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HomePatriot DispatchesThe Death of Captain Waskow, by Ernie Pyle

The Death of Captain Waskow, by Ernie Pyle

(Special thanks to Clyde McDonnell, Moments With Clyde blog, for posting this in its entirety.)

Probably Ernie Pyle’s best known piece, I’ve included here a copy of Captain Waskow’s last letter home.

Two hankies, gentlemen.

At the Front Lines in Italy, January 10th, 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 Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas.

Capt. 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 twenties, 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 after 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 Capt. 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 they walked.

Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed to the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden packsaddles, 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 the 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 at being alive, 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 water cans or lay in 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 men lay all alone outside in the shadow of the low stone 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 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 the shadows until somebody else 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 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.” That’s all he said, and then he walked away. Another one came. He said, “God damn it to hell anyway.” He looked down for a few last moments, and then he turned and left.

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 sure am 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 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 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.

After that 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.

Ernie Pyle

Henry T. Waskow’s Last Letter Home

Greetings;

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, however — I wanted to live for it — just as any other person wants to do. It is foolish and foolhardy to want to die for one’s country, but to live for it is something else.

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 to 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, for life in the other world must be beautiful, and I have lived a life with that in mind all along. I was not afraid to die; you can be assured of that. All along, I prayed that I and others could do our share to keep you safe until we returned. I pray again that you are safe, even though some of us do not return.

I made my choice, dear ones. I volunteered in the Armed Forces because I thought that I might be able to help this great country of ours in it’s hours of darkness and 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 the world a better place in which to live. Maybe when the lights go on again all over the world, free people can be happy and gay again.

Through good fortune and the grace of God, I was chosen a leader — an honor that meant more to me than any of you will ever know. If I failed as a leader, and I pray to God I didn’t, it was not because I did not try. God alone knows how I worked and slaved to make myself a worthy leader of these magnificent men, and I feel assured that my work has paid dividends — in personal satisfaction, if nothing else.

As I said a couple of times in my letters home “when you remember me in your prayers, remember to pray that I be given strength, character and courage to lead these magnificent Americans.” I said that in all sincerity and I hope I have proved worthy of their faith, trust and confidence.

I guess I have always appeared as pretty much of a queer cuss to all of you. If I seemed strange at times, it was because I had weighty responsibilities that preyed on my mind and wouldn’t let me slack up to be human — like I so wanted to be. I felt so unworthy, at times, of the great trust my country had put in me, that I simply had to keep plugging to satisfy my own self that I was worthy of that trust. I have not, at the time of writing this, done that, and I suppose I never will.

I do not try to set myself on a pedestal as a martyr. Every Joe Doe who shouldered a rifle made a similar sacrifice — but I do want to point out that the uppermost thought in my mind all along was service to the cause, and I hope you all felt the same way about it.

When you remember me, remember me as a fond admirer of all of you, for I thought so much of you and loved you with all my heart. My wish for all of you is that you get along well together and prosper — not in money — but in happiness, for happiness is something that all the money in the world can’t buy.

Try to live a life of service — to help someone where you are or whatever you may be — take it from me; you can get happiness out of that, more than anything in life.

Henry T. Waskow

Rest in Peace

 

Bernard Chumm
Partner, The Sands Institute, head of the fearsome Scat Patrol, and Protector of the Innocent

9 COMMENTS

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9 COMMENTS

  1. Wow! This is such an amazing piece. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard read, but it takes on a new meaning, given the domestic battle we stateside are facing along with the battles going on in other lands that our military face day in and day out.

    Thank you for posting this. I appreciate it very much. And I’ll be sharing it with others before the weekend is through.

  2. They don’t make hankies like they used to, two didn’t quite cut it. I’ve got a serious love/hate relationship with that story. Nothing should make a grown man who formerly exited aircraft while in flight shed visible tears and anything that does is to be avoided. Like the plague. I avoided this diary all afternoon, they make me maudlin, but it finally sucked me in. Thanks Bernard, you suck. Kiss my ass (my apologies for my Infantryman’s language to everyone except Bernie, but extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary replies).

    Some things never change, scenes like that have occurred since the time of the Legions and still happen today. Occasionally. It requires a special Leader who lives by a code. A code of principles and ethics seldom seen, even in better times, or maybe especially in better times. Many, many people possess the necessary traits, they’re hard to notice under normal circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances however, bring out the extraordinary in otherwise ordinary people. That’s how 95 pound women lift burning cars to save their children, that’s how simple soldiers earn the Medal of Honor, that’s how legendary Leaders are made. In a forge of unbearable heat and hammered into shape by unbearable circumstance. Our forge is heating up and the implacable blows of the hammer are bending us into shape. I read once that the Japanese masters of sword making could hear the sword in the raw block of iron, calling out to them asking to be formed by their repeated shaping and folding. I guess my question is what would they hear in your raw block of iron? A plowshare to be used till its used up? Or a sword to be folded and formed, sharpened and oiled and used to inspire and lead? Read Captain Waskow’s letter again and imagine him as a politician. Do you think he would have given less for his constituents than he gave for his Soldiers in Italy? We found quite a few who measure up well against CPT Waskow’s mark last November, many more are still unknown, laboring behind the scenes as PCs, fighting just as hard to save our Country as CPT Waskow did, guided by the same principles that made him what he was. Extraordinary circumstances bring to the fore extraordinary people. Are you one?

    That’s the best I can do for political activism tonight, I need to find another damned hankie. Bernie, did I mention that you suck?

  3. Thank you for posting this, Bernard. I’d never seen it and will refer back to it in years to come. God granted us tears in order to refresh our souls. Mine was amply watered thanks to you.

    I’m thankful every day for great men and women who have given their ultimate and for those who are wounded or are now serving. These and Capt. Waskow will not be forgotten.

      • To paraphrase Mr. Cain, “Well then, we’ve got some rememberin’ and reflectin’ to do.”

        Whenever I read news stories about our heroes and those who have given their lives with such altruism, it strikes me again how fortunate we are in those who stepped up out of line and said, “I will.”

        I also remember that we have an all volunteer armed services, and that those who signed up after 2003 knew even more so, the costs of doing thus.

  1. Wow! This is such an amazing piece. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard read, but it takes on a new meaning, given the domestic battle we stateside are facing along with the battles going on in other lands that our military face day in and day out.

    Thank you for posting this. I appreciate it very much. And I’ll be sharing it with others before the weekend is through.

  2. They don’t make hankies like they used to, two didn’t quite cut it. I’ve got a serious love/hate relationship with that story. Nothing should make a grown man who formerly exited aircraft while in flight shed visible tears and anything that does is to be avoided. Like the plague. I avoided this diary all afternoon, they make me maudlin, but it finally sucked me in. Thanks Bernard, you suck. Kiss my ass (my apologies for my Infantryman’s language to everyone except Bernie, but extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary replies).

    Some things never change, scenes like that have occurred since the time of the Legions and still happen today. Occasionally. It requires a special Leader who lives by a code. A code of principles and ethics seldom seen, even in better times, or maybe especially in better times. Many, many people possess the necessary traits, they’re hard to notice under normal circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances however, bring out the extraordinary in otherwise ordinary people. That’s how 95 pound women lift burning cars to save their children, that’s how simple soldiers earn the Medal of Honor, that’s how legendary Leaders are made. In a forge of unbearable heat and hammered into shape by unbearable circumstance. Our forge is heating up and the implacable blows of the hammer are bending us into shape. I read once that the Japanese masters of sword making could hear the sword in the raw block of iron, calling out to them asking to be formed by their repeated shaping and folding. I guess my question is what would they hear in your raw block of iron? A plowshare to be used till its used up? Or a sword to be folded and formed, sharpened and oiled and used to inspire and lead? Read Captain Waskow’s letter again and imagine him as a politician. Do you think he would have given less for his constituents than he gave for his Soldiers in Italy? We found quite a few who measure up well against CPT Waskow’s mark last November, many more are still unknown, laboring behind the scenes as PCs, fighting just as hard to save our Country as CPT Waskow did, guided by the same principles that made him what he was. Extraordinary circumstances bring to the fore extraordinary people. Are you one?

    That’s the best I can do for political activism tonight, I need to find another damned hankie. Bernie, did I mention that you suck?

  3. Thank you for posting this, Bernard. I’d never seen it and will refer back to it in years to come. God granted us tears in order to refresh our souls. Mine was amply watered thanks to you.

    I’m thankful every day for great men and women who have given their ultimate and for those who are wounded or are now serving. These and Capt. Waskow will not be forgotten.

      • To paraphrase Mr. Cain, “Well then, we’ve got some rememberin’ and reflectin’ to do.”

        Whenever I read news stories about our heroes and those who have given their lives with such altruism, it strikes me again how fortunate we are in those who stepped up out of line and said, “I will.”

        I also remember that we have an all volunteer armed services, and that those who signed up after 2003 knew even more so, the costs of doing thus.

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