Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Ernie Pyle In England.

Ernie Pyle was a household name in America during the 1930s and 1940s, and a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. Born in Indiana, on August 3rd, 1900, he would go on to become a journalist and an accomplished writer who became a war correspondent, covering many events of World War Two. In all, Ernie Pyle wrote four books of his coverage of the war years.

Ernie Pyle image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
He once said that when peace was restored, he would like to return to London, "and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges." Ernie never got the chance to do that. He was tragically killed by a Japanese bullet on April 18th, 1945, while covering the war in the Far East.

He was a humble man, who took it upon himself to go around England, visiting American bases, soldiers and airmen, and seeing what life was like for them here in the UK in wartime. He ventured a little further from his fellow countrymen and came to meet and know many British people, and was invited into their homes to share what little food they had.

He saw first hand how people lived and died and struggled here in wartime Britain. He uncovered the sacrifices soldiers and civilians made. He spent time in air raid shelters, amidst the crowding, with people packed in like sardines in humid, stale, atmospheres where the air competed with cigarette smoke, stale sweat and beer.


In his book, 'Ernie Pyle in England', he wrote that while the great air battles raged in the skies over England, he yearned to go and see for himself, not as a war correspondent or a journalist, but for himself. And so in December 1940, Ernie crossed the Atlantic on board the S.S. Exeter. When he finally arrived in England, he travelled by rail to London and saw the country for the first time, in wartime.

He saw women in khaki as well as soldiers, and people carrying gas masks and antiblast tape that crisscrossed its way up and down windows everywhere, and silver barrage balloons flying high in the air. He said that although he'd only been in England for three minutes, he was already in love with our small island.
Pyle with the 323rd Bomb Group before take-off at Earls Colne, England.
As he talks of spending hours in the shelters, he mentions one particular shelter in London. He calls it Shelter Double-X because he wasn't allowed to name it at the time of writing the book - 'careless talk costs lives.' He explains how around ten thousand people live there each night and it's so big down there it takes hours to make your way through. Everything happens there, "from births to deaths" and there are even adult education classes. He mentions the soldiers who go there looking for girls. It's "a big, jolly city all under one roof."

As I read through his book, I was hooked. It's not just the information, which to me is fascinating, but it's the casual manner with which he wrote; almost conversational. It's simple and beautiful, and reminiscent of Hemingway, I thought. Ernie Pyle brought wartime Britain to life for me in a way that no other writer or written source has managed to do. It's little wonder that he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for journalism and it's a tragedy his life was cut so short. His coverage of the war was his own individual style, and he focussed on the people and what mattered to them, whether they happened to be civilians, servicemen or anyone else for that matter. It was his style that made him so popular with the people.

Venturing even further afield, Ernie would journey to North Africa and Italy, and from there he went to Normandy and witnessed D-Day in June 1944. He witnessed the liberation of Paris in August 1944. It was during his coverage of the Pacific theatre of war that he would make his final journey. On the 17th April 1945, Ernie came ashore with the Army's 305th Infantry Regiment on lejima. He was killed by a single bullet to the head when the Japanese opened fire on the 18th April. When news broke of his death, people and servicemen everywhere were saddened and shocked. President Trueman said that Pyle "told the story of the American fighting men, as the American fighting men wanted it told."
Ernie Pyle's Memorial image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons