Henry T. Waskow and the Ernie Pyle tribute that made him famous
By the end of 1943, Ernie Pyle’s dispatches had become the indispensable lens through which Americans on the home front viewed their war. Though he was twice as old as many of the men whose toils he chronicled, Pyle’s humble, in-the-trenches approach endeared him to four-stars and grunts alike. All it took was a glance at a couple of his columns, though, to see that the latter mattered far more to him.
If World War II was everyman’s conflict, no one did a better job of telling that amorphous character’s story than Pyle. And no single piece drove home the theme of Pyle’s work better than his masterfully crafted tribute to a 25-year-old who died on a nameless ridge in Italy on December 14, 1943.
“In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them,” Pyle’s story began. “But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas.”
Pyle never met Waskow, but as with the subjects of many of his stories, the young officer served as a stand-in for the countless men uprooted from their anonymous lives to serve as fodder in a global conflict of almost incomprehensible scale.
The Scripps-Howard correspondent was with elements of the 36th Infantry Division near San Pietro Infine at the foot of what U.S. Army maps called simply “Hill 1205,” a 4,000-foot peak known locally as Monte Sammucro.
The 143rd Infantry Regiment had taken Hill 1205 on the night of December 7-8, attacking uphill from Ceppagna. The regiment was composed largely of men from central Texas — Waco, Mexia, Temple, Belton.
Henry Thomas Waskow was one of them. He was born September 24, 1918 in DeWitt County, southeast of San Antonio, but his family moved a few times before settling in Bell County. It was there that school-aged Henry got his education in a one-room country schoolhouse not far from his family’s farm. Henry’s childhood is documented in detail in Michael S. Sweeney’s paper “Appointment at Hill 1205: Ernie Pyle and Captain Henry T. Waskow,” which is available on the Texas Military Forces Museum website.
Henry was the second-youngest of eight children — four boys, four girls. Their parents, Frank and Mary, were first-generation Americans whose parents had arrived from Germany in the years after the Civil War. Henry finished his secondary education at Belton High School, where he was elected class president. A voracious reader, he planned to become a teacher and began taking classes at Temple Junior College following his high school graduation in 1935.
Around this time, Henry joined the Texas National Guard. He served along with his older brothers John and August in Company I of the 143rd Infantry, which was based in Belton.
In the fall of 1937, Henry enrolled at Trinity University in Waxahachie. He was a member of numerous student organizations at the school, and even acted in a play his senior year: “The Dust of the Road,” a religious drama. Henry and 48 classmates graduated from Trinity and went through commencement exercises on June 5, 1939, according to a story in the Waxahachie Daily Light.
According to Sweeney’s paper, Waskow had an opportunity to return and teach at Belton High full-time but declined it because he expected to be called to military service. In the meantime, he served as a substitute teacher at the school. Finally, on November 25, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt federalized the National Guard, and Waskow was officially inducted into the United States Army.
The Texans trained at Camp Bowie in Brownwood for more than a year. It was there that Waskow first encountered the man who would ultimately be responsible for his legend, Riley Tidwell. Five years younger than Waskow, Tidwell had lied about his age to join the military at 16. In a 1994 oral history interview with the Cherokee County Historical Commission, Tidwell recalled first meeting Waskow when the older man served as Corporal of the Guard.
Waskow rose through the ranks quickly, getting commissioned as a second lieutenant in March 1941. He eventually departed the 36th for additional training before rejoining the unit at Camp Edwards in Massachusetts in the fall of 1942. Waskow was promoted to captain in January 1943, and after one last furlough home — a long round-trip train ride from New England to Texas and back — the 36th shipped overseas beginning April 1.
The division landed in Algeria nearly two weeks later, and a month after that the Allies prevailed in North Africa. That meant the Texans would see their first action in Europe, and it began September 9 as part of Operation Avalanche, the landings at Salerno, Italy.
Four days later, Waskow’s brother August — serving with Company I of the 143rd — was seriously wounded by a shell fragment to the head. Henry initially was told that August had died but later learned he had been evacuated to a hospital ship off Naples. (August would live until 1977, making a career of the Army and later serving in Korea and Vietnam.)
In the meantime, Henry led Company B of the First Battalion on a variety of assignments and quickly proved himself in the field. Wrote Sweeney:
Company B had been under fire on and off for eleven days. Waskow had proved cool in the face of German artillery and machine gun fire and had demonstrated efficiency in carrying out orders. He had slept amid the rocks in the cold mountain air, sought shelter from a ferocious lightning storm and eaten no hot food—not counting his toast and coffee—since landing at Salerno. Through it all, he had won the admiration of his men. He had qualities that inspired them in difficult times.
The company advanced northwest toward Naples, rolling through San Lorenzo and Pompeii, then past Naples and into Morano. In mid-October, the 36th Division took a break for several weeks of training, with its most formidable obstacles still to come.
By late November, the division was on the move again, again to the northwest along Highway 6, with Rome the ultimate objective, a mere 40 miles distant. The first step for the Texans, though, was clearing the Germans out of San Pietro Infine, a village at the foot of Monte Sammucro — Hill 1205.
San Pietro was heavily defended, and the Americans’ plan was to capture the high ground around it first. That led Waskow and the First Battalion of the 143rd Regiment up Sammucro on December 7, two years to the day after the Americans had been dragged into the war. First Battalion took the summit and spent several hours fighting off German counterattacks, but the work was far from finished.
Alongside Waskow the entire way was Pvt. Riley Tidwell, his runner and radio operator. In the miserable, freezing conditions atop the ridge, Tidwell had developed trench foot, and with the company back in reserve after taking the hill, Waskow sent him down to an aid station on the morning of December 14. Tidwell got treatment, but in the meantime heard that Company B had been ordered to move back to the front. He described what happened next:
So I got there just in time to leave with them, and we got up to the top where we were supposed to be. We were on our way to our objective, and a shell came over. He was standing closer than you and I, five feet or closer. We were within arm’s reach of each other. He pushed me because we heard this shell. He pushed me and said, “Hit the ground!” I did, I hit the ground, and the first sergeant with me, he hit the ground, but the captain didn’t make it. A piece of shrapnel caught him right in the chest. It killed him right there.
Tidwell, who stood 6 feet 5, picked up Waskow’s body and carried it down to the mule trail. Each night, mule trains would take supplies up the mountain and bodies down, and that was how Waskow would make his final descent.
Tidwell went down first, under orders from battalion commander Col. Dave Frazier, after informing him that all of Company B’s officers had been wiped out in the shelling. At the foot of the mountain, Tidwell encountered a man sitting in a shack “with a note pad in his hand and a little fuzzy-looking cap on his head.” He didn’t know who Ernie Pyle was, but the two soon got to talking.
“We sat and talked for a long time, and I told him about my captain, and he told me, ‘Well, you must have really liked him.’ And I said, ‘I sure did, just like my dad, or even better to me than my dad, even.’ I said, ‘He’ll be down tonight, they’ll bring him down.'”
Three days later, Waskow’s body still hadn’t come down, so Tidwell went back to the top of the mountain to retrieve it. He found Waskow just where he had left him and lashed the body to a mule, bringing it back down in the darkness. Pyle was there waiting, and described the scene:
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 onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack-saddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule 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 at the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself, and ask others to help.
Waskow’s body was not the first to come down that night, and Pyle recounted the solemn work of unloading the other mules as the men awaited the captain. When Waskow’s body finally arrived, Pyle captured the heartbreaking moments in which the men who had come to know and respect him said goodbye.
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’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 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 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.
Waskow eventually was buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, where he rests today.
Pyle didn’t sit down to write what would become his most famous wartime piece for several days. He first returned to an Army Air Forces base near Naples, where he finally typed it out one evening shortly before Christmas. According to an account in James Tobin’s book “Ernie Pyle’s War”, the correspondent was sharing a tent with a flier named Edwin Bland, who got a look at a draft of the story.
“Ernie, that’s the finest thing I ever read,” Bland told Pyle.
Many more were soon to share that sentiment. Pyle’s column was transmitted back to New York in late December but could not be printed until Waskow’s family was informed of his death. That happened December 29, when Waskow’s youngest sister Mary Lee got a call that there was a telegram waiting at the Western Union office in Belton.
She told Michael Sweeney decades later that their mother had been having premonitions that something had happened to Henry, and she wanted to be sure Mary Waskow got the news from the family in person. She hadn’t been feeling well anyway, and when her husband and children walked into the bedroom and gathered around her that evening, she knew immediately why.
“She never got out of bed after that,” Mary Lee Cox told Sweeney 50 years later.
Mary Waskow died February 21, 1944 at age 66. The following day, friends and family remembered her and her youngest son at a memorial service at the First Baptist Church in Belton. Three men who fought with Henry in the 36th Division and were wounded in action attended the service. One of them, Lt. Warren Klinger, rose to speak to the crowd gathered at the church.
“He was a captain really and truly,” Klinger said of Waskow, via an account printed later that week in the Temple Daily Telegram. “Men under him wanted to follow him. He never gave an order. He asked his men to follow him and they did. And they all loved him. Very few men have had the standing Captain Waskow had with his men. I am happy to have known him, to have served with him, to have been his fellow officer.”
His words were in line with the sentiment Pyle had conveyed in his piece, which first appeared in American newspapers on January 10. Editors nationwide immediately grasped the impact the column would have. It ran on the front page of several papers, including the Boston Globe, the Charlotte Observer, and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
By the time of the memorial service, it had become a sensation. Scripps-Howard’s flagship paper, the Washington Daily News, ran the article across its entire front page in large type, and the news service syndicated it under the title “Beloved Captain.”
As James Tobin points out, there are no real details about Waskow’s life in the story, though it was obvious how much the captain’s men cared about him. Instead, it was an examination of what Tobin called the “sacred circle of comradeship among soldiers.” Such themes were the hallmark of Pyle’s war reporting — helping win him the Pulitzer Prize the following year — and remain the most memorable aspect of the correspondent’s work.
While Pyle’s legacy as the premier American correspondent during World War II is secure, his words also ensured that Henry Waskow’s name will endure. VFW Post 4008 in Belton is named for him, and in the fall of 2011, the school district where he once studied opened Belton New Tech High School @ Waskow, a public school focused on project-based learning.
But the last words on Henry T. Waskow go to the man himself. Before deploying overseas, he wrote out a farewell letter to be opened in the event of his death. The Temple Daily Telegram printed it in its entirety in 1959.
In it, Waskow writes that he made the choice to volunteer for service because he thought he might be able to help his country “in its hours of darkness and need” and speaks at the honor he felt in being chosen a leader of his men. He concludes with a plea not to remember him, but to look out for others:
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.
A version of this piece originally appeared on The Low Stone Wall, which tells the stories of Americans killed in World War II.