Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Contract of the Heart

One of the great American journalists of World War 2 was Ernie Pyle. He was a down to earth kind of guy, who was more at home living with the troops than with the officers. He was a great fan of the Infantry, and wasn't ashamed to admit his prejudice. He felt that the Infantry had the hardest, dirtiest and most thankless job in all the armed forces. He spent a lot of time in foxholes, in dangerous conditions, hungry, cold and filthy. He took the time to get to know the soldiers, and they loved him for it.

His column mentioned the soldiers he met by name, and gave little snippets of personal information about each man. During the war, mail often was lost or delayed for weeks, and so Ernie's columns were a lifeline for families back home. If they read about their soldier in his column, that meant he was alive and safe, even if they hadn't had a letter for months. His columns didn't white wash the dangers of war, but they somehow managed to reassure people. They made everyone feel that this war, although difficult and dangerous, could be won. It was finite.

Ernie lent an even touch of humor and humanity to all that he wrote about. He was a shrewd observer, and wrote clear and accessible prose. He was a humble man, perhaps to a fault. He wrote constantly about his own fears and lack of courage in the face of danger, while admiring others around him for their bravery. He was always on the lookout for the amusing, strange or humanising story that would bring understanding to the reader. In 1944 he won a Pulitzer for his work, yet I think he probably got more of a thrill from the recognition of the troops.

By 1945, Ernie was worn out. He had been covering the war since the Blitz, with few trips home. Four long years overseas. He wanted to go home. Yet he was persuaded to take a final trip to the Pacific Theatre, to cover the American landings in Okinawa. He didn't feel right about the trip, but he went. It seems quite ironic that his last column, printed posthumously, should have been a tribute to fellow journalist Fred Painton, who had died on Guam. On April 18th 1945, Ernie was killed by a Japanese machine gunner on the island of Ie Shima.

Reading Ernie's columns, and the columns of other wartime journalists, is like reading someones diary. It's a true reflection of the time, written then and there, as it happened. The only frustration is that the columns were censored to remove any sensitive material. Still, if I wanted access to any relevant army column maneuverings, or amphibious assaults, all I have to do is cross reference the date, place and a few other facts and voila! A complete picture. I read the columns for a more intimate glimpse of the time, an idea of what was in the minds of the people who lived through the war. Sometimes, it's a humbling experience. The people who bore the brunt of the war did so with uncommon courage and determination, no matter what side they were on. Sometimes, it's an uncomfortable experience, as I gain knowledge of the prejudices that ran through all societies in the 1940's.

Of all the journalists, I like Ernie the best. He isn't afraid to put his soul down on paper, and to expose his feelings for all to see. In doing this, he reached out and touched the souls of his readers. He had established the truest contract a writer can establish with a reader, the contract of the heart. He deserves to be remembered and read for a very long time. I know I will constantly read and re-read his columns as I work, both as a writer and a historian.

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