By Arthur H. Gunther III
ANYWHERE, USA -- It is the custom of the nation to pause this official Memorial Day and recall those who passed in our wars, then and now, and to take a gift from the men and women who sacrificed earthly living: some hours off for picnics, parades, fireworks, backyard ease. It may be said that the somberness of reflection is lost in such activity, but to accept that would be to say those now gone would not be here themselves doing what we all do, if they could.
Ernie Pyle, the insightful G.I. Joe’s writing buddy, who sat in foxholes with the ordinary “citizen soldier,” as he put it, defined World War II and its great assemblage of draftees and enlisted from all over the country as a time to get a job done and then return to forging America and its never-ending frontier. Ernie, who took a bullet to the head in the Pacific in 1945, did not come back to resume his weekly newspaper columns of hometown USA, but most of his “boys” did. If he were alive today, he would note the morphing of Joe the tail gunner or Bill the seaman into suburban great-granddads.
War can never be praised, as Ernie Pyle told us, though the valor of the individual cast in its acts must be. He never wrote of the gung-ho military fellow who somehow might enjoy death and destruction, but he did speak eloquently of men cast as leaders when they did not seek such a role. On Jan. 10, 1944, at the front lines in Italy, he wrote of Capt. Henry T. Waskow, company commander in the 36th Division and a Texas native: “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. Waskow.”
Just in his 20s, this citizen soldier “carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.”
Under a nearly full moon that night in Italy, mules brought down five bodies of ordinary citizen fighting men -- fellows who just months before had been long unemployed in the Great Depression or just out of high school or in various trades or other jobs. They arrived from all over our America.
“One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, ‘God damn it.’ That’s all he said, and then he walked away. ... ‘I sure am sorry, sir,’ said another soldier. ... (one 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. ...”
On this Memorial Day, it is best to recall such men as Capt. Waskow and those who gave him respect in life and death. That this nation endured and moved on from World War II is the true tribute to them. The “normalcy” they and others sought is still illusive -- witness that there have been and still are other wars. We must still return to forging America and its never-ending frontier.