By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
NEW ORLEANS – Here they know Ernie. The volunteer manning the landing craft near the entry of the National World War II Museum knows all about Ernie Pyle, says he’s occasionally disappointed when visiting veterans confuse Ie Shima, where Pyle died, with Iwo Jima.
“They’ll argue with you about it,” he says, “and eventually I’ll just say, ‘OK, OK.'”
The woman in the museum bookstore knows all about Ernie, directing me to the newest biography and a documentary on DVD. I get both.
I’ve been disappointed in recent years when college journalism students, much less kids laboring in other fields, have blank looks on their faces when I mention Ernie Pyle. Anyone who wants to be a reporter should learn about Ernie Pyle.
Besides being the most famous war correspondent who ever chewed an eraser while dodging a bullet, Pyle’s posture and attitude made for the perfect reporter’s stance.
Ernie Pyle was for the Little Guy. The underdog. The lowly GI Joes and Willies. Ernie had wanderlust. He left the farm in Dana, Ind., never to live anywhere again for more than a few months. He had a wife, but she rode with him. He had a house in Albuquerque, but he spent more time on the front than in his own living room.
He did his best work on the move. He could, and often did from Europe, write as many as 15 columns a day to stay in the field and still meet a deadline.
Among my prized possessions are two faded photographs my own father as a young soldier took on Ie Shima at Ernie’s grave. It was the first grave before they moved Pyle to a more prominent spot in Hawaii’s Punchbowl. A marker made of three or four boards simply says: “At this spot the 77th Infantry Division Lost A Buddy. Ernie Pyle. 18 April 1945.”
“Foot soldiers have long been accustomed to losing close friends,” said cartoonist Bill Mauldin when Pyle was shot by a Japanese sniper. Mauldin was creator of Willie and Joe, and Pyle’s friend. “The only difference between Ernie’s death and the death of any other good guy is that the other guy is mourned by his company. Ernie is mourned by the Army.”
I have never been to this World War II museum before. In each exhibit room there are photographs of real veterans. You push a button and they talk to you. They tell you what they saw and felt, and it’s not some academic interpretation. It’s real history.
The recorded stories are the best thing about this museum, which has Robert Capra photographs and a Tom Hanks movie and state-of-the-art design. Somehow just hearing the voices of those who were there is more powerful than anything else.
It would take days to listen to all of the veterans. I choose one photograph and button at random in each room. By the end of the museum tour, I’m emotionally exhausted. The impact of war doesn’t lessen with years. The horror remains in their stories and voices.
“To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back,” Ernie wrote. “You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France. We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference… .”
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.To find out more about Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.