By MARK BENNETT

(Terre Haute) Tribune-Star

A dozen years after Ernie Pyle died beside a road on a tiny Japanese island, his legacy altered the course of a Hoosier teenager’s life.

Keith Hamilton was an 18-year-old, freshly graduated from Anderson High School, northeast of Indianapolis. Some of his buddies had spotted a Memorial Day newspaper ad, calling for young men ages 17 to 28 to enlist in a special United States Marine Corps company. Its members would hail from Indiana. The Hoosiers would “train together on the cool shores of the blue Pacific Ocean in Southern California,” the ad read.

Hamilton hadn’t seen the ad. His friends did, though. When they declared they were headed to apply for spots in the Marine Corps’ new Ernie Pyle Memorial Company, Hamilton said, “Well, you ain’t going without me.”

That “spur of the moment” decision led Hamilton into a three-year stint in the corps, taking him around the world. His stops included Japan.

Hamilton knew little then about Pyle, the beloved war correspondent whose fame led to Hamilton’s enlistment. Later, he learned Pyle’s story. “I know a lot more about him now,” said Hamilton, now 79 and still residing in Anderson with his wife.

The fact that the corps created a company in honor of Pyle — a one-time gesture 61 years ago — faded into the mist of passing time.

The first official National Ernie Pyle Day was celebrated last August in Bloomington at Indiana University, Pyle’s alma mater. Hamilton read about the observance and shared his memories of serving as a Marine in the Ernie Pyle Company with a group committed to preserving the journalist’s legacy. The nonprofit Friends of Ernie Pyle own and operate the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum in Dana — the writer’s boyhood home.

Hamilton’s recount pleasantly surprised the organization.

“We gather information on tributes that followed Ernie Pyle,” said Phillip Hess, a farmer, Army veteran and vice president of the Friends of Ernie Pyle. “But this is not something we’d ever heard of.”

‘JOIN TOGETHER’

Pyle was born in 1900 in tiny Dana, grew up in that Vermillion County town, served in the Navy during World War I, studied journalism at Indiana University and began a newspaper career that led to a Pulitzer Prize. His columns from the trenches of Europe and the Pacific Theater during World War II told the stories of common soldiers — their fears, trials, camaraderie and tragedies — to Americans back home.

He’d covered the grit of World War II in Europe, returned to the States to rest, and thought he should continue his war coverage in the Pacific. On April 18, 1945, Pyle rode in a Jeep with the commanding officer of an Army regiment on a small island northwest of Okinawa, when enemy gunfire erupted. Pyle and the commander jumped into a ditch for cover. They raised their heads to look around. A Japanese bullet hit Pyle, killing him instantly.

America mourned Pyle’s death. President Harry Truman said of Pyle, “He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.” Pyle later received a Purple Heart.

The columnist’s memory remained fresh in the 1950s, when Americans saw the country’s involvement in the Korean War end and Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union intensify.

In the spring of 1957, the Marine Corps began forming a memorial company in Pyle’s name, comprised of recruits from the late war correspondent’s home state of Indiana. “It’s kind of an honor that the Marines chose Ernie Pyle as what they thought was a recruiting draw,” Hess said.

The military ran ads in May of ‘57 in Hoosier newspapers, including the Terre Haute Tribune and Star, inviting young men to “Join Together ... Train Together ... [Go] On Leave Together with the Ernie Pyle Company ... Join in June!”

Nine teens from Anderson did just that, including Hamilton and a handful of close friends. Two-hundred-and-two recruits from across Indiana, including several from Terre Haute, also joined.

Hamilton had planned to accept a coach’s offer to play football at Anderson College, where a grant-in-aid would cover his books and tuition costs.

“Up until that day, that was my plan,” Hamilton said.

Instead, he spent the next three years as a Marine, serving in San Diego, Japan and North Carolina. “I have no regrets whatsoever,” Hamilton said last month.

LOCALS ‘BECAME

LIKE FAMILY’

Only the first few months of Hamilton’s service were spent with his fellow Ernie Pyle Company Marines. They traveled from the corners of Indiana to Indianapolis, swore in on Monument Circle, boarded eight cars of a Sante Fe Railroad train, and rumbled 2,000 miles west to the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego for basic training. The Pyle Company’s rail journey marked the largest single group of Marines from one locale to report to the depot for basic training since World War II, according to the corps’ newspaper, The Windward Marine.

They arrived with fanfare, before the rigors of training commenced. “They had Bob Hope and Miss San Diego, and they were singing, ‘Back Home Again in Indiana,’ and then they played the Marines Hymn. As soon as Hope and his crew and Miss San Diego pulled away, all hell broke loose,’” according to a 2010 biography of Sgt. Major Bill “Ooorah!” Paxton, an Indianapolis native and member of the Ernie Pyle Company.

The Hoosiers finished boot camp, returned to Indiana and then went West again for advanced training at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. From there, the company members split into different platoons and were shipped to different assignments around the country and globe. “They just went all over the place,” Hamilton said.

He wound up in Oppama, Japan, helping develop a supply and set-up system for Marine Corps Air Division aircraft. “Anything that went into a jet, we had in supply,” Hamilton explained.

He served 18 months in Japan. That Asian island nation — an enemy country to the U.S. during World War II — wasn’t spoken of highly when Hamilton was a kid growing up in Indiana, he acknowledged. Service time and interactions with local folks in Japan in the late 1950s renewed his perspective.

“I found out the most valuable lesson in life. You can go to almost any country in the world and get along with the people there,” Hamilton said. “The people aren’t the problem, 90 percent of the time.” The Japanese “are very respectful people.” Those who worked at the Marine base “just became like family,” he added. “We laughed with them, joked with them, treated them just as equals.”

A lance corporal when his three years of duty ended, Hamilton came home, studied at a technical college and worked for 37 years as a General Motors tool and die maker until retiring. Since then, he’s worked profiling jobs for a nationwide job training and placement system. Hamilton turns 80 this month. He credits active lifestyle to his dad’s lifelong work ethic and his military service.

“I’ve always been a proud Marine,” he said. “It gave me the basis for everything I did in life — that, and my dad’s example.”

As a civilian, Hamilton read extensively about Pyle’s life, writings and passion for the common man. “He did a lot to bring home the message to the American people, even to his own peril,” Hamilton said.