Once again it's Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer vacation season as most people think of it, to include our president who would rather go to Chicago than pay his respects to the honored dead at Arlington.
As for myself, I am trying to remind folks what the holiday really means as well as posting my traditional thank you to the men and women who have served their country in the military and in particular those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. I normally do this by trying to use my own words, as weak and limited as I think they are, but this year I would like to try something different and use another person's words.
Ernie Pyle was a War Correspondent who covered the common soldiers who fought in WW II. Ernie specialized in reporting on the daily lives of the infantry man. His writing was so powerful that he received the Pulitzer Prize for his articles and was world famous, but still stayed with, and lived with the average "dog faced" soldier rather than the officers, politicians and movers and shakers he could have . Ernie was with his "boys" when he was killed by a Japanese machine gun bullet on the island of Ie Shima, 18 April 1945.
I have taken the liberty to reprint two of his most famous articles to remind us that the cost of freedom is very high, but it's a cost that our young men and women in uniform are willing to pay, day in and day out.
NORTHERN TUNISIA, April 22, 1943 – I was away from the front lines for a while this spring, living with other troops, and considerable fighting took place while I was gone. When I got ready to return to my old friends at the front I wondered if I would sense any change in them.
I did, and definitely.
The most vivid change is the casual and workshop manner in which they now talk about killing. They have made the psychological transition from the normal belief that taking human life is sinful, over to a new professional outlook where killing is a craft. To them now there is nothing morally wrong about killing. In fact it is an admirable thing.
I think I am so impressed by this new attitude because it hasn’t been necessary for me to make this change along with them. As a noncombatant, my own life is in danger only by occasional chance or circumstance. Consequently I need not think of killing in personal terms, and killing to me is still murder.
Even after a winter of living with wholesale death and vile destruction, it is only spasmodically that I seem capable of realizing how real and how awful this war is. My emotions seem dead and crusty when presented with the tangibles of war. I find I can look on rows of fresh graves without a lump in my throat. Somehow I can look on mutilated bodies without flinching or feeling deeply.
It is only when I sit alone away from it all, or lie at night in my bedroll recreating with closed eyes what I have seen, thinking and thinking and thinking, that at last the enormity of all these newly dead strikes like a living nightmare. And there are times when I feel that I can’t stand it and will have to leave.
But to the fighting soldier that phase of the war is behind. It was left behind after his first battle. His blood is up. He is fighting for his life, and killing now for him is as much a profession as writing is for me.
He wants to kill individually or in vast numbers. He wants to see the Germans overrun, mangled, butchered in the Tunisian trap. He speaks excitedly of seeing great heaps of dead, of our bombers sinking whole shiploads of fleeing men, of Germans by the thousands dying miserably in a final Tunisian holocaust of his own creation.
In this one respect the front-line soldier differs from all the rest of us. All the rest of us – you and me and even the thousands of soldiers behind the lines in Africa – we want terribly yet only academically for the war to get over. The front-line soldier wants it to be got over by the physical process of his destroying enough Germans to end it. He is truly at war. The rest of us, no matter how hard we work, are not.
Say what you will, nothing can make a complete soldier except battle experience.
In the semifinals of this campaign – the cleaning out of central Tunisia – we had large units in battle for the first time. Frankly, they didn’t all excel. Their own commanders admit it, and admirably they don’t try to alibi. The British had to help us out a few times, but neither American nor British commanders are worried about that, for there was no lack of bravery. There was only lack of experience. They all know we will do better next time.
The 1st Infantry Division is an example of what our American units can be after they have gone through the mill of experience. Those boys did themselves proud in the semifinals. Everybody speaks about it. Our casualties included few taken prisoners. All the other casualties were wounded or died fighting.
"They never gave an inch," a general says. "They died right in their foxholes."
I heard of a high British officer who went over this battlefield just after the action was over. American boys were still lying dead in their foxholes, their rifles still grasped in firing position in their dead hands. And the veteran English soldier remarked time and again, in a sort of hushed eulogy spoken only to himself:
"Brave men. Brave men."
AT THE FRONT LINES IN ITALY, January 10, 1944 – 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. Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas.
Capt. Waskow was a company commander in the 36th Division. He had led his company since long before it left the States. He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.
"After my own father, he came next," a sergeant told me.
"He always looked after us," a soldier said. "He’d go to bat for us every time."
"I’ve never knowed him to do anything unfair," another one said.
I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow’s body down. The moon was nearly full at the time, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley below. Soldiers made shadows in the moonlight as they walked.
Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack-saddles, their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.
The Italian mule-skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies at the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself, and ask others to help.
The first one came early in the morning. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment, while they got a new grip. In the half light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road.
I don’t know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don’t ask silly questions.
We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.
Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about it. We talked soldier talk for an hour or more. The dead man lay all alone outside in the shadow of the low stone wall.
Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there, in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting. "This one is Captain Waskow," one of them said quietly.
Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the low stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally there were five lying end to end in a long row, alongside the road. You don’t cover up dead men in the combat zone. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.
The unburdened mules moved off to their olive orchard. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, 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. I stood close by and I could hear.
One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, "God damn it." That’s all he said, and then he walked away. Another one came. He said, "God damn it to hell anyway." He looked down for a few last moments, and then he turned and left.
Another man came; I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the half light, for all were bearded and grimy dirty. The man looked down into the dead captain’s face, and then he spoke directly to him, as though he were alive. He said: "I’m sorry, old man."
Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said:
"I sure am sorry, sir."
Then the first 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.
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.
After that the rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the five dead men lying in a line, end to end, in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep.