DATE April 7, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author James Tobin discusses his biography of World War
II correspondent Ernie Pyle
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We've been getting unprecedented media coverage of the war in Iraq from
journalists who are risking their lives or have given their lives to be there.
Today, we talk about war reporting by discussing the life and death of the war
correspondent who was widely considered the best correspondent of World War II
and one of the best war correspondents in history, Ernie Pyle. He covered
World War II and was killed in combat in the Pacific shortly before the Allied
victory in Europe.
My guest James Tobin is the author of the book "Ernie Pyle's War." Tobin
writes, `Pyle was America's eyewitness to the 20th century's supreme ordeal.
His published version of World War II had become the nation's version.
America's mental picture of the soldiers who had won it was largely Pyle's
creation. He and his grimy GIs--frightened, but enduring--had become the
heroic symbols that the soldiers and their children would remember as the good
war.' The biography "Ernie Pyle's War" won a National Book Critics Circle
Award after it was first published in 1997. It's still available in
paperback. James Tobin also has a new book called "To Conquer the Air: The
Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight."
I asked James Tobin to start by reading one of Ernie Pyle's columns, which is
excerpted in the biography of Pyle.
Mr. JAMES TOBIN (Author): This is Ernie Pyle writing in a column from Tunisia
in early 1943. (Reading) `The men are walking. They don't slouch. It is the
terrible deliberation of each step that spells out their appalling tiredness.
Their faces are black and unshaven. They are young men, but the grime and
whiskers and exhaustion make them look middle-aged. In their eyes as they
pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their
victory; there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had
been here doing this forever and nothing else. The line moves on, but it
never ends. All afternoon, men keep coming around the hill and vanishing
eventually over the horizon. It is one long, tired line of ant-like men.
There is an agony in your heart and you feel almost ashamed to look at them.
They are just guys from Broadway and Main Street, but you wouldn't remember
them. They are too far away now. They are too tired. Their world can never
be known to you.'
GROSS: That's a chilling last sentence: `Their world can never be known to
you.' How much did Pyle try to describe the more horrible aspects of that
war? How much did he want to share that with the readers, and what did he
want to protect them from?
Mr. TOBIN: I think he wanted to share as much of it as he thought the public
could tolerate, as much as sort of was within the bounds of good taste as it
was defined in the 1940s. He wanted to communicate the reality of war and, to
a certain extent, described certainly death, terrible injuries, battle
fatigue. But sometimes when he tried to describe the gorier details, his
content would be censored. There was a certain reticence on the part of the
military, and on the part of the war correspondents, about describing too much
of the really worst realities of war. In a certain sense, too, Ernie is
saying here as he said often, `Not that I just don't want to describe the
realities to you, but there is just a fundamental difficulty in telling
someone who hasn't been through war what war is really like.'
GROSS: What was the style of Ernie Pyle's war reporting? What was different
about his reporting than the other correspondents of World War II?
Mr. TOBIN: Ernie wrote in the first person, for one thing. Ernie's writing
came in a column. He was not a person writing news dispatches about, you
know, the previous day's battles, about how the war was going in a military
sense, at least not very often. So he had time to hang out with soldiers, to
live with units sometimes for days and even weeks at a time, and to reflect on
what he had seen and to write about it more carefully than the average daily
newspaper correspondent had time to write.
His style was simple, declarative sentences. What came through was a
tremendously sensitive, compassionate sensibility. I think that more than
anything else, along with his basic genius as a prose stylist, is what made
people respond to him so broadly in such a heartfelt way during the war.
GROSS: You say that he created a new kind of war hero. What do you mean?
Mr. TOBIN: Well, before World War II, the kind of classic image of the
soldier, of the war hero in America is probably captured best by Theodore
Roosevelt and the charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.
It's sort of a Victorian image of heroism, of heroic advance against the foe.
In Ernie's writings, what we see is a different kind of heroism. It's a
heroism of endurance. It's a very different kind of war, obviously. This is
industrial warfare, where what most soldiers are doing in battle most of the
time is gutting it out, is just surviving against this sort of terrible
onslaughts of artillery, especially. And so that's what kind of comes through
in Ernie's corpus, is the image of a suffering soldier who is enduring
against, you know, terrific odds. And so that's really a new kind of admiral
quality that he holds up to the American public.
GROSS: I'd like for you to read an excerpt of a column in which he described
what was probably the first war death that he witnessed. Maybe you can give
us the context of this column and read an excerpt for us.
Mr. TOBIN: This is shortly after Ernie had arrived in North Africa, which is
really his first involvement in the American part of the war, late 1942, early
1943. And Ernie had covered aviation before, so he was comfortable with
pilots and flyers and flight mechanics. And so one of the first things that
he does is go with an Air Corps outfit and hang out at this airfield in
Algeria. And so he's describing this scene, and I'll read just a little
scene-setter and then jump to some words of his.
(Reading) `It was late afternoon at our desert airdrome. The sun was lazy,
the air was warm and a faint haze of propeller dust hung over the field,
giving it softness. We had already seen death that afternoon, for one of the
returning Fortresses had released a red flare over the field. And I had stood
with others beneath the great plane as they handed its dead pilot, head
downward, through the escape hatch onto a stretcher. The faces of his crew
were grave, and nobody talked very much. One man clutched a leather cap with
blood on it; the pilot's hands were very white. Everybody knew the pilot. He
was so young a couple of hours ago. The war came inside us then, and we felt
Then Ernie describes a group of Flying Fortresses that had been out on a
mission and were coming back. Most of them had made it back to the field, but
one was still missing. And they wait, really, for several hours, then they
give up the plane for lost. And then all of a sudden, there's a flare seen on
the horizon and they realize that it's that last Fortress coming back to the
field, but very slowly.
He says (Reading), `It seemed almost on the ground it was so low, and in the
first glance, we could sense that it was barely moving, barely staying in the
air; crippled and alone, two hours behind all the rest. It was dragging
itself home. I am a layman and no longer of the fraternity that flies, but I
can feel. And at that moment, I felt something close to human love for that
faithful, battered machine, that far, dark speck struggling toward us with
such pathetic slowness. Thousands of men around that vast field suddenly
realized that they were weak and that they could hear their hearts pounding.
Our 10 dead men were miraculously back from the grave.'
GROSS: One of the great things about Ernie Pyle's war writing is that it's
almost like he's writing letters home to all of America. He's writing in the
first person, he's addressing the readers very directly; it's personal in a
way that I think is very uncommon for newspaper writing of that period.
Mr. TOBIN: That's right. And, in fact, Ernie described himself as a letter
writer. Even before the war he said, `That's essentially what I do is write
letters to people.' He had developed this style as a traveling columnist
before the war. He spent six years traveling around the country and the whole
Western Hemisphere writing very much in the style that he used during the war.
So it was a comfortable way of writing for him. And, really, the column that
we read during the war is one that he'd already been writing for several
GROSS: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with James Tobin about his
biography of Ernie Pyle, the famous World War II correspondent. His biography
is called "Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II."
In today's war in Iraq, embedded journalists are assigned by the military what
troop or unit they're going to travel with. How did it work with Ernie Pyle
in the military? How did he hook up with the troops that he traveled with?
Did he have to get permission from anyone on top before doing it?
Mr. TOBIN: Well, you would apply to be a war correspondent and you would be
accredited to one theater or another. As I understand the situation in Iraq
now, the embedded reporters are accredited only to one particular unit. It's
more restricted than it was during World War II, when the reporters
really--many of them were able to travel around more freely from one unit to
Ernie pretty quickly established himself as one of the leading reporters and
pretty soon as very much the leader. And so, you know, the generals, the
military bureaucrats, were delighted to have Ernie come with whatever unit he
chose to come with. They knew it was great publicity for their outfit. But
he would often have a jeep to himself or would travel with a colleague and,
really, especially in North Africa early in the war, would really roam around
Now all dispatches from all correspondents were censored, passed through
military censors, before they were transmitted back to the United States. But
after a while--I think it was in most cases very clear to the correspondents
what was permissible and what wasn't; everybody knew the rules. And most of
the censorship rules applied simply to military security, as they do now.
GROSS: This is before satellite phones. How did Ernie Pyle get his columns
back to his newspaper?
Mr. TOBIN: Mostly by Teletype. If he was in Europe, say, if he was in
France--and near the end of the war in the campaign in Normandy--he would go
to a press camp and the dispatch would be--you know, after being censored, it
would be sent by Teletype to London and then by trans-Atlantic cable back to
New York. So it went through several steps. There were more filters than
there are now, for sure.
GROSS: Ernie Pyle was a columnist, not a news reporter. So, you know, people
might wonder, `Well, how did someone like Ernie Pyle cover an event like
D-Day, just like a massive battle like D-Day?' And so I thought I'd ask you
to read an excerpt from Ernie Pyle's column about D-Day, what he chose to say
about that event.
Mr. TOBIN: You bet. Ernie came in the day after D-Day, and he's faced with
the battle being sort of a mile or so inland. He doesn't want to write about
that. He wants to try and capture what had happened on the beach on June 6th.
And so, in what I think is just a brilliant piece of journalistic strategy, he
just takes a walk on the beach, walks along describing what he sees at his
feet. And at first, he describes some of the materiel and just the office
junk that's there and all kinds of things--the materiel things that are on the
Then he writes (Reading), `But there is another and more human litter. It
extends in a thin, little line, just like a high watermark, for miles along
the beach. This is the strewn personal gear, gear that will never be needed
again, of those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe. Here
in a jumbled row, for mile and mile, are soldiers' packs. Here are socks and
shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here are the
latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out, one
of the security precautions enforced before the boys embarked. Here are
toothbrushes and razors and snapshots of families back home staring up at you
from the sand. Here are pocketbooks, metal mirrors, extra trousers and
bloody, abandoned shoes. Here are broken-handled shovels and portable radios
smashed almost beyond recognition.
`I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier's name in it and put it in my
jacket. I carried it half a mile or so and then put it back down on the
beach. I don't know why I picked it up, or why I put it back down. I stepped
over the form of one youngster whom I thought dead. But when I looked down, I
saw he was only sleeping. He was very young and very tired. He'd lay on one
elbow, his hand suspended in the air about six inches from the ground. And in
the palm of his hand, he held a large, smooth rock. I stood and looked at him
a long time. He seemed in his sleep to hold that rock lovingly, as though it
were his last link with a vanishing world.'
GROSS: My guest is James Tobin, author of "Ernie Pyle's War." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Tobin, and we're talking
about his biography of the World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle.
I'm always interested in what draws a journalist into war reporting, into
risking their life to cover a war. Let's talk about why Ernie Pyle did it.
Let's start, first of all, with his childhood. He grew up on a farm, and he
wanted out. He wanted an adventurous life, and he knew he wasn't going to
have it on the farm. He enlisted in the Army at the end of the World War I,
but I guess he never--the war ended before he got to see combat.
Mr. TOBIN: That's it.
GROSS: So what kind of adventure, what kind of life did he seek out after the
end of World War I, when he got out of the military?
Mr. TOBIN: Well, Ernie loved to travel and wanted to see the world, and so
found that newspapering offered him probably the best chance of doing that.
And so quickly made lots of trips--traveled to Asia, traveled to South America
and wound up in Washington and New York as a newspaper writer. He got bogged
down in a desk job for a number of years, was managing editor of a now-defunct
paper called The Washington Daily News, and proposed to his editors that he be
allowed to just go out on the road and write. There were very few reporters
who really were roving reporters, genuinely traveling all the time, but Ernie
became one and in 1935 started this amazing just journey across the country,
back and forth, went to every state--went to Alaska, went to Hawaii, went to
South America and Central America--and wrote a column that appeared six days a
week. It's an astonishing amount of work.
GROSS: And let's talk a little bit about his personal life. He had a
troubled marriage. What were some of the problems within the marriage?
Mr. TOBIN: Ernie was married to a very bright and interesting woman,
Geraldine Siebolds, whom he called Jerry. But it was pretty clear, not long
after they were married in the '20s, that she was deeply troubled, came from a
troubled family. She became an alcoholic and a drug abuser and was probably
manic-depressive. And so he tried over the years in many different ways to
try and snap her out of it, to get her into some kind of therapy. He thought
that the travel column would be a way of providing a constant change of scene
for her; he thought that might help her. But none of it did help her.
And so by the time of Pearl Harbor, their marriage was really shattered.
Ernie was starting to have extramarital affairs, and decided early in 1942
that they had to split up. And he hoped that maybe by splitting up it would
shock Jerry into sort of a new self-awareness, that she might seek more
effective treatment and that they might be able to remarry, which ultimately
But it's really to escape that real personal trauma and his own depression
that Ernie went to war in the beginning. It wasn't so much that he was dying
to cover the war; it was that he was dying to just get out of his situation
and find a change, to escape. And I think that--I don't know how many
reporters in Iraq would say something like that, but certainly through the
history of war correspondents, there is a tradition of reporters seeing war as
a way to get out; as a way to sort of to find personal escape and liberation.
GROSS: Now you said that Ernie Pyle had depression problems himself. Why did
he think that being in the front lines with the soldiers would help him get
over his depression?
Mr. TOBIN: Well, I don't know if he thought of it in such a one-to-one
relationship, but I think he realized once he was in the middle of the war
that warfare was profoundly distracting, that it was a way of allowing
yourself to be absorbed into something much larger than yourself. That's not
to say, you know, that he was a warmonger or that he was desperate to see, you
know, gory scenes. It's that he was fascinated by the spectacle of it. And I
think to some extent, it did lift him out of his depression.
GROSS: Well, he writes about how he found war strangely liberating. Would
you read an excerpt of that?
Mr. TOBIN: Yes. After going overseas, Ernie spent a number of months in
Ireland and England, and then he was able to go along with Operation Torch,
the American--the Allied invasion in North Africa. And so he goes really
without a clear sense of how long he's going to stay there. He's not really
committing himself to being a war correspondent. But as the American forces
go into battle and he goes along, he does find himself feeling like he's
making a contribution, feeling like the copy that he's writing is good and
valuable, and so he was really taken by the whole thing. And part of what he
was taken by was just the sort of rugged, outdoor, difficult life that he was
in, and he says this about that.
(Reading) `The danger comes in spirts; discomfort is perpetual. Dirt and cold
are almost constant. Outside of food and cigarettes, there are none of the
little things that make life normal back home. There are no chairs, lights,
floors or tables. There isn't anyplace to set anything or any store to buy
things. There are no newspapers, milk, beds, sheets, radiators, beer, ice
cream or hot water. A man just sort of exists, either standing up working or
lying down sleeping. There is no pleasant in between. The velvet is all gone
But as I say, Pyle also finds this life really exhilarating and liberating.
He says, `You don't have appointments to keep. Nobody cares how you look.
Red tape is at a minimum. You have no desk, no designated hours. You don't
wash your hands before you eat nor afterwards, either. It would be a heaven
for small boys with dirty ears.'
GROSS: James Tobin is the author of the book "Ernie Pyle's War." He'll be
back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, the public vs. the private Ernie Pyle. We continue our
conversation with his biographer, James Tobin. And Maureen Corrigan reviews
the novel "Family History" by Dani Shapiro.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with James Tobin. We're
talking about his 1997 book "Ernie Pyle's War," a biography of the famous
World War II correspondent. Tobin is also the author of the new book "To
Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight."
When we left off, we were talking about Pyle's depressions. Tobin says
covering the war initially helped liberate Pyle from depression, but that
didn't last long.
Mr. TOBIN: Well, I think that it helped Ernie feel better for a while, and
then as he saw more and more of the war, the war itself became the most
depressing thing in his life. I think this is--not that I've ever been in the
middle of combat or anywhere close to it, but in reading a lot about the
experience of war, you find soldiers and reporters saying that after a period
of exhilaration and fascination, the more you're exposed to it, the more you
become debilitated psychologically and emotionally.
And I think that this is what happens to Ernie as the war goes on. As he goes
from North Africa to the campaign in Sicily, which is very difficult, the
summer of 1943, and then especially to the Italian campaign, which was even
worse the following winter and then to France. He sees more and more death.
He himself is exposed to more and more danger, has a couple of very narrow
close-calls, almost dies. And nobody can do that and stay stable. You can't
stay in modern combat for a long period of time and be OK. It causes deep
suffering in anybody who is exposed to it long enough.
GROSS: He writes a little bit about the depression and the suffering he was
going through covering the war, and he writes about this not in a column but
in a letter to a friend. And the letter I'm thinking of is something that he
wrote after losing a friend in the war.
Mr. TOBIN: Early in February of 1944, a reporter named Raymond Clapper was
killed. He was one of these prominent newspaper columnists and had been a
colleague of Ernie's in Scripps Howard. He was mostly known as a Washington
correspondent, but went to war and was killed in the South Pacific. And Ernie
found out about it and writes to his close friend and his editor, Lee
He says (Reading), `I'm just floored by it. What a waste of intelligence and
character, as the whole war is. It gives me the creeps. The whole thing is
getting pretty badly under my skin, Lee. I've got so I brood about it, about
the whole thing, I mean. And I have a personal reluctance to die that is
always in my mind like a weight. Instead of growing stronger and hard as good
veterans do, I've become weaker and more frightened. I'm all right when I'm
actually at the front, but it's when I pull back and start thinking and
visualizing that it almost overwhelms me. I've even got so I don't sleep well
and have half-awake hideous dreams about the war.'
GROSS: Is that the kind of sentiment you think he would have confessed to his
readers, or does he save those kinds of--the vulnerabilities and the doubts
and the overwhelming despair that he's feeling, does he save that for letters,
for personal letters?
Mr. TOBIN: He expressed that more often in letters, but he does express it in
his column. There are comparable passages in a number of his columns. I
think what he does is ration that sort of feeling and that sort of expression.
There was a feeling during the war--and I think that this is pretty true in
any democratic society fighting a war--there's a line that correspondents feel
they have to walk between realism and encouraging a kind of demoralization
among their readers. They worry, as Ernie said in a couple of these passages,
that people just won't understand it. And I think that this is the reason
that many soldiers, after they come home, are reluctant to say what really
happened, even to their loved ones.
I think a lot of us have found that our fathers and grandfathers who fought in
World War II have taken most of their lives to be able to really say what it
was like. And it's only near the end when they want to tell people, `This was
what I went through.' When they're younger, it's really difficult to bridge
the gap between the front and the home front.
GROSS: You write how there was a growing difference between the public Ernie
Pyle that the people, the public, knew through his newspaper columns and the
private Ernie Pyle. What was the difference?
Mr. TOBIN: Well, it's certainly true that Ernie had established a kind of
persona in the column that was, you know, universally known and loved. And
the persona was of a kind of hapless, carefree, kind of Charlie Chaplinesque
figure; funny, casual, able to kind of bounce from one thing to another
without being terribly troubled. And that was very much not what Ernie was
experiencing as the war went on. And so there is a kind of divide between the
sort of reassuring, comforting persona of the column who is telling people,
`You know, it's bad, but your sons, your brothers, your husbands, they're
getting through it OK. They'll be all right. They haven't changed deeply.'
He wants to reassure on that score.
And yet, as you said, in his letters, you do see a darker side emerging, where
he's not so sure about the suffering that he's seeing around--there's one
column where he says, `I couldn't find the Four Freedoms among the dead men.'
That's about the toughest he ever expressed it in an actual column. More
often, he was saying that sort of thing in letters. And so he does sort of
unburden himself to his wife, to his editor and to close friends.
GROSS: Ernie Pyle was also known through his portrayal by Burgess Meredith in
the movie "The Story of GI Joe," a World War II film that was made while the
war was still going on. And what was the involvement of the military in this
Mr. TOBIN: Well, the movie was really the military's idea, and this is an
interesting side of the sort of the movie history to World War II that we all
know, that I certainly didn't know until I did the research for the book.
Early in the war, it was the Navy and the Air Corps that most movies were made
about. Those were seen to be the heroic branches of the armed services and
the glamorous ones and the exciting ones. That's where the real action was,
whereas the infantry was, you know, seen as dull and dirty and slogging and,
you know, not the sort of thing you would make a movie about.
So there were figures in the Army in Washington who were looking for somebody,
looking for a producer who would make a movie about the Army, and they came
across this young producer, Lester Cowan, whom they convinced to look into
this. Cowan actually talked to this fellow Raymond Clapper, who said, `Well,
if you want to make a movie about the infantry, you should read the columns of
Ernie Pyle.' And Cowan then went back and read all of Ernie's columns to date
and was very much taken by them, and approached Scripps Howard and Ernie and
proposed the idea of a movie that would be based on Ernie's work in the field.
And so "The Story of GI Joe," which didn't come out ultimately until 1945, is
an interesting kind of hybrid. It comes out of this essentially propaganda
impulse to give the Army its due, to give the infantry its due in Hollywood.
But then Ernie was so insistent that it be realistic that the Army never
really got the kind of heroic tale that it wanted, that it envisioned at the
beginning, anyway. What it got was really kind of a strange movie, an
interesting movie without much of a plot that is really just more documentary
in its feel, but that really does present the new kind of Pyle version of the
heroic soldier--dirty, slogging, enduring--not the gallant, rushing over the
hilltop kind of soldier.
GROSS: Some of the film is based on one of Ernie Pyle's most famous columns.
Robert Mitchum stars in the film as a very sympathetic captain. And the
column that the movie's partially based on is about Captain Henry Waskow.
Would you read an excerpt of that column for us and tell us what you think
makes this column important?
Mr. TOBIN: The column is set in Italy. Ernie was in the mountains with Army
troops and particularly with a group that is involved in using mules to bring
dead bodies off down from the mountains where the fighting had been going on.
It was too difficult and steep for soldiers to bring the bodies down
themselves, so they used these mules.
So he writes in this column, in part, (Reading) `I was at the foot of the mule
trail the night they brought Captain Waskow down. The moon was nearly full at
the time, and you could see far up the trail and even partway across the
valley. Soldiers made shadows as they walked. Dead men had been coming down
the mountain all evening lashed onto the backs of mules. The first one came
early in the morning. I don't know who that one was. You feel small in the
presence of dead men and ashamed of being alive, and you don't ask silly
Then Pyle explains that several more bodies are brought into this clearing by
this cow shed where there are men standing, and one of them is identified as
this Captain Waskow. (Reading) `The men in the road seemed reluctant to
leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving one by one
close to Captain Waskow's body, not so much to look, I think, as to say
something in finality to him and to themselves. I stood close by, and I could
hear. One soldier came and looked down and he said out loud, "Goddamn it."
That's all he said, and then he walked away. Then another soldier came and
bent over, and he, too, spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but
awfully tenderly, and he said, "I sure am sorry, sir."
`Then the first man squatted down and he reached down and took the captain's
hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes holding the dead hand in own
and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the
time he sat there. Finally, he put the hand down. He reached up and gently
straightened the points of the captain's shirt collar, and then he sort of
rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he
got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.'
GROSS: Why do you think that column had the impact that it did?
Mr. TOBIN: I think it had an impact chiefly because it's a fine piece of
writing. It's extremely descriptive. It really is just a model of what fine
documentary journalism ought to be in just bringing the reader into a scene
and seeing something extraordinary.
I think the meaning of the column for people--well, it affected people
different ways. But I think that the chief meaning of the column is that it,
between the lines, drives home this poignant theme of the comradeship among
soldiers. It's not so much about the captain himself, who is hardly described
at all in the rest of the column, but it's about the feeling of the men for
each other and for the dead man. And so there's this sense of tragedy and
loss, but also of--I think there's a certain reassuring theme between the
lines of something good coming out of this awful experience of war, that
there's a kind of love that exists in war. And that's one of the themes that
we see often in fine war writing, that people will admit to a certain appeal
about the experience of war and that's one of them, is that bond of love among
GROSS: My guest is James Tobin, author of "Ernie Pyle's War." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is James Tobin. We're talking about his biography of Ernie
Pyle, whose dispatches from World War II gave many Americans their most vivid
and lasting descriptions of the war.
Ernie Pyle died in the war. How did he die?
Mr. TOBIN: Ernie was killed in the Pacific. He went home shortly after the
liberation of Paris, late summer of 1944, and spent several months in the US
trying to rest, but really being sort of kind of a public figure; it was
difficult. And he had more difficult times with his wife, who attempted
suicide during that period. And I think he came to feel that he couldn't just
stop before the war was over; he had to go back to it. And because he had
been in Europe so long--although that was certainly the place he identified
with, the people he identified with--he felt that he owed it to the Navy and
the Marines in the Pacific to go there.
And so that was set up with the Navy; he spent time on an aircraft carrier in
the Western Pacific and then took part in the invasion of Okinawa. And then
just in April of 1945, went ashore on a little island that is just off Okinawa
called Iwo Jima. And really, in just a kind of a--not in the middle of a
battle, but in just a random situation, he was crossing the island in a jeep.
The jeep was fired upon by a Japanese machine gunner, and Ernie and the other
guys jumped out and into a ditch at the side of the road. And when the
machine gun was quiet, he raised his head up and was hit in the temple and
GROSS: Was his body found right away?
Mr. TOBIN: His body was recovered only after a few hours. There was still
the danger of this machine gun nest. And so finally, some guys crawled out
and a photographer took a picture of the body and some other guys pulled
Ernie's body back. And the word already was sent out by radio that Ernie had
been killed, and it was an extraordinary event. It was only a few days after
President Roosevelt had died, and the headlines about Ernie Pyle's death were
almost as large as the headlines about Roosevelt's death.
GROSS: Now he had a column that he was in the middle of writing that was
discovered in one of his pockets when he died. He was expecting that there
would be victory in Europe any day, and so he was already writing the column
about that victory. The column was never published, but you published some of
that in your biography of Pyle. I'd like you to read it for us.
Mr. TOBIN: This was just a--it hadn't been typed up yet; it was in Ernie's
pocket just in a handwritten draft, you know, with cross-outs and arrows. And
this is part of what he wrote. (Reading) `And so it is over. The catastrophe
on one side of the world has run its course. The day that had so long seemed
would never come has come at last.' And he said he's writing this in waters
near Japan. `But my heart is still in Europe, for the companionship of two
and a half years of death and misery is a spouse that tolerates no divorce.
In the joyousness of high spirits, it is easy for us to forget the dead.
There are so many of the living who have burned into their brains forever the
unnatural sight of cold, dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the
ditches, along the high rows of hedge throughout the world. Dead men by mass
production, in one country after another, month after month and year after
year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer; dead men in such familiar
promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity
that you come almost to hate them. Those are the things that you at home need
not even try to understand. To you at home, they are columns of figures, or a
near one who went away and just didn't come back. You didn't see him lying so
grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France. We saw him, saw him by
the multiple thousands. That's the difference.'
GROSS: Why do you think Scripps Howard decided not to publish this column
that he'd been writing?
Mr. TOBIN: I think that that gets too close to the way people feel when
they've been at war for a long time in the middle of it and have a point of
view about it that is simply unacceptable to people who have viewed the war
from the home front, from afar. That vision of war is just at odds with the
way people at home wanted to feel about the war, which was that it was tragic
and, of course, many had suffered losses, but not that it was this dark
reality that you just couldn't escape from. And that's what Ernie is talking
about. Ernie's talking there about what it really felt like to be at war for
a long time, and it was ultimately intolerable.
GROSS: And he's talking about `dead men by mass production.'
Mr. TOBIN: Right. That's a pretty terrifying image.
GROSS: How do you think writing this book about Ernie Pyle has influenced how
you see the reports now coming out of Iraq?
Mr. TOBIN: I think that the policy of embedding the reporters is a real good
one, and I hope that the Pentagon sticks with it and I hope that the
correspondents sort of live up to the responsibility that they have in
reporting the war honestly and fairly. I think that there's a naive view that
simply by putting a reporter with a military unit that he or she will
automatically produce columns like Ernie Pyle produced. You're lucky to get a
journalist like Pyle once in a generation, and we'll be lucky to get one
reporter like him out of this war. So it's a good thing, but we can't expect
all of them to rise to Pyle's standard of achievement.
GROSS: James Tobin, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. TOBIN: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: James Tobin is the author of the 1997 biography "Ernie Pyle's War,"
which is out in paperback. His new book is called "To Conquer the Air: The
Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight."
Here's a voiceover from the end of the film "The Story of GI Joe," with
Burgess Meredith in the role of Ernie Pyle. The words are taken from Pyle's
(Soundbite of "The Story of GI Joe"; music)
Mr. BURGESS MEREDITH: (As Ernie Pyle) That is our war, and we will carry it
with us as we go from one battleground to another until it's all over. We
will win. I hope we can rejoice with victory, but humbly; that all together
we will try, try out of the memory of our anguish, to reassemble our broken
world into a pattern so firm and so fair that another great war can never
again be possible. And for those beneath the wooden crosses, there's nothing
we can do except perhaps to pause, murmur `Thanks, pal. Thanks.'
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel "Family History" by
Dani Shapiro. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Dani Shapiro's latest novel, "Family History"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Dani Shapiro is the author of a best-selling memoir, "Slow Motion," as well as
four novels. Her latest novel, "Family History," describes the domino effect
of disaster on one formerly unremarkable New England family. Book critic
Maureen Corrigan says a high-tone literary melodrama is just what she and
maybe other readers need right now as a distraction from the anxieties of the
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
`Women's weepies,' they were called; those great three-hankie melodramas of
the 1930s and '40s, like "Stella Dallas" and "Mildred Pierce." The plucky
heroines of those films had everything thrown at them: faithless husbands and
lovers, ungrateful or sick children, social ostracism, financial ruin, even
trumped-up homicide charges. Audiences of the time, female and male, found in
these tales of trouble and true grit a cinematic escape valve for the worries
generated by the Great Depression and World War II. Maybe that's why, given
the high anxieties of our own time, a woman's weepie in book form seems like
such an appealing thing to read right now.
Dani Shapiro's new novel, "Family History," is an elegantly written, wry and
unsettling novel informed by current thinking about adolescent development and
dysfunctional family dynamics. I'm not intending to take anything away from
the book's intelligence or aesthetic value by saying that ghostly traces of
Barbara Stanwyck's trembling but uplifted chin and Joan Crawford's glistening
eyes materialize on almost every page of this novel. The heroine of "Family
History," a 40-ish woman name Rachel Jensen, signals that her story is the
stuff that great tearjerkers were once made of when she says this about her
unfeeling in-laws: `They don't understand that you can do everything right in
your life and still it can go terribly wrong.'
When the novel opens, those terribly wrong things have already happened to
Rachel and her family. She introduces herself to us from the bedroom of her
shambling house in quaint Hawthorne, Massachusetts. She spends much of her
time in that darkened bedroom: hiding out, dozing, watching home videos of
the way life used to be. The way life is now for Rachel is that she hasn't
seen her 14-year-old daughter Kate for nearly a year. When adolescence
struck, Kate inexplicably transformed in one summer from a vivacious tomboy to
a sullen, suicidal teen-ager. These days, she's locked away in what used to
be called a reform school. Rachel's two-year-old son Josh is the subject of
hushed judgments among the other parents at the Little Acorn Preschool(ph).
Josh is oddly silent for a toddler; `brain damage' is the word that's
Because of the accident that may or may not have permanently hurt Josh, as
well as the awful accusation that spins off from it, Rachel's wonderful
husband Ned is living apart from her and Josh at a condo complex nicknamed
Divorced Dad Dunes(ph). Rachel describes the place this way: (Reading) `At 7
or 8:00 at night, if you drive by the complex, you'll see televisions
flickering in all the windows. It isn't hard to imagine the sweat pants, the
bad take-out Chinese food eaten straight from the carton; unlucky folks living
in a suspended, dazed equilibrium, waiting for their old lives to be over and
their new lives to begin.'
What makes "Family History" such an absorbing novel is the matter-of-fact yet
deeply affecting way it dramatizes how those quirky three sisters of fate just
need to give a tiny tug here, a premature snip of the yarn there, to unravel a
person's whole world. And that world feels real because Shapiro is such a
precise observer of character and of small, telling moments. In a scene at
Josh's preschool, for instance, Shapiro nails the quick glances of the other
mothers that snub and effectively eject Rachel into the Bermuda Triangle of
I said that weepies, cinematic or literary, are a genre suited to anxious
times. Just the other day, my university, itself located in the plausible
prime target zone of Washington, DC, issued a directive suggesting that
faculty bring in emergency kit bags of necessary items should we need to be
bunkered in with our colleagues for several days in the event of chemical
attack. I thought about what that great academic satirist Kingsley Amis would
have made out of such a situation. Then naturally, I began to wonder about
what books I would pack. Some classics and mysteries, of course, but also a
good weepie like "Family History" in the event I need an excuse for a good
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Family History" by Dani Shapiro.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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