There’s no question Ernie Pyle was the voice of the foot soldier during World War II, reporting from the foxholes to tell the story of the Mediterranean and European war through the eyes of the men on the ground.
Though his work wasn’t as ubiquitous as Pyle’s, Robert L. Sherrod could claim a similar role in chronicling the Marines who slugged it out from the Aleutians through Tarawa, Saipan and Iwo Jima and finally to Okinawa. As his biographer, Ray E. Boomhower, writes in Dispatches from the Pacific, “Sherrod became the voice of the Marines during the war and, as a history of Time Inc. noted, the Marines ‘came to look on Sherrod as one of their own.’”
Born Feb. 8, 1909, Sherrod began his journalism career as a correspondent for the Athens Banner-Herald and the Atlanta Constitution before he had even graduated from the University of Georgia in 1929. He worked briefly in advertising and made his way through a series of newspapers in the early 1930s before joining the Time Inc. empire, first on the Fortune staff in New York and moving to Time and landing in the Washington bureau.
His first overseas assignment came in Australia early in 1942, but he made an international name for himself on Tarawa. On Nov. 20, 1943, he went ashore on Betio Island with the second wave of Marines to hit the beach that day and remained to cover the brief but bloody engagement, making his home in a foxhole alongside his Associated Press counterpart William Hipple.
Sherrod’s 1944 book about the experience, Tarawa: The Story of a Battle, was one of the defining eyewitness accounts of the war — even if the eyewitness itself acknowledged he was hardly doing the reality justice.
“What I saw on Betio was, I am certain, one of the greatest works of devastation wrought by man,” Sherrod wrote. “Words are inadequate to describe what I saw on this island of less than a square mile. So are pictures — you can’t smell pictures.”
Nonetheless, Sherrod’s accounts of the pure violence that unfolded across that tiny dot in the ocean — and the accompanying official casualty counts — both shocked and captivated the American public. At the center of all his work, though, was the average Marine. In his book, he wrote of chatting with them while en route to Tarawa:
In talking to the Marines aboard the Blue Fox I became convinced that they didn’t know what to believe in, either — except the Marine Corps. The Marines fought almost solely on esprit de corps, I was certain.
It was inconceivable to most Marines that they should let another Marine down, or that they could be responsible for dimming the bright reputation of their corps. The Marines simply assumed that they were the world’s best fighting men.
“Are you afraid?” Bill Hipple asked one of them. “Hell no, mister,” he answered. “I’m a Marine.”
Though Sherrod returned to the U.S. several times between 1943 and 1945, he always returned, closing out the island-hopping Pacific campaign on what amounted to the front lines in a theater that had a very different feel than Pyle’s slog across North Africa and Europe.
His work drew universal acclaim, as evidenced by an editorial in the Oct. 19, 1945 Atlanta Constitution that summarized his wartime efforts this way:
In many respects Sherrod is perhaps the greatest correspondent of this war. Few of his dispatches were written back at headquarters. He was one of those who found the war a sort of unpleasant drug which nevertheless held him in the grip of its tremendous emotional excitement.
Following the war, Sherrod covered a variety of assignments for Time, initially focusing on Asia before returning to Washington in 1948 to cover the Pentagon. He would later work as an editor at the Saturday Evening Post before returning to Time Inc. as a writer for Life, where he covered the war in Vietnam.
Sherrod continued to write about war and the Marines until his death in February 1994, days after his 85th birthday.