Monday, May 30, 2011

The Pacific War.

I spliced together the little historical vignettes attached to each episode of the HBO series. It's pretty good stuff. God bless all the veterans. They endured horrors so that we could grow up in relative peace.

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.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mom called me today while I was herding cats at a local hight school.

It's been a week of that. 6th graders, 2nd graders and then a high school today. Just peachy. It's stunning, getting a closer look at the generation that is coming up.

Anyway, I'm in the middle of showing a movie to these little treasures when mom calls. I tell her I'm in class and I'll call her back. When I do, she tells me that Wilson Moon, one of my dad's cousins and great old friends had passed away. He was 99 years old! Daym, that's just inconceivable.

That's Mr. Moon in the middle, and daddy on the left. I took this at the Reunion in 2008, about three weeks before daddy died.

I took this one, of Wilson and his lovely wife Dorothy, at the last Reunion in March.

The obit in the paper says he was born on Oct. 28, 1911 in Holland, Texas. That's where the Wilsons, Moons and Rampeys, all descendants of W.S.S. Wilson and his children, all lived.

"He graduated from Holland High School and Texas A&M University, where he played baseball. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He married Bess Thompson in 1942. She preceded him in death in 1997. He married Dorothy Graham on Sept. 2, 2000. He worked for the Soil Conservation Service in Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico and Indiana and retired as state conservationist in Iowa after 40 years of service. He operated a farm near Holland. He was a Mason, and a member of the Aggie Club. He was a member of the First United Methodist Church and the Dawson Sunday School Class."

Of course, I knew Mr. Moon through daddy, and the news of his passing has brought much of the sadness of my fathers passing right back to me. The two of them were great friends. I'll never forget, at daddy's funeral, Mr. Moon walking up past me and saying something like "Our buddy's gone and left us, hasn't he?" I tell ya, I was holding it together pretty good until then.

The last time Denise and I saw the Moons was at the Wilson Family Reunion last March. We talked about getting together for dinner, or just a visit after that, but it never happened. He and his wife lived in a nice house out by the Chinese food place daddy and I used to frequent.

I always intended to stop by, but it never happened. I guess part of me was reluctant to go over there for fear of having to tell him about all this stupid, humiliating drama with the college. Loosing my job, my career, over something so stupid and contrived. But now I wish I'd driven over there.

Of course, now it's too late. Sucks how that kind of thing happens. There are no do-overs. I guess there's a lesson in that.

So here's to him, and to all the others from his and fathers generation who are leaving us so fast. I'll miss him, and I sure as hell don't know how we're ever gonna replace him. Cheers.



The funeral was nice. We gathered there with his widow, her children from her previous marriage, and the rest of Wilson's family. He had a beautiful, wooden coffin, flag draped, and there were a few nice words from his preacher. The word was that he'd been declining for a month or so, but that in the end, he went quickly. That's a blessing.

The consensus was that he'd been a wonderful man, of impeccable honesty and integrity. The preacher said that he'd passed by the ranch where Wilson keeps his cattle, and the cow hands had put a wreath of flowers on the gate. Nice. He was loved and respected by everyone who knew him. What better thing could be said after someones passing?

Monday, May 16, 2011

So you'll know I'm not layin' on the floor, slowly decomposing...

Yep, I'm alive. Still kickin', and eatin', and tryin' to have a good time.

For instance, decided to try somethin' a little different today for dindins. Pork ribs, with butter and pepper rubbed in and sliced bacon laid out on top. Then I slid it into the oven at 350 and forgot about it for a few hours.

Then, after a few hours, I took the ribs out, sliced 'em and slathered 'em in BBQ sauce. Then I put them back in for another 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, the baked beans were on the stove, heatin' up.

In the end, there was good vittles all around. Good stuff, and easy to do.