See more of the story

My father lived through World War II and, like many of his generation, said very little about it. But one name he spoke with reverence was that of journalist Ernie Pyle. A slight, driven man twice the age of most soldiers he wrote about, Pyle brought the war home to American readers — his stories, many reported under fire, ran in hundreds of newspapers. Pyle embedded with troops in some of the war's worst places: North Africa. Anzio. Normandy. Not every Pyle column was great, but the best were masterpieces.

Author David Chrisinger calls Pyle "perhaps the most famous and most loved American war correspondent" His "The Soldier's Truth" aims to bring Pyle's story to a new generation of readers. Chrisinger, who runs seminars on writing about the impact of military service, chooses as his focus Pyle's personal traumas. In resurrecting those, he succeeds, though other aspects of Pyle's life remain elusive.

In Chrisinger's telling, Pyle's story begins as an adult. There's little to show how the child became a man obsessed with telling stories at the expense of everything else.

As a young reporter, Pyle chronicled Americans' struggles with the Great Depression, traveling with wife Jerry across the country. The marriage, always troubled, strained to breaking when Jerry's bipolar disorder spiraled out of control. When Pyle's bosses tapped him to become a war correspondent, he arranged for Jerry's care and left for North Africa. Though he returned for interludes, in a sense he never came back.

Leaving the big-picture stories to other journalists, Pyle followed the troops. He lived with them, and they grew to trust him. Although he had to submit his columns to censors, it is astonishing how much the reality of war pulses through them — the weariness, filth, loyalty, bravery and dread. Pyle's most famous column, "The Death of Captain Waskow," an elegy to one irreplaceable man, is almost pitch-perfect.

Pyle won a Pulitzer and published four bestsellers. Depression, self-medicated with alcohol, dogged him but he kept writing. I longed to know more about how he did it. Did he take notes or carry stories in his head until he could get them down? What was crucial and what did he leave out? When did he know he had nailed a story?

Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper in the waning days of World War II. No one ever got to debrief him. But Pyle talked about storytelling with Arthur Miller, not yet a famous playwright, who later recalled: "The need to tell the truth seemed like an ache he was always feeling."

The ache never went away, and so Pyle accepted his last, fatal assignment. Maybe he hoped that showing people the realities of war would put an end to it, but Ernie Pyle's mission is still very much with us. Last year alone, 67 journalists were killed doing their jobs, 15 in the Ukraine war. Pyle's work remains a necessity, and the costs remain incalculable.

The Soldier's Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II

By: David Chrisinger.

Publisher: Penguin Press, 400 pages, $30.