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IU journalism students to retrace steps of war correspondent Ernie Pyle

While many Indiana University students will be hitting warm and sunny beaches for spring break, 30 journalism students will be retracing the steps of thousands of soldiers in Normandy, France, at the "Bloody Omaha" beach.

Ernie Pyle

Ernie Pyle in the summer of 1942. Shortly after the invasion of North Africa, he boarded the British transport Rangitiki, part of a great convoy reinforcing the invading armies, and arrived at Oran, where this picture was taken.

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More specifically, they'll be seeing where famed war correspondent and fellow Hoosier Ernie Pyle reported on the lives of those soldiers embroiled in World War II.

The trip is part of a semester-long course on Pyle being offered by the IU School of Journalism for the first time. Owen V. Johnson, associate professor of journalism, said he believes it also is the only class being taught at any school of journalism that is devoted to the life of a single journalist.

"He is such a famous figure in the journalism world," Johnson observed. "The quality of his reporting and writing can still be emulated today. He still stands out as a symbol of excellence in the journalistic profession."

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. troops in the war.

During those years, as an early "embedded journalist," Pyle told the stories of soldiers fighting in North Africa, Italy, France and the Pacific. Pyle's death on April 18, 1945, on the island of Ie Shima silenced a man whose writing had served as the link between the men at the front and their loved ones back home.

Today, many reporters, consciously or otherwise, try to emulate Pyle, whose columns often told the stories of ordinary people.

Owen Johnson

Owen Johnson sits next to Pyle's typewriter and other items in the school's archive.

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"This was an enormously talented reporter. We tend to have made him in popular culture a kind of patriotic icon," Johnson said. "In fact, what he was trying to do -- in the best way he could -- was to describe the chaos, the disorder, the destruction and the death of World War II so that it could be understood by people back home."

Brad Hamm, dean of the IU School of Journalism, added, "Anyone who covers tragedy or war needs to see how Pyle personalized the stories he was covering. These were people caught up in larger events and he showed how valiant they were and also of the basic frustrations they had. He was not doing hero worshipping, he was doing a celebration of the average soldiers, some of whom were heroes and others who were just heroic in being there."

Johnson, who also is an adjunct associate professor of history at IU, has researched the life and writings of Pyle for nearly a decade and soon will complete a book of the reporter's personal letters.

In class, students have studied Pyle's roots growing up near the small western Indiana town of Dana and his years at IU. They've considered what American journalism was like in the 1920s through the 1940s and how Pyle fit in that scene.

On Friday (March 7), students will leave for Europe and their itinerary includes travel to London, Normandy and Paris. They will visit the Imperial War Museum, Winston Churchill's cabinet room, Cabinet War Rooms, Omaha Beach and Mont-Saint-Michel Cathedral. They will return on March 16.

While in London, they will meet at the Frontline Club -- an organization of war and foreign correspondents -- with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John F. Burns. Burns is the New York Times' London bureau chief, who has reported on the rise of the Taliban in mid-1990s Afghanistan and conflicts in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.

Johnson said he wants students "to get a first-hand understanding from somebody of some of the issues that come up in war correspondence -- the issues of dealing with fear, of getting the story back, whom you interview -- all those kinds of things."

"We know that students can learn in the classroom, but we know they'll never forget, if they go where the stories were written," said Hamm, adding that the Pyle course is part of a larger school initiative to include travel and first-hand experience. Another group of students this spring is traveling to Tokyo for a course on international public relations. Students previously traveled to Mississippi and Louisiana to do reporting on Hurricane Katrina.

Rosemary Pennington, a graduate student who originally is from Minford, Ohio, said the class and trip are as much a personal journey as they are a professional experience.

"My paternal grandfather fought with the army during World War II, and I've heard stories about his experience over there and about how much he loved Ernie Pyle," she said. "He passed that love to my father, and my father passed it along to me. So, in a way, I'm connecting with my grandfather in a way I never thought possible.

"As a journalist, it's thrilling to have read Pyle's descriptions of World War II Europe and now get to visit those places," added Pennington, who worked in public radio for 10 years before coming to IU. "Granted, London won't be aflame as it was in Pyle's columns on the Blitz, but it's still going to be an astounding thing to be standing in those places, in that city, that came so close to annihilation."

She and other students will be required to write stories about the trip, some of which will be featured on the journalism school's Web site at

Even today, more than 50 years after his death, Pyle remains relevant, with the re-publication earlier this month of a photo of Pyle lying dead on the small Pacific island, originally thought to have never been published. Johnson's research was a beneficiary of that journalism mystery.

"Even during this semester, I've had new insights and new material on Pyle," he said. "When the Associated Press distributed that article a few weeks ago, I received by e-mail almost immediately a letter from Ernie Pyle that had been written to a person who later became an IU faculty member."

Students, faculty and visitors are constantly reminded of Pyle's legacy when they enter the Journalism School's building that bears his name. Pyle's typewriter is housed at the school along with other artifacts. In 2003, the school marked the 58th anniversary of his death when it republished more than three dozen of his columns online. It has since created a digital library of his writings, photos and other information online at

"His commitment to telling the soldiers' untold stories was impressive," said Audrie Garrison, a junior from New Palestine, Ind., and the general assignment editor for the school's Indiana Daily Student newspaper. "It is also clear that when he had a great idea, he was determined to do it. I hope I have that kind of drive for my entire career."