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Ernie Pyle Museum Struggling In Small Town

  • Ernie Pyle

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    Photo: Sara Wittmeyer

    An exhibit at the Ernie Pyle Museum in Dana, Indiana shows the trench were Ernie Pyle was killed by a sniper near Okinawa.

  • Ernie Pyle Museum

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    Photo: Sara Wittmeyer

    Displays at the Ernie Pyle Museum depict scenes from Pyle's columns.

  • donation box

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    Photo: Sara Wittmeyer

    There's a donation box by the door as you exit the Ernie Pyle Museum. The group that runs the museum is depending on donations to keep the site open.

Ernie Pyle was a newspaper correspondent whose dispatches from the front lines of World War II were often compared to getting a letter home from the troops. Pyle’s columns won him the Pulitzer Prize and he was portrayed on the silver screen. In a rare honor for a civilian, he was even awarded a Purple Heart.

Pyle was born and raised in tiny Dana,Indiana where a once expansive museum pays tribute to him.  It is a farming community about 40 miles from the nearest interstate. As soon as you come into Dana, you are pointed toward the one thing that would bring you here – the Ernie Pyle Museum.

Philip Hess is on the board of directors for the Friends of Ernie Pyle

“Would you like to take the whole tour? I’d like for you to,” he asks as he stands on the steps of the visitor’s center, which is also Pyle’s birthplace.

The private tour through Pyle’s boyhood home offers an early 20th-century glimpse into the life of one of America’s most famous journalists. The tour winds through the sitting room into Pyle’s parents’ room, where you find Ernie’s crib, and on to the kitchen and the living room. From there you go outside and into the visitor’s center -  a connected pair of restored Army Quonset huts from World War II. Throughout the exhibit, life-size tableaus depict some of Pyle’s most famous columns.

Hess points to a mural,This is a picture of what the beach looked like when Ernie came ashore in Normandy one day after the invasion.”

When you press a button, Actor William Windom’s voice comes on and reads the article.

“I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in France. It was a lovely day for a walk on the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand some of them forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were floating for they were dead.”  

Pyle was known for putting a human face on war. He befriended and traveled with the troops until being killed by a sniper in 1945 near Okinawa. After his death Dana residents began traveling the country meeting with people who knew Pyle, collecting stories and artifacts to put on display. They created a museum that they donated to the state of Indiana.

Keeping The Doors Open

The state staffed the museum and did the upkeep  up until last year.  Indiana was spending more than $40,000 on the museum, which was drawing only about 2,000 visitors a year. Historical sites vice-president Bruce Beesley says the state simply could not justify the museum’s costs.

“We of course faced a lot of budget issues as all others in state government had, and we had to make a decisions on what was the most effective and efficient way to tell the Ernie Pyle story,” Beesley says. 

Indiana officials determined the best way to tell Pyle’s story was to cherry-pick the best things from the site – everything from his field typewriter to his famous Zippo lighter with the initials EP carved into it – and display them in the state museum in Indianapolis.

Hess was told that more people will visit the Pyle exhibit there in one year than would have traveled to Dana in a hundred. While he does not dispute that, he says it is just not the same.

“In Indianapolis they see who Ernie Pyle was. Here you get to feel what his writing was about and a fair number of people who see the exhibits leave here in tears,” Hess says.

The Ernie Pyle Museum is back under the ownership of the Friends group which opens it to the public in the summer or by appointment. Now before you exit the Quonset huts, you pass by a large donation box marked with these words – “help keep the site open.”

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