On April 18, 1945, the war in Europe was almost over.
But the war in the Pacific was rising to a bloody climax – and to most observers, the worst looked to be yet to come.
On Okinawa, the largest amphibious operation of the Pacific War was raging, as the Japanese – finally pushed back to a piece of land that was (and is) considered part of the home islands – fought like hell against US soldiers and Marines, and gave the US Navy the bloodiest slog in its history, raining down kamikaze attacks that sank nearly fifty US and Canadian ships and killed nearly 5,000 US Navy sailors.
And on an island near Okinawa, Ie Shima, a small observation post located astride a route that would be vital to the upcoming invasion of Japan, a jeep attached the US 77th Infantry division, which had landed a few days earlier, probed the island for the small, isolated, doomed Japanese garrison.
In the jeep rode a colonel and another man, a 44 year old war correspondent. A concealed Japanese machine gun opened fire. The men dove into ditches on both sides of the trail, unharmed.
The correspondent poked his head out of the ditch to check on the welfare of his companion (and, apparently, Brian Williams). He asked the colonel if he was OK – a shaved second before a followup burst that caught him in the head, killing him instantly.
The reporter, of course, was Ernie Pyle. And he may have been that last journalist in American whose death was mourned outside America’s newsrooms and journalist bars.
Another Time: If I’d had my way in high school, I’d have spent my life as some sort of news reporter; preferably in broadcast, but at that point I didn’t care much. I was drawn to the idea of storytelling, especially telling real peoples’ real stories. Just like Ernie Pyle.
These days, used car salesmen are generally regarded as more trustworthy than news reporters.
It wasn’t always that way, of course. In the early seventies, reporters were lionized; Woodward and Bernstein and Seymour Hersh became heroes for “speaking truth to power” and other such conceits.
One of the things that brought the turnaround in journalists’ public esteem was public revulsion over their treatment of Vietnam; it was in Vietnam that the term “selective reporting” entered the lexicon; in covering the war, its aftermath, and its human cost among our veterans, the phrase “selective reporting” followed suit.
Within a decade of Walter Cronkite’s retirement, journalism toppled from being one of America’s most respected fields to one of the most reviled.
And most of that fall was utterly justified.
And even the apex, in the sixties and seventies, was a far cry from the thirties and forties, when the media were taken largely at face value, and even held in some esteem.
The modern American media as we know it today got its start during World War 2. The war was the first great acid test of broadcast news, of live and nearly-live spot reporting, and of the celebrity journalist. Edward R. Murrow was the prototype of the cool, detached anchor, who led to the sublime (Cronkite, himself a veteran of wartime spot reporting) and the ridiculous (Dan Rather, the entire staff at CNN).
And ahead of them all in public regard was Ernie Pyle.
The Wanderer: Pyle, a native of Dana Indiana, had served three months as a Navy reservist in World War I. Then he’d attended Indiana University, before dropping out to spend a brief career in Indiana media before moving to Washington DC. There, he spent several years as a reporter and editor, while married to a deeply mentally ill woman. +
Pyle as a college student.
Finally, in 1935, he went on the road, becoming a sort of roving syndicated columnist, picking up a tradition started by Heywood Broun, and which Charles Kuralt would eventually inherit. He spent the waning years of the Depression roaming America’s small towns, writing “slice of life” pieces about ordinary Americans, becoming a C-list celeb in the process.
When the war started, he took those skills to war with him. While most war correspondents stuck close to headquarters looking for the big picture, Pyle spend the war years in the field, in North Africa and Italy, including a stint trapped in the misbegotten beachhead at Anzio, and witnessing the Normandy invasion. He was nearly killed in the same botched close-air-support bomber attack that killed General Leslie McNair and dozens of other GIs.
Throughout, he brought the same homespun style to covering America’s infantrymen and tankers and other grunts that he’d brought to covering hardware stores and custom combiners and shopkeepers in America’s hinterlands. He’d been compared to Mark Twain before the war, and the comparison stuck while in action.
Pyle shares a cigarette and some stories with Marines on Okinawa, shortly before his death.
After the liberation of Paris, he’d taken some down time to recover from his own deep depression, before departing for the Pacific .
Not everyone was a fan; the Navy felt slighted by his coverage of the Navy’s war; Pyle for his part had always felt closer to the infantrymen and other foot-sloggers out in the mud and the weather, although he eventually learned more of the difficulties and horrors of the war at sea as well.
This led him to Ie Shima, seventy years ago today.
The news media has fallen a long way since the 1940s. Some of it’s inevitable; there’s competition. Some of it’s the media’s own doing; can anyone imagine the blow-dried hamsters that report today’s news slogging through the mud on an infantry patrol?
And part of it is that the major media is run by a self-appointed “elite” that doesn’t really care about mainstreet, or GI Joe, and hasn’t in forty years.
That didn’t die seventy years ago on Ie Shima, of course; but by the 1960 and 1970s, the idea of Ernie Pyle was more historical artifact than journalistic present tense.