ERNIE PYLE IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
A Biography of the Famous World War II Correspondent
“A well-written and researched slice of the famous war correspondent’s peripatetic life. Focusing on Pyle’s last years in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he and his wife settled before his death in 1945, Melzer (history, University of New Mexico-Valencia) tries to do with this biography what Pyle had done for the average foot soldier in World War II. He gives the reader a close and personal account of the man, written in a broad and ‘every man’ language to appeal to the ‘average Joe’ that Pyle so ardently typified in his own columns.”
“At times New Mexicans have trouble recognizing who and what transcends local history. This is especially so as we study relatively recent history. Ernie Pyle’s importance should not be a problem in this regard but, apparently, it is and this is not for fault of historian Richard Melzer.
“Pyle achieved international fame and great importance to the United States during World War II, when his home base was Albuquerque. Even before moving to New Mexico’s largest city, he was a journalist of national stature. Yet, as is evident from Melzer’s book, students of New Mexico history and literature seem to have overlooked this individual’s proper place.
“This book is not the first biography of Pyle but it is an important and cleverly approached addition. Here is an improved understanding of Pyle. For those who insist upon being New Mexicophiles, the descriptions of Albuquerque and New Mexico during the war years should be more than satisfactory. Pyle’s views and reaction to Santa Fe and Taos are especially poignant. He was not complimentary of either of New Mexico’s destination points and his opinions had some merit.
“This is an intriguing book, for the author unravels a story of a man who became a hero to America’s soldiers and lived a bitter-sweet life in New Mexico, the very place to which he moved to escape some of his life’s negative aspects. His wife fell in and out of depression, at times institutionalized, and both of them never achieved the privacy that they desired. Actually, in those last years before a Japanese sniper’s bullet killed him on the island of Ie Shima in April, 1945, Pyle’s achievements seem insurmountable.
“Ernie Pyle wrote for newspapers his whole life. He shared his observations about places and people. His keen insight and lust for travel made him famous before he moved to New Mexico. As a war correspondent, his long experience conspired with his ability to have an influence on history. In the process, he became a New Mexican or, as this book’s title reflects, a southwesterner. For those whose narrow view of New Mexican history is limited to the geographical area, the subject matter of a large part of his writing involved New Mexico.
“Finally, the greatest commentary of this book transcends the good research, structure and writing. Great credit is due to a good historian and a small publishing house, for they had the vision to share something important. This book points out the importance of small presses and historians who believe in what they are doing, for they step up where the larger presses of our state’s museum and universities dare not tread. This book will become well-known and often read. It should go through many printings. Anyone remotely interested in Ernie Pyle and New Mexican history should have this book and know why we should consider Ernie Pyle one of our own.”
—Thomas E. Chavez, La Crónica de Nuevo México, January 1997
“When war correspondent Ernie Pyle died from a Japanese sniper’s bullet April 18, 1945, on the island of Ie Shima off Okinawa, World War II infantrymen and American families lost a dear friend.
“Syndicated at his peak in 310 weekly and 366 daily newspapers across the nation, Pyle wrote of a war fought not by armies but by men and boys whose families hungered to hear about them, and about the faraway countries and towns in which they were fighting and dying. Pyle’s war was personal, and his dispatches were read like letters from a son, father, or uncle. He was family. Veterans who met Pyle remember him as a kindly, shy man. As Richard Melzer’s Ernie Pyle in the American Southwest reveals, Pyle was also beset by inner demons that few of his acquaintances or readers could have known about. He was a lonely man, often depressed not only by a war he hated (as most infantrymen do), but by a life with his wife Jerry that was tormented by too much drinking and his wife’s increasing fall into alcoholism and periodic institutionalization.
“Melzer focuses on the Pyle’s New Mexico years and their life in Albuquerque, where they owned their only home in almost 20 years of marriage. The home, a modest, 1,145-square-foot house they built in 1940, has been a branch of the Albuquerque Public Library system since 1948, as was Jerry Pyle’s wish. Melzer writes that an estimated million books have been checked out of the ‘Ernie Pyle Memorial Library,’ as it is called. This would please Pyle, for both he and his wife loved books—in fact Pyle joked that he built the house only to have a place to store their many volumes.
“Pyle, who was born in Indiana in 1900, loved New Mexico, like many who have been transplanted here. But as Melzer points out, he did not especially like Taos because it seemed to him dilapidated, if picturesque; the town also closed down too early at night for the obviously cosmopolitan-inclined Pyle. Nor did he appreciate the limits of being guided through Taos Pueblo by a Pueblo guide who would not give him access to anything but curio shops when he expected to be allowed inside private homes and the church—and Pyle blasted what he saw as the pueblo’s commercialism in his nationwide column.
“Melzer portrays a complex man, old before his time—gray-haired and gaunt by his forties—who had a strong streak of prejudice against New Mexico Hispanos and Native Americans in general, but at the same time a deep care for the common man regardless of ethnic heritage, especially the front-line grunts whose grim lives in European and Pacific war zones he pictured so vividly in his columns.
Pyle’s Albuquerque home was his refuge for only a few, for the most part melancholic years, and his widow lived for only a few months after his death. Melzer brings those years to life in a well-researched, poignantly written work that will touch many New Mexican readers.”
—Dennis H. Dutton, The New Mexican, June 30, 1996
“Richard Melzer’s Ernie Pyle in the American Southwest opens with a photograph of the skinny reporter, relaxed and smiling, slouched in an armchair in his Albuquerque living room. Pyle is surrounded by books and by the objects he accumulated in his travels. In the evocative and detailed study that follows, Melzer explains how Pyle came to be in that Albuquerque living room. Although Pyle and his wife spent a scant four years in their New Mexico home, Melzer uses it to give a local cast to Pyle’s career as a roving reporter and war correspondent.
“We learn that Pyle and his unhappy wife—who suffered from alcoholism and depression—chose New Mexico more for its solitude and warmth than for its history or rich mix of peoples. In fact, Melzer admits that Pyle had little interest in New Mexico’s Indians or its Hispanic citizens and even less tolerance for the artists of Taos and Santa Fe. Pyle’s portraits of New Mexicans, like his portraits of ordinary Americans before the war and ordinary soldiers in it, were carefully crafted to celebrate a world of ‘normal’ white Americans, struggling, yet surviving, the trials of depression and war. Melzer himself often writes with the pluck and optimism that characterized Pyle’s columns, and his book has the celebratory characteristics of local history. Yet some darkness gnaws at the edges of the story. Melzer takes us back to a world where syndicated columnists were great celebrities. For the Pyles, however, fame was little protection against doubt, drink, and depression.
“Despite its precision and detail, Melzer’s book left me puzzled. I wish he had found ways to unite his chronicler’s urge to celebrate with his historian’s sense of tragedy and offered some explanation for Pyle’s life and work. One finishes Melzer’s book not with a sense that New Mexico offered Ernie Pyle a respite from the world or that Pyle offered the world a special insight on New Mexico. Rather, one is left with the feeling that the reporter was fortunate to have been killed on Ie Shima on 18 April 1945, before the slow ravages of drink and despair could take his life”
—Ann Fabian, Columbia University, Western Historical Quarterly, Spring 1997
“Although born in Indiana, it was the southwest that attracted and held Ernie Pyle. Traveling around as a roving newspaper correspondent had brought Pyle and his wife to the area and eventually to building a house in Albuquerque. That house later became the Ernie Pyle Memorial Library. The city also later named a school in his honor. While most previous books have focused on Pyle’s life and work as a war correspondent, Melzer emphasizes his personal life. He gives an unbiased but honest portrayal. He writes candidly about the Pyle marriage and its problems. There is a section of photographs, a bibliography and an index. In all this, he still brings out the tremendous task Pyle did during the war. He is always remembered as the writer who was interested in and wrote about the ordinary soldiers. Pyle’s accounts were of an unglamorous but truthful war.”
—Marcia Muth, “Book Chat,” Enchantment, June 1996
“Before his death by a Japanese sniper on Ie Shima in April 1945, Pyle roamed North America for several years writing a syndicated newspaper column—a pre-TV Charles Kuralt ‘On the Road.’ The Southwest attracted him and, with ‘That girl who travels with me,’ he built a home in Albuquerque for an occasional respite from travel. Happiness eluded them, however, and Melzer recounts how their New Mexico days became increasingly troubled—even as Pyle shifted his focus and gained fame as the GI’s favorite war correspondent.”
—L. Boyd Finch, Books of the Southwest, May 1996, Volume 40, Number 5
“Ernie Pyle’s image is fixed in the American imagination. His daily travel column, describing people and places in an intimate and anecdotal style, brought pleasure to thousands of people in the late 1930s. The friendly persona he created in that column, which set new standards for human interest reporting, comforted Americans struggling through the Great Depression. Even more remembered is his work in World War II when as the friend and reporter of the ordinary soldier he became the most loved correspondent of the war. His unparalleled reputation among American G.I.’s accords him a special place in the annals of journalism. Until he died a soldier’s death, the victim of sniper machine gun fire on the Pacific island Ie Shima near Okinawa, he was, as Richard Melzer notes, the ‘infantry’s Homer’ and the ‘G.I.’s Boswell” (p. 78). People of Indiana have long taken pride in the fact that Pyle was one of their own, and there was much in his writings to justify that feeling. Nevertheless, while Dana, Indiana, was Pyle’s early home, Albuquerque, New Mexico, became his adopted home later in life.
“Much of the last ten years of Pyle’s life had a southwestern orientation. He and his wife Jerry became attracted to the region after a trip there in 1935. In his own words, affection for the Southwest was ‘like being in love with a woman….You just love her because you love her and you can’t help yourself’ (p. 35). Melzer’s purpose in writing this volume was to provide a fuller description of Pyle’s association with the Southwest, especially New Mexico.
“Melzer develops that fuller description in a number of ways. He explores the reasons for Pyle’s settling in Albuquerque and the dimensions of his life there. The friendships he made there, particularly that with Edward H. Shaffer, the editor of the Albuquerque Tribune, form an interesting subtheme of the book. Beyond that Melzer explores the impact that New Mexico had on Pyle and the ways in which he influenced New Mexico and its citizens. These explorations represent the most original parts of the book, and Melzer presents them in the context of Pyle’s travels as a roving reporter and war correspondent. Throughout the book, the author also underscores the interaction that existed between Pyle’s professional and private life.
“Melzer provides an interesting portrayal of Pyle’s association with the Southwest and proves that New Mexico as well as Indiana is justified in celebrating his memory. The book merits attention for this reason and because Melzer makes an interesting probe into Pyle’s personal life. He also accords Pyle’s wife Jerry a prominent place in the book and treats her sad struggle with mental depression and alcoholism in a sensitive and informed manner. Although previously covered, Pyle’s own mood swings and restlessness do not receive a similar in-depth treatment. For a slim volume, however, this one is rich in intimate detail and reflects Melzer’s appreciated exploitation of personal paper collections and oral histories. He achieved his goal in writing the book, but some readers will wish the book were more expansive.”
—James D. Startt, professor of history at Valparaiso University and vice-president of the American Journalism Historians Association, Indiana Magazine of History, December 1996
“Although many Albuquerque residents recognize the name Ernie Pyle, probably few know much about the famous war correspondent other than his profession and that his residence now serves as one of the city’s public libraries. But Richard Melzer’s engaging study of Pyle provides insight into the man and a window to Albuquerque and New Mexico during the 1930s and 1940s. Using Pyle’s columns and correspondence and interviews with those who knew him, Melzer describes Pyle’s early career, his rise to fame, and his affection for the Southwest. As he emerges in these pages, Pyle was not only a skillful journalist, but a troubled man who drank heavily and despaired that he could not save his wife Jerry from her own alcoholism and depression. Still, he managed better than any other correspondent of World War II to convey the experience of the common soldier to the readers back home. Melzer’s work is an important contribution to the region’s history of the mid-twentieth century.”
—Book Talk, January 1997