For the 60th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Ken Ward spoke to Owen Johnson about the journey in journalism taken by war correspondent Ernie Pyle, from growing up in rural Indiana to his must-read journalism during World War II.
Owen Johnson is an associate professor emeritus at Indiana University and editor of a collection of Pyle’s columns titled At Home with Ernie Pyle.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Owen Johnson (00:03):
I mean, he’s turning out 700, 800 words a day. What is that? Almost 5,000 words a week — Nobody does that anymore … His was a journey in journalism in the first half of the 20th century.
Ken Ward (00:28):
Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones who were never told.
Teri Finneman (00:30):
I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon (00:36):
And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward (00:40):
And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Ken Ward (00:46):
And together we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
Few war correspondents stand out as prominently in history books as World War II columnist Ernie Pyle. He’s attracted the attention of many journalism historians over the years, and for good reason: his columns shared a different war with readers of Scripps-Howard newspapers than did most reporters: a war with names and faces rather than casualty counts and battle positions.
In this episode, I chat with Dr. Owen Johnson, associate professor emeritus at Indiana University and editor of a collection of Pyle’s columns titled At Home with Ernie Pyle. We discussed the road that took Pyle from a small town in Indiana to World War II’s European battlefields and made Pyle a household name during the war.
Owen, welcome to the show. So why don’t you start by giving us the 10,000 foot view of Ernie Pyle? Like who was he and why has he attracted so much attention from media historians?
Owen Johnson (01:52):
That’s really a great question because so many myths and legends have been told about Pyle. Some of them, he told himself, so it’s difficult sometimes to extract the truth. I also like the 10,000-foot perspective because it took Pyle a long time to get that high when he was reporting on aviation. It’s amazing, by the way, that — how aviation developed during his four years in that field. But the important thing is you cannot tell the story of World War II without quoting Ernie Pyle. Documentaries, books, even the introductory film at the World War II Museum in New Orleans quotes from his writing. He won a 1943 Pulitzer Prize for a selection of his work from that year. And that doesn’t even include the most famous column, The Death of Captain Waskow, published in January 1944, which has been voted the best newspaper column of the entire 20th century by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Each new war brings a debate about who will be the next Ernie Pyle, or, as his fellow columnists said at the time, “Who will get the next Pyle-itzer?” Pyle wrote about the experience of the ordinary GIs, not just the infantry, but also artillery and transportation and nurses and pilots and other people. Most of his colleagues wrote about the day-to-day flow of the battles and what the commanders were saying. That first draft of history has long since been discarded. But when you read Pyle, on the other hand, you find yourself alongside the troops, experiencing what they went through. Pyle’s columns were distributed by Scripps-Howard to its own newspapers. But as the war went on, he also added several hundred other papers. So, he became a household name. Even papers that didn’t carry his column had stories about him, and gossip columnists like Walter Winchell took note of his comings and goings. The only other World War II journalist whose fame approached Pyle was Edward R. Murrow, whose broadcasts have been repeated over and over again. And that’s quite interesting to me because both came from similar poor backgrounds, took a gap year before college, arrived at colleges nobodies, but by the time they left were big men on campus. And I have to say that Murrow and I both received our bachelor’s degrees from Washington State University. And I taught for 34 years at Indiana University, which Pyle attended.
Ken Ward (04:43):
So you’ve got a foot in both in both camps there, right?
Owen Johnson (04:46):
Ken Ward (04:48):
Yeah. So, we’re focusing here on World War II, and that’s because most of the attention that Pyle received centers on role on his reporting in World War II, but as your book highlights, he had an established career as an editor and as a columnist before and during the Great Depression. So walk us through his early life after being born in small-town Indiana. Where did life take him? And how did he find a career in journalism?
Owen Johnson (05:14):
You’re right. He was born in Indiana, but right up against the Illinois border. So he was very much a man with Midwestern roots. He was schooled in Indiana, which was a writer’s paradise when he was growing up, with more writers than any state except New York. He was an only child, so he was more in the adult world than most kids. He grew up at a time when there was a craze for postcards, and the average American in, say, 1906, 1907, when Pyle was beginning grade school, received something like 150 postcards a year. That must’ve stimulated his interest in the world. He grew up in a small town, as you point out, which is a wonderful place to learn storytelling in the days before radio and television and movie theaters and all those kinds of things. He fell in love with the new Indianapolis 500.
I discovered recently that he must have gone to 10 straight races — in other words, every year until he left Indiana. And his dream was to race in the Indianapolis 500. What is important, I think, about that interest is that he became familiar with technology, which would serve him well as an aviation writer and as a war reporter. He wanted to go to World War I, but his parents wouldn’t let him when the U.S. entered the war because they said you have to finish high school. When he finished high school, he volunteered for the Naval Reserve, but he also looked into an academic program for soldiers that was carried out at Butler University. And just think how much Pyle’s career would’ve been different if he had gone to Butler and not Indiana, but crucial was his time at Indiana University.
We don’t know why he went there. He could, because of his interest in technology, he could just as well have gone to Purdue. But when he arrived at the Indiana campus, he was a hick from the sticks. But even though Bloomington was still a very small town when he arrived here, on the campus were many students who had served in World War I, some of them in France, some of them in the U.S. — the important thing was that they had traveled elsewhere and been exposed to other ways of doing things. He started writing for the student newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, in his sophomore year. And I think it’s worthwhile pointing out that Nelson Poynter, the great Florida publisher, was one of his fellow students. We don’t know why he took journalism as an interest. The apocryphal story is that he was told that it was an easy major.
The fact was you couldn’t major in journalism at that time. He couldn’t do it until 1932. What I think is particularly interesting and not been talked about very much is he was a natural-born public relations person. He did promotional material for a memorial campaign to raise money for a stadium, a women’s dorm, and for a union building. He made a trip near the end of his junior year to Japan with the Indiana baseball team. Interestingly enough, articles about that trip appeared in a number of newspapers in Indiana, and many of them happened to mention that Pyle and three of his friends went along. I suspect Ernie wrote those materials. He was editor-in-chief of the Indiana Daily Student in the summer of 1922, and, for the first time ever, at the state fair edition of the newspaper. That edition existed, I think, until 1959.
And again, there were articles about Ernie Pyle as the editor that were published around the state of Indiana. That same summer, he crossed a picket line. There was a railroad strike in the eastern part of the United States, and I think he was attracted by the money. Fortunately, some of his mentors at Indiana said, “Ernie, that’s not the thing to do.” And when he was back visiting in 1940, he said that was the one thing that he wished he had back, that he — and it helped him to understand the union movement. He was the football manager. That was not a manager like the way today, but he selected where people would sit, he did promotions, he helped raise money for the band to travel to away games, once hired Hoagy Carmichael to play at one of the dances.
And he did PR for the football team. He was selected as a member of the first Board of Aeons, which is an advisory body that still exists today to advise the president of the university. Interestingly enough, he promoted the idea of smoking, which was accepted. Of course, nowadays, you can’t do that. And his senior year, he also was enrolled in a seminar for outstanding students where the leaders of the university came to speak to that select group of students. So he became a big man on campus. And then he left a semester early. The traditional story was that he left because he had broken up with his girlfriend. Didn’t happen until several months after he left. In fact, what I discovered is that he had a run-in with a journalism professor, and I think he said, “Look, I’ve been to Japan, I’ve seen the world.
I know a lot more about journalism than you ever will.” That teacher, who I’m pretty sure I know who it is, wound up writing PR for a toilet company in Chicago. As you can see, I have a lot of fun with Pyle. He was four months at the La Porte Herald, and then he was recruited along with Nelson Poynter to go to the Washington Daily News. And there, he was a very clever copy editor and headline writer. He simply had a knack for finding the right words that would draw people in — I guess in the current world, we’d say he was really good with clickbait — but he did his job. In 1925 he married [Geraldine] Jerry Siebolds, a woman from Minnesota, who was a very independent sort of person. She had gone to Washington in 1918, on her own, at a time when women didn’t do that very much, to work in the war effort.
She was — when Pyle met her — a very clever woman who could match Pyle witticism for witticism. I always referred to her as a Pyle’s muse. She was somebody who really helped his writing. Shortly after their marriage, they bought a car and traveled around the U.S. People didn’t do that in those days, in part because a lot of the roads were gravel and it was hard on cars. They wound up in New York, broke, and he got a job at the New York World-Telegram. Again, it’s a copy editor, but he wasn’t happy. Big city life didn’t appeal to him. And you have to remember Washington D.C. in those days was much smaller. He was wooed back to Washington by Lee Miller, a fellow journalist who came from Seymour, Indiana, which is also the home of John Mellencamp,
their other famous son, and he had his same role as before, but he started writing on aviation. He turned out six columns a week, every week. Even when he was on vacation, he wrote columns in advance so that there wouldn’t be any interruption. And you have to think, I mean, he’s turning out 700, 800 words a day. What is that? Almost 5,000 words a week. Nobody does that anymore. He knew everyone and everything about aviation. Amelia Earhart said any pilot who didn’t know Ernie Pyle was a nothing. In the process of writing aviation, he learned how to spot stories and gained a great deal of respect in the Washington journalism community, which was very competitive at the time. In 1932, he gave up the aviation column to become managing editor of the Daily News. It’s often said that he didn’t like that job, and maybe he didn’t, but think about it, especially in the current environment in 1932, we were in the midst of a depression, and being a managing editor was a much more secure job then being a reporter.
Ken Ward (15:51):
Owen Johnson (15:52):
I think he missed writing, but I think the decisive reason he gave up that job in 1935 was because his wife was having increasing difficulties. She was bipolar at a time when nobody knew what that meant, and there was no treatment for it, and one of the results of her bipolarity was substance abuse. She was doing drugs, she was drinking very, very heavily. So Pyle left that job, and he and Jerry began to crisscross the United States. And he wrote columns about every state, about many different people, about many different experiences, and not only the U.S. He was in Hawaii and Alaska, which were only territories at the time. He traveled in Canada, Mexico, Central, South America. Again, nobody did that in those days. He was a first-timer. He was flying airplanes in South America at a time when most Americans could hardly conceive of the idea.
Ken Ward (17:11):
That’s one of the things that really interests me about him is that he seems to be tackling a lot of these things without, you know, like, studying up or having this big background in them. Like he, he kind of jumps into that aviation beat. It doesn’t seem like he studied it much before that or was involved in the industry before that. He took on this challenge. And the same with this, you know, this adventuring spirit where he’s just sort of going across America, writing these columns for that particular paper, like there seems to be, and where we know where he winds up in World War II as well. You know, there seems to be this adventurous impulse driving him forward in a lot of what he did.
Owen Johnson (17:46):
Yeah. Pyle was just a very curious person who could soak up information. He made it look easy. Now there’s a little bit of evidence. I’ve seen a couple of notebooks that he kept during his freshman year at Indiana. And he carefully wrote down the notes and I think rewrote them so that they would be there. I have a copy of a dictionary that he took with him to La Porte. So he was doing this preparation, but he was doing it very quietly and very easily. So, this natural curiosity helped him learn about aviation. We make a mistake with the old story that he just happened into a town and wrote a column on some subject that was suggested to him by a local. Ok, maybe that happened a few times, but in fact, he had a notebook of story ideas and he made connections. For instance, his first trip around the U.S., he went through New Orleans on his way to Mexico.
And he interviewed some people about various issues. Well, though, lo and behold, many of the stories he wrote in Mexico were about people who had some connection to the people in New Orleans. So, he was always thinking ahead. Jim Tobin, who wrote an excellent biography about Pyle in 1997, says the real importance of Ernie Pyle in these days is a “who’s your vagabond,” where that he introduced America to itself. So people in New Hampshire could read about what was happening in Minnesota. And they learned about the United States. Today we sort of take it for granted because we have television, we have the internet, you know, all those things, so we can immediately find out what we want about Maine. Wasn’t so easy to do in Pyle’s day.
Ken Ward (20:07):
Sure. So how does that career chronicling those adventures, you know, crisscrossing America, how does that land him in wartime Europe once we fast-forward a few years?
Owen Johnson (20:13):
You know, that’s a hard question to answer. The truth is he was divorced in 1942. His goal was to shake his wife back to her senses because he — he understood there was something wrong. He described her as having multiple personalities, but — April 1942, the divorce. So the war is going on. So he decides to go back to Washington and he volunteers for the Army and lo and behold, he passes the physical. I mean, he’s 42 years old, and he passes the physical. His bosses at Scripps-Howard said, “Ernie, we think you could do a lot better writing for Americans than you could as a clerk typist somewhere.” So that’s how he got, he got over there initially. Now I do have to mention that in late 1940, early 1941, he had gone to London, and he wrote some excellent columns about the Blitz, the German bombing attacks on London and about the Americans that were doing some very initial training when the U.S. wasn’t in the war yet. But he decided those are subjects of interest. So he had some experience with the war. And the reality is when he went back to London in July of 1942, he felt like he was going home.
Ken Ward (22:05):
Gotcha. So once he’s there, can you characterize his writing? Like, what sorts of actions over there is he involved with and what was he writing, and why was it so captivating to readers back home?
Owen Johnson (22:16):
I think it was that he instinctively understood from his pre-war experience that readers wanted to know what it was like to be in the Army, Navy, or the Air Force. Actually the Air Force was under the Army at the time, the Army Air Force. They didn’t — well, I won’t say they didn’t care about who was winning or about the battles, but there were other people who were reporting that. Pyle’s forte with storytelling —
It was as if he was going into a small town and telling people, “This is what it’s like for your sons, your boyfriends, for people you know that are in the war.” And I use the male gender there — in fact, Pyle, ahead of his time, wrote about women serving as well, and he was a great supporter of women journalists. It is important to remember that he was a columnist. He was not under daily deadline pressures. Others could do that. So he could craft and think about the stories. And it’s also important that in contrast to earlier days, when he had to write six columns a week every week, he didn’t have those kinds of stressful deadlines. He still had to meet deadlines of some kind, but maybe only four or five columns. So he could think in his head about, “How can I best tell this story?”
And it’s also important he got a lot of feedback in a way that other journalists didn’t, and that’s because his was the only column that was regularly published in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. So soldiers around the world could read what he was writing, and they told their friends and loved ones back home, “If you want to find out what it’s like” — and what they really meant, “as much as can be told,” — then read Ernie Pyle.” And the parents, the loved ones at home, would read Pyle in the newspaper and write to their troops and say, “You ought to look at this guy Ernie Pyle because we really think he’s telling it like it is.” No other journalists could say that.
Ken Ward (25:05):
So what, based on the things that he was writing and his experience overall throughout his career, what can we learn from Pyle? Like, what can those of us who maybe don’t study him as deeply as you have, what can we take away from his experience?
Owen Johnson (25:20):
His was a journey in journalism in the first half of the 20th century, increasingly professionally trained. So, when he went to La Porte, he actually wrote a column for the student newspaper at Indiana about how there were five people on the staff of that small paper. And they all had college educations. Four of them had graduated, Pyle had not, but he was as close to a graduate as you could get. At the same time, he was linked to ordinary people in a way far less common today for journalists. I mean journalists at leading institutions, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Tampa Bay Tribune, Chicago Tribune, and those kinds of papers. Today they’re staffed by people from middle-class maybe even upper middle class. So, journalists were different then in their origins, but I think it’s something that journalists today have to remember that they’re not just writing for their peers, they are writing, or reporting, for ordinary people anyway.
And he also shows us wonderful examples of successful storytelling, which has had, I think, similar results in the good feature writing that we see today, at least in print journalism. And because a good feature story tells a story, it’s not just a reporting of events. And I think he also demonstrates how journalists began to be famous and in their — in the process, how their lives became more complicated. Pyle hated it when he came back from the war in Europe, as he did in 1943 and 1944. He didn’t like that he was being pursued by ordinary people who — maybe they wanted his autograph, maybe they just wanted to shake his hand. That bothered him no end. Now, it also helped — and journalists today know this — that it’s a great advantage to know people at the top. So, you know, he could call on assistance from General Eisenhower or other leaders. He knew Hollywood actors and he could get their help.
So life could be comfortable. He could get a ticket on an airplane during the war at a time when other people had great difficulties. I think, perhaps, the most important thing is the quality of Pyle’s writing. It remains a model of good, concise, simple writing. He almost never wrote complicated sentences. There was a guy by the name of Mike Harden who was a columnist for a newspaper in Columbus, Ohio, who unfortunately passed away maybe a decade ago. He counted up the words in each sentence in the famous Captain Waskow column and discovered the average was maybe 10 or 12 words. It’s — it sounds extraordinary to us, but he was telling stories in a way as if he were sitting across the table from a friend. And that’s how you speak in ordinary terms. And that remains a model.
Ken Ward (29:21):
Okay, well, so, so I have one last question for you and this broadens the scope of our conversation a little bit. This is a question that we ask every guest on the show, and that is, why does journalism history matter?
Owen Johnson (29:34):
Oh why does it matter? You know, that is, it’s a — I say, it’s an interesting question. And that’s because I think that you cannot understand public communication in any period if you do not study journalism. That’s what people are saying to each other in public. Now, that’s not everything that they would talk about, but it’s certainly a lot of it. Sometimes journalism is robust and lively; in other societies, at other times, it’s restricted. But if we learn the context in which journalism operates, we can learn a lot in what has happened in history. We understand how journalism and journalists change over time, which is my definition of history.
There’s that famous adage: “The past is like a foreign country; they do things differently there.” And journalists help us to understand that, you know, to take us back, to understand what it was like to grow up in a small town, say Rushville, Indiana. Pyle wrote some columns there because a fellow Hoosier by the name of Wendell Willkie had been chosen to be the Republican nominee against Roosevelt in 1940, so we learned about what it was like to live in Rushville and how huge a victory — or a visit by a native of Rushville, Wendell Willkie — was for the community. And I think, especially today, we’re dealing with this issue of fact-based journalism, some kind of neutral report — an objective attitude, but as anybody who has studied journalism history in the United States knows, in the 19th century, newspapers strongly allied themselves with political parties. And maybe if we understand more about that, we can figure out how to understand the present situation and come up with some solutions.
Ken Ward (32:33):
Absolutely. All right. Well, we’ll have to leave it there, but Owen, thank you very much for being on the show. I really appreciate it. And I feel like I understand Ernie Pyle, especially his beginnings, a lot better now. So thanks for being on the show.
Owen Johnson (32:43):
My pleasure, and Ernie thanks you too.
Ken Ward (32:46):
Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Journalism History podcast. If you like our podcast, please consider leaving us a rating and a review on the Podcasts app or wherever you listen to us until next time. I’m your host, Ken Ward, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: “Good night, and good luck.”