Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

 Feb. 10, 2003

Remembering Ernie Pyle, war correspondent

Bill Mauldin and Ernie Pyle are two men we need right now; two men who stood up for the little guys in the war and who spoke truth to power.

Ernie wrote this about the combat zone: "The combat zone. It is perpetual dust choking you, the hard ground wracking your muscles, the snatched food sitting ill on your stomach . . . heat and flies . . . the go, go, night and day . . .

"Danger comes in spurts; the discomfort is perpetual . . . The velvet is all gone from living."

That's how Ernie Pyle wrote about war. Like Bill Mauldin, he won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting. The best thing he ever wrote, in my opinion, was something I read when I was in the eighth grade, when I had three brothers all in danger.

The death of Capt. Waskow at the front lines in Italy, Jan. 10, 1944

In this war, I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Captain Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas.

Captain Waskow was a company commander in the 36th division. He had led his company since long before it left the states.

He was very young, only in his middle 20s, but he carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.

"After my own father, he came next," a sergeant told me. "He always looked out for us," a soldier said. "He'd go to bat for us every time."

"I've never knowed him to do anything unfair," another one said.

I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Captain Waskow's body down. The moon was nearly full at the time and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley below. Soldiers made shadows in the moonlight as the walked.

Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly down across the wooden pack saddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.

The Italian mule skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night.

Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies at the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself, and ask others to help.

The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment, while they got a new grip.

In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road.

I don't know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men and ashamed of being alive, and you don't ask silly questions.

Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about it.

We talked soldier talk for an hour or more. The dead man lay all alone outside in the shadow of the low stone wall.

Then a soldier came into the cow shed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road . . . the soldiers . . . stood there waiting. "This one is Captain Waskow," one said quietly.

Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the low stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off.

Finally, there were five lying end to end in a long row, alongside the road. You don't cover up dead men in the combat zone. They just lie there in shadows until somebody comes after them.

The unburdened mules moved off to their olive orchard. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around and gradually, one by one, I could sense them moving close to Captain Waskow's body.

Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him, and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.

One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, "God damn it."

That's all he said, and then, he walked away. Another man came; I think he was an officer.

It was hard to tell officers from men in the half light, for all were bearded and grimy dirty. The man looked down into the dead captain's face, and then he spoke directly to him, as though he were alive. He said, "I'm sorry, old man."

Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.

And finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain's shirt collar and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone . . .

(From The Retired Officer Magazine, February, 1991)

Ernie Pyle was machine gunned to death riding in a jeep on the small Pacific atoll of Ie Shima just before the end of World War II.

Before World War II, Ernie wrote a book about his travels around the United States, concentrating on small towns he visited and the "little people" he met.

Unfortunately, this book has long been out of print. It was a sample of his uncanny ability to bring out the best in people, an ability he brought to his work as a war correspondent when he interviewed "the little people" who were the American GIs of World War II, the group called by Tom Brokaw, "The Greatest Generation."

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