About the Book by David Chrisinger Titled “The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Ben Yagoda headlined “‘The Soldier’s Truth’ Review:About Ernie Pyle, at the Front”:

In the later stages of World War II, Ernie Pyle was tagging along with some American troops who were in the process of securing the city of Cherbourg, in Normandy. During a lull in the fighting, crouched against some buildings, the correspondent and the soldiers got to talking. Pyle, as was his custom, started taking down the men’s names—and street addresses!—so he could put them into his column, which was syndicated in 400 American newspapers and 300 more on Sundays. Only it was pouring rain. So as he squatted down to write on his knee, each soldier would have to hold Pyle’s steel helmet over his notebook to keep it from being soaked.

The scene, well described in David Chrisinger’s “The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II,” is emblematic. The connection between Pyle and the troops he covered—in North Africa, Italy, France and later in the Pacific—was so strong as to be almost symbiotic. His devotion to documenting their lives on the ground led him to repeatedly risk his life and ultimately lose it. Their admiration and appreciation for him was just as fervent: Everywhere he went, star-struck G.I.s approached him for handshakes and autographs.

But Pyle was more than a sympatico scribe. Between Mr. Chrisinger’s book and the Penguin Classics reissue of Pyle’s 1944 “Brave Men,” I’ve come to appreciate how remarkable a journalist and writer he was. Some years ago, Kevin Kerrane and I compiled an anthology of “literary journalism” called “The Art of Fact.” And now I cannot imagine how we failed to include Ernie Pyle in it. No excuses.

“Brave Men” is an indisputable classic. Pyle compiled it from his columns chronicling the African and European campaigns but it doesn’t read like a clip job. At nearly 500 pages, it doesn’t have a dull moment or more than a few false notes. (Most of these reflect the occasional casual racism and stereotyping that was unfortunately endemic four score years ago.) Nothing escapes Pyle’s notice—nothing, that is, except questions of strategy and assessments of success or failure, which he didn’t take to be part of his portfolio. He has a great set piece about the building of a bridge in Sicily and six pages on the role of mules in the Italian hills.

But the indelible moments are when he writes—with sensitivity but utter honesty—about danger and boredom and suffering and death. In his account of the aftermath of a battle in the grindingly slow Italian campaign, there’s a two-paragraph short story:

“Another soldier had a leg blown off, but lived. The men were telling me of a replacement—a green soldier—who joined the company the day after, when the leg was still lying in the path. The new soldier stopped and stared at it and kept on staring.

“The other boys watched him from a distance. They said that when anyone came along the path the new man would move off to one side so as not to be seen. But when the coast was clear, he would come back and stare, sort of hypnotized. He never said anything about it afterward, and nobody said anything to him. Somebody buried the leg the next day.”

There are far too many sterling passages to quote so I’ll limit myself to one more, part of a description of a disquieting line of detritus on a Normandy beach, on D-Day plus one:

“It extends in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark, for miles along the beach. Here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home. . . . Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand. Here are pocketbooks, metal mirrors, extra trousers and bloody, abandoned shoes. . . .

“I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier’s name in it, and put it in my jacket. I carried it half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach. I don’t know why I picked it up, or why I put it back down. . . .

“As I plowed out over the wet sand of the beach, I walked around what seemed to be a couple of pieces of driftwood sticking out of the sand. But they weren’t driftwood. They were a soldier’s two feet. He was completely covered by the shifting sands except for his feet. The toes of his G.I. shoes pointed toward the land he had come so far to see, and which he saw so briefly.

Unlike Hemingway (who in a rare self-deprecating moment called himself “the rich man’s Ernie Pyle”), Pyle achieves his power with no bluster or ego, only straightforward nouns and verbs, with the occasional modest adjective (“thin,” “jumbled,” “wet”) and just one rhetorical device, anaphora, in the repetition of “Here are . . .”

Ernest Taylor Pyle was born in rural Indiana in 1900; from 1923 till 1940, when he went to London to cover the Battle of Britain, he was a stateside working journalist. Mr. Chrisinger names “the biggest riddle” of Pyle’s story: “How did a middle-aged travel writer without any experience covering combat, the military, or foreign affairs become of the most widely read war correspondent of all time?” He’s right about that, but “The Soldier’s Truth,” which isn’t a biography proper but starts and ends with Pyle’s World War II experience, doesn’t really offer an answer.

When it comes to Pyle and the war, the book is very good. The reporter was a prolific letter-writer, and Mr. Chrisinger draws heavily and judiciously from Pyle’s correspondence with two close friends and with his wife, Geraldine “Jerry” Siebolds, in chronicling the battles he witnessed, the columns he filed, and the ups and downs of his body and his spirit. Indeed, where the book most substantially builds on previous biographies, including the first-rate “Ernie Pyle’s War” (1997), by James Tobin, is in its portrait of Pyle’s emotional struggles and Jerry’s even more acute ones, and the Pyles’ complicated, vexing but always loving marriage.

The book is good as well on another big riddle: why, over the course of five years, Pyle kept going back into the breach. Mr. Chrisinger writes: “Ernie had reached a kind of threshold where his freedom to choose had been replaced by an understanding that he was made for the world in a particular way and that this way of being was nonnegotiable.” Or as Pyle himself put it in a letter to Jerry: “You know that I don’t want to go any more than you want me to, but the way I look at it it’s something almost beyond my control.”

Pyle, then 44, was in California when he wrote that. Two months later, in March 1945, he was on a Marine assault transport bound for Okinawa. On April 18, on his way to a command post on the Japanese island of Ie Shima, he was shot and instantly killed by a sniper’s bullet. A sergeant put up a crude sign with the words: “AT THIS SPOT The 77th Infantry Division LOST A BUDDY, ERNIE PYLE.” If there had been room, he might have added a sentence Pyle wrote a year earlier, while covering the landing at Anzio:

“I often wondered why I was there at all, since I didn’t have to be, but I found no answer anywhere short of insanity, so I quit thinking about it.”

Ben Yagoda, the author of “Will Rogers: A Biography,” is working on a history of irony.

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