Library preserves legacy of WWII journalist Ernie Pyle’s honest, graphic reporting

Ernie Pyle’s typewriter. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

G.I. Joe movie poster. (Courtesy Ernie Pyle library)

Ernie Pyle working in the field. (Courtesy Ernie Pyle Library)

Ernie Pyle with soldiers. (Courtesy Ernie Pyle Library)

Ernie Pyle library. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

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Teri Reynoso hands me a pair of white gloves and says she’ll be back in a minute with the items I’ve requested. She thanks me for coming. It’s been a while since anyone has walked into her Special Collections branch library in Albuquerque, New Mexico asking about Ernie Pyle.

“I know the Daily News, it was my hometown newspaper growing up before my father retired from the LAPD, and we moved to Albuquerque,” she says. “I’m so glad you’re writing about Ernie. Most of the people I ask about him don’t even know who he was. That’s sad.”

She wonders if I’d like to see the portraits of Ernie that were donated to the library by the families of GIs who had them hanging in their homes. Imagine, a journalist being so admired and respected that his portrait hung in people’s homes.

“Do you think people have a portrait of a journalist hanging in their homes, today?” she asks.

Not likely, unless it’s hanging on a dart board.

There was a time when Ernie Pyle, a journalist, was the most trusted man in America. He carried a portable Corona typewriter to the front lines of World War II, and gave the folks back home an honest, graphic look at life in the trenches for the grunts, the infantrymen — his guys.

He called them the “underdogs” — “the mud-rain-frost-and wind boys that wars can’t be won without.” You can’t tell that story from the rear talking to generals, you have to be at the front with the grunts seeing it with your own eyes.

From North Africa, through Europe, to the final Pacific Theater, Pyle told their stories, and every word was taken as gospel back home. War wasn’t about heroes and bravery, he wrote, it was about fear and constant anxiety, about scared boys who were barely men just trying to stay alive, have each other’s backs, and make it home.

It was a big deal when Ernie showed up in your company with his typewriter. “Ernie Pyle’s with us,” wrote one GI excitedly to his parents. “I’ve been waiting for three years to see him. Now the folks at home will hear what this Pacific war is really like.”

Pyle never got the chance to tell them much. He was killed by a sniper on Ie Shima, an small island west of Okinawa. A jeep he had been riding in with four soldiers was fired on, and the men took cover in a ditch. Pyle, ever the reporter, lifted his head up to see what was going on. The bullet caught him in the left temple.

He never made it home to 900 Girard Street in Albuquerque, where his wife, Jerry, was waiting. He had promised her this would be his last assignment after three years in the field, and they’d finally be together again. She had survived many illnesses, but after Ernie died she lost all interest in life, one of her sisters said. Jerry died seven months after Ernie. They were both 45.

The home was deeded over to the city in 1948, and became the Ernie Pyle Branch library. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic Landmark (abqlibrary.org/erniepyle).

“The Memorial Committee wanted something for the GIs, and Ernie’s home was a perfect spot for a memorial, located between the college where returning soldiers were going to school on the GI Bill, and the military base for soldiers still on active duty,” said Eileen O’Connell, former Special Collections manager.

The Pyle library is popular in the neighborhood as a regular library, but not many visitors from the outside stop by to pay their respects to Ernie anymore, said site supervisor Lizzie Peacock.

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“We had a gentleman whose father drove Ernie around for a while when he was in Japan come by recently, but that’s about it as far as I can remember,” she says, pointing out three shelves of books about Ernie, and a display case with a replica of his typewriter, and the local paper’s headline from 1945, “Ernie Pyle Dies.”

From all over the country, the letters of condolences began flooding in, from President Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and all the families of GIs who depended on Ernie to tell them the truth about their boys at the front.

Thousands of names and addresses fill a dozen, thick, guest books and there’s an old candy box with Ernie’s signature written on small pieces of paper inside. They were cut out of cancelled checks. If visitors wanted Ernie’s autograph, Jerry, or her caregiver would reach inside and give them one.

Reynoso’s right. It is sad so many people today don’t know who journalist Ernie Pyle was. His portrait hung in people’s homes, and for years, when this country needed to hear the truth, he gave to us.

And, we believed him because Ernie Pyle was the most trusted man in America.

Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at [email protected]

 

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