The Other Side of Ernie Pyle  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   April 2003

The Other Side of Ernie Pyle   

Spicy letters from the revered war correspondent reveal some of the inner turmoil he experienced on the battlefront.

By Maureen Hayden
     


When Knight Ridder hired war correspondent Joe Galloway to beef up its war coverage earlier this year, Washington Bureau Chief John Walcott described the combat veteran as "the closest thing to Ernie Pyle that any of us [are] likely to meet."

Fifty-eight years after his death by a Japanese sniper's bullet, Pyle still looms large as the ordinary man whose extraordinary frontline reporting set the standards by which all others would be judged. Pyle grew to near mythic proportions even before his death in the final days of World War II, becoming a folk hero to Americans.

He was, as Pyle's award-winning biographer James Tobin said, "America's eyewitness to the 20th century's supreme ordeal." Hollywood made a movie about him--"The Story of G.I. Joe"--and last summer, Hasbro carved him into an action figure for its G.I. Joe D-Day collection (see Free Press, July/August 2002).

But a pending book project may alter that view of perfection.

Indiana University journalism professor and historian Owen V. Johnson, whose office is in Ernie Pyle Hall on IU's Bloomington campus, is working his way through more than 1,200 letters Pyle wrote to friends, family and his editors at Scripps Howard.

He'll publish some of them, and may follow up with a CD of the entire collection.

Among the letters are some laced with obscenities, sexual fantasies, despairing thoughts, confessions of drunken stupors and extra-marital affairs, and some snide remarks (later penciled out) about his colleagues.

A letter to his bosses, dated September 24, 1941, explains his desperation and why he's fallen behind at work. He offers to resign if not given a leave of absence to take care of his ailing wife:

"I think it is only fair to give you the whole story, as much as I hate to. It is for your ears only. For more than ten years, [she] has been a psychopathic case. In the past few months, it has reached a stage in which you would have to turn your back to call it anything less than a form of insanity.... Lee [Miller, his editor] knows of a few of the troubles I've had...but even he doesn't know a hundredth of it."

To Pyle's wartime readers, the revelation would have been shocking. Those who knew him through his travel columns in the 1930s thought Geraldine "Jerry" Pyle was "that girl," as Pyle dubbed her. She was the one who gamely shared her husband's semivagabond life as a carefree, roving reporter.

In a letter to a woman he was having an affair with, Moran Livingstone, the wife of an AP reporter covering the war, Pyle wrote: "I think of you and our gay-hearted times in America much more than I should.... Despite all the thousands of acquaintances and friends over here, I am perpetually lonely."

Pyle wrote 2.5 million words in 10 years of column writing, but his private letters, never published in full, are revealing in ways the columns never were, Johnson believes. "In reading the letters, you understand what great accomplishments that Pyle's columns were," he says. "Despite all these troubles, he turned out inspiring stories."

Lee Miller, Pyle's editor and first biographer, told readers about the reporter's difficult marriage and battles with depression. Tobin's book, "Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II" detailed it even further. Pyle's problems with impotence, Tobin wrote, were apparently in remission by the time a hotel room tryst with his mistress was interrupted by a telephone call from Eleanor Roosevelt's secretary.

Both biographers used excerpts from Pyle's letters--the bulk of which are stored at IU's Lilly Library, but beyond easy access to the public. "The excerpts are just the climax," Johnson says. "You need to read the letters to hear the full symphonic buildup."

That's too much noise for Evelyn Hobson, longtime archivist for the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site. She fears publication of the more scandalous letters will damage Pyle's reputation. "Ernie never dreamed the letters would go farther than the people he wrote them to," the 74-year-old Hobson says. "And I know people just won't understand."

Hobson has copies of some of the letters, but she's kept them at her home, away from public view. She didn't want the families of the WW II veterans, who come by droves to the site, to see them. "I've given tours to men who wept," says Hobson. "Ernie was their spokesman. He told their stories to all the mothers and wives and sisters who wanted to know what their boys were going through."

Pyle's letters, written with a sense of wartime urgency and drama, are a window to the battlefront realities, says Tobin, who supports Johnson's book project. "I think Ernie was a hero," adds the former Detroit News reporter. "And I think all cultures, including ours, need heroes. But not phony saints."

###