Volunteers Rally To Save War Columnist's Museum

Dec 7, 2011
Originally published on December 7, 2011 3:55 pm
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Newspaper correspondent Ernie Pyle reported from the frontlines of World War II. His dispatches often read like letters home from the troops. Pyle's columns won him the Pulitzer Prize. His life made it to the silver screen. And in a rare honor for a civilian, he was even awarded a Purple Heart. Pyle was born and raised in a tiny Indiana town where a once expansive museum pays tribute to him.

But, as Sara Wittmeyer of member station WFIU reports, that museum now faces perhaps its greatest challenge.

SARA WITTMEYER, BYLINE: Before Ernie Pyle became a renowned war correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service, he lived here in Dana, Indiana, a farming town of 400 near the Illinois border. As soon as you come into town, you're pointed to the one thing that would bring you here: the Ernie Pyle Museum. Philip Hess is on the board of directors for the Friends of Ernie Pyle. He's standing on the steps of the visitor center.

PHILIP HESS: Would you like to see the - take the whole tour? I'd like for you to.


HESS: This is his birthplace.

WITTMEYER: The private tour through Pyle's boyhood home offers an early 20th-century glimpse into the life of one of America's most famous journalists. It winds through the sitting room into Pyle's parents' room and onto the kitchen and the living room. From there, you go outside and into the visitor center, a connected pair of restored Army Quonset huts from World War II. Throughout the exhibit, life-size tableaus depict some of Pyle's most famous columns.

HESS: This is a picture of the beach as it was when Ernie came ashore at Normandy one day after the invasion.

WITTMEYER: And when you press a button, actor William Windom's voice comes on and reads the article.

WILLIAM WINDOM: (Reading) I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France. It was a lovely day for strolling on the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn't know they were in the water for they were dead.

WITTMEYER: Pyle was known for putting a human face on war, befriending and traveling with the troops until he was killed by a sniper in 1945 near Okinawa. After his death, Dana residents began collecting stories and artifacts to put on display here. The state staffed the museum. That was up until last year. Indiana was spending more than $40,000 on the museum, which was drawing about 2,000 visitors a year. Historical sites vice president Bruce Beesley says the state simply couldn't justify the museum's costs.

BRUCE BEESLEY: We need to make a decision on what was the most effective and efficient ways to tell the Ernie Pyle story.

WITTMEYER: Indiana officials determined the best way to tell Pyle's story was to cherry-pick the best things from the site - everything from his field typewriter to his famous Zippo lighter with the initials E.P. carved into it - and display them in the state museum in Indianapolis. Hess was told that more people will visit the Pyle exhibit there in one year than would have traveled to Dana in 100. While he doesn't dispute that, he says it's just not the same.

HESS: In Indianapolis, they see who Ernie Pyle was. Here, you get to feel what his writing was about, and a fair number of people who see the exhibits leave here in tears.

WITTMEYER: The Ernie Pyle Museum is back under the ownership of the Friends group, which opens it to the public in the summer or by appointment. And now before you exit the Quonset huts, you pass by a large donation box marked with these words: Help keep the site open. For NPR News, I'm Sara Wittmeyer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.