The Poet Laureate of World War II

Go to Blog
Alex Kershaw
November 7, 2022

I first came across the name, Ernie Pyle, a quarter century ago when researching a biography of the legendary Robert Capa. They were friends and colleagues – the most celebrated American reporter of WWII, whose columns were read by millions of Americans, and the dashing, extraordinarily brave Life photographer.

Eighty years ago, American troops arrived to eventually liberate Europe as part of Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. Pyle covered their halting progress. He then followed GIs across Sicily in the summer of 1943, famously lionizing general Omar Bradley as the “G.I. general.”

I picked up his trail in Italy. I wanted to visit the grave of the subject of his most affecting story – “The Death of Captain Waskow”. I found it in the Sicily-Rome American cemetery in Nettuno, an hour or so’s drive from Rome - Plot G Row 6 Grave 33. “In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them,” wrote Pyle of the 25-year-old who was killed on 14 December 1944. In deeply moving prose, Pyle eulogized Waskow and described the enormity of his men’s grief.

The grave of Captain Waskow

It was impossible not to shed a tear at Waskow’s grave. In a last letter home, Waskow had written: “God alone knows how I worked and slaved to make myself a worthy leader of these magnificent men, and I feel assured that my work has paid dividends—in personal satisfaction, if nothing else.... I felt so unworthy, at times, of the great trust my country had put in me, that I simply had to keep plugging to satisfy my own self that I was worthy of that trust. I have not, at the time of writing this, done that, and I suppose I never will.”

I walked along the seafront at Anzio where in March 1944 Pyle was injured when a stick of 500-lb bombs exploded close to a villa where the press corps were based. His nerves were ragged but he stayed at Anzio, under shellfire, while other reporters left the front. “Had several mighty close calls from the shells,” he told a close friend, “as well as the bombs. Piss on it.”  

I walked along the water’s edge on Omaha Beach, just as Pyle had done on 7 June 1944, the day after D Day. I imagined what he had seen – the “human litter…Here are toothbrushes and razors, snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand.”  

Alex Kershaw at Omaha Beach

I followed Pyle’s journey to Paris, via the Cherbourg Peninsula, through the infernal hedgerows where so many Americans were killed that long summer of 1944. One day, under a cold driving rain, a GI approached Pyle. “Why don’t you tell the folks back home what this is like? All they hear is victories and a lot of glory stuff. They don’t know that for every hundred yards we advance somebody gets killed. Why don’t you tell them how tough this life is.”

Pyle told the exhausted GI that he tried to tell America how tough the war was in every one of his columns. Of the men Pyle was accompanying, he wrote: “They were really the hunters, but they looked like the hunted. They weren’t warriors. They were American boys who by mere chance of fate wound up with guns in their hands, sneaking up a death-laden street in a strange and shattered city in a faraway country in a driving rain. They were afraid but it was beyond their power to quit. They had no choice.”

Pyle could not quit either. In Normandy, he finally saw too much and came close to complete nervous collapse. “One day I’ll think I’m getting hardened to dead people,” he admitted, “dead young people in vast numbers, and then next day I’ll realize I’m not and never could be.”

Several times I thought of Pyle as I walked the streets of Paris, liberated on 25 August 1944, “the happiest day of the war” according to one of his fellow correspondents. From a hotel balcony, Pyle watched scenes of utter jubilation as French women embraced soldiers. "We all got kissed until we were literally red in face," he wrote, "and I must say we enjoyed it."

Pyle went home and then returned reluctantly to the action in the Pacific. Finally, his luck ran out. On 18 April 1945, he was shot through the temple on the island of Ie Shima. He was 44 years old. No less than President Truman, who had been in office less than a week, paid fitting tribute: “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”

Last December, on the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I visited the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii. There was only one grave I wanted to see and I finally found it. Ernie Pyle lies at rest between the stones that mark the graves of two unknown soldiers.

Ernie Pyle's gravesite

No other chronicler of WWII wrote with such power and clarity. He was the poet laureate of American sacrifice and courage. I count it one of the great honors of my life to have been able to retrace parts of his heart-rending yet inspirational odyssey. Eight decades after Pyle began to follow the Americans who liberated Europe, we should celebrate his extraordinary prose – and remember that more than fifty of his fellow U.S. Army–accredited reporters also died in World War II.