“Someday when peace has returned to this odd world I want to come to London again and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges.”
Those words silenced the students assembled in the Continuing Education room at Meadowood Retirement Community on a Thursday evening in early May. The room falls silent as soon as they hear the voice of their instructor reading an Ernie Pyle column written after the Blitz of London in December of 1940.
“And standing there, I want to tell somebody who has never seen it how London looked on a certain night in the holiday season of the year 1940,” recites Owen Johnson, a professor of journalism at Indiana University. “For on that night this old, old city – even though I must bite my tongue in shame for saying it – was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire.”
Johnson has taught many undergraduates about the life and writings of Pyle. But this year, the Continuing Studies program at IU asked Johnson to take his expertise to a different population for a few weeks.
Ernie Pyle is no longer a household name. For those of the World War II era, though, he is instantly recognizable. A native Hoosier, Pyle earned international fame as a war correspondent who wrote from the soldiers’ perspective instead of repeating the views of top military brass. Pyle is the one who coined the term “G.I. Joe.”
Twelve continuing studies students spent three Thursday evenings with Johnson this spring. Most, but not all were Meadowood residents. They learned about Pyle’s small town upbringing in Dana, Ind. They learned about his time at IU writing for the Indiana Daily Student, and about his work as a domestic reporter and finally his life as a war correspondent.
Johnson had to trim down his semester’s worth of material on Pyle for the three-session class, and also had to adjust for his well-informed audience.
“The people who lived through World War II are naturally interested in the subject, so you can open up and develop whatever way you want to go, whatever way you’re interested in,” he says. “Whereas with the students,” — undergraduates, that is — “there’s an element of, you have to entice them into the course so they find it exciting in a way I do automatically.”
Gary Fisher of Linton was one of the youngest in the class at age 68. He was only a baby when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but has maintained a life-long interest in World War II. He took the class because he wanted to know more about Pyle.
“He was a compassionate man, it seemed, but he didn’t want to commit to any kind of relationship with a lady,” says Fisher. “I came away with that impression. Went through three and a half years at IU and refused to finish the last semester to get his degree. Had a disagreement with his instructor, I believe, so he was strong-willed in that respect.”
Jane Layman graduated from high school in 1945, and she remembers reading Pyle’s columns to get the latest news.
“Well, his was a more personal approach,” she says. “You felt like he knew the people involved, whereas the newspaper, there wasn’t television in those days you understand, it was just newspaper, and that was all sort of official news, but not personal. So his outlook was more one that you could relate to.”
Layman says she learned a lot from Johnson’s class, but wishes we knew more about the iconic reporter, such as why he left IU before graduating, and why exactly he agreed to go cover the Pacific theater of the war, where he eventually died under fire on a Japanese island at the age of 45.
“That would never happen now,” Layman says of the uncertainty surround Pyle’s history, “because there’s so much of a record of everything. If you Googled Ernie Pyle then, it would be so much different.”
Johnson agrees that if Pyle were reporting today, he would face much different circumstances in the world of journalism.
“He would have an exceptionally difficult time,” Johnson thinks, of a Pyle-like figure trying to report in the modern news era.
“One of the advantages that he had was in fact time. He was not writing today’s news for tomorrow’s newspapers, or today’s news for today’s blog. He had a chance to experience a scene, to think about it, maybe sometimes as much as two weeks later, write it up, and then send it back and it might still be another week or two before it would get into print. So it was timeless news, and we have a much more difficult time today with the concept of timeless news. We want timely news. We want the news now.”
Pyle, though, remains a timeless figure for both the students and their instructor.
“He is one of the journalistic heroes of the twentieth century,” says Johnson.”
“That many reporters look up to him as a representative of the best in their craft, somebody who could report well and somebody who could write exceptionally well. The other major point I think I would say is that he is an icon of World War Two. For many people who lived through World War Two, Pyle is the person who interpreted and explained the war to them in a way no one else could do.”
Johnson is working on a book based on more than 1,200 of Pyle’s personal letters to his friends and family. The students in Johnson’s class at Meadowood say they can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, Pyle’s old columns and other biographies of the reporter will have to do.
“These white pinpoints would go out one by one as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand,” Pyle wrote in his Dec. 1940 report from London. “But also, as we watched, other pinpoints would burn on and pretty soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white center. They had done their work – another building was on fire.”
For a longer video story on the Ernie Pyle class at Meadowood, look up the “WTIU Weekly Special” podcast on iTunes.