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SJC Chautauqua focuses on war correspondent

Mike Easterling
measterling@daily-times.com
Baldwin Burr portrays famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle in a Chautauqua this weekend at San Juan College.

FARMINGTON – Even though World War II ended more than 70 years ago, and people have clashed in armed combat many times since, historian Baldwin Burr doesn't hesitate to assert that no other war correspondent has ever come close to matching the work done by the famed Ernie Pyle, the Indiana native whose gritty, unvarnished profiles of the rank-and-file soldiers he encountered made him one of the most celebrated and respected reporters of the 20th century.

"He's without peer. He's the premier war correspondent of all time, and I don't know anybody today who compares, for one reason — they're not allowed to," said Baldwin, referring to the fact that Pyle marched with the war-weary troops he covered, dodging enemy fire, sharing their K-rations, huddling with them in foxholes, and telling their stories in an accessible, conversational writing style that gave his columns, published in newspapers from coast to coast, a distinctive voice.

In an era when American media access to battles and the people who fight them is tightly controlled, the freedom Pyle had to move about unfettered, speaking to virtually anyone he wished and conveying what he learned, seems remarkable.

"He could get things in his letters that GIs couldn't get in their letters," said Baldwin, who will portray Pyle in a Chautauqua this weekend at San Juan College. "(The soldiers' letters) were censored. Essentially, his columns were letters home."

And that's why Pyle, and his work, are worth remembering, Baldwin said. Not only was Pyle there during the Battle of Britain, the fighting in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily, the landing at Normandy and the invasion of Okinawa, but he was able to relate those experiences through the eyes of the people who were on the front lines. That gave his work a personal quality that humanized the war for all his readers, even if they didn't have a brother, husband, father or friend in harm's way.

Burr, the consulting historian at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts, the author of several books, and a one-time faculty member at the University of New Mexico and College of Santa Fe, said a friend noted his physical resemblance to Pyle and urged him to consider putting together a Chautauqua on him. There were other similarities, as well. Like Pyle, Burr is native Midwesterner and was raised on a farm, and Burr's father, a member of the Army Air Corps, followed the same path in Europe that Pyle did — North Africa, Sicily and London.

Burr spent a year researching his presentation, and relied heavily, of course, on Pyle's writings, which are readily accessible through the web site at the Indiana University school of journalism that bears Pyle's name. But even that material, and Pyle's considerable fame, didn't give him much of a sense of who the war correspondent really was, he said.

"It's difficult to get his voice," Burr said. "There are very few instances where we get to hear him speak. He didn't do a lot of talking, even when he was interviewing people."

What Burr did find out was that Pyle — despite his professional accomplishments and the esteem in which he was held by readers, fellow journalists and soldiers alike — did not lead a comfortable life.

"He was not a happy man," Burr said, explaining there was a lot of tragedy in Pyle's life, which also was complicated by his troubled relationship with his wife, whom he divorced and later remarried. Pyle also was not eager to cover the war in the Pacific as the war entered its latter stages. But as a roving reporter, he apparently felt obligated to do so. It would turn out to be a decision that would cost Pyle his life.

Because of all that, Burr's Chautauqua is a bit unusual, focusing not on his subject's whole life, but only on the last 45 minutes before Pyle was killed by enemy fire on a small island near Okinawa in April 1945. True to his nature, Pyle was hard at work that day, riding in a Jeep toward a forward command post when a Japanese machine gunner opened up on the vehicle. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Pyle survived the first burst of fire, but moments later was struck by a round in his left temple and died instantly.

Pyle wasn't the first, or last, correspondent to die while covering a war, but his work made a deep impression on his readers, one that endures to this day. While performing his Chautauqua around the state, Burr said he's been struck by the number of people he's encountered whose personal recollections of that era are based to a large degree on Pyle's writing.

"It's amazing how many scrapbooks are out there containing his writing," Burr said.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: "Ernie Pyle, Bringing the World to America's Doorstep" Chautauqua by Baldwin Burr

When: 7 p.m. Friday, March 18

Where: The Little Theatre on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Admission: Free

For more information: 505-566-3430