Miller wrote that in 1929, “a young naval lieutenant, Apollo Soucek...was trying to set an altitude record. When he landed at the Naval Air Station after his first high flight and asked for a cigarette, Ernie was the first to hand him one. Another day, following a second flight, Ernie was there again with a cigarette. Still later, ‘Soakum’ stepped from his plane after another altitude flight—but Ernie wasn’t there. Soucek refused to smoke until Ernie was located, at Washington-Hoover Airport across the river, and rushed by taxi to do the honors.”
Pyle’s instincts were not always right. After flying in one of Eastern Air Transport’s big Curtiss Condors in November 1931, he offered this summary: “We think your airplanes are the most comfortable in the world, your pilots without peers, and your flying hostess idea a lot of foolishness.”
In 1940, the newspaper suggested a European trip; Pyle, by now a national columnist for Scripps-Howard, was lukewarm. Reluctantly, he decided to report from England, arriving in a blacked-out London on December 9, during the Blitz. His columns, eventually published as the book Ernie Pyle in England, were successful from the start; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a fan, telling readers in her own newspaper column, “I don’t know whether any of you are reading about Ernie Pyle’s trip to England with as much interest as I am, but I have read everything since he left….”
After England, Pyle thought about following the American air forces: “I could become sort of an adopted unofficial biographer for them,” he wrote Miller. “In a way I could revive the old aviation column....” He ended up in Algeria instead, just two weeks after the invasion of Africa, his first columns covering the Allied troops that had made the original landings, and the hospital units that cared for the wounded. Pyle told Miller he found these columns “inadequate,” but they offered something—the empathetic voice, perhaps—that readers at home seemed to need.
Says journalism professor Owen Johnson, “I have on my desk right now a series of four scrapbooks that include Pyle’s columns from World War II, and it’s not the first set that I’ve received; a number of people saved them.” Certainly there were other journalists writing excellent stories about the war, but no one else focused on the men who were waging it. “One of the things about Pyle that made him better known among the troops was that Stars and Stripes printed his column and not so much reporting by other people,” Johnson says. “So the soldiers would write home, saying, ‘If you want to understand what it’s like, read Ernie Pyle [and enclose a clipping from Stars and Stripes],’ and at the same time you have the families sending the columns to the troops so you’ve got this back and forth that no other correspondent had.”
After North Africa, Pyle headed to Accra, Ghana, to cover, he told Miller, “the biggest American aerial operation anywhere outside the United States.” He was shepherded around by a friend, Colonel C.R. Smith. Learning that Pyle was in the audience during a USO performance there, the troops roared “We want Ernie!” Smith wrote in a letter home that the ovation was so big that “even the stars were jolted.” Pyle would eventually travel to Italy, back to England, and on to France, and then to the Pacific Theater. By 1945, almost 700 newspapers carried his byline.
During the war, Pyle would continue to run into the people he had met on the aviation beat in Washington, D.C. In 1942, he would catch up with his old friend Ira Eaker, whom he’d first met in 1929 when Eaker was chief pilot on an endurance flight in the Army Air Corps’ C-2A Question Mark. Eaker would become a U.S. Army Air Forces major general, and the commander of the Eighth Air Force. Pyle would also cross paths with General Jimmy Doolittle, whom he hadn’t seen in years; they would spend a long evening reminiscing over a bottle of rye. When Pyle was on a rare trip home to Albuquerque in 1944, he was paid a visit by Helen Richey, who had set an endurance record in 1932 by staying aloft for 10 days; now with the Women Airforce Service Pilots, she dropped in on him while she was ferrying an A-20 across the country.
But all of that was in the future. In 1932, after four years on the aviation beat, Pyle reluctantly accepted the position of managing editor at the Washington Daily News, and on June 26 he wrote a column, titled, simply, “Goodbye”—his last aviation column. “I have flown nearly 100,000 miles, landed in far away spots all over the United States, and even outside of it. Better than that, I have made wonderful friends; friendships that will last a lifetime. And, just to keep from sounding sentimental, I might add that I have known a lot of very ornery people in aviation, too. But thru it all I have had one grand time.”
Members of the aviation community invited Pyle to a small ceremony at Washington-Hoover Airport, where Amelia Earhart presented Pyle with a watch. It was on his wrist 13 years later, on April 18, 1945, when he was shot and killed by a Japanese sniper on the island of Ie Shima, off Okinawa.
Rebecca Maksel is an Air & Space associate editor.