pyle’s widow, according to the AP.

At some point, a small number of prints were made from Roberts’ negative, and kept as souvenirs by some veterans, according to the AP.

Boomhower said he had considered including the photo in his book, but then chose not to, because he “felt it was kind of ghoulish.”

A longtime Pyle scholar, Boomhower says the photo does not add much to the story of Pyle’s life.

“It’s his dead body, it’s not very graphic in nature … it just looks like he’s sleeping,” Boomhower said.

“There’s a photo I used of a chaplain standing by [Pyle’s] coffin, with soldiers standing by looking on, and I think that says a lot more about what he meant to the average GI and how they felt about him,” Boomhower added.

“A lot more than his lifeless body by the side of the road,” he said.

As for claims that Pyle, a scrupulous observer of war, would have found the photo fitting to show as an example of war’s ravages, Boomhower says he disagrees.

Although Pyle was proud to offer his readers a “worm’s-eye view” of the war, “He probably would not have wanted to see the photo published,” Boomhower said.

“He was always very circumspect in his columns … he doesn’t get graphic about where [a soldier] was shot or about the blood and guts of war,” he said. “Just the way he used words, he could let people know how horrible combat was without slapping them across the face with it, he was very skillful with the way he used words.”

Boomhower says the photograph is just “one of those little historic tidbits that fascinate people.”

Pyle reached millions of Americans through his column during World War II, which was appearing in 400 daily and 300 weekly newspapers at the time of his death.

He was known for offering a foxhole view of the life, and sometimes death, of the common soldier doing the dirty work, fighting in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France against the enemy forces of Nazi Germany.

For his distinguished reporting during the war, Pyle received journalism’s highest honor – the Pulitzer Prize – in 1944.

Boomhower, a graduate of Indiana University, has written several books, including biographies of Indiana historian Jacob Piatt Dunn Jr., nationally known columnist Juliet Strauss, suffragette and peace activist May Wright Sewall, World War II photographer John A. Bushemi, astronaut Gus Grissom, and author and Civil War general Lew Wallace.

The author will be giving a presentation at the Clay County Historical Society today on the life and career of Ernie Pyle.

Boomhower can be contacted by writing to the Indiana Historical Society, 450 W. Ohio St., Indianapolis, IN 46220, by calling (317) 232-1877 or by e-mail at rboomhower@indianahistory.org.

Deb Kelly can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or deb.kelly@tribstar.com.

Pyle biography

• The Soldier’s Friend: A Life of Ernie Pyle, written by Ray E. Boomhower and published by the Indiana Historical Society Press, is a biography aimed at young readers. The book explores the reporter’s legendary career from his days growing up in the small town of Dana, to his life as a roving correspondent with the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, to his growing fame as a columnist detailing the rigors of combat faced by the average G.I. during World War II. The book also features numerous illustrations, samples of Pyle’s World War II columns, a detailed bibliography of World War II sources, and an index.

Source: Ray E. Boomhower

Historic site

• The Ernie Pyle State Historic Site is located at 120 W. Briarwood Ave. in Dana, one mile north of U.S. Highway 36 on Indiana 71. The museum reopens May 1; it is currently closed for the season, but tours may be arranged by calling and leaving a message at (765) 665-3633.

• The State Historic Site includes the house from the farm where Ernie Pyle, historic World War II reporter, was born, as well as a state-of-the-art visitor center. For more information, email erniepyleshs@dnr.in.gov.

Pyle Presentation

• Ray E. Boomhower will give a presentation on “The Soldier’s Friend: A Life of Ernie Pyle,” at 7 p.m. today at the Clay County Historical Museum, 100 E. National Ave. in Brazil.