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Pearl's death recalls the memory of journalism legend

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002


Before I bought it a month ago, there's no telling how long the book with the torn and dusty cover had been sitting in the antique mall. Even at $3, there were no other takers for The Story of Ernie Pyle.

It's understandable, I guess. Few nonjournalists younger than 70 have heard of Pyle, let alone know he was perhaps the greatest foreign correspondent of his time. His legacy lives mostly in the memories of old soldiers and the admiration of young reporters struggling to match his incomparable prose.

Today one of journalism's top awards is named for the Midwest farm boy whose dispatches from the front in World War II are as vivid and gripping as they were 60 years ago. Students at his alma mater, Indiana University, attend classes in Ernie Pyle Hall, and the editor of the college newspaper gets the honor of sitting at his rolltop desk. But Pyle rarely used it, instead spending most of his final years in tents and foxholes, recording the everyday terror and ennui of Americans thousands of miles from home.

I thought of Pyle when Pakistani police confirmed the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Like Pyle, he was covering a war, albeit one fought as much in the shadows as on the beaches and plains. And as with Pyle's tragically shortened life, Pearl's death shows once again that journalism can be a hazardous profession: At least 55 reporters and photographers have been killed in the past year, including 10 in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Some might question whether Pearl, whose wife is pregnant, took unnecessary risks in meeting with suspected terrorists. But for those in pursuit of truth, there is no stopping the journey, even if it means travel to foreign lands where danger and even death await.

And if war reporting is fraught with peril, it also can provide an incredible rush, as seen in Pyle's description of a night in London in 1940 when the city was "ringed with fire" from German bombs:

"As we stepped out onto the balcony a vast inner excitement came over all of us -- an excitement that had neither fear nor horror in it because it was too full of awe. You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires -- scores of them, perhaps hundreds. There was something inspiring in the savagery of it."

Frustrated at being a mere observer, Pyle soon followed the war to North Africa, where he wrote with eloquent simplicity of the loneliness, boredom, fear and deprivation of the Allied soldiers.

"The discomfort is perpetual. You're always cold and most always dirty. Outside of food and cigarettes, you have absolutely none of the little things that make life normal back home. . . . There are no newspapers, milk, beds, sheets, radiators, beer, ice cream or hot water. You just sort of exist either standing up working or lying down asleep. There is no place in between. The velvet is all gone from living."

Pyle's columns not only riveted Americans back home, but earned him the respect of the troops. Soldiers felt they had a champion in him: "My men always fought better when Ernie was around," Gen. Omar Bradley once said.

By today's standards of war reporing, Pyle at times appeared uncomfortably close to the military brass he covered. "Dear General Ike," he began in response to a letter from Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander.

Yet Pyle was by no means a cheerleader for Allied policy. He created a sensation with columns showing the extent to which pro-Nazi French in Africa were being allowed to retain important offices.

"We are permitting fascist societies to continue to exist," he wrote. "Actual sniping has stopped but there is still sabotage. . . . Our enemies see it, laugh and call us soft."

Like journalists in more recent wars, Pyle fought against military censorship. While working on a series about life aboard a Navy carrier, he complained to his editor that a policy barring the use of sailors' names was making his stories dull and lifeless.

"If applied, it means that half the columns I write will be thrown out, because they are based on people. . . . It is a fundamental policy which has been a thorn out here for months and which hamstrings everybody trying to tell the honest story of the Navy."

The restriction was later dropped.

Just as Pearl and other journalists covering the war on terrorism have ventured into hostile situations, Pyle never shied from danger. He went ashore at D-day, shells whizzing past his head; what made his coverage great was his ability to juxtapose the horrors of war with the enduring rhythms of life, as when he took a walk along Omaha Beach on D-day plus one.

"Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn't know they were in the water for they were dead. The waters was full of squishy little jellyfish about the size of your hand. Millions of them. In the center each of them had a green design exactly like a four-leaf clover. The good luck emblem. Sure. Hell, yes."

In almost three years on the front in Europe and North Africa, Pyle penned 700,000 words and filed six columns a week. Such was the power of his writing that one of his most famous pieces -- about the death of a beloved captain -- filled the front page of the Washington Daily News with not even a headline to break up the gray rows of type. That would be unthinkable today, in a world enamored of color photos and graphics, but readers nevertheless snapped up every copy.

Exhausted and burnt out -- "if I saw one more dead man I would have gone off my nut" -- Pyle returned to the States as the war in Europe wound down. But he couldn't stay away from the action. He soon headed to the Pacific theater.

On April 18, 1945, Pyle was riding in a jeep convoy in Okinawa when it was attacked by Japanese snipers. A bullet struck him in the temple: "Are you all right?" were Pyle's final words to a colleague.

Ernie Pyle was 45, just seven years older than Daniel Pearl.

In some ways, the war Pyle covered was a simpler one than today's war on terrorism. The enemies were more obvious, their aim more apparent. But Pyle set a standard of courage and tenacity that Pearl and other foreign correspondents would follow. Now, tragically, Pearl is dead, but the standard lives on.

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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