By: Andy Rooney
April 18, 1985
Ernie Pyle, who wrote the book Brave Men, was the best kind of brave man I ever knew. He didn’t have the thoughtless, macho kind of bravado that is sometimes mistaken for bravery. He was a war correspondent who was afraid of being killed but did what he had to do in spite of it. Mostly, Ernie stayed right with the infantrymen who were doing the fighting and the dying.
On the scrubby little island of Ie Shima, Ernie was moving up with the infantry when he was shot dead by a Japanese machine gunner forty years ago. Almost everyone has heard of Ernie Pyle but in case you don’t know why he was so widely read and so much loved, I thought I’d offer a little toast to the memory of this gentle, talented little man by telling you.
Unlike most correspondents, Ernie never offered any opinion about who was winning or losing the war. He just told little stories about the men fighting it. He drew vignettes with two fingers on his typewriter keys that told more about the victories and defeats of World War II than all the official communiques ever issued.
I have an Ernie Pyle kind of story about Ernie Pyle. One day sometime in July of 1944, I was sharing a tent with Ernie and two other reporters in Normandy. Ernie had decided not to go to the front that day, and he was lying on his cot when I came in and sat down on mine. I took off my boots, preparing to lie down for a while when I was dive-bombed by an angry bee. My cot was almost directly over a hole in the ground that the bees were using as a nest. There must have been hundreds of them down there and, because it was impractical to move either my cot or the tent, I scuffed dirt over the hole so they couldn’t get in or out.
The two of us lay on our cots, watching an occasional bee come into the tent looking for home. I started thinking about the bees trapped underneath the dirt. We watched, silently, for perhaps two minutes. Ernie broke the silence. “Aw, Andy,” he said, “why don’t you let ’em out?”
Ernie never seemed to be in much of a hurry. He didn’t rush to the scene of some particular bit of action with the other reporters. He made his own stories with little things others of us hardly noticed.
His stories about soldiers were as apt to be about loneliness or boredom as about blood and danger. Ernie never seemed to be interviewing anyone, either. It was more as though he were talking to the soldiers as a friend. You only realized he was working when he took out his notebook and meticulously wrote down the name and full address of every soldier near him.
An infantry-man could be telling Ernie a story about how his squad of eight guys wiped out a German machine-gun nest but Ernie would be as interested in getting all the names and addresses of the eight men as he was in the details of the action. “Whereabouts in Wheeling, West Virginia?” he’d ask.
Ernie started covering the war in North Africa, and even though he didn’t deal in The Big Picture, he knew North Africa was only the beginning. “This is our war,” he wrote, “and we will carry it with us as we go from one battleground to another until it is all over, leaving some of us behind on every beach, in every field. We are just beginning with the ones who lie back of us here in Tunisia. I don’t know whether it was their good fortune or their misfortune to get out of it so early in the game. I guess it doesn’t make any difference once a man is gone. Medals and speeches and victories are nothing anymore. They died and the others lived and no one knows why it is so. When we leave here for the next shore, there is nothing we can do for the ones underneath the wooden crosses here, except perhaps pause and murmur, ‘Thanks, pal.’”
Ernie Pyle gave war correspondents a reputation not all of them deserved. All that those of us who shared that reputation can do for Ernie now is to say, “Thanks, pal.”
Rooney, Andy. Andy Rooney: 60 Years of Wisdom and Wit