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.
Six years ago I stumbled upon Ernie Pyle’s article, “The Death of Captain Waskow.” After reading the article, I was so moved that I was determined one day to visit his grave at the Sicily-Rome Cemetery. In 2015, I was able to pay my respects at Henry’s grave. This was extremely moving for me. I also went to the battle scared village of San Pietro, Italy near where he was killed on Mt. Sammucro. The town looks almost exactly how it was left after the battle in December of 1943, very eerie.
In my research on Captain Waskow, I have visited his hometown of Belton, Texas on two occasions. The new high school is named after Henry, Belton New Tech High School @ Waskow and the VFW Post 4008. I was able to visit the High School where there is a display of Henry’s accomplishments along with his medals in a display case in the office. I might add that they are all neatly and proudly displayed.
Perhaps the most moving visit was at the Belton Cemetery where I was able to find the Waskow’s family plot thanks to helpful cemetery employees who fortuitously where there the morning I visited. Henry’s mom and dad are buried along side a memorial marker with Henry’s name. Sadly, Henry’s mother passed away in February of 1944 just two months after Henry was killed in December of 1943. From what I have read, she had a premonition that something had happened to Henry.
I also have visited the Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas, home of the Texas T Patchers. I recommend visiting this museum. Additionally, if you are ever in the state of Indiana, make it a point to visit the Ernie Pyle WWII Museum in Ernie’s home town of Dana, Indiana. It is a small and yet very interesting museum. There are numerous exhibits showcasing Ernie’s articles. Although the exhibits are all intriguing, the one exhibit that draws the most emotion from me is “The Death of Captain Waskow.” It is displayed in a very small theater setting. However, you will be moved beyond your emotions if you have any knowledge about Ernie Pyle and Henry Waskow.
My final hope is to meet one of Henry Waskow’s relatives (great nieces or nephews) on my next visit to Texas. I would like to expand my research and in particular include additional information about his family background. I know that all his siblings are now deceased.
In memory of Captain Henry T. Waskow
Honor, Courage, Integrity
What a great American! The many like Henry who gave so much, is why America is so great. God Bless America and all those who love her
The United States was highly unified after WWII and 911 attack in 2001. Since then, we have become divided. I hope that the millenials/Generation X read & heed our history so they can reach the best decision going forward. Divided country is not an option.
Thanks for a great piece of history. This was the “Greatest Generation” that sacrificed for family & country and our freedom. This was almost 80-years ago & so the new generations do not know how tough it was to live even thru the 50’s. I hear rumors that the govt. has decided to cut out a lot of history in our elementary / high schools; & I do not understand why. A country should know the good&bad of their history. Please note that the United States is a very young country compared to Europe/Eastern countries.
Thankful for Henry Waskow and his love of God and Country. I lost an uncle in Italy in 1943 or 1944. I would like to think he might have been one of the men under Henry’s leadership. God Bless America is my plea.
Thank you Henry, for showing us what a true American hero is. The Lord has blessed us with another true American hero in our Commander in Chief and President Donald J Trump. May our vision be for him to remain our leader for 4 more years in 2020!!! Please keep him safe Lord Jesus Christ!!!
Thank you so much for posting this article. Stories about men like Henry Waskow and Ernie Pyle help us all to strengthen our foundation and keep our footing in today’s silly, shallow world. I’m not a veteran, just the daughter, granddaughter, niece, sister, wife, Aunt, and Mom of veterans and we were all raised with deep respect for all of our Military personnel, Police Officers and Firefighters and all others who put their lives on the line for the protection of their fellow man. God will continue to bless America as long as we are working to live up to what we know is right. May we all choose to do so.
I remember when I was in school, that we were taught about the sacrifices that people made in times of war. Shortages at home to make sure that troops had what they needed. Being proud to be an American. We learned all the words to the American Anthem, and sang it proudly on Veterans Day, along with the songs that represented each branch of our military. Now there isn’t time during the school day to learn of patriotism and sacrifice, because they have to waste time discussing whether you’re feeling like a male or female today, what you “identify” as. Give me a break!! We knew what we identified as, PROUD AMERICANS!! Pray for our country folks, it’s going down the tubes, and it starts at school!! The teachers spend more time with our children than we do, scary.
Very touching. I have tears now. Thanks for sharing! God bless America and President Trump!
This message is rarely, if ever, seen by todays public school students. What a shame, more often attention is given to the faults of mortal men trying to make a positive difference in today and tomorrow.
Thank you for printing this amazing article! American young people need to be reminded of the work of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, uncles and so many others who died for this country. I was born in 1950; my father served in the Army Air Force in WWII. He raised me to appreciate this country and what she stands for. I feel sad so many who were born after me are not grateful; they feel entitled and that those same qualities have been passed down to the younger generations. Because of the efforts of our fore fathers, we are an extremely blessed country and God has blessed us, but history tells us we have to continue to fight to remain strong. I fear the qualities of men like Henry are few and far between.
This should be a part of the present, timing is always right. I wish I knew Henry and maybe some day I will. I know is family is very proud. In today’s turmoil I believe there are Henry’s out on the battlefield, right now as I write. Who will write their story and tell of the great Patriot President we have who has their back. So much is not being told. We love all the young men who stand tall and fight for our precious freedom. They are always in our prayers. That’s our service to them.
I am humbled and obligated.
Loved this. The honor, dedication, and virtue that he shows us is what America must remember to continue. It is the heart of what it means to be an American and responsible citizen.
A very beautiful and thought provoking article. I wish that I could have met this man.I too would certainly have mourned the passing of Henry. He gave many a bar to strive for in any way serving our country. Thank you Henry.
More people need to read this, to see how a true American can become a goal for all of us to reach for. God Bless our true heros.
A wonderful tribute to a remarkable man we would all do well to learn from.
An incredible story. Thank you Robert Charles…
Thank you, AMAC. I needed that.