Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dad's been telling me about this guy for years.

I was watchin' old war movies this weekend, put on to celebrate the Memorial Day holiday. I saw that TCM was gonna show The Story of G.I. Joe again, and I teared up a little. Made me think of this old post, and of my daddy, and all the times he told me about his buddy Waskow. So I've decided to re-post it for the holiday. I hope you like it.

The local VFW post and high school in Belton are named after him, and every time we drive by the place, going South on I-35, he starts to tell the stories again. He's at the age now where he does that a lot, telling old stories over and over, as if he's culling out all the extraneous memories and fixating on the few that really matter to him.

The guy he's told us about over and over was a friend of his,
Henry T. "Snort" Waskow, who he says he grew up with and went to school with. He says they played football together when he went to high school in Academy in the late 1930s, and that being a few years older, Waskow would take the younger guys under his wing, protecting them from trouble.

Dad says they'd get togethar with others and go to local "honky tonks", which Waskow, being older, could get them into even though they were too young to be there. He says that Waskow would look out for them, and herd them out of the place before the fists and bottles started to fly. It seems he had a talent for taking care of other guys, which obviously served his men well as he led them through nasty, muddy combat in the war. Dispite his youth, he indeared himself to his men, as if he were their father, until he was ultimately taken away from them. He was killed on a mountain top in Italy on December 14th, 1943.

After his death, his story was told to the world by the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was "embedded" with the troops in World War Two, before there ever was such a term.

In stead of reporting on grand strategy and famous personalities, Pyle reported on the lives of average soldiers, following them into combat and living with them as he told their stories. He was a reporter with the Scripps Howard newspaper chain, with his articles went out in syndication to thousands of papers across the nation. His writing won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944. He was in Italy in December of that year, reporting on the men who were stuck in the slow, slogging fight to drive the Germans out of the mountainous, rocky peninsula that Winston Churchill had once glibly referred to as "The soft underbelly of Europe" (What an Idiot!).

When it comes to telling you about Henry Waskow's death, I can't do a better job than Ernie Pyle, so here's the text of his story;

AT THE FRONT LINES IN ITALY, January 10, 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 Thirty-Sixth 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.

It's hard to imagine a more compelling story, but the annals of war are filled with such tales. The special love men develop for one another in combat has been chronicled by historians since Herodotus, three thousand years ago. The wars and weapons, and nations change, but these older, deeper realities never change. Men, and now women, become one through the experience, and share a bond that the rest of us can only try to imagine.

My father was 18, had graduated early from high school and was attending Temple Junior college when the war started. His father prevented him from joining after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but his buddy Henry, being several years older and already a college graduate, was taken right up. Later, after he spent some time in California working at an aircraft plant, dad came back home to Belton and joined the army with his friends. Because he'd had a year of community college, he found he was qualified to be taken into flight and officer training.

He's told me a story many times, of what happened when he and a few friends came back to Belton after graduating from flight training and getting his wings (that's his graduation picture above). He must be about 19 or 20 in that shot. I don't even want to think about what I was doing with my life at 19. Men like my dad and Henry Waskow had fixed it so that my generation could relax and take life easy. I grew up in a time when that fact was still widely realized, but I'm not sure it is anymore.

These young guys, full of themselves, officers and gentlemen by act of congress, were anxious to test out the power of those shiny new wings. They were legendary for their power over the opposite sex, called "leg spreaders" by the guys in the service. When they got to Belton, they walked around the down town area, getting a burger at the local joint, and checking in with old employers, showing off. Soon though, they began to notice other uniforms in the downtown crowd. The shoulder patches were easily recognizable. Veteran enlisted men from the 36th division, Waskow's division, were home on leave from the war.

Dad says he and his buddies ducked into stores and alleys, getting out of town as soon as they could, avoiding these older guys. When I asked why, he looked at me and said that he and his friends knew that they were just young punks, and they didn't want to be embarrassed to have these heroes salute them just because of their new rank insignia. They knew that these men had been through hell, loosing most of their number on one horrible day as they crossed a river in boats against German machine guns. That image, and the humility it represents, always stuck in my head over the years, and has been one of many things that made me very proud of my father.

Of course, dad and I go out to Belton to watch the parades now, on the 4th of July and Memorial day, and he tears up as he remembers those old times. I've gotten to where I tear up as I see the units from Ft. Hood marching by, knowing where these volunteers have been, and where many of them are soon scheduled to go back to.

It's wrong to think that we should never use military force unless we are directly attacked. The days of hiding behind those two oceans are long over. We have responsibilities in the world, but we've got to try to do something to make sure, somehow, that when we leave the blood of our young men and women on foreign shores, sacrificing their future generations on the battlefield, that we do it for a damned good reason, and that we do it whole heartedly, willing to do whatever it takes to win. No screwing around any more. The price is too high.

Eventually Hollywood made a movie of the Ernie Pyle story, with Robert Mitchum in the generic role of the tough but fair leader of men. In other words, the Henry Waskow role.

Ernie Pyle left Italy after Waskow's death, and later shipped off to the Pacific theater, and died along side the soldiers he immortalized when his position was raked with fire from a Japanese machine gun nest. He died on the island of Lejima, off the coast of the larger island of Okinawa, which was under attack in the biggest and bloodiest battle Americans fought in in the war. He's buried in Hawaii, shoulder to shoulder with soldiers he honored with his reporting. I couldn't begin to tell you who the modern Ernie Pyle is. I don't know if a reporter could do what Pyle did back then, without being viewed as a government propagandist. Times HAVE changed.

So, enjoy the weekend and the holiday this Monday, and maybe go out and find an old man or woman and tell them how much you appreciate what they went through. Their generation made it possible for us to sit around in comfort, so it's the least we could do. I'll give dad a big hug for all of you, and mom too, and we'll have a happy Memorial Day. I hope you do to.


Mushy said...

My man, never I have read such a tribute to our fallen men...I'm in tears and full of emotion I want to shout out for America's finest.

Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. I will pass it on to my fellow vets and link it from my military site.

You think you have done nothing because you never served, but you have served your country and us vets well. Thanks.

BRUNO said...

Like I told Mushy---this tribute is solid gold, because of it's content. So many folks try to sugar-coat these types of events, especially good 'ol Hollywood!

Even the most graphic of movie-scenes cannot come close to the real nightmare of war, and it's atrocities, let alone the actual sights, smells, and sounds. And no actor can imitate the true "comrades-in-arms" feeling which is so necessary for survival, both mentally and physically.

Thanks again for a great tribute.

Debbie said...

Thanks to Mushy for letting me know about this excellent article. I'm forwarding it to Hubby now.

This Memorial Day has produced some of the best personal stories I believe we have ever had in the blogosphere.

Thanks so much.

Christina said...

Thank you.

Dick said...

Good story, Waskow sounds like a Lt. I had down South.
Mine made it though.

Lin said...

That was wonderful ... thank you.

Jerry said...

Wow! That was a great tribute to Capt. Henry T. Waskow. My father was a co-pilot on B-24s during WWII and flew 36 missions, mostly bombing Germany.

I just discovered your blog via HoosierBoy.

I was down in Kerrville for the Texas Bloggers meet a few weeks ago: One of the attendees was from Belton. He goes by Walrilla: Wish I coulda met you. Maybe next year.

Keep up the good work!

DirtCrashr said...

A fine tribute to your dad and those who served, and guys like Ernie Pyle who were real journalists unlike any TV Haircut-reader today.

Kelly H. said...

I just happened to run across your page as I was doing some family history research. My mother's father was August Waskow, Henry's older brother...I'm curious to know if your dad ever met any of the others in the Waskow family???

I would be happy to carry on this conversation by e-mailing me at:

Anonymous said...

I am doing as much research on Henry T Waskow as I can find. I would like to get the chance to email or talk to your father. I have gathered as much information from my family as I can. Please send reply to
Thank You

Grandpa-Old Soldier said...

To often our past heros and wars are forgot, and they are the ones who set the bar for our current military. Many lessons can be learned just by listening to the past. Thanks for this amazing post.