Ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary feats. Ernie Pyle told their stories from the trenches of World War II.
The four years of global conflict consumed the thoughts of Americans back home. Pyle described war through the eyes and words of young soldiers, shipped from farm life in Iowa or a factory job in Brooklyn to bomb-torn towns in Europe and dangerous terrain in the Far East.
Pyle’s duty involved similar displacement. He was born in 1900 in Dana and grew up in that tiny town in Vermillion County, before studying journalism at Indiana University and then working as a columnist in small-town LaPorte, Washington, D.C., and an assortment of places across North America.
By 1942, Pyle was walking alongside U.S. troops in North Africa. He died in 1945 from a Japanese machine gunner’s bullet, while performing that same journalistic duty, on the island of Iejima. He was just 45.
Pyle’s life was constantly at risk, as were those of the people he was covering.
If Pyle were alive and writing today as a 45-year-old journalist, he’d likely telling the stories of people on the front lines of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“One thing he would certainly jump on is the first defenders — the nurses and medical people helping all the sick, the under-equipped and understaffed workers,” said Gerald Maschino, executive director of the Ernie Pyle Legacy Foundation. Maschino is a student of Pyle’s story, style and history. His wife, Wynne, is Pyle’s first cousin once removed.
The inkling that Pyle would be masked up, talking with ER doctors and nurses, EMTs and ambulance crews, proves the modern relevance of the famed Hoosier journalist’s work. The stories of people performing tasks for others, while their own well-being is on the line, need to be told today.
While the circumstances differ vastly, World War II and the pandemic have commonalities. In both situations have involved hundreds and, often, thousands of lives lost daily.
Reports from Pyle captivated, enlightened and saddened readers of more than 700 newspapers that carried his columns. Seventy-two years after his final column hit print, Congress in 2017 designated Pyle’s birthday, Aug. 3, as the annual National Ernie Pyle Day. Its third observance is Monday. Its 2018 and 2019 celebrations unfolded at the IU campus in Bloomington and at the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum in Dana. Precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have forced a new twist into the 2020 observance, like so many other traditions.
Maschino and the Legacy Foundation board embraced the change. A new “Ernie Pyle Tribute” video will premiere Monday on YouTube. The foundation teamed up with the Indiana University Media School on the project. Its release pairs with other Pyle remembrances in the coming days. “Life in the Trenches” — a documentary with Dan Rather narrating and “Breaking Bad” actor Jonathan Banks voicing Pyle — airs at 3 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday on WTIU World channel 30.2, a sub-channel of Bloomington PBS station WTIU. And, episodes of WFIU radio’s podcast series, “The Ernie Pyle Experiment” are accessible on the station’s website, indianapublicmedia.org/radio.
The “Tribute” video isn’t just a rehash of history. It features journalists, veterans, historians and others sharing stories of the ways to perpetuate Pyle’s legacy of writing from the view of the everyman, a style that earned him the Pulitzer Prize for correspondence in 1944. The honor came from his column, “The God-damned Infantry.” It was written from the front lines of northern Tunisia.
“I love the infantry because they are the underdogs,” Pyle wrote that day. “They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.”
Seventy-six years later, Pyle might be writing from the sidewalk outside the emergency room of a hospital, converted to an all-COVID-19 treatment center. Nurses and doctors, sweaty from hours behind masks and shields and protective suits, take long breaths of the cooler evening air. They’ve cared for patients, intubated or on the brink, struggling to breathe, isolated from family or anyone not shielded in a protective suit. Then, another arrives in an ambulance. The nurses and doctors pull their masks back up, and walk back inside.
“I think that’s where Ernie would find his way,” Maschino said of the writer’s imaginary niche in this 21st-century crisis. “He liked the guys on the front line.”
Now 85 years old himself and living in Texas, Maschino is committed to bringing Pyle’s legacy as a reporter to a new generation of journalists today though the foundation’s efforts. The “Tribute” video, to which the nonprofit group’s Facebook page (at https://bit.ly/3fhbABz) will provide a link on Monday, aims to inspire young journalists to seek out stories from people on the front lines of societal issues.
Like the hospital teams, grocery store clerks and, soon, school teachers in 2020.
“He would like that,” Maschino said, “because he would like to tell their stories and hear what people had to say.”
The war on COVID-19 can’t be won without them.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.