Section 1 of 14
Pyle retired to his room in Caserta, Italy, just before Christmas of 1943
to ward off the winter chill with his bedroll and knit cap and to drown
his depression with cognac.
For more than three years, Pyle had produced a syndicated newspaper column featuring his "worm’s-eye view" of World War II. He wrote about what he knew, and he knew of "tired and dirty soldiers who are alive and don’t want to die; of long darkened convoys in the middle of the night; of shocked silent men wandering back down the hill from battle."1 His stories about people from Jeffersonville, Indiana, and Mexico, Missouri, and Hebron, North Carolina, and a thousand other towns had made him the most widely read war correspondent2 and possibly the most prayed-for man in the war zone, as measured by the thousands of letters he received from soldiers and their wives.3 Pyle loved what he called the God-damned infantry,4 but he suffered for it. Young infantrymen—too many—were dying. By the summer of 1943, Pyle was in the grip of something dark. He wrote to his wife that "on especially sad days it’s almost impossible to believe that anything is worth such mass slaughter and misery."5
He had gotten away from the darkness for a few weeks during a trip home to the States that autumn, but it had reappeared shortly after his return to Italy. He wrestled with it in his room in the Fifth Army rest center at the Royal Palace of Caserta, seventeen miles north of Naples. There were hot showers and regular meals and all the opulence of King Charles III’s eighteenth-century palazzo to enjoy, but Pyle could not relax His thoughts kept returning to the green Texas infantrymen fighting the Germans twenty miles to the northwest, in the frosty mountains south of Rome.
It was nighttime when Associated Press reporter Don Whitehead found him. Bone-tired and ill with anemia, Pyle looked up and told his friend, "I’ve lost the touch. This stuff stinks. I just can’t seem to get going again."6 And with that, he tossed three columns to Whitehead and asked for an opinion.
The first column began:
The column described how a mule had carried Waskow’s dead body to the base of a mountain, and how the soldiers waiting there had placed the captain at the side of a road to await graves registration. One by one the soldiers who had served with Waskow said their goodbyes, touching his cold hand, whispering their sorrow and, in two cases, blurting "God damn it" before leaving the body in the moonlight. (The complete column is reproduced in Appendix A)
The simplicity and beauty of Pyle’s description brought tears to Whitehead’s eyes. "If this is a sample from a guy who has lost his touch," he said, "then the rest of us had better go home."8
Whitehead was not alone in his reaction. When the column appeared in America in mid-January 1944—after a month’s delay during which the Army notified Waskow’s family of his death—it released a flood of emotion. The Washington Daily News, owned by the Scripps-Howard chain that syndicated Pyle’s column, gave its entire front page on January 10 to the Waskow piece. The News virtually sold out that day, as only 39 copies were returned from all of downtown Washington.9 In addition, Raymond Gram Swing and Arthur Godfrey read the column on the radio, Pyle’s 200 newspaper clients gave it prominent display, Time magazine reprinted it, and the Ruthrauff and Ryan advertising agency immediately requested permission to use it in a war bond drive.10 A former United Press executive vowed to frame the column and hang it on his office wall as inspiration.11 Later, Time magazine printed a thank-you from a reader: "I don’t think any American could read [the column] dry-eyed."12
"Nice going, bub," Lee G. Miller, Pyle’s boss at the Scripps-Howard Newspaper Alliance, said in a letter posted four days after the column’s publication.13
Honors continued to accumulate for Pyle: A Pulitzer Prize, awarded in April 1944, for best war reporting of 1943. Publication of Pyle’s columns in a series of books, which became best-sellers. The release of a semi-biographical Hollywood motion picture, The Story of G.I. Joe, based on Pyle’s columns from North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
Yet the man whose life and death gave rise to Pyle’s most famous work remains obscure outside a few central Texas towns that still honor his name.
Who was Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas? It’s a question that Pyle, a shy and unassuming farm kid from Dana, Indiana, would have appreciated. He insisted that the men featured in his columns deserved more attention than he did. He dedicated his 1944 book Brave Men, in which the Waskow column was reprinted, to soldiers like him, "great, brave men ... for whom there will be no homecoming, ever."14 That same year, when producer Lester Cowan wanted to build a motion picture about American soldiers around the central character of Pyle, the famous war correspondent agreed to cooperate on three conditions: Cowan must include other real correspondents so they’d get a slice of attention; the hero of the picture must be an infantryman; and the movie must not glorify Pyle personally.15
And yet for all that Pyle did to tell the stories of brave American men, many of these men remain little more than footnotes to history.
Consider Henry T. Waskow. Although actor Robert Mitchum played a Waskow-like character in The Story of G.I. Joe, the portrayal is more of a vehicle to put Pyle’s powerful prose on film than it is a faithful, detailed biography. No book or national-circulation magazine article has been written about Waskow. A few articles have been printed in newspapers, such as a forty-inch profile of Waskow that appeared in the Houston Chronicle on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Pyle’s column, and some short biographical pieces have been printed in the dailies in Bell County, Texas, where Waskow grew up.16
This paper will provide a fuller biography of Henry Waskow. It will explain how his and Ernie Pyle’s lives intersected at Hill 1205 above San Pietro, Italy, and it will assess why the Pyle column had such a tremendous impact. The answers to these questions reveal much about the American home front in 1944 as well as Pyle’s skill as a journalist. In addition, they say much about an uncommon soldier.
Waskow demanded the best of his men but understood their human frailties. He led them by being among them, never exposing them to danger that he himself was unwilling to share. He watched out for their needs, such as the time he made sure they had turkey for Thanksgiving dinner instead of one more day of cold water and chocolate bars in the front lines. He realized that he would need help if he in turn were to help them, and so he prayed for the "strength, character and courage to lead these magnificent Americans."17
His men thought equally highly of him.
"He was like a father to me," said Riley Tidwell of Gallatin, Texas, a private who served as Waskow’s driver and brought his body down Hill 1205 despite exposing himself to shell fire and frostbite.18
"His men would die for him," said Roy D. Goad of Temple, Texas, whose mortars and heavy equipment supported Waskow’s rifle company in Italy.19
"He was a hell of a swell feller. A good man, a good leader, a good soldier," said Marvin Splawn of Holland, Texas, who knew Waskow as a youth and served with him in the Texas National Guard.20
"Pyle wrote an honest-to-God true story . . . Waskow was an unusually fine, clean young man . . . as fine a lad as I have ever known," said John Oliver of Belton, who trained with Waskow.21
Copyright © 1995, 1999 Michael S. Sweeney
All Rights Reserved
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