Little Man At War
THE STORY OF ERNIE PYLE.
By Lee G. Miller. New York: The Viking Press. 439 pp. $3.95.
"THE HURT has finally become too great," Ernie Pyle wrote. It was summer's end in 1944, and the little guy was coming home--home from Anzio and a beach called Omaha in Normandy, home from St. Lo and other blood-drenched way stations on the glory road to Paris. He had put in twenty-nine months overseas, no less than a year of it in the lines with "the infantry, the God-damned infantry," whose story he had set down with such simple brilliance.
And, home, two things happened:
In New York, the pearly gates of Publisher Roy Howard's residence were opened to let in the weary historian of G.I.'s. There, over the Scripps-Howard poo-bah's own radio, he was treated to the privilege of listening to a campaign speech by Tom Dewey. He didn't listen; he fell asleep. This very likely dashed Mr. Howard's hope that his boy Ernie--syndicated to 400 dailies and 300 weeklies--would endorse Dewey for President. So much for the big evening with the boss.
In Albuquerque, back in his dream house only a few days, Pyle narrowly saved his wife's life after she had stabbed herself twenty times with a pair of scissors. And, as he sat at her hospital bedside later, the one thing she asked him was, "Are you Ernie Pyle?" This was Jerry, "the little lady" who rode with him on all the fears when he did his roving column. This was Jerry, for her last ten years a helpless victim of whisky, dope and her own mind. This was home.
The two incidents take the measure of this fine, merciless biography by Pyle's editor and best friend, Lee Miller, goes back to the early Twenties with the gentle-hearted Hoosier. He was on the Washington Daily News when Pyle arrived--via Dana Farm, Indiana University, the college paper, and the La Porte Herald. Pyle "did time" on The News as a reporter and then copyreader, moved to New York for a while to work on the copy desks of the Evening World and Post, and went back to the News and made it all the way to managing editor. In 1935, he packed Jerry--married 1925, divorced 1942, remarried by proxy in, 1943 (Pyle was covering the North African campaign)--into an old jalopy and launched his roving column.
The story Miller tells is tragic and wonderful. It is tragic because the love story of Ernie and Jerry is a sodden thing alongside the correspondent's vast ultimate success in his profession. It is wonderful because you wonder how the little man was able to do it. He had no confidence in himself and no confidence in his life; he thought he was sick all the time and after a while he had nothing but misery at home. It was a misery named Jerry and sometimes Ernie, and just when it began is sometimes hard to tell.
Jerry, a Minnesota girl, was a government clerk when Ernie met her. After their marriage they set up housekeeping--if it could be called that--in a one-room flat bare except for two Army cots and a bathtub that was evidently just big enough for mixing your own gin. Ernie was a hard-drinking copyreader, and Jerry could stand a drink pretty well herself. The apartment became a watering place for all manner of lushes, and once a week the happy young couple swept out the cigarette butts and empty bottles--and started over.
Pyle outgrew all this as time went on, not that he ever found occasion to underwrite the work of the WCTU, but Jerry went all the way. And through it all love survived and Pyle managed to make his big strike. How he did it is something to contemplate. What Miller sets forth, and it has to be the answer, is that Pyle's thorough training and fine talent simply had to shine through when the moment came. The moment was the war.
In 1945, he paid $105,000 income tax on his earnings of the year before (the Pyle books plus the movie, "The Story of G.I. Joe," and his syndicated share on the column) and then went to the Pacific for the Okinawa campaign and died on a quiet day on le Shima. A Japanese sniper picked him off. It was April 18, and Pyle was forty-four. Jerry accepted a medal for him in Washington and then went back to Albuquerque and was dead by November.
Miller is still around, and when the book is written on how to write biographies in-the-raw, that's a pretty good man for the assignment.