John Steinbeck: Ernie Pyle — War Correspondent

A Homage to a Brave Man

Ernie Pyle in the Field. Image: Albuquerque Journal

It was hard for John Steinbeck to write about his dead friend Ernie Pyle, and what he did write was never published until 2002, thirty-four years after Steinbeck’s own death.

The long unpublished piece is about Pyle’s increasing exhaustion as a WWII war correspondent: that he is so ‘utterly weary’, with very little left to say about the war, and the men and women who are fighting it, who are themselves so utterly weary too.

Of course Steinbeck knew what Pyle was talking about, having himself been a war correspondent for a time and, to an extent, creating a style not so dissimilar to Pyle’s: a style that can capture the life of the ordinary soldier, and usually those at the very sharp end of the fighting. Steinbeck did pretty much the same.

Steinbeck’s piece is a homage to a brave man:

“ It’s a hard thing to write about a dead man who doesn’t seem dead to you. Ernie Pyle didn’t want to go back to the war. When he left France, he set down his disgust and fear and weariness. He thought he could rest a little, but he couldn’t. People told him what to do and what he should do. He could have overcome that but he couldn’t overcome his own sense of responsibility. He had become identified with every soldier in the army.”

The thing is, Ernie Pyle had been a war correspondent long before WWII ever started, covering the destruction of people’s lives as a result of the Great Depression. Throughout the 1930s Pyle crisscrossed the US, writing stories about those ordinary Americans whose sons and daughters found themselves alongside Pyle in Europe and Japan just a few years later. For them he had, somehow, always been there, telling their stories. It would be his face, and his unfailing support they would always remember: next to them in the fox-holes and on the hospital wards. It would be his stories, and those of Steinbeck, and Martha Gellhorn, that the families read back home: stories written by people who had shared, and were sharing their hardships.

Steinbeck and Pyle bumped into each other in California:

“ In San Francisco before he [Pyle]went to the Pacific he seemed a little numb. The rest hadn’t rested him. His eyes were deep and tired and restless. He sat with a glass of whiskey in his hand and his jaw muscles were tight. He looked sick.” Wherever he was, home, hotels, bars, the phone rang all the time. “ He must speak, he must write this and this. ‘ I don’t know why I have to go back but I do, ‘ he said. ‘ It’s my business.’ He was wearing a new uniform and cap. ‘These are a waist of money,’ he said, ‘I won’t need them.’ His percentage had disappeared and he knew it. And he didn’t resent it. He had done everything else with the soldiers except this last thing. ‘I don’t know whether I can write anymore,’ he said. ‘I thought I’d get rested but I didn’t. Anyway, it will be warm in the Philippines.’ ”

I think that must have been the last time Steinbeck saw him.

Ernie Pyle was killed by Japanese machine gun fire on the 18th April 1945. He was 44 and had been a newspaperman all his adult life.

Ernie Pyle wrote several books during WWII, with his best known probably Brave Men.

Read Part 12


Thomas Fensch (Editor) — Conversations with John Steinbeck (University Press of Mississippi, Jackson & London, 1988); John Steinbeck — Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (Viking Press & Penguin Books, New York & London, 1969–1990); Jay Parini — John Steinbeck: A Biography (Heinemann, London, 1994); Jackson J. Benson — The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (Penguin Books, New York & London, 1984–1990); John Steinbeck — Once There Was a War (Viking Press, New York, 1958 & Penguin Books, New York & London, 1977); John Steinbeck: America and Americans ( Edited by Susan Shillinglaw & Jackson J. Benson, Penguin Books, New York & London, 2003); John Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (Edited by Elaine Steinbeck & Robert Wallsten, Viking Press, New York, 1975, Penguin Books, USA & London, 1976, Penguin Classics, London, 2001); John Steinbeck: Travels with Charley (The Viking Press, New York, 1962 & Penguin Books, New York & London, 1980, 1997, & in Penguin Classics, 2000); The Fiction of John Steinbeck (The Viking & Penguin Books); John Steinbeck: A Russian Journal, with Photos by Robert Capa ( The Viking Press, New York, 1948 & Penguin Classic, New York & London, 1999 & 2000); John Steinbeck: Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team (The Viking Press, New York, 1943 & Paragon House, New York, 1990); Carlos Baker: Ernest Hemingway — A Life Story (Wm. Collins Sons, London, 1969); Arthur Miller: Timebends — An Autobiography (Methuen, London, 1999);

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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