For Americans in the 1940s, Ernie Pyle was as much a part of World War II as war bonds. His newspaper columns made readers feel that they were witnessing the action on the frontlines and were written in a voice that seemed to speak to each one personally. “I wish you could see just one of the ineradicable pictures I have in my mind today,” Pyle wrote from northern Tunisia in May 1943. “In this particular picture I am sitting among clumps of sword-grass on a steep and rocky hillside that we have just taken.” Of the soldiers with him, Pyle wrote, “They are just guys from Broadway and Main Street.” The vivid language in the column is typical:
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“For four days and nights they have fought hard, eaten little, washed none, and slept hardly at all…. Their walk is slow, for they are dead weary, as you can tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies speaks their inhuman exhaustion.”
Pyle became famous for the sympathetic dispatches he filed while traveling with the infantry in North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific during World War II. But long before he became a hero of the American foot soldier, Pyle was an aviation reporter—the first in the United States to write a daily aviation column. Starting in 1928 (just 10 months after Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic captured the world’s attention), and for the next four years, Pyle’s column was a staple of the Washington Daily News.
He wrote about aerial mapping, the perils of night flying, airline safety, and engine and airplane design and profiled cropdusters, glider pilots, military aviators, parachutists, and barnstormers. Based in Washington, D.C., Pyle regularly visited nearby Hoover and Bolling Fields (today the sites of the Pentagon and a Navy-Air Force base), the Washington Naval Air Station, and a handful of smaller airfields. He spoke frequently with senators and congressmen; Jimmy Doolittle was a friend.
Once, the editor of the Daily News decided to introduce Pyle to Amelia Earhart. The pilot stopped him, explaining that the two were well acquainted. “Not to know Ernie Pyle,” she said, “is to admit that you yourself are unknown in aviation.”
Pyle hadn’t planned to become a journalist. He’d wanted to serve in World War I, but he was too young. In 1919, he enrolled at Indiana University with a vague plan to study economics. Overhearing another Indiana farmboy touting journalism as an easy major, Pyle signed up. He joined the staff of the Indiana Daily Student, reporting on fraternities, local news, and sports, even following the university’s 12-man baseball team to a demonstration game in Japan.
He left the university in January 1923 without a degree, taking a job as a reporter with the La Porte (Indiana) Herald. Four months later, Pyle made the jump to the Washington Daily News.
“The young staff was fluid, to say the least,” wrote Lee Miller, Pyle’s managing editor and first biographer, in 1950. “Shortly before Ernie’s arrival there had been a succession of three city editors in a single day.”
The 12-page newspaper, part of the Scripps-Howard chain, had been launched just 18 months earlier. Its editorial office, wrote Miller, was “a shabby, littered, ill-ventilated rectangle congested with secondhand desks [located] a few blocks from the White House.”
Although hired as a reporter, Pyle was soon also writing headlines and copy editing. By 1927 he was so bored that he asked Miller if he could try writing an aviation column in addition to his other duties. (He had developed a “veneration for aviators that was reminiscent of his [childhood] devotion to automobile racers,” wrote Miller.) After finishing his normal shift at about 2 p.m., Pyle would make the rounds of the airports and airfields, looking for stories. Then he would head home to write his column, and turn it in the next morning.