The Death of Captain Waskow
In early April 1943, the U.S. 36th Division was shipped from New York harbor to Oran, Algeria, and was then stationed in Rabat in Morocco. The unit was kept in reserve until September 9, when it landed on Red Beach near the ancient city of Paestum in the Campania region of Italy as part of Operation Avalanche. Waskow saw combat for the first time in the struggle to hold and enlarge the beachhead and for the Chiunzi Pass, where he commanded company B. His brother August was wounded during the battle and sent home.
Waskow and his men fought their way north past Naples, relieving the 3rd Infantry Division near Mignano and then marched on, largely on mountain trails to Monte Sammucro (Hill 1205), near San Pietro Infine. The battle for San Pietro was one of the worst in the Italian Campaign. After a week, Waskow’s company had been reduced to the size of a platoon, but participated in the assaults. On the evening of December 12, on his way up from the treeline to launch an attack on a ridge known as Hill 730 (41.470°N 13.959°E), his unit was attacked, and a shell hit near him and his men. Shrapnel caught him in the chest and killed him almost immediately.
Riley Tidwell, who had been Waskow’s assistant throughout the war, left Waskow’s body where he had died and went down from the mountain to notify Waskow’s superiors that he had been killed. On the way, he encountered Ernie Pyle, the noted war reporter.
Pyle waited the three days it took to recover Waskow’s body. It was when the body was unloaded from the back of the mule in the middle of the night along with several other casualties, and his men made their emotional farewells with their commander, that Pyle was inspired to write the dispatch that memorialized Waskow. Pyle published his column on January 10, and stacks of letters started arriving to Waskow’s survivors in Belton afterwards. His sister released a photograph of Waskow taken while he was a lieutenant, after adding another bar to reflect his captain’s rank when he died.
Following his wishes, Waskow was buried in Italy. His grave is at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno. His grave is on Plot G Row 6 Grave 33.
A memorial was held for him in his home town when his mother died a few months later, and he was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit. He was also awarded the Purple Heart.
Ernie Pyle’s column dated January 10, 1944:
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 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 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.
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 on 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 man 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’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.
Pyle wrote the column about Waskow a few days after his death, in Caserta, where he had become depressed and was drinking heavily. He asked AP correspondent Don Whitehead to read the columns, exclaiming, “I’ve lost the touch. This stuff stinks. I just can’t seem to get going again.” Whitehead recognized its tremendous value and urged its publication. It was first published a month later, after notification of the next of kin, in Scripps-Howard’s home newspaper, the Washington Daily News, which gave it front page billing, and sold out its entire edition. The entire column was read on the radio by Raymond Gram Swing and Arthur Godfrey. It was reprinted in Time magazine, and was used for a war bond drive as well.
In his last will and testament, Captain Waskow wrote:
“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…. 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.”