Seventy-five years have passed since a Japanese sniper’s bullet killed America’s most-beloved war correspondent, But the memory of Ernie Pyle, Dana, Ind.’s favorite son, lives on through his words.
I was in Dana on April 18, 1995, when friends — most of whom have since died — joined a crowd of more than 3,000 to remember Pyle on the 50th anniversary of his death.
What a day. There were World War II reenactors, a flyover featuring vintage aircraft, music by the Indiana National Guard band, a welcome by the governor’s wife and tours of the Pyle birthplace and two new museum buildings.
William Windom, who played Dr. Seth Hazlett in the CBS weekly program, “Murder, She Wrote,” was the emcee. He had spent years performing one-man shows that featured Pyle columns.
“I was only 22 or 23 when I met Ernie in London. I got to know him real well later on,” said Andy Rooney, the bushy-browed curmudgeon from TV’s “60 Minutes.” Rooney had reported for the Army daily, Stars and Stripes.
He remembered bees rising from a hole in the ground inside the tent he shared with Pyle. Annoyed, Rooney covered it with dirt. Within seconds, several angry bees flew in.
“You had this vision of all their babies and children down there,” Rooney said. “Finally, Ernie looked up and said, ‘Aw, Andy, let ‘em out.’”
In 1940, Pyle wrote about building a fence while being entertained by a 15-year-old neighbor girl who told him the latest joke: What did the rug say to the floor? I’ve got you covered.
That girl, Shirley Mount Hufstedler, became secretary of education in the Carter administration. Pyle was a family friend.
“Ernie Pyle was a remarkable man,” she told the crowd, which included many World War II veterans. “He could reach anyone, in any walk of life, and find something meaningful. What he cared about was what a person was.”
After reporting from Europe, Pyle returned to his New Mexico home in December 1944. He then felt duty-bound to head to the battlefields of the Pacific.
“When he left, I knew I’d never see him again,” Hufstedler said. “I never did.”
Phillip Ault, former United Press International London bureau chief, spoke of Pyle “scooping” UPI war correspondents with news stories from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters in Algiers.
“Some correspondents would have gloated,” Ault said. “Ernie was absolutely amazed at the fuss he had caused and apologized profusely. That was Ernie’s way, and why we liked him so much.”
Evelyn Hobson, curator of the Ernie Pyle Historic Site in Dana, read part of a column that Pyle wrote about GIs who died in Tunisia.
“They died and thereby the rest of us can go on and on,” he wrote. “When we leave here for the next shore, there is nothing we can do for the ones beneath the wooden crosses, except perhaps to pause and murmur, ‘Thanks, pal.’”
On that beautiful spring day in Dana, 25 years ago, more than 3,000 people paused to say, ‘Thanks, pal.”