It seemed unlikely that a photograph in death of someone as well-known as war correspondent Ernie Pyle could exist for more than six decades without turning up in print — somewhere.
And as it turns out, it did.
In a Feb. 4 story, The Associated Press said a recently surfaced picture of the famed World War II reporter lying dead in a ditch on a tiny Pacific island had never been published "as far as can be determined," based on an extensive search of wartime and postwar archives.
Subsequently, the AP learned that the photo — taken by Army photographer Alexander Roberts shortly after Pyle was killed by a Japanese machine gun bullet on April 18, 1945 — did appear previously in at least two publications more than a quarter century ago.
On Dec. 14, 1979, the Daily Times-News of Burlington, N.C., ran the picture with a story about B.F. Coleman Jr., a local resident who, as a Navy chief petty officer in 1945, had acquired a copy from a naval photographer aboard USS Panamint, a command ship in the Okinawa campaign.
The picture also appeared in "Buddy Ernie Pyle: World War II's Most Beloved Typewriter Soldier," a 1982 book by Rudy Faircloth, who in 1945 was an Army photographer on military leave from AP. The 83-page personal memoir contains examples of Pyle's writings and Faircloth's recollections of meeting Pyle and being nearby when he was killed. Faircloth died last year at age 92.
Pyle, 44, was killed while covering the U.S. 77th Infantry Division's attack on Ie Shima, a small island off Okinawa. Roberts and Faircloth were both assigned to that unit as photographers. Their film was sent to the USS Panamint for processing.
Image withheld from public release
In its own inquiry, AP found that Roberts' photo, showing Pyle lying peacefully on his back as if sleeping, with only a trickle of blood from his mouth to indicate otherwise, was so scarce that even the National Archives, the largest U.S. repository of military records, had never seen it.
Of a few copies found to exist in museums or private hands, all appeared to have belonged to former USS Panamint officers and crew members, who, like B.F. Coleman, had acquired them as souvenirs from friends in the ship's photo lab.
Roberts himself wrote in 1945 that the picture had been withheld from public release by the War Department. Two ex-Panamint crew members said, separately, that the original negative was ordered destroyed. In the 1979 Times-News story, Coleman said the decision was made by Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander of U.S. Naval forces in the Pacific.
The 29-year-old newspaper story was brought to AP's attention by Coleman's son, James Coleman, of Rougemont, N.C., and by Tom Oliver III, a former city editor of the 28,000-circulation Daily Times-News.
Oliver, who left the paper in 1983, told AP he remembered the photo generating a stir among readers. For months, "We continued to receive letters and inquires from Pyle fans all across the country."
He also recalled that the Times-News had offered the picture to AP's Raleigh bureau. No record was found to indicate whether AP distributed it to other member papers.
No copy was found in AP's own library.