At one point during the US campaign in Italy during WWII, Don Whitehead of the Associated Press dropped in on Ernie Pyle of Scripps-Howard. He knew Ernie had been feeling depressed.
“Ernie was all man, but there was something that made you want to take care of him, to lend him a hand whenever possible. I suppose we sensed that war was a heavier strain on him than on most of us because he was more sensitive to cold and hunger and pain and the shock of seeing men killed.”
The campaign was far slower and more costly than anyone had anticipated, Whitehead writes, “and the strain began to wear on everyone.”
Whitehead found Pyle at work. He had been to the front to get some stories about the mule teams they were using to supply the men fighting in the mountains.
“I’ve lost the touch,” Pyle said. “This stuff stinks. I just can’t seem to get going again.” He tossed three columns to his visitor and said, “What do you think of ’em?”
The first one was a tribute to Captain Henry T. Waskow, a beloved commander whose body had just been brought down on one of the mules.
“The simplicity and beauty of that description brought tears to my eyes,” Whitehead writes. “This was the kind of writing all of us were striving for, the picture we were trying to paint in words for the people at home.
“‘If this is a sample from a guy who has lost his touch,’ I said, ‘then the rest of us had better go home.'”
Whitehead was correct in his assessment. Ernie’s tribute to Captain Waskow was printed on the front page of more than 270 newspapers across the United States. The Washington Daily News gave it the entire front page, and as his friend Lee Miller says in his biography of Ernie, “Radio commentators helped themselves.”
I have already suggested that Ernie Pyle’s description of the firebombing of London, titled “This Dreadful Masterpiece,” is the best piece of writing in any language since the blind Greek guy.
Ernie’s tribute to Captain Waskow is the best summary I have ever seen of what Memorial Day is all about.