I was interviewing Giff Stowell of La Casa mobile home park in North Port, Fla. about his service in a B-24 “Liberator” bomber in the Pacific during World War II. He had a handful of old war snapshots sitting on his dining room table.
Included in the pictures was an almost unknown shot of Japanese flying to Ie Shima Island off Okinawa on Aug. 20, 1945, to sign the first surrender document ending WWII. A delegation of high-ranking enemy soldiers flew from there to Manila to meet with Gen. Douglas MacArthur to plan the official surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.
The last picture in the stack was a black-and-white shot of a concrete pyramid. Near the top of the obelisk was a bronze plaque of the Statue of Liberty. Below, a larger plaque has the inscription:
“At this spot the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy, ERNIE PYLE, 18 April 1945.”
Ernie Pyle had to be the most respected and loved newspaper reporter in the Second World War. Born at the turn of the century in Indiana, he went to work for Scripps Howard Newspapers before WWII.
Pyle was with American troops in North Africa when they first faced Gen. Erwin Rommel’s North Afrika Korps and got their butts kicked at the Kasserine Pass. He was with our troops in Sicily. From there he becomes a “foot-slogger” during the Normandy Invasion of Europe, and on and on the little man went, chronicling the front-line soldiers’ daily lives across France, Holland and Germany until V-E Day. It wasn’t long afterward that Pyle was on the front lines in the Pacific.
He was much more than another embedded journalist covering the war a lifetime ago. He was the kind of guy who ate and drank with and slept next to our soldiers at the front.
Then Pyle wrote columns about individual soldiers, their triumphs and tragedies. Occasionally, he wrote about their deaths.
“The Death of Captain Waskow” is one of his most well-remembered columns. It’s the story of Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas, who served as a company commander in the U.S. Army’s 36th Division in Italy.
According to Pyle, the captain was the most beloved solder he ever met in the war. They brought Waskow’s body down from the mountain on a mule at night. Several members of his company gently lifted his body from the mule and laid it beside four other dead soldiers along a nearby stone wall.
One by one, men from his unit walked up and said a few words to their dead leader. Pyle was close by with pencil and pad in hand.
He closed this column with these three paragraphs:
“Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.
“And finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.
“After that, the rest of us went back into the cow shed, leaving the five dead men lying in a line, end to end, in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cow shed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.”
This was Ernie Pyle at his literary best.
Less than a month before the end of the war he was on Ie Shima Island, a tiny speck of sand off Okinawa. The battle for Okinawa and the surrounding islands was the largest and bloodiest in the Pacific during WWII.
Ie Shima was held by Imperial Japanese marines. They were the biggest and baddest enemies Americans faced in the war in the Pacific. From what I’ve been told about his last day, Pyle was up front with members of the 77th Infantry Division who were attempting to take the island when he stuck his head up over an embankment. A Japanese sniper put a bullet right between his eyes.
The marker on Ie Shima marks the spot where he was killed 59 years ago doing what he did best — covering the troops at the front.
Ernest Taylor Pyle is buried in the Punch Bowl Cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii, along with thousands of other American servicemen. It is only fitting Pyle was laid to rest there with the men he loved and reported about.
* In 1945, a move about Ernie Pyle was produced starring Burgess Meredith called “The Story of G.I. Joe.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, April 15, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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