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Column: The Death of Captain Waskow


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Hoosier journalist Ernie Pyle was one of the most beloved figures to emerge from World War II. His columns from the front were about the average American soldier and earned him the title of the ''GI's reporter.''
PHOTO COURTESY OF INDIANA UNIVERSITY
Hoosier journalist Ernie Pyle was one of the most beloved figures to emerge from World War II. His columns from the front were about the average American soldier and earned him the title of the ''GI's reporter.'' PHOTO COURTESY OF INDIANA UNIVERSITY


AT the front lines in Italy, Jan 10 (1944) (by Wireless) — 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 Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Tex.

Capt. Waskow was a company commander in the 36th Division. He had been in this company since long before he left the States. He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.

“After my own father, he comes next,” a sergeant told me.

“He always looked after us,” a soldier said. “He’d go to bat for us every time.”

Ernie Pyle: The GI’s reporter

With the approach of Veterans Day, we reprint here today “The Death of Captain Waskow,” a memorable column written by Hoosier journalist Ernie Pyle, who was covering American forces during their liberation of Italy in World War II.

The son of tenant farming parents in west-central Indiana, Pyle became history’s greatest war correspondent.

During the war, he wrote about the hardships and bravery of the common soldier, not grand strategy. His description of the GI’s life was more important to families on the home front than battlefront tactics of Gens. Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton or Omar Bradley.

His columns reflected an empathy for those he covered, and he came to be known as the GI’s reporter.

He wrote scores of columns about life as seen through the eyes of enlisted men, sailors and airmen. One memorable column was about the late Tom Thayer, a Hope area resident who had parachuted from his plane into the African desert.

His most famous work, however, is the article that appears here. It has been acclaimed as a bitingly accurate depiction of war but also at the same time as a gut-wrenching tribute to a fallen soldier.

When Pyle was killed by a Japanese machine gun bullet on the tiny Pacific island of Ie Shima in 1945, his columns were published in more than 700 newspapers.

He is still remembered today through a museum set up by admirers in his birthplace of Dana. Many of his papers are preserved at his alma mater, Indiana University, in a building that bears his name.

I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow down. The moon was nearly full and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley. Soldiers made shadows as they walked.

Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came belly down across the wooden backsaddle, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking 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, when they got to 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. In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there leaning on the other. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the stone wall alongside the road.

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

We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on watercans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.

Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about him. We talked for an hour or more; the dead man lay all alone, outside in the shadow of the wall.

Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there in the moonlight in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting.

“This one is Capt. Waskow,” one of them said quickly.

Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally, there were five lying end to end in a long row. You don’t cover up dead men in combat zones. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.

The uncertain mules moved off to their olive groves. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving, one by one, close to Capt. 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!”

Another one came, and he said, “God damn it to hell anyway!” He looked down for a few last moments and then turned and left.

Another man came. I think it was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the dim light, for everybody was grimy and dirty. The man looked down into the dead captain’s face and then spoke directly to him, as though he were alive:

“I’m sorry, old man.”

Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tender, and he said:

“I sure am sorry, sir.”

Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the Captain’s 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.

Finally he put the hand down. He 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.

The rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the dead men lying in a line, end to end, in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.

Column courtesy of Scripps Howard Foundation.

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