20 December 2008 | robertguttman
The term "G.I. Joe" has become so closely associated with the image of a certain toy that it is now largely forgotten that it was originally coined to describe the ordinary American foot soldier. Likewise, it is now largely forgotten just exactly who Ernie Pyle was and what he meant to the American people and, more especially, to the ordinary soldiers about whom he wrote.
My father took a photograph of Ernie Pyle in the Pacific in 1945, shortly before Pyle was killed. At the time Pyle was surrounded by a mob of admiring G.Is. You'd have thought they were in the presence of Bettie Grable or Rita Hayworth rather than a short, balding, middle aged newspaper-man. When Pyle was killed in action a few days later while accompanying the infantry, the solders erected a monument at the place where he died. On it were engraved the words, "On this spot the 77th Division lost a buddy", and they really meant it. It's inconceivable that troops today would do anything like that for one of the current crop of CNN-generation reporters.
The reason isn't hard to fathom. Most war correspondents hung around the rear echelon, hobnobbing with the general staff and forwarding dispatches from headquarters, and they still do. Pyle, on the other hand, lived with and wrote about the common infantrymen who were actually fighting the war. He ate their food, drank their coffee and shared their hardships through three grueling years of war from North Africa through Sicily to the European mainland, and then later on in the Pacific, where he was killed. Pyle became the spokesman for the common soldiers, and all their families back home read his syndicated column. There simply wasn't anybody else like him then, and there hasn't been since.
Small wonder that William Wellman, himself a combat veteran, thought that this movie needed to be made. The filmmaker had tremendous respect for his subject, and it shows. For example, that poignant last scene is, almost word for word and image for image, straight out of one of Pyle's most famous dispatches. It would have been interesting to learn what Pyle thought of this film. Unfortunately, however, by the time it was released the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter was already dead.