From the front lines in Italy in January 1944, Ernie Pyle wrote, “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.”
Captain Henry Waskow of Belton was killed in action on December
14, 1943, on Mount Sammucro (also known as Hill 1205) in Italy. His was hardly
the only combat death that day in that war, but it was one that America took to
heart. War correspondent, Ernie Pyle, was covering that particular campaign
when Waskow’s body was carried by mule down the hillside from where the
fighting took place.
The words that Pyle wrote in response to Waskow’s death
still resonate in the annals of military history, journalism and even film. In
a paper for the Texas Military Forces Museum, Michael Sweeney wrote that when
Pyle wrote his piece about Waskow, he was tired, burned out and ill with
anemia. Pyle told an Associated Press reporter: “I’ve lost the touch. This
stuff stinks. I just can’t seem to get going again.” To show what he meant,
Pyle tossed what he had written about Waskow to the AP reporter, who read it
and, with a tear in his eye, said, “If this is a sample from a man who has lost
his touch, the rest of us better pack up and go home.”
Pyle’s columnn began,
“In this war I have known a lot of officers who were respected by the soldiers
under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt.
Henry Waskow of Belton, Texas. ” Waskow was a 35-year-old company commander in
the 36th Division when his body was brought down the mountainside on a cold,
moonlit night in Italy. Pyle wrote that Waskow “carried in him a sincerity and
a gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.”
were eager to share with Pyle their feelings about their captain. “After my
father, he came next,” a sergeant said. “He always looked after us. He’d go to
bat for us every time,” another soldier said. He wrote about Waskow’s death so
simply yet eloquently that readers the world over felt the sting of loss that
was particularly acute in Bell County.
Pyle wrote: “Dead men
had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules.
They came 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.”
“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 soldier who led them stood there, waiting.
”This is Capt. Waskow,’ one of them said quietly. The men came, one by one, for
a last look at their dead captain. Some cursed aloud. Others kept their
thoughts to themselves. 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 he got up and walked away down the road in
the moonlight, all alone.”
The columnn appeared in America in January 1944 and released
a flood of emotion in readers all over the country. The Washington Daily News
devoted its entire Jan. 10, 1944, front page to Pyle’s columnn about Waskow.
Arthur Godfrey read the columnn on the radio. Time Magazine reprinted it. The
story, which earned a Pulitzer Prize for Pyle and immortalized Waskow, was
reprinted in a collection of Pyle’s stories under the title “The Brave
Men.” A movie based on Pyle’s writing,
“The Story of G.I. Joe,” featured actor Robert Mitchum playing the part of
Locally his hometown
named VFW Hall 4008 and a school–the Henry T. Waskow High School– in his honor.
Waskow graduated from Belton High School in 1935 where he was a student council
president and had the highest grade point average of any male graduate. He
attended what was then Temple Junior College in 1936-37 and graduated from
Trinity University with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1939. Waskow was
buried in an Allied cemetery in Italy, but a marker bearing his name was later
placed on a plot in North Belton Cemetery.