He had a full-hearted love of America – of family (seventh of eight children), faith (came early and never lost it), history (which he revered), and by extension you. That’s right, of you. Every American should know his name, his selfless story, and his legacy of love. Maybe you do?
His name was Henry Waskow, born in Texas, trained in Massachusetts, deployed to World War II’s Italian Campaign late 1943. Exactly 75 years ago January 10th, Pulitzer-winning reporter Ernie Pyle, wrote a column about Henry. The story is epic. Two movies are based on it. The column hit 400 papers that day, was reprinted in Time magazine.
Few are alive who read that column fresh, but here’s the gist. Henry grew up serious-minded, determined to learn, had a penchant for math – and for serving others. Described by Rick Atkinson in “Day of Battle,” Henry was a short, blue-eyed, self-effacing kid. He was also unusually self-aware, almost prescient. And he loved America.
In high school, he wore clothes made from sack cloth, served as a teenage lay minister, became class president. As a friend recounted, “he was never young… not in a crazy high school-kid way.” That said, he was always grateful and knew his faults. In college, he signed up with the Texas National Guard. In June 1939, he turned down a teaching job – sensing the world war was coming.
Deploying to Italy, Henry penned his “just in case” letter to family. “If I seemed strange at times, it was because I had weighty responsibilities that preyed on my mind and wouldn’t let me slack up to be human like I wanted to be.” He was about duty, taking care of others – his mission.
Approaching Naples, Henry was just 25, already rank of Captain, a full company under him, part of the 36th Division. Their objectives were two, Sammucro and then a second mountain, San Pietro. Leaning in, his men fought hard and took Sammucro. Going was tough. Henry never flinched, even when his company was whittled to platoon-strength. Up he led.
Pyle wrote how men felt – the common soldiers. Of Henry, common soldiers said remarkable things. “After my own father, he came next.” “He always looked after us, he’d go to bat for us every time.” “I’ve never knowed him to do anything unfair.” His men followed, because Henry led – with all his heart.
The Americans did take San Pietro. It was a turning point, a key juncture in what history calls the Italian Campaign, part of World War II that got little ink – which may be why Pyle wrote about Henry. What Pyle wrote is hard to read, but true to life.
Wrote Pyle: “I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow’s body down …the moon was nearly full …you feel small in the presence of dead men.” He did, at least, in Henry’s presence.
Formal honors included medals, Purple Heart, Legion of Merit. Quiet acts mattered more. Henry was loved – because he loved America and loved his men. One by one, they moved in the moonlight, found their fallen captain, spoke to him. They held his hand, straightened his collar points, knelt beside him, and thanked him – some “awfully tenderly.”
That column, written of 75 years ago, was powerful. Henry personified the American soldier’s selfless sacrifice, devotion to others, what makes a leader a leader. But there is more – from Henry himself. Fifteen years after that column, Henry’s sister released a letter from Henry. The letter accompanied his “last will and testament.” Fragments say it all, reminding us of his gift.
To the family, Henry wrote: “God alone knows how I worked …to make myself a worthy leader of these magnificent men, and I feel assured that my work has paid dividends—in personal satisfaction, if nothing else…. I felt so unworthy, at times, of the great trust my country had put in me, that I simply had to keep plugging to satisfy my own self that I was worthy of that trust.”
“I would have liked to have lived … but since God has willed otherwise, do not grieve too much, dear ones, for life in the other world must be beautiful, and I have lived a life with that in mind all along … I was not afraid to die, you can be assured of that.”
Seeing the future and looking back, his last lines were for family – but somehow also for us. He hands forward the love of freedom – to our safe keeping.
“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 … If I failed as a leader, and I pray God I didn’t, it was not because I did not try.” “I loved you,” he added, “with all my heart.”
That is Henry Waskow, retold by Ernie Pyle who fell at Okinawa, reaffirmed by Rick Atkinson’s splendid WWII trilogy. So, when we say “freedom is not free,” nothing is truer. Men like Henry – and like Ernie – made possible our freedom today.
Our mission is to pass that love – of America, freedom and each other – forward to the next generation. Simply put, on this unbroken promise does America’s future depend. On these seemingly small anniversaries … we are again reminded, if we will pause, ponder and recall.