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Owen Johnson
School of Journalism
johnsono@indiana.edu
812-855-0506

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Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2003

War correspondent Ernie Pyle's columns to find a new audience through the Web

First column republished on anniversary of his death

EDITORS: We are distributing with this release the first column by Ernie Pyle, "A Dreadful Masterpiece," which is being republished on the 58th anniversary of his death by the IU School of Journalism. You are invited to republish all or part of this column in connection with any article about this effort to honor Pyle and his legacy.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- As journalists cover the closing stages of a war in Iraq, many are looking for stories among the troops for readers and viewers back home. Many reporters, consciously or otherwise, hope to emulate war correspondent Ernest Taylor Pyle, an Indiana native better known as "Ernie," whose columns often told the stories of the ordinary soldiers fighting in World War II.

Friday (April 18) is the 58th anniversary of Pyle's death, when the Indiana University School of Journalism will republish the first of about three dozen of his columns on its Web site at http://www.journalism.indiana.edu/. The National Society of Newspaper Columnists has set aside the day to honor Pyle as part of National Columnists Day.

Pyle studied journalism at IU before becoming a reporter for the LaPorte Herald and then the Washington Daily News. He loved to travel and succeeded in persuading Scripps Howard executives (the company that owned the Daily News) to allow him to be a roving reporter. In 1940, with war raging in Europe, Pyle went to England to report on the Battle of Britain, and from 1942 to 1945, he covered the U.S. involvement in the war.

During those years, he told the stories of soldiers fighting in North Africa, Italy, France and the Pacific. Pyle's death on the island of Ie Shima in the closing months of the war silenced a man whose writing had served as the link between the men at the front and their loved ones back home.

"In the three or four months leading up to the war in Iraq, so many journalists were making reference to Ernie Pyle and asking among themselves who was possibly going to be the Ernie Pyle of this war," said Owen V. Johnson, IU associate professor of journalism and adjunct professor of history. "Would we be able to come back and restore that kind of reporting?"

Johnson is a historian of Pyle's work and is compiling a book of Pyle's letters. Maggie Balough, former editor of the Austin American-Statesman and The Quill magazine and now a lecturer at IU, suggested to Johnson that Pyle's columns again were relevant for a time of war.

"As a little girl I listened to my grandmother talk about how her letters were the link between her two sons fighting in World War II. Her memories were vivid," said Balough, an IU journalism graduate. "As a journalist, I read Ernie Pyle's dispatches and know he wrote about the same war my uncles fought and my grandmother described.

"Pyle's work is such a frontline of history. On his deadline, official statistics often were yet to be compiled, but he didn't need the daily briefing to make us feel as if we were there. His work enriched our understanding and touched our commonality as human beings, connecting us through the best and worst. Time never will change the lessons we as journalists can learn from Ernie Pyle."

Johnson said his goal in selecting the columns was to have Pyle's best-known columns available again for people who have never read them and to present columns that provide interesting contrasts with what happened in Iraq.

"For instance, the first column describes his standing on a balcony in London when the German planes are bombing. He writes about the magnificence and the awfulness at the same time," Johnson said. "He uses the word 'awe,' which really struck me because on the third day of the Iraqi war this attack was going to be for 'shock and awe,'" he said. "There was the same word. We saw the pictures on television and the fires rising, but then at the same time Pyle reminded us of the tremendous toll on people's lives.

"Another column talks about when the troops went into battle in North Africa. He said, 'it's one thing when you convert civilians into soldiers, but then it's another thing to convert soldiers into people that are fighting wars.' I recalled seeing the pictures in Iraq where before the soldiers went into battle they were handing in their duffle bags with their non-essential belongings, getting prepared to go into war."

A new column will be posted on the Web site every few days, in order to give readers a similar experience to that of Pyle's readers 60 years ago, "one piece at a time and a chance to absorb it," Johnson said. All of the columns will continue to be available after they are republished, and a special Web site eventually will include lists of the books Pyle wrote and links to other information about the native of Dana, Ind.

A handful of reporters have died in the Iraqi conflict, although most not at the hands of the enemy. Pyle was killed by Japanese machine gun fire near the end of World War II. Johnson said there are several differences between the work Pyle did and that done by war correspondents today.

Pyle did not insert himself into his columns as a character. He wrote only about the people fighting in the war. "He fell into the role of writing what he was comfortable with, which was writing about the people with whom he was spending so much time, very rarely writing about the big picture," Johnson said.

"He was able to gain the trust of soldiers who opened up to him in a way that they did not to other correspondents, in part because Pyle did not take notes. The only notes that he took were to make sure that he got names spelled right and hometowns. The rest of it, he would just sit there in conversation and they would open up to him. Yet, they knew he would get it right," he added. "It was those conversations that he tended to repeat.

"That's the difference. So many of these people that were covering the war in Iraq are in constant contact with their editors at home. They thought that just by talking with the troops they were doing the same thing as Pyle. They weren't, because I don't think they ever really gained the trust of the troops, who more often said the things they should say."

Unlike most journalists covering the war today, Pyle never had to worry about the larger story of diplomacy and strategy behind the war effort, Johnson said. "One of the things to remember is that while Pyle had great powers of observation and great ability to report accurately, he was a columnist, he was in effect a feature writer. That was one of the reasons he could tell the stories and not worry about the big picture."