G.I. Joe

The Story of the G.I. Joe Action Figure

By Tom Henderson, Columnist

You might have noticed a minor journalistic controversy a few years back after the great columnist Ernie Pyle was turned into a G.I. Joe doll (excuse me, action figure).  

Purists were peeved. Ernie was rolling about his grave, they said. A humble man of letters, he would hate being turned into a molded plastic toy.

I feel partially responsible for all this.

Many moons ago, my son and I made one of my regular pilgrimages to Toys-R-Us. The G.I. Joe aisle shocked me. There were G.I. Joes based all sorts of famous people from Audie Murphy to John F. Kennedy to Bob Hope.

If war heroes include Bob Hope, I thought they should also include Ernie Pyle. Aside from being one of my personal heroes, Ernie popularized the term G.I. Joe.

OK, geek trivia time.

G.I. Joe dolls were created by a guy named Don Levine. Trying to come up with a name for his new toy (a macho counterpart to Barbie), he considered “Rocky,” “Skip” and “Ace.”

Then along came the 1945 movie “The Story of G.I. Joe.” The movie was based on the work of Ernie Pyle and starred Burgess Meredith as Ernie.

Levine took the name for his toy.

I  thought Ernie deserved to be recognized. The G.I. Joe connection aside, he was one of the greatest journalists in American history.

Not to mention one of the greatest Americans in American history.

I told the Hasbro folks as much in an e-mail and promptly forgot all about it. Then several months later, I received an Ernie Pyle G.I. doll in the mail as well as a thank-you note.

I feel proud that I might have played a small role in G.I. Joe history. I also feel a little sad. All this controversy over a plastic doll seemed kind of silly.

I did a quick e-Bay search. There are Ernie Pyle medallions, buttons, plates, paintings and even an advertisement for chocolate bars (I snagged that one).

Much of this stuff came out while Ernie was still with us. He even collaborated, before his death, on the making of “The Story of G.I. Joe.”

Humble and dignified he may have been, but I doubt he was above a little harmless commercialism.

Hasbro wasn´t trying to cash in one Ernie´s popularity. Heck, I doubt very many young people have even heard of Ernie.

The doll is obviously geared toward adult collectors and sentimental old newspapermen like me who revere Ernie Pyle and the journalism he practiced.

This is America. Some of our heroes are cast in bronze. The ones we really love are put on trading cards and turned into action figures.
There can be no higher tribute.

Editor’s note: At the 2002 conference in Pittsburgh, Dave Lieber had made a Leonard Pitts version of the Ernie Pyle G.I. Joe doll, which he presented to the speaker, who was honored as Columnist of the Year for his hard-hitting column about the 9/11 terrorist attacks.. 

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