David Chrisinger was looking for his grandfather when he stumbled upon Ernie Pyle.
It might be better to say he was looking to understand his grandfather, a WWII veteran who he had last seen on a visit when he was an eighth-grader.
“He was almost like an exhibit in a museum. ‘The Lasting Effects of Unaddressed Combat Trauma,’ his display placard would have read,” Chrisinger wrote in a piece for The New York Times. “Only no signage existed to explain what I saw and what it all meant.”
Chrisinger is a journalist and author who serves as the executive director of the Public Policy Writing Workshop at the University of Chicago. He is also the director of writing seminars for The War Horse, a non-profit newsroom focused on telling stories about the human impact of war.
The search for this grandfather and then Pyle came together in his book, “The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the story of WWII.”
In 2016, Chrisinger traced his grandfather’s path to Okinawa where he served during the war. A tour guide asked if he wanted to make a tracing of a name etched on the Cornerstone of Peace memorial there commemorating the Battle of Okinawa, perhaps someone his grandfather had known. More than 240,000 names of people killed during the battle are inscribed — Americans, Japanese, soldiers, civilians.
“My grandfather was very tight-lipped about his experiences. He didn’t stay in contact with anyone, he didn’t go to reunions, he didn’t talk about old friends,” Chrisinger said.
The tour guide suggested someone everyone felt they had known, Ernie Pyle.
Chrisinger said he recalled in the moment that Sylvester Stallone’s Vietnam movie character, John Rambo, was inspired by a name on the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Wall. He said he’s embarrassed now to say his first thought was if Ernie Pyle was likewise the inspiration for Gomer Pyle — the endearing Marine character played by Jim Nabors in the 1960s sit-com.
“The tour guide looked at me like I had two heads. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t know about Ernie Pyle,” Chrisinger said.
“He said, ‘If you’re trying to figure out what it was like to be a soldier during WWII, if you’re trying to sort of put yourself in your grandfather’s shoes, you’ve got to read everything Ernie Pyle ever wrote.’ ”
The first book Chrisinger bought at a used book store was “Brave Men.”
“I just devoured it. The thing that I think made Ernie so intriguing to me was his ability to humanize a really abstract and chaotic and terrible thing that is war and put a face on it — and not just a face but a face you knew and could recognize.”
“The quality of his writing read like letters. He was letting you into this world,” Chrisinger said. “You could just tell that he was constantly trying to translate the experience for the folks back home.”
“What is the Ernie-ness about Ernie? What makes him such an irresistible figure after all these years?” — David Chrisinger
From there, Chrisinger said he became fascinated with Pyle, a Midwestern kid and complicated man who went on to be come an unlikely, and yet the most famous, war correspondent.
Chrisinger got the opportunity to write about Pyle for the New York Times for the 75th anniversary of D-Day and he visited the museum in Dana as part of his research.
The piece, “The man who told America the truth about D-Day,” was published online on June 5, 2019 and had a million views by noon the next day.
“I got hundreds of emails. Some people somehow found my phone and were texting me. People wrote me letters,” Chrisinger said. “People, all these years later, having a really visceral connection to this guy that they never met. It’s really incredible.”
Understanding that connection was part of what Chrisinger wanted to explore in his book. “What is the Ernie-ness about Ernie? What makes him such an irresistible figure after all these years?”
The War Horse, the organization Chrisinger works with to help veterans and people dealing with trauma tell their stories, was founded by Thomas Brennan. Brennan took the name from a phrase Pyle used to describe his return to covering the war after leaving the European theater: “I can go war-horsing off to the Pacific.”
Chrisinger said someone told him they thought that Pyle would be proud of the work he was doing to help veterans and that maybe Pyle would have done that kind of thing after the war — tell the stories of veterans to try to help inform people and help improve empathy, compassion and understanding.
“I took that as one of the greatest compliments probably I’ve ever received.”
To read more about David Chrisinger and see his columns on Pyle, visit davidchrisinger.com.