Indiana University
The Indiana University School of Journalism Ernie Pyle
This is the most famous and most widely-reprinted column by Ernie Pyle.

The Death of Captain Waskow

IU Archives
Photo of a Dean Cornwell painting depicting Ernie Pyle at a grave.

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.

Ernie Pyle
Source: Ernie's War: The Best of Ernie Pyle's World War II Dispatches, edited by David Nichols, pp. 195-97. Pictures courtesy of The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
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Reader Comments:

  1. Greetings!

    I am the daughter of a 36th division soldier that fought in Italy during WW2. My father’s name was William G. “Gregg” Wiley, 141st Infantry, I Company. I have a great interest in the stories of WW2, and know the importance of Ernie Pyle’s correspondence during this critical time of our nation.

    I took a trip back to Italy a couple of years ago with veterans of WW2 to see where my father and their 36th division endured the ravages of war. The youngest veteran on this trip was 76 years, the oldest was 85. I cannot explain the impact of that trip……only that it changed my life forever.

    I stood on the same mountains, valleys, and beach fronts that thousands of 17 year old soldiers, fresh from the farms of Texas, either lost their lives, or lived to return home. Those that returned home are now in their 80′s, and still going to 36th division reunions as they can endure travel and physical impairments. I try to attend reunions and record the stories of these vets. Their stories are fading fast and most are great historians. These men are tough, and still carry the burden of war memories that still keep them up at night, or bring tears to their eyes after 60 yrs.

    After my trip to Italy with these great heros, I found myself on the 36th Division/Military Forces Museum website to learn more. The website has become such a source of information for fellow 36th family members and researchers. Your website has been posted on the website, and I am so grateful to have your information and articles by Ernie Pyle.

    I thank you for your attention and recognition of such a great journalist. It is hard to believe that he was NOT a soldier, but a corresondent/journalist that endured all the horrors of WW2 without the military training. He did not have the benefit of instant TV/Radio coverage, and really had his life on the line with a pen and pencil. There were no helicopters out of there, no way to send a message home. He was there living the solider’s life. He simply recorded his eyes onto paper. How great is that?

    I have truly enjoyed your website about Ernie Pyle, and had tears in my eyes reading some of the articles. I thank you, once again.

    - Patti Stickle, daughter of t patcher William G. "Gregg" Wiley, 141st
  2. Bennett J. Palmer was a replacment to the 143 Reg. Co. B 1st platoon 30 days after the invasion of Salerno.Captain Waskow was my very first Captain that I would know as I was one of the many replacments assainged to Co. B. The date was 10/5/43. We are introduced to Captain Waskow shortly after we arrive. We are a very freightened group of G.I. replacments. Only knowing that G.I. replacments have little chance to more than to salute and obey orders.Our first combat comes in the november of 1943. We are on line in the San Pietro area, having a very bad time of it. On the 12/1o/43 I have a peice of schrapnel go through my right wrist. After I return to the Company I am told, that Captain Waskow had been K.I.A.on the 12/15/43. Three years ago at our 36Th. reunion I presented Captains Waskows sister with my own personal history of over 5 campaigns in the 143 Reg.Co. B first platoon. I am the author and self published book {The Hunter and The Hunted} This is my personal combat history of my platoon. From Pvt. to Platoon Sgt to the wars end in Landsberg,Bad Tolz area in S.Austria. I have presented my book to many museums across this great nation.I will mail one to the Ernie Pile museum. I have written about the little time that I had known Captain Waskow in my book.

    Bennett J. Palmer

    10140 Warner Gulf Rd.

    Holland N.Y.14080-9638 Ph.716-537-9148

    E mail Pollyben1@aol.com

    - Bennett J.Palmer (Honorable discharge 10/15/45)
  3. Read this several years ago, cried then and cried today. Even though my father fought in the Pacific, he mourned each and every death in his unit. He said to the day of his own death, that the real heroes were left on those islands. Bless you for allowing us to read Mr. Pyle’s words again and reflect on today’s military dead.

    - Sandy Norris (daughter of Iwo Jima Vet)
  4. My dad, Odis Killough joined the 36th Div. in 1940 out of Hubbard Texas. He served under Captain Waskow and was one of the group that recovered his body. He recently died and just hours before his death was recalling stories of Captain Waskow. He often spoke of Ernie Pyle and how respected he was by the men he wrote of. Are there journalists today that can tell the story of battle as Pyle did?

    - Glenn Killough
  5. I first read this when I was 14 years old. I still cry when I do

    - Andy Karabinos, Korea
  6. All the conflicts since WWII have needed an Ernie Pyle to tell the plain, unvarnished stories of our troops. Not the battle stuff. We get inundated with that. Just the day-to-day yarns of how they survive the boredom, elements and comradeship. I read my first newspaper in ’43, Ernie’s column. My daughter, a Berkeley English grad, believes that, along with Mark Twain, Ernie Pyle has set a high, high standard for American writers to emulate.

    - Jim Priddy (Korea '53)
  7. I have never been in uniform serving our Great Country nor am I a religious person. However, I do want to ask God to Bless every American Soldier,and all soldiers worldwide who fight for the cause of freedom. To our soldiers now and before, thank you for serving our Country and helping to preserve my freedom.

    - Paul Robbins (civilian)
  8. I first read Brave Men in about 1955. Although I was then only a teenager, I cried when I read about the “beloved Captain”. Ernie Pyle impressed me beyond my own comprehension then. In the military on active duty I worked with journalists and military writers trying to tell the meaning of war. Neither they nor I ever succeeded. There is no meaning. In 2004 I visited Ernie Pyle’s grave on Oahu in the Punch Bowl. I cannot explain or relate the emotion that I felt then. There has never been another Ernie Pyle.

    - Tom Williams (Vietnam)
  9. I am a journalist, a professor and the daughter of a Navy pilot. Dad is still living. It’s hard to shoot down a Navy man. I read Ernie Pyle’s Waskow column to my Introduction to Mass Communications students every term. In one column, Mr. Pyle sums up the golden age of newspapers, the horror of war and the bravery of soldiers. I have my students close their eyes and pretend the newspaper is their only link to what’s going on overseas. I ask them to imagine they have a father or a brother or a friend in Italy.

    Now I will turn off the lights and let Professor Johnson read to us. I salute all soldiers, present and past. And, I salute great American newspapers. They, too, are at war and I’m afraid I’m not going to like the outcome.

    - Polly Burtch (daughter of a WWII Navy pilot who flew 208 missions in the Pacific Theater
  10. I’ve never served but do appreciate the service that the men and women of our country have performed, both yesterday and tomorrow. I’ve only learned of Ernie Pyle tonight after watching “The Story of G.I. Joe” (1945) and find this site very interesting and useful. In learning a little more about the man and the lives that he touched. Thanks for sharing.

    - Zach Ruble (civilian)
  11. My Dad told stories of the war — only long after he was retired…A few days ago my son came to me working on a school project and we brought out — lovingly – my Dad’s uniform, some letters and other things we have saved — including some stuff from Ernie Pyle. Dad mentioned to me that Ernie was the one who captured the moments of that expereince with the greatest truth and meaning. Dad somehow got throught the war –with scars, but also with a seasoned strength he carried through his life.

    God, how I miss him.

    - Ralph Oliva (Son of a WWII Vet)

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