Section 14 of 14

These points are illustrated by the coverage of the battle of San Pietro in the New York Times, a prestige paper that had its own correspondents in Europe, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which relied on stories from the Associated Press and United Press, the wire services used by most American daily newspapers. Neither the Times nor the Plain Dealer subscribed to Pyle's columns.

The Times' stories concentrated on the cities, rivers and mountains seized by the Fifth Army. When the stories zoomed in for detail, the picture remained antiseptic. The fighting for Mount Sammucro was "a weird struggle above the clouds," in which the Americans "wiped out the enemy with rifles, pistols, knives and grenades."186 Other stories set the scene in Italy by describing how the terrain and German defenses slowed the Allied advance, and also added up the score: 16,074 British and 10,649 American casualties up to November 23.187 The sources of information in the stories were official ones; low-ranking individuals were ignored except for the officers whom Roosevelt decorated during a visit to Sicily after the Tehran summit conference;188 and death lay between the lines written about attacks and counterattacks.

A similar view appeared in the Plain Dealer. From December 10 to December 20, the Plain Dealer's stories about the fighting in Italy quoted an anonymous American general, an "Allied communiqué,'' General Henry H. Arnold, an unnamed Italian general, a British radio broadcast, two Italians who gave intelligence information to Fifth Army headquarters, an anonymous Texas colonel, and a captain and major who were named. In short, no enlisted men.189 Furthermore, the stories held death at arm's length. They named a second lieutenant who took command of a group of soldiers after two company commanders "were either killed or wounded," but they did not name the commanders or describe how they met their fate.190 The stories did not lack drama, but the drama they did manage was a step removed from the personal. Whitehead, the man who recognized Pyle's column about Waskow as superior to his own work, described the deaths of San Pietro this way:

American doughboys have won one of their bloodiest, bitterest and toughest battles of World War II. . . . The name of San Pietro will be remembered in American military history along with such names as Fondouk, Bizerte, Tunis, Gela, Troina, Salerno and Naples. The Americans call it "Death Valley" because death was on a rampage for 48 hours as they stormed this enemy fortress ringed with fortifications. . . . Casualties were heavy and some companies lost all their officers, either killed or wounded.191

To be fair, it should be pointed out that Ernie Pyle's columns also tended to avoid personalizing death. A reading of Here Is Your War and Brave Men turned up only one instance besides the Waskow story in which Pyle identified a dead enlisted man and gave some detail about his demise.192 (Pyle recorded several other deaths anonymously and briefly. An example is the anecdote he told in Brave Men about a chaplain attending to a tent full of dying men. The chaplain knelt beside a dying soldier and said, "John, I'm going to say a prayer for you." Pyle said the stark announcement hit him like a hammer.193)

The effect of the newspapers' limited, generally upbeat and bloodless coverage was to give readers a words-on-paper equivalent of the government's ban on publishing photographs of dead American soldiers. In short, the press's coverage of the war, to use Steinbeck's phrase, kept the public from seeing the crazy mess that was World War II.

Against this background, it is apparent why Pyle's column, which got close to death and gave it a name, struck the American people hard. They had had little experience absorbing such blows.

The second reason for the impact of Pyle's column is, oddly enough, its abstraction. The reader grieved for Waskow and for his buddies. This grief rested on emotion, but the emotion was pinned to few specific facts. Who was Captain Waskow, what were his wounds, where and how did he face death—all are questions that Pyle left unanswered. The reader's imagination filled in a few of the blanks. It is not too great a leap of the imagination to picture readers in the United States projecting the faces of their dead brothers and sons in uniform onto Pyle's skeleton of facts.

Freddie Lee Simmons, for example, read the column tearfully as she remembered not only her chemistry partner at Temple Junior College, but also the fliers she knew in Burma and India who never returned from their missions over the Himalayas.194

Finally, Pyle's skill as a writer is evident in his most famous and most anthologized work. His strongest literary device in the column was to withdraw himself from the column and observe the men who honored their dead captain. By recording their words and deeds, the column became their tribute, not his. Pyle's column did not demand an emotional response. He did not even hint at one. Instead he used short, staccato sentences to set a scene, and the scene suggested a mood.

A Washington Post reporter reviewing the 1994 Smithsonian Institution's exhibit on World War II journalists reprinted a section of the Waskow column, followed by the comment, "Find me one member of the Class of '94 at Harvard who will ever write like this."195

There may be others like him, but Ernie Pyle, who was killed in April 1945, will never come again. He was unique, as was Captain Waskow. For that matter, every person is one of a kind.

Pyle knew this. His World War II columns from North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and the Pacific demonstrate that he knew. That is why the vastness of the war's tragedy drove him to depression and distraction and drink. That is why he was able to put on paper words such as these, in a fragment of a column he was preparing for release when the war in Europe was over—a fragment found in his pocket the day he died.

"Dead men by mass production—in one country after another—month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.

"Dead men in such monstrous infinity that they become monotonous.

"These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and didn't come back. You didn't see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.

"We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That's the difference. . . . "196

In the American military cemetery at Nettuno, not far from the beaches of Anzio, Captain Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas, is one of the multiple thousands. His grave is decorated by a simple white cross, one of many that form a grid of gently curving lines adorning a grassy-green field. From a distance, his cross is indistinguishable from the rest—he is one of the many who died in the surf and mountains of Italy. But Ernie Pyle has ensured that he is not just another anonymous soldier. The cemetery's caretaker has had so many visitors ask to see Waskow's grave that he no longer needs to look up the directions to it; he just tells them that yes, he has many requests for that one, and he takes them there.197

Visitors still go to Belton's North Cemetery, too, to say goodbye to Waskow. All they find is a memorial stone near the graves of his mother, who died two months after he did, and his father, who died in 1957. An American flag the size of a man's hand flutters atop a short wooden stake that has been pressed into the barren, stony red soil beside Henry Waskow's marker. Members of the Belton Post 4008 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars pay their respects there on Memorial Day.

The marker includes a name, dates of birth and death, military rank and the words "Killed in Action in Italy." Nowhere is there mention of a posthumous brush with fame. Nowhere is there any detail that would separate this one man from the monstrous infinity of men who died for their country.

Instead, it is the task of the living to remember the dead. . . .

To remember, as Pyle said, that they are not just columns of figures.

 

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Copyright © 1995, 1999 Michael S. Sweeney
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