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The WWII newspaper column that dared to illuminate death

Ernie Pyle’s brand of reporting wasn’t much like today’s journalism. But his most memorable work excelled at conveying big things simply.

World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle pounded out a story in Anzio, Italy.Corbis via Getty Images

Soon after nightfall on Dec. 14, 1943, a quiet and unassuming Army captain by the name of Henry T. Waskow led what was left of his battle-weary company toward a knoll on the steep and rocky slopes of Mount Sammucro, directly behind the ancient Italian village of San Pietro Infine. To reach their objective, Waskow and his men crept across a deep saddle and followed a trail across a slippery scree slope that 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, Riley Tidwell.

Ernie Pyle rested on a roadside with a Marine patrol in Okinawa on April 8, 1945.National Archives

Jolted by the sound of German shells screaming through the air, Waskow pushed Tidwell to the ground. The rocks around him and his men jumped and twitched. Bullets hissed. Mortars crumped. The bare slopes of the saddle offered nothing for a man to hide behind. Through the flashing light of explosions all around him, Tidwell saw his captain out of the corner of his eye — Waskow was hit. It all happened so quickly: The captain was alive, and then he was not. An indiscriminate fragment of shell, red hot and sharp as a scalpel, had sliced a hole in Waskow’s chest, killing him instantly.

Considering the hundreds of young American men who were killed fighting for San Pietro — hundreds in a list of tens of thousands already lost — the death of one ordinary man on a lonely mountainside was an example of war on a miniature, intimate scale. But for those who were there when Waskow was killed, it didn’t feel small at all. For Tidwell, losing Waskow was like he’d “lost the greatest friend I ever had in my life.”

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Three nights after Waskow was killed, Tidwell stole a pack mule and headed up the side of the mountain alone to look for his captain’s body. After strapping down the captain’s stiff legs to one side of the mule’s saddle and his hands to the other, Tidwell led Waskow’s body down a steep trail to a cowshed at the base of the mountain.

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It was there that America’s most beloved war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, watched as two soldiers unlashed Waskow’s body from the saddle, lifted him down off the mule, and laid him “in the shadow beside the low stone wall,” Pyle later wrote in his most famous column — one that would be voted the best newspaper column of the 20th century.

“You don’t cover up dead men in the combat zone,” Pyle reported to his uninitiated readers at home. “They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.”

During his few short years as a frontline correspondent, Pyle had been embraced by enlisted troops, commissioned officers, and a huge civilian public as an authentic voice for the common soldier. This sort of reporting is largely dismissed by today’s readers as lacking big-picture analysis or investigative rigor. Anyone with that view, however, misses what made Pyle a daily read for millions of Americans. Above all else, Pyle was read so widely because he excelled at stating things simply that weren’t simple to state.

From the front lines of North Africa, Sicily, mainland Italy, and France, he dedicated himself to describing the harsh realities of life at the front for America’s fighting men in an accessible and personal way — without upsetting the military’s capricious censors. It was Pyle’s keen attention to detail, in fact, that gave his columns a granularity and an immersive feel that was easy for many of his readers to connect with.

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At some point during that night when Tidwell recovered Waskow’s body, Pyle committed to doing something truly revolutionary in the history of war reporting. He was going to describe the combat death of one man at a time when American newspapers were prohibited from publishing images of dead soldiers out of fear that it would harm morale.

Fifteen months after his column on Captain Waskow was published, Ernie Pyle was was killed in fighting on the Pacific island of Ie Shima on April 18, 1945. He was 44.

In the stillness of Waskow’s death, Pyle noticed there was still plenty of activity. The men who had gathered to receive the body in the full moonlight stood around, Pyle 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.”

Standing near the back of a mess hall truck, not far from the body, Pyle had his eyes glued to the sight. He studied what happened next like it was an equation waiting to be solved.

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

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

A third man, a fellow officer, came next. His face was bearded and grimy. He seemed to be deeply distressed yet under control and spoke to the captain as if Waskow were still alive. “I’m sorry, old man,” was all he could muster.

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Then another man came, and in a tender voice said, “I sure am sorry, sir.”

Tidwell then squatted down next to Waskow’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.”

On Jan. 10, 1944, after Waskow’s family had been notified of their loss, “The Death of Captain Waskow” covered the entire front page of Pyle’s flagship paper, The Washington Daily News. The 200 other newspapers that ran Pyle’s column at that time also gave it prominent display. Time magazine reprinted it in full, and an advertising agency received permission to use the column to stir emotions in a war bond drive:

*CAPTAIN WASKOW GAVE HIS LIFE*

THE LEAST YOU CAN DO IS BUY WAR BONDS!

By writing a true war story about a beloved captain’s men paying their last respects, Pyle accomplished something none of the other correspondents who covered the Allied side of the Second World War were able to do. Up until the publication of Pyle’s column, most news coverage of the war had given American readers only an abstract treatment of death. For those readers, “The Death of Captain Waskow” gently wiped that film from their eyes. Pyle had, in other words, nudged his readers to feel that the war their sons and husbands were dying in was not only a world war to be observed from a safe distance. It was an individual war, a personal war.

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By concentrating on Waskow’s individual devotion, suffering, and sacrifice, Pyle endowed the cause in Italy with deeper meaning. America was great, Pyle seemed to be saying, because it produced heroic sons like him, and soldiers like Waskow and his men deserved a nation that was worthy of their sacrifice.

David Chrisinger is the executive director of the Public Policy Writing Workshop at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and the director of writing seminars for The War Horse, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to reporting on military service. He is the author of “The Soldier’s Truth: Ernie Pyle and the Story of World War II,” which is being published Tuesday by Penguin Press and from which this essay is adapted. Copyright © by David Chrisinger.