To mark the anniversary of the death of Captain Waskow, killed near San Pietro on 12 December 1943, I am posting Ernie Pyle’s deeply moving account and a beautiful letter that Waskow had upon him when he died – it was for his family and captures the immense nobility of man who gave his life for and in service to others….
CAPTAIN WASKOW BY ERNIE PYLE
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 Thirty-sixth Division. He had led his company since long before it left the States. He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and a gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.
“After my father, he came next,” a sergeant told me. “He always looked after us,” a soldier said. “He’d go to bat for us every time.” “I’ve never known him to do anything unfair,” another said.
I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Captain Waskow down.
The moon was nearly full, and you could see far up the trail, and even partway across the valley below. Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden packsaddles, their heads hanging down on one side, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other, bobbing up and down as the mules 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. 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.
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 others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the stone wall alongside the road. We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans 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 it. We talked soldier talk 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 Captain Waskow,” one of them said quietly. 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 the combat zones. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody comes after them. The unburdened mules moved off to their olive grove.
The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving, one by one, 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 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 he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the dim light, for everybody was bearded and grimy.
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 tenderly, 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 over and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of the 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 five 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.
LETTER FROM WASKOW
“If you get to read this, I will have died in defense of my country and all that it stands for – the most honorable and distinguished death a man can die. It was not because I was willing to die for my country. … I wanted to live for it …
“To live for one’s country is to my mind to live a life of service. To, in a small way, help a fellow man occasionally along the way and generally to be useful and serve. It also means to me to rise up in all our wrath and with overwhelming power to crush any oppressor of human rights. That is our job, all of us, as I write this, and I pray God we are wholly successful.
“Yes, I would have liked to have lived – to live and share the many blessings and good fortunes that my grandparents bestowed upon me. A fellow never had a better family than mine, but since God has willed otherwise do not grieve too much dear ones. … I was not afraid to die. … I prayed that I and others could do our share to keep you safe until we returned.
“I made my choice, dear ones. I volunteered in the armed forces because I felt it my duty to do so. I thought that I might be able and might do just a little bit to help this great country of ours in its hours of need – the country that means more to me than life itself. If I have done that, then I can rest in peace, for I will have done my share to make this world a better place in which to live.
“Try to live a life of service …”
WWII’S GREATEST US REPORTER – ERNIE PYLE