"Appointment at Hill 1205"

by Michael S. Sweeney, 36th Infantry Division Association

part 1
Henry T. Waskow with captain's bars,
photo from 36th Division

Pyle's column appeared January 10, nearly a month after the death. Many newspapers requested a photograph of Captain Waskow to accompany the column, but only photographs of Lieutenant Waskow existed. He had never had a formal portrait made after he got his promotion in Massachusetts. Mary Lee gave her brother's picture a paintbrush promotion before she released it to the press. A photographer in Bell County airbrushed the second bar of a captain next to the single lieutenant's bar on Waskow's cap. And so he smiled a half-smile and wore his two-striped cap on the front page of Bell County's daily paper, the Temple Telegram, where his classmates and neighbors could see. The Telegram's editor, Walter R. Humphrey, gave up his front-page column that day to reprint what Pyle had written. By way of introduction, Humphrey wrote, "If it doesn't touch you, your heart's a little cold.". . .

Meanwhile, two film versions of the fighting that surrounded Waskow's death moved forward.

The first, Huston's Battle of San Pietro, was completed in the spring of 1944. Huston's view of war was unsentimental. The thirty-minute documentary featured huge close-ups of the helmeted heads of the men of the Thirty-Sixth Division as they moved into battle or rested afterward; the straightforward narration, provided by Huston, informed the viewer that many of those on screen soon would die. The frankness proved to be too much for some American officials. The House Military Affairs Committee saw the Battle of San Pietro while touring the Italian front in December 1944. Several representatives wanted to eliminate the scenes of dead American soldiers. However, four enlisted men who were special guests at the screening, arranged by Fifth Army Lieutenant General Mark Clark, declared that the film should appear uncensored in the States. It was shown largely intact, but not until 1945. The War Department held up domestic screenings of the frank and gritty film. A historian of Roosevelt's relations with the news media has suggested that the film's release was timed to keep the public from an emotional letdown as the nation's attention turned from the war winding down in Europe to the still-raging combat in the Pacific.

The other film was The Story of G.I. Joe. It appeared in theaters in the summer of 1945, shortly after Pyle's death from a Japanese machinegun bullet on the island of Ie Shima. Burgess Meredith portrayed Pyle, and other actors portrayed the infantrymen featured in the journalist's columns. Robert Mitchum got the role of Henry Waskow, who Cox said was given a different name in the movie at the Army's insistence. He is "Lieutenant Walker" in the film‹a politically astute choice, considering that the general commanding the Thirty-Sixth Division also was named Walker.

Reviews were laudatory, including James Agee's full-page commendation in The Nation. Agee wrote that it would be "impossible . . . to say enough in praise of the performance of Bob Mitchum."

The development of the character of [Lieutenant Walker] is so imperceptible and so beautifully done that, without any ability to wonder why, you accept him as a great man in his one open attempt to talk about himself and the war, and as a virtual divinity in the magnificent scene which focuses on his dead body. This closing scene seems to me a war poem as great and as beautiful as any of Whitman's. Life magazine's review said Mitchum's "Walker" was a "tough sentimentalist" and described a scene in which Walker threatened the commissary department to get turkey dinners for his men‹without mentioning that it was based on actual events. However, the magazine's reviewer did make the connection between the film's climax and the Pyle column about Waskow's body being brought down the mountain on the back of a mule. Life also said how the two versions differed. Restrictions on profanity in Hollywood movies, imposed by the Hays Office, resulted in the deletion of the quotation "God damn it!" from the film.

Section 13 of 14

When somebody dies, it is customary for those who knew the deceased to say a few words of summation. Orators do so at funerals and obituary writers at newspapers. Historians, however, try to determine not only what made the life unique, but also what made it important in the broader context of time and place. So what? they ask. What difference did Waskow, or Pyle's column about him, make? What do Pyle's words about the death of a company commander say about America in World War II?

The answers lie in examining why Pyle's column touched the hearts of so many Americans. There are three major reasons: the sanitized view of the war that appeared in print before 1943; the abstraction that characterized the Waskow column; and Pyle's skill with words.

The first is the most historically significant. During the first twenty-one months of America's involvement in World War II, the U.S. government prevented publication of photographs of dead American soldiers and sailors. The war had gone badly at first, yet morale had to be kept up at home and in the field. And so the Office of War Information and the censors of each branch of military service circumscribed the images of the war that appeared in the mass media.

When the image of war is censored too carefully, there is a threat of war becoming unreal. An OWI memo of 1943 said Americans were in danger of perceiving the war as one in which "soldiers fight . . . some of them get hurt and ride smiling in aerial ambulances, but . . . none of them get badly shot or spill any blood." The memo urged that harsher pictures be approved for publication in order to prepare the public for an increase in death and destruction, and to help motivate the home front.

new policy released image of dead on Buna Beach, 1942 photo by George Strock/Life

In September 1943, the military released the first photographs of dead American soldiers. George Strock's images of corpses on Buna Beach, New Guinea, appeared in Life, the largest- circulation picture magazine. The powerful pictures shocked some readers, but a greater number approved of the policy. The Washington Post argued that the pictures "can help us to understand something of what has been sacrificed for the victories we have won." Images of dead soldiers appeared regularly after that. All were as anonymous as they could be made to be. Efforts were made to crop the photos or obscure the victims' faces, name tags and unit insignia. The caption to Strock's Buna Beach photo‹"Three dead Americans lie on the beach at Buna"‹told Life's readers that they did not need to know the names of the dead in order to appreciate what they had done.

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and it is true that images can pack an emotional wallop. In the right hands, the written word also has that power. However, many print journalists, like their photojournalist cousins, had been giving an incomplete picture of the war. In newsaccounts originating in the war zone, military censors had the power to edit or kill information they didn't want released. Domestically, the press policed itself according to the guidelines laid down by the Office of Censorship. The nation's newspaper editors chafed a bit at these restrictions on the First Amendment, but mostly the press was as patriotic as any American institution and acquiesced to the government's monitoring of what it printed.

Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, who was a war correspondent during World War II, said reporters not only were a part of the war effort, they "abetted it" by toning down and censoring their dispatches. "Yes, we wrote only a part of the war but at the time we believed, fervently believed, that it was the best thing to do. And perhaps that is why, when the war was over, novels and stories by ex-soldiers proved so shocking to a public which had been carefully protected from contact with the crazy, hysterical mess," Steinbeck said.

Newspapers shaped the coverage of the war by emphasizing stories of battle descriptions. Editors became restive when reporters strayed too far from the action. One correspondent in the Pacific said the war was written up like a meeting of the "Fifth Street Ladies Club"‹stories included the proper names and addresses but almost none of the passion. Reporters wrote about death, of course. There was no way around it. Hometown papers published the names and faces of the casualties. Nevertheless, most such stories were one-dimensional, treating the dead as heroes but lacking the details that would have individualized them. In the broader view of the war, coverage of battlefield developments treated the dead as statistics on a scoreboard‹how many killed and wounded suffered by each side.

This kind of reporting sprang partly from the U.S. government's efforts to avoid the negative in news reporting from the war zone. For example, Navy Secretary Frank Knox told his public relations officers in March 1942 to "do their utmost to secure press cooperation in toning down the gruesome details of sinkings, particularly the news regarding tankers," and Roosevelt that same year directed the OWI and Office of Censorship to avoid stories about fatal accidents among military personnel unless the accidents already were widely known.181 The managing editor of the Christian Science Monitor argued late in 1943 that this government effort to "hold back and play down American casualties" was pervasive and gave the public an optimistically distorted view of the war.

In addition, the abstract treatment of death, including the emphasis on ground gain and bodies lost, was linked to the journalists' definition of news, which required an attempt to make an objective assessment of the impact of a battle. It also was the result of the limited vantage point of the reporter. Usually, that vantage point was a safe distance from the fighting and dying. The Navy, under Admiral Ernest King, clamped down on journalists' access to ships and thus to information. The joke that made the rounds in Washington was that if King had his way, there would be only one press release during the war, and it would say who won. The Army in the Pacific, under General Douglas MacArthur, was equally stingy with information. While he was in Australia, MacArthur threatened to ban from forward bases any correspondent who interviewed a soldier without official permission and to court-martial the soldier who gave the interview. The Army in Europe was more open, but relatively few reporters volunteered to join front-line troops or fly on bombing missions.185 Most journalists got their news of strategies and tactics at the command posts toward the rear, despite their newspapers' insistence that their reporting include battle descriptions.

Section 14 of 14

These points are illustrated by the coverage of the battle of San Pietro in the New York Times, a prestige paper that had its own correspondents in Europe, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which relied on stories from the Associated Press and United Press, the wire services used by most American daily newspapers. Neither the Times nor the Plain Dealer subscribed to Pyle's columns.

The Times' stories concentrated on the cities, rivers and mountains seized by the Fifth Army. When the stories zoomed in for detail, the picture remained antiseptic. The fighting for Mount Sammucro was "a weird struggle above the clouds," in which the Americans "wiped out the enemy with rifles, pistols, knives and grenades." Other stories set the scene in Italy by describing how the terrain and German defenses slowed the Allied advance, and also added up the score: 16,074 British and 10,649 American casualties up to November 23. The sources of information in the stories were official ones; low-ranking individuals were ignored except for the officers whom Roosevelt decorated during a visit to Sicily after the Tehran summit conference; and death lay between the lines written about attacks and counterattacks.

A similar view appeared in the Plain Dealer. From December 10 to December 20, the Plain Dealer's stories about the fighting in Italy quoted an anonymous American general, an "Allied communiqué,'' General Henry H. Arnold, an unnamed Italian general, a British radio broadcast, two Italians who gave intelligence information to Fifth Army headquarters, an anonymous Texas colonel, and a captain and major who were named. In short, no enlisted men. Furthermore, the stories held death at arm's length. They named a second lieutenant who took command of a group of soldiers after two company commanders "were either killed or wounded," but they did not name the commanders or describe how they met their fate. The stories did not lack drama, but the drama they did manage was a step removed from the personal. Whitehead, the man who recognized Pyle's column about Waskow as superior to his own work, described the deaths of San Pietro this way:

American doughboys have won one of their bloodiest, bitterest and toughest battles of World War II. . . . The name of San Pietro will be remembered in American military history along with such names as Fondouk, Bizerte, Tunis, Gela, Troina, Salerno and Naples. The Americans call it "Death Valley" because death was on a rampage for 48 hours as they stormed this enemy fortress ringed with fortifications. . . . Casualties were heavy and some companies lost all their officers, either killed or wounded.

To be fair, it should be pointed out that Ernie Pyle's columns also tended to avoid personalizing death. A reading of Here Is Your War and Brave Men turned up only one instance besides the Waskow story in which Pyle identified a dead enlisted man and gave some detail about his demise. (Pyle recorded several other deaths anonymously and briefly. An example is the anecdote he told in Brave Men about a chaplain attending to a tent full of dying men. The chaplain knelt beside a dying soldier and said, "John, I'm going to say a prayer for you." Pyle said the stark announcement hit him like a hammer.)

The effect of the newspapers' limited, generally upbeat and bloodless coverage was to give readers a words-on-paper equivalent of the government's ban on publishing photographs of dead American soldiers. In short, the press's coverage of the war, to use Steinbeck's phrase, kept the public from seeing the crazy mess that was World War II. Against this background, it is apparent why Pyle's column, which got close to death and gave it a name, struck the American people hard. They had had little experience absorbing such blows.

The second reason for the impact of Pyle's column is, oddly enough, its abstraction. The reader grieved for Waskow and for his buddies. This grief rested on emotion, but the emotion was pinned to few specific facts. Who was Captain Waskow, what were his wounds, where and how did he face death‹all are questions that Pyle left unanswered. The reader's imagination filled in a few of the blanks. It is not too great a leap of the imagination to picture readers in the United States projecting the faces of their dead brothers and sons in uniform onto Pyle's skeleton of facts. Freddie Lee Simmons, for example, read the column tearfully as she remembered not only her chemistry partner at Temple Junior College, but also the fliers she knew in Burma and India who never returned from their missions over the Himalayas.

Finally, Pyle's skill as a writer is evident in his most famous and most anthologized work. His strongest literary device in the column was to withdraw himself from the column and observe the men who honored their dead captain. By recording their words and deeds, the column became their tribute, not his. Pyle's column did not demand an emotional response. He did not even hint at one. Instead he used short, staccato sentences to set a scene, and the scene suggested a mood.

A Washington Post reporter reviewing the 1994 Smithsonian Institution's exhibit on World War II journalists reprinted a section of the Waskow column, followed by the comment, "Find me one member of the Class of '94 at Harvard who will ever write like this."

There may be others like him, but Ernie Pyle, who was killed in April 1945, will never come again. He was unique, as was Captain Waskow. For that matter, every person is one of a kind. Pyle knew this. His World War II columns from North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and the Pacific demonstrate that he knew. That is why the vastness of the war's tragedy drove him to depression and distraction and drink. That is why he was able to put on paper words such as these, in a fragment of a column he was preparing for release when the war in Europe was over‹a fragment found in his pocket the day he died.

"Dead men by mass production‹in one country after another‹month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.

"Dead men in such monstrous infinity that they become monotonous.

"These are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and didn't come back. You didn't see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.

"We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That's the difference. . . . "

In the American military cemetery at Nettuno, not far from the beaches of Anzio, Captain Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas, is one of the multiple thousands. His grave is decorated by a simple white cross, one of many that form a grid of gently curving lines adorning a grassy-green field. From a distance, his cross is indistinguishable from the rest‹he is one of the many who died in the surf and mountains of Italy. But Ernie Pyle has ensured that he is not just another anonymous soldier. The cemetery's caretaker has had so many visitors ask to see Waskow's grave that he no longer needs to look up the directions to it; he just tells them that yes, he has many requests for that one, and he takes them there.

Visitors still go to Belton's North Cemetery, too, to say goodbye to Waskow. All they find is a memorial stone near the graves of his mother, who died two months after he did, and his father, who died in 1957. An American flag the size of a man's hand flutters atop a short wooden stake that has been pressed into the barren, stony red soil beside Henry Waskow's marker. Members of the Belton Post 4008 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars pay their respects there on Memorial Day.

The marker includes a name, dates of birth and death, military rank and the words "Killed in Action in Italy." Nowhere is there mention of a posthumous brush with fame. Nowhere is there any detail that would separate this one man from the monstrous infinity of men who died for their country.

Instead, it is the task of the living to remember the dead. . . .

To remember, as Pyle said, that they are not just columns of figures.

text by Michael S. Sweeney, "Appointment at Hill 1205," 36th Infantry Division Association

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