One of the little known facts about Memorial Day is that unlike Veteran’s Day, which honors all US veterans, Memorial Day was created specifically to honor the memory of those who died in service to their country.
With that in mind, it seems an appropriate time to revisit the intersection of the lives of Ernie Pyle, a civilian reporter, and Henry Waskow, a US Army Captain.
During the 1940’s, Ernie Pyle was a star reporter for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his reporting from the front, where he had earned a reputation as a writer who shared and understood the daily experiences of the GI. Long before it became fashionable for reporters to become “embedded” with military units as they raced across Iraq, Pyle lived, ate, slept and took enemy fire with the GI’s he covered.
In Pyle’s words, the infantry’s “life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly – but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.” Pyle was identified so completely with the “common soldier” that he was one of the few civilians to be awarded the Purple Heart for combat wounding following his death by Japanese machine gun fire in Okinawa in 1945. Of Pyle, President Harry Truman said, “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”
In December of 1943, Pyle was embedded with the US Army as it slogged its way up the Italian peninsula against heavy resistance. Captain Henry Waskow served as a company commander in the 36th Infantry Division during the ten-day long Battle of San Pietro, part of a larger six week campaign against strong German defenses during which the US Fifth Army suffered 16,000 casualties.
Captain Waskow was one of those casualties. On December 12th, he and his men came under intense shellfire at the front lines. Shrapnel from an explosion struck him in the chest and killed him almost immediately. With the battle raging on, it took three days to recover Captain Waskow’s body and transport it to a relatively safe location.
During that time, Pyle, who knew Waskow, waited. Pyle was present when the officer’s body was transported down the mountain. That’s where Pyle’s story “The Death of Captain Waskow” begins… “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.”
On this Memorial Day, I would ask each of you to take a few minutes to read or view this moving portrait of leadership and loss. We often find it so very difficult to describe great leadership, frequently resorting to that old “you know it when you see it” test. In this moving piece, Pyle makes it clear that another test of inspirational, personal leadership occurs when the leader is lost, and that leader’s followers have one last chance to honor the memory of what was.
I would like to dedicate this piece to my uncle Ed Brouwer, a machine-gunner who died when his post was overrun in Korea. And even though Memorial Day was created to honor the memory of those who died, I am thinking today of two veterans who survived the war.
The first is the late Sgt Clarence Johnson, my wife’s father, who fought his way across the Pacific, including combat in Kwajalein, the Philippines, and Okinawa. The second is one Sgt Dorsey, now age 93, whom my wife and I met yesterday at the VA hospital in Martinsburg, WV. He stood straight under his 4th Infantry Division ball cap, complete with Purple Heart, and quietly described his journey from Normandy through the Battle of the Bulge to the German heartland, as simply “hell on earth”. Like Capt Waskow, Sgt Dorsey was struck in the chest with shrapnel. Unlike Capt Waskow, Dorsey’s life was saved, ironically, by a wad of worthless German marks he carried in a wallet in his chest pocket.
On this Memorial Day, cherish these memories and our freedoms, which are most definitely not free.