During World War II, Ernie Pyle became known for his stories about ordinary American soldiers fighting abroad.

Behind Enemy Lines: The Day the Soldiers Lost a Buddy

Air Mail News
By David Chrisinger
27 Sep 23

A look at the mysterious story of journalist Ernie Pyle’s death during the U.S. Army’s invasion of a Japanese island

Ernie Pyle, a renowned war correspondent, landed on the hostile beach of Ie Shima for the last time on April 17, 1945. The circumstances surrounding his death have been shrouded in mystery, with different accounts offering varying explanations. Some suggest that he went ashore to witness more action, while others propose that he wanted to get back into the mud with soldiers to cure his ailment.

Robert Sherrod, a fellow war correspondent who shared a cabin with Ernie before the invasion, offers what may be the best explanation. He wrote that Ernie rarely refused a request from a doughboy or any other friend, and he probably went on the invasion because a soldier persuaded him to do so.

Ernie landed on the Red Beach No. 2 sector dressed in khakis, looking like a general inspecting troops. Some officers waiting for him on the beach were concerned that his outfit would attract snipers, so they convinced him to wear a jungle-green coat instead. As they drove towards a new command post closer to the front, a Nambu machine gun began firing from a terraced coral ridge on their left, about a third of a mile away.

Ernie, the regimental commander Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Coolidge, and an enlisted man named Dale W. Bassett jumped out of the jeep and dived into a roadside ditch close to a crossroads. Coolidge later recounted that they raised their heads to look around, and another burst hit the road above them. Coolidge fell back into the ditch, visibly shaken, with tears in his eyes. The next image of Ernie he saw was of the frail-looking newspaperman lying motionless in the dirt, facing the sky.

Grant MacDonald, a photographer for the Associated Press, was the first on the scene and reported on Ernie’s death. While he was writing the sanitized version of the story, a battle for Ernie’s body was raging. General Andrew D. Bruce, the commander of the Seventy-seventh Division, ordered tanks to retrieve Ernie’s body, but enemy machine-gun fire made it impossible. Four hours later, a squad of litter bearers led by army chaplain Nathaniel B. Saucier volunteered to crawl along the road’s ditch, litter in tow. Corporal Alexander Roberts of New York City accompanied them and was the first to reach Ernie’s body. Roberts captured the photograph that was, until 2008, believed to be lost to history.

The photograph shows a lifeless man dressed in a cotton khaki uniform lying on his back, slumped down a sandy berm, with his head resting in a steel helmet against the dirt. His upper body is slightly twisted to the right. A pair of sunglasses with a missing left lens have slid down his straight nose and cover his stonelike eyes. Folded across his midsection, small hands touch with dead fingers a jungle-green billed cap. Aside from a dried tear of blood trickling down from the corner of his mouth, he appears to be napping in the warmth of the tropical sun.

Ernie was buried that day in his uniform with his helmet on, in a long row of graves, with full military honors. An infantry private rested on one side of him, a combat engineer on the other. Around his wrist was the watch he’d received thirteen years earlier from his friend Amelia Earhart, who’d gifted it to him at a small ceremony put on by the early aviation community at Washington-Hoover Airport. It was a present to thank Ernie for his coverage of her and her friends’ aerial exploits.

Ernie Pyle, the roving correspondent from Indiana who told the soldier’s truth to 14 million daily readers, was forty-four years old.

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