Indiana University
The Indiana University School of Journalism Ernie Pyle
Pyle wrote this column nearly a year before the United States entered World War II. It describes the awe he felt as he watched the German air attacks on London.

A Dreadful Masterpiece

IU Archives
LONDON, December 30, 1940 – Someday when peace has returned to this odd world I want to come to London again and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges.
And standing there, I want to tell somebody who has never seen it how London looked on a certain night in the holiday season of the year 1940.
For on that night this old, old city – even though I must bite my tongue in shame for saying it – was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen.
It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire.
*
They came just after dark, and somehow I could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night.
Shortly after the sirens wailed I could hear the Germans grinding overhead. In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away.
Half an hour after the firing started I gathered a couple of friends and went to a high, darkened balcony that gave us a view of one-third of the entire circle of London.
As we stepped out onto the balcony a vast inner excitement came over all of us – an excitement that had neither fear nor horror in it, because it was too full of awe.
You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires – scores of them, perhaps hundreds.
The closest fires were near enough for us to hear the crackling flames and the yells of firemen. Little fires grew into big ones even as we watched. Big ones died down under the firemen’s valor only to break out again later.
About every two minutes a new wave of planes would be over. The motors seemed to grind rather than roar, and to have an angry pulsation like a bee buzzing in blind fury.
The bombs did not make a constant overwhelming din as in those terrible days of last September. They were intermittent – sometimes a few seconds apart, sometimes a minute or more.
Their sound was sharp, when nearby, and soft and muffled, far away.
Into the dark, shadowed spaces below us, as we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pinpoints of dazzling white, burning ferociously.
These white pinpoints would go out one by one as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand. But also, as we watched, other pinpoints would burn on and pretty soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white center. They had done their work – another building was on fire.
The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape – so faintly at first that we weren’t sure we saw correctly – the gigantic dome and spires of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
St. Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions – growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.

The streets below us were semi-illuminated from the glow.
Immediately above the fires the sky was red and angry, and overhead, making a ceiling in the vast heavens, there was a cloud of smoke all in pink. Up in that pink shrouding there were tiny, brilliant specks of flashing light – anti-aircraft shells bursting. After the flash you could hear the sound.
Up there, too, the barrage balloons were standing out as clearly as if it were daytime, but now they were pink instead of silver. And now and then through a hole in that pink shroud there twinkled incongruously a permanent, genuine star – the old-fashioned kind that has always been there.
Below us the Thames grew lighter, and all around below were the shadows – the dark shadows of buildings and bridges that formed the base of this dreadful masterpiece.
Later on I borrowed a tin hat and went out among the fires. That was exciting too, but the thing I shall always remember above all the other things in my life is the monstrous loveliness of that one single view of London on a holiday night – London stabbed with great fires, shaken by explosions, its dark regions along the Thames sparkling with the pinpoints of white-hot bombs, all of it roofed over with a ceiling of pink that held bursting shells, balloons, flares and the grind of vicious engines. And in yourself the excitement and anticipation and wonder in your soul that this could be happening at all.
These things all went together to make the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known.
Ernie Pyle
Source: Ernie's War: The Best of Ernie Pyle's World War II Dispatches, edited by David Nichols, pp. 42-44
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Reader Comments:

  1. Very few younger than I remember Ernie Pyle and his columns and the books that followed. As I rummage Antique shop and flea markets, I see copies of these books and I think for the benefit of my children and grandchildren, I should collect a set. I know they will never be able to appreciate Ernie Pyle as I did. Possibly they will have some sense of this man’s genius, brilliance and the humbleness and sincerity with which he brought the human side of war to those who were so far away.

    - Richard Forrester (Korean Vet)
  2. I read much of Ernie Pyle’s column’s when I was in Bloomington High School. He was a hero to all of us. His columns were honest. The people were real…our kind of people. Three years later I stood in front of the ugly little cross on IeShima “The 77th lost a buddie…..” I wept silently. I hated the Japanese with a passion.

    - Jack Fultz (43BG 63 Sqd. 5th AAC IeShima)
  3. Many years ago when I was workng as an interpreter/ranger naturalist in Sequoia National Park, one of the chaplains found the sign which once stood at the foot of a tree named for Erne Pyle. I found it cached in my wood pile and shipped that sign to IU for display in the window of the Student Union Building but I have not been back to campus since to see if really is there.

    - Thomas J Maxwell, Ph. D. (2nd Lt, USAAF 02-43 t 10-45)
  4. First, I remember my father, who was at IU with Pyle, talking about him and his columns. Thanks for making them available.

    Second, I wonder how different Pyle’s journalism program was from what you teach now. He, I think, was in the College of Arts and Sciences and thus, I’m guessing, had a broader background than journalists normally get now.

    Those thoughts are brought on by the abysmal quality of most of the journalism we see now. Where is the investigative reporting? Where is the willingness to challenge the public’s misconceptions? For instance, if we could invade Iraq with half or more of the public thinking they were involved in 9/11 that represents a massive failure of journalists to educate us.

    Sincerely,

    - Neil Stahl, AB '64
  5. I was nine years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and World War II began. I can remember my Father and Mother, whose maiden name was Pyles, reading the articles that Ernie wrote and how sad they were when he was killed.

    Thank you for bringing some of his writings to us.

    Sincerely,

    - Frances S. Bruce
  6. Very nice to see the columns reprinted. I read Pyle’s dispatches before going to the Gulf and thought they were incredibly good. Since then,I have been collecting Ernie Pyle memorabilia. What was interesting was discovering that so many Americans cut out and pasted his articles into scrap books during World War Two. Indeed, I have been fortunate enough to acquire several of these albums from America over the past few years.

    Good luck to you and your website – it’s nice to see you marking his achievements so well.

    - Laurie Manton (UK war correspondent Gulf War One, 1991)
  7. I landed in France as a replacement in August of 1944, sent up the Red Ball route to Belgium where I joined my outfit and was with them (Company B, 60th. regt.) as Communication Sergeant until end of war at Bitterfeld on the Mulde river. Stars and Stripes was read from masthead to back! Ernie Pyle’s column was the favorite. We all hoped that one day he would walk into our company area, but alas, he did not. We loved Ernie because he was the one person who always seem to correctly report what we were experiencing. The columns you are reprinting are alive today even more than the imbedded reports from Iraq. Change the names and places and Ernie is there!

    - John W. Ridder (retired, US Infantry, 60th Regt., 9th. Div.)
  8. This is the first entire piece that I have ever read of Pyle’s. I actually just first heard his name two weeks ago when I did a presentation on him for my News Writing and Reporting Class. I fell in love with that presentation. I have always wanted to be a war reporter. I had never, however, found a correspondent that I really connected with until I found Pyle. I am now obsessed and can’t stop thinking about him. The fact that one person put so much into a task amazes me. What gets me even more is that he didn’t have to do it. He didn’t have to stand on that balcony, he didn’t have to go to that frontline, he didn’t have to talk to that soldier. Yet, he did. He did it and he formed a love affair with the nation. To be able to gain the trust of millions of people that you don’t know and will never meet blows my mind. I am thankful that God creates people like Ernie Pyle. I will also admit that I cried when I read a “Dreadful Masterpiece.”

    - Jenna Tincher
  9. I was a young enlisted army man serving in the 29th Engr (Base) Survey Co, stationed in Okinawa during 1946-1948. I was assigned to an L.C.M. ship (for a photo, click here), and it was our job to survey the Ryukyus Islands for mapping purposes. Upon arriving on Ie Shima we came across the Ernie Pyle Memorial (for a photo, click here) which at the time (spring/summer 1947) was all covered with weeds, which we cut down and then we set to work cleaning the monument. Since we were doing triangulation surveying work, we used the memorial as a “bench mark,” which is probably still on record with the Army Corps of Engineers.

    Notes about the images (referenced above): The 77th Infantry (as listed on Pyle’s monument) was the New York State Guard. The L.C.M. ship, number 1109, on the island of Ie Shima: The name of our boat was “Imus Boy”, old number 1109. That big shed on top was built for our quarters. There were four of us and a three man CHINESE crew. We spent about six months on this old tub on or around Ie Shiuma, Ryukus Islands, south China Sea.

    - Patrick J. Mangan, Jr. (retired US Army)
  10. I discovered Ernie’s wrting when I was 14. Looking through my parents’ books, I came across Home Country, his prewar writing. My freshman year of college found me in the bookstore, where Brave Men was required reading in a Journalism class. Over the next ten years I read all of Pyle’s books. I eventually met the son of the contractor who built the Pyle’s Albuquerque house, his lifetime friends Paige and Edna Cavanaugh, tried on Ernie’s tux, and wandered through Dana one summer with Evelyn Hobson, curator of the pyle museum.

    History came alive for me in a way it never had or has since. Ernie was my friend as much as any soldier. I can quote him verbatim from many columns, have referred to him in college papers, read books in his home/library in Albuquerque, shared a steak and bottle of wine with his best friend,and I am gratified to have read his personal letters back home.

    I miss him, and he died ten years before I was born.

    - Matt Sarad
  11. As I have gone through his piece it sounded me as I was there – in the city of London- during 2nd WW. I am a man of this century. Hardly am 31. But I can imagine the fire and blood when life was at stake. War of mighty forces, but at what cost? And, admittedly, Pyle sounds like Robert Fisk of today.

    - Imdad Soomro, Journalist & Writer, Sindh- Pakistan
  12. Pyle’s description of London is the most poignant since William Wordsworth wrote: “Earth has not anything to show more fair, dull would he be of soul who could pass by a site so touching in its majesty…” The soul of a great city in serene peace –and in war. And as Churchill said: “London can take it!”

    - Len Hart
  13. Ernie Pyle was the greatest correspondent to ever write about the American Soldier in World War II. His column touched millions of lives through its sincereity and humility. Simple, but powerful words spoke of distant battles and the men who fought them. This “device” as he called it was a much needed letter home from the front to the average American. His contribution to the war effort is still deserving of our interest and appreciation. The man who coined the term “G. I. Joe” still remains the Soldiers greatest friend in war and peace. Only in understanding just how horrible war is, will mankind stand a chance at building a hoped for peace. Such brave men should never be forgotten, nor the man that shared their story. Ernie’s books can still be fetched on E- Bay. Remember him.

    - Chaplain Captain Jeffrey Clemens (Active U.S. Army Chaplain Corps)
  14. I have only just learned of Ernie Pyle and have recently read several of his wartime columns. And I have a Big Question. Why didn’t I learn about this great man when I was in college studying, of all things, JOURNALISM? I appreciate these writings like no other and Mr. Pyle has done the world a wonderful service in reporting the truth of war and the little guys story.

    God Bless You Mr. Pyle

    and I’m sure he is.

    Sincerely.

    - Patrick Black US Army Scout 1990-1998
  15. I graduated high school in 1970. In junior high one year, I was assigned to the library for study hall period. There I found happened to find “Here Is Your War” and “Brave Men” on the shelves. I had heard the name Ernie Pyle here or there but had actually read none of his writings. I digested the books over a period of a couple of weeks. Compelling material, and an uncomfortable counterpoint to the romantic Hollywood and Sat. afternoon t.v. view I had at the time of war, WWII in particular. I still recall a bitter sentence from Pyle’s commentary about the Normandy invasion: Pyle, writing that his friend remembered how most of the soldiers in his assault boat were seasick, soaking wet and scared witless as they approached the D-Day beach, added, “War is romantic–if you’re a long way away from it.”

    - David Weber
  16. This is one of the most beloved stories written by Ernie Pyle and one that many people would adore, This piece is more than just information of the battle of Great Britain it gives you the feeling your there, you can almost see the bombs dropping, you can almost see the horizon. It facinates me the way he does all this. If he hadn’t gotten shot that one day then i know that he would have one an award for his writing and he’d be one of the most known World War II survivors.

    - iwe

    - this website, and to the people who visit
  17. i should say Ernie Pyle is one of the greatest journalists of all time and his articles have somewhat of a raw truth about them,I’m only 15 tears old and was not therein world war 2 but Ernie’s work gives me a clear view of what it was like

    - Lame
  18. I am the widow of a B-24 Bombadier stationed in Hethel, England who flew missions over Germany. I was a young thing living in San Francisco working for the WPB when I discovered one of the local papers carried a column written by Ernie Pyle and became hooked on them. I collected all of them and when “Brave Men” was published I encouraged my husband to buy it and discovered those were the book. We visited his grave in Hawaii and his home in Albuqueque and at almost 90 years am still thrilled by his story telling ability. I’ve read everything he’s written.

    - Betty Greer
  19. I was 10 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked. We took all three Washington, DC papers and read them all cover-to-cover. I read every one of Pyle’s columns to the time of his death. The whole fmaily wept at that news. We also listened to Edward R. Murrow’s “London Calling” broadcasts every evening. These two delivered the war to the home front.

    Pyle roamed the US in the 1930′s, producing vignettes of individuals living through the Depression. He worked for the Sripss-Howard Newspaper Alliance. I was too young to be aware of them at the time, but I have recently acquired a copy of “Ernie’s America”, a 1989 collection of many of his columns from that period, edited by David Nichols, who also compiled “Ernie’s War” in 1986. Go get them!

    May I suggest you look up Michael Yon’s website and his reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan. HE IS A MOST WORTHY SUCCESSOR TO ERNIE.

    - Mike Meier Communications Officer, USN 1954-57

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