You can tell when a writer knows a place as if it were home, the people around him as if they were family and the fear that can cripple ordinary men or turn them into heroes.
Ernie Pyle knew war, the soldiers who lived it and the fear it instilled.
He covered World War II in Africa, Europe and the Pacific for Scripps-Howard newspapers, owner of The Star, becoming the most celebrated war correspondent of that time.
April 18, 1945, on the island of Ie Shima, just west of Okinawa, a Japanese machine-gun bullet silenced Ernie Pyle. For three years, his columns brought the war home to millions — almost "as personal letters from the front," The New York Times wrote in his obituary,
Now, 63 years later, a photograph of Mr. Pyle in death has surfaced, surprising historians. Associated Press reporter Richard Pyle (no relation) writes that, as far as anyone can determine, the photo has never been published.
It might seem macabre to consider showing this photograph so long after the war, but as James E. Tobin, a professor at Miami University of Ohio, told the AP: "It's a striking and painful image, but Ernie Pyle wanted people to see and understand the sacrifices that soldiers had to make, so it's fitting, in a way, that this photo of his own death drives home the reality and the finality of that sacrifice."
What makes the photograph so striking is the seeming peacefulness of the scene it captures.
AP reporter Richard Pyle wrote: "The figure in the photograph is clad in Army fatigues, boots and helmet, lying on his back in a peaceful repose, folded hands holding a military cap. Except for a thin trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, he could be asleep."
It is the very type of moment Ernie Pyle wrote home about. He did not glorify battle or the soldiers who waged it; he simply tried to make people understand, as best as possible, the sacrifices soldiers made. But those who have never been in battle can't, not really. They can only know in a vague manner war's horror, how it affects those who fight it and how randomly war claims lives.
We have this sad image of Mr. Pyle now, which is all the more poignant when paired with the words of his final, unfinished column found in his jacket pocket after he was killed.
His topic had been the end of the war in Europe and the hope of troops in the Pacific that it would hasten the end of the war there. It became, instead, a timeless truth about war, about death, about humanity.
"In the joyousness of high spirits it is easy for us to forget the dead. Those who are gone would not wish themselves to be a millstone of gloom around our necks.
"But there are many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.
"Dead men by mass production — in one country after another — month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.
"Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.
"Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.
"These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn't come back. You didn't see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.
"We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That's the difference."