DANA, Ind. — This tiny farming community seems like a typical small town in most respects. But this is the home town of Ernie Pyle, and over the course of each year about 10,000 tourists journey here to pay tribute to America's most famous, and most beloved, war correspondent.
The Ernie Pyle State Historic Site consists of the home Pyle was born in, and two World War II quonset huts, packed with Pyle memorabilia.
Evelyn Hobson spent almost 20 years as the museum's curator, searching far and wide for the letters, photos, typewriter, and hundreds of other mementos from Pyle's illustrious career that make up the exhibits at the museum. Even after all these years she's so moved by the Pyle story she tears up and can hardly speak when asked what the museum means to her.
She recalled one of his more chilling columns. "He said I have gotten to the point where I can hardly stand to look at a group of fresh recruits coming in."
Why? Because, she said, he knew that half of them would soon be dead. "He lived with them, he was their friend, and he got to the point that he couldn't stand to look them in the face."
Gave Americans the real face of war
Pyle didn't write of generals or military strategy. His columns were about the personal experiences and thoughts of American GIs in World War II, grinding it out under brutal conditions.
"I love the infantry because they are the underdogs," he wrote in one column. "They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can't be won without."
His Pulitzer Prize-winning column appeared in newspapers across the nation 6 days a week. He was one of the most famous men in America — millions of Americans viewed World War II through his eyes.
Jim Goforth, who still farms here in Dana (and looks 20 years younger than his age) said that almost 60 years after Pyle's death, he's still a source of pride here.
He remembers vividly the way Pyle put into words what "the boys" were doing.
"He described it so well, and especially I remember he talked about D-Day when he walked along the beach," said Goforth.
The column Goforth remembers so well is one of Pyle's most famous. It's called "Normandy Tides." He wrote it the day after D-Day, describing what he called the "long thin line of anguish" of dead soldiers' belongings that ran along the beach.
"It extends in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark, for miles along the beach," he wrote. "This is the strewn personal gear, gear that will never be needed again, of those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe.... Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand."
There's an exhibit at the Pyle Historic Site in Dana that portrays that horrific scene — everything from helmets to cigarettes to bullets to Bibles. Even this indoor imitation is a powerful sight — especially when viewed while reading Pyle's column.
The original 'embed?'
The war was hard on Pyle. He fell into what he called a "flat black depression." And it's no wonder given the horrors he chronicled.
Pyle has often been called the original embedded journalist, blazing a trail decades ago that's now being followed by reporters in Iraq.
Pyle, though, was much more than that. He wasn't tied to one Company, or Battalion, or Division, as the Pentagon program now requires. He moved freely from unit to unit.
And instead of being embedded for one or two months, Pyle did it for an astounding three years. And he followed the war around the globe, from England, to France, North Africa, Italy, and finally the Pacific.
It was there, on April 18, 1945 on the small island of Ie Shima, near Okinawa, that Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper. Heartbroken troops erected a sign where he was killed. "At this spot the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy, Ernie Pyle."
An entire nation mourned. President Truman said, "No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as the American fighting man wanted it told."
Blaine Randolph of Dana, who knew the Pyle family growing up, was with the American forces in Italy when Pyle died. Randolph had become a hit with his fellow soldiers because he was from Pyle's hometown. (Soldiers overseas avidly read his column, which was printed in Stars and Stripes.)
Randolph said Pyle's death "set me back quite a bit, because I was expecting to see him again when the war was over."
Randolph and others here in Dana, especially those actively involved in the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site -- which is facing possible budget cuts -- say their mission is clear: to keep the museum going, and to make sure the next generation doesn't forget the enormous contribution of Ernie Pyle.
"I think most of the vets pass it on down to their grandchildren," Randolph said. "So I think this town will be remembered for quite some time and the legend of Ernie Pyle will be remembered for quite some time."
Ernie Pyle, an unusual combination of groundbreaking journalist and national hero. And his legend is still very much alive here in his home town of Dana, Indiana.
Chip Reid is an NBC News Correspondent, his current assignment is Congress. During the early stages of the war in Iraq he was embedded with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Watch MSNBC Cable this weekend for more of his story on the "original embed," Ernie Pyle.