Ernie Pyle in Italy – Part 3

DavidChrisinger.com
By David Chrisinger
14 Apr 20

After nearly a week of fighting on the steep and rocky slopes above the ancient village of San Pietro, the 1st Battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment, which had been made up of over 1,000 men, was down to around 150. Company B, which was commanded by a 25-year-old Captain from Belton, Texas named Henry T. Waskow, was hardly bigger than a platoon. A week’s worth of unceasing German counterattacks had made life on the summit of Mt. Sammucro more and more hideous by the day. 

At nightfall on Tuesday, December 14th, the quiet and unassuming Captain Waskow and the rest of the 1st Battalion crept toward a knoll directly behind San Pietro, designated as “Hill 730” on their maps. The trail they were following across the slippery scree slope skirted the edge of a ravine. “Wouldn’t this be an awful spot to get killed and freeze on the mountain?” Waskow asked his company runner.

The rocks around the men jumped and twitched. Bullets hissed. Mortars crumped.

Captain Waskow pitched over, mortally wounded by a shell fragment that tore open his chest.

A little before noon, 77 years later, I drove through the Liri Valley south from Cassino to the new San Pietro; the ancient village was never rebuilt. I followed a narrow mountain road out of the valley into a series of switchbacks that cut through terraced olive groves, buttressed by low stone walls. After parking, I set out on foot on a farmer’s path I found along the road. As far as I could tell, there was no official hiking trail to the summit of Mt. Sammucro, so I planned to bushwhack my way to the top.

Mt. Sammucro is nearly 4,000 feet high and so steep that the Italian mules the Americans used to carry supplies to the summit could only make it about a third of the way up before the sharp boulders and scree became too difficult for them to maneuver.

Pyle himself had climbed Mt. Sammucro and wrote about a “champion packer” named Pfc Lester Scarborough from West Virginia who was sick and was supposed to be resting, “yet he could take a full can of water to the top and be clear back down again in two and a half hours, where others took three hours and longer just to get up.”

Apparently Pfc Scarborough did this day after day during the Battle of San Pietro and even set a record one day where he made four round trips in a single day—“the fourth one being an emergency dash to the mountaintop to help beat off a German counterattack.”

The afternoon sky on the day of my climb was sharp and blue, filled with a stiff, cool wind. The dull clank of a cow’s bell sounded in the hills below. The scenery was stupendous. The valley below me was partially hidden under a sea of clouds. In the far distance, snow-topped mountains seemed to float upon nothing. The ridges above me were grey and wrinkled like the skins of elephants. It was hard to believe that at one point in this place’s history nearly every rocky outcrop I could see was occupied by an enemy gunner intent on seeing an American like me dead

The climb to the top of Mt. Sammucro took me three hours. Pfc Scarborough, I am not.

Three days after Waskow was killed, his body could finally be brought down the mountain-trussed face down across the wooden saddle of a pack mule. Pyle was there at the foot of the mule trail to record what happened next.

“Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the low stone wall,” Pyle wrote in perhaps his most famous dispatch. “You don’t cover up dead men in the combat zone. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.”

Pyle noticed that the men who had accompanied Waskow’s body were reluctant to leave. “They stood around,” he wrote, “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.”

One soldier looked down and said, “God damn it.”

Another came and said, “God Damn it to hell anyway.”

A third man said, “I’m sorry, old man.”

Then another man came and said tenderly, “I sure am sorry, sir.”

The first man then returned and squatted down next to the Captain’s body, “and he reached down and took the dead hand,” Pyle continued, “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.”


Sicily-Rome American Cemetery

In Captain Waskow’s death, Pyle saw the fever of a world gone mad with war. By writing a wistful essay filled with regret about the Captain’s men paying their last respects, Pyle was able to wipe a film from his reader’s eyes, to force them to feel—if only for a moment—that the war was not a world war. It was an emotional war. An individual war. A personal war. 

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Ernie Pyle in Italy - Part 2

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Tribute to Ernie Pyle on the 75th anniversary of his death