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November 12, 2009

War, and Remembrance

Via KJ, this look at the Army during WWII is well worth reading in its own right. But I found an excerpt at the end especially moving. Some of you may have seen it before, but it's journalist Ernie Pyle's account of the retrieval of Captain Waskow:

“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.”

But Capt. Waskow had the last word. In a final letter to his parents, one of those just-in-case letters that soldiers sometimes write, he told them this: “I would like to have lived. But since God has willed otherwise, do not grieve too much, dear ones… I will have done my share to make this world a better place in which to live. Maybe, when the lights go on again all over the world, free people can be happy and gay again… If I failed as a leader, and I pray I didn’t, it was not because I did not try.” He added: “I loved you, with all my heart.”

Posted by Cassandra at November 12, 2009 08:21 AM

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Thank you for this.

Posted by: Sarah Rolph at November 12, 2009 09:47 AM

Although I was yet created during WWII, I found that story quite touching. The article is worth reading, too. It makes you appreciate those trips to the old army jeep homes and the stories they tell.

Posted by: Hummer at November 12, 2009 11:21 AM


Posted by: Cassandra at November 12, 2009 11:24 AM

I have one of "those" letters that will go out if needed.

Like the Captain, and so many others, all I really want is to live free. But if I can't live, maybe I can help the cause so others may.

My bride and child don't understand at all, but one day they may be forced to do so. I just hope that my effort, however small, makes a difference in the outcome and people will be free in part because of me.

Selfish, I know. But there has to be a reason to live.....


Posted by: Kbob in Katy at November 12, 2009 05:24 PM

During WWII, there were many books published, whose purchase price included the purchase of "War Bonds". A lot of the books would be termed propaganda today (heh), but as it were, my late grandmother bought a lot of these books and they resided on the book shelves of my parent's home after she passed away.
By the way, my late Grandmother made a living during WWII working for the Army Air Force (at Wright Patterson AAFB), among her jobs was repairing Norden bombsights that were damaged in battle. The work was classified.

Some of the books from her bookshelf:
"Guadalcanal Diary", "They Were Expendable", "American Guerilla in the Phillipines", "Up Front" and of course, Ernie Pyle's "Brave Men".
I read the story of Captain Waskow as a boy, and have read it several times since. It never fails to move me. I wish more people would have picked up some of these books and read them. It makes the cause of war a lot more personal.

A reason to live, and a reason to remember.

Lest we forget.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at November 12, 2009 09:30 PM

The loss of good men has always been troubling/humbling for me. But if I can use that feeling to strive to better myself, I like to think that they have accomplished a little bit more. Even in their death.

William sends
Death comes for us all, the question that only you can answer is "How did you live".

Posted by: William at November 13, 2009 12:48 PM

I wonder if Michael Yon is this generation's Ernie Pyle? Not as far as readership numbers (yet), but for capturing the experience of soldiers at war?

Posted by: LittleRed1 at November 13, 2009 03:11 PM