A Death in San Pietro

The Untold Story of Ernie Pyle, John Huston, and the Fight for Purple Heart Valley


By Tim Brady

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By the time Mark Clark’s Fifth Army reached the small village of San Pietro north of Naples in the first week of December 1943, a tough but rapid sweep through Sicily came to a muddy halt. On the slopes of a distant mountain, the death of a single platoon captain, Henry Waskow, epitomized the struggle.

A Death in San Pietro chronicles the quietly heroic and beloved Captain Waskow and his company as they make their way into battle. Waskow’s 36th (“Texas”) Division would ultimately succeed in driving the Germans off the mountains; but not before eighty percent of Waskow’s company is lost in action.

For Americans back home, two of the war’s most lasting artistic expression brought horrified focus to the battlefield, already dubbed “Purple Heart Valley” by the men of the 36th. Pulitzer Prize-winner Ernie Pyle’s dispatch about Waskow’s death and filmmaker John Huston’s award-winning documentary of the battle rivets–and shocks–the nation, bringing, as if for the first time, the awful carnage of world war into living rooms across America.



“The Hoosier Vagabond”

“It is hard for you at home to realize what an immense, complicated, sprawling institution a theater of war actually is. As it appears to you in the newspapers, war is a clear-cut matter of landing so many men overseas, moving them from port to the battlefield, advancing them against the enemy with guns firing, and they win or lose.

      “To look at war that way is like seeing a trailer of a movie, and saying you’ve seen the whole picture . . .”

Ernie Pyle, Here Is Your War, 1943


Ernie Pyle was in an unusual setting. After spending the past seven months tasting the grit and sand of terra firma in North Africa, most often from the foxholes, tents, and improvised lean-to’s of U.S. Army infantrymen, the war correspondent was now at sea—a part of a vast armada of some two thousand U.S. and British ships, sailing from African ports to Sicily, there to wage war on the Italian and German forces arrayed to defend the island.

Among the many ships, scores of landing crafts whisked the tens of thousands of invading Allied troops onto the beaches of Sicily. There were tugs and minesweepers, destroyers and cruisers, submarines and sub-chasers—a large city of ships, as Pyle pictured them—all cruising in a vast sweep of ocean toward battle.

Global forces were at work here: enormous sums of money and human capital had been poured into the operation. Time, energy, natural resources, and endless supplies of manufactured goods. And more of this sort of massive enterprise was coming. The invasion of Sicily was just the second great step in the Allied war in Europe, coming quick on the heels of battle in North Africa, in which these same combined forces—U.S. and Great Britain—had driven the forces of Erwin Rommel and the German army from Tunisia.

Like Operation Torch, the invasion of Oran and Morocco seven months earlier, this huge collection of armies and ships sailing toward an impoverished island of Italy was prelude to even bigger conflicts to come. For more than a year, a steady stream of American forces and supplies had been shipped to Great Britain for storage and accumulation, all in preparation for the greatest invasion of them all: the one not yet definitively scheduled, but coming sometime in 1944, and aimed more directly than this assault, at the heart of Nazi Germany.

It was typical of Ernie Pyle that amid all these global forces, he chose to boil down his description of what was happening here off the shores of Sicily to the predicament of one young captain of a sub-chaser, coming around to a fleet flagship, looking for a small bit of help in the midst of the high drama.

Dusk was fast turning to dark night on the placid Mediterranean. All lights in the convoy were blacked out as Sicily neared. On board the U.S.S. Biscayne, the flagship on which Pyle was berthed, he watched as the sub-chaser appeared out of the gloaming and came to a softly puttering halt about thirty yards away. From his perch on the deck of the Biscayne, Pyle could not see the sub-chaser’s skipper in the dark, but could hear his megaphoned voice calling out the problem. There was a troop-carrying barge back further in the armada. Her motor had broken down. What should he—could he—do to help?

Later on, when writing about this moment, Pyle imagined who this voice in the dark belonged to: “I could picture a youngster of a skipper out there with his blown hair and life jacket and binoculars, rolling to the sea in the Mediterranean dusk. Some young man who shortly before had been perhaps unaware of any sea at all—the bookkeeper in your bank, maybe—and then there he was, a strange new man in command of a ship, suddenly a person with acute responsibilities, carrying out with great intentness his special, small part of the enormous aggregate that is our war on all the lands and seas of the globe.

“In his unnatural presence, there in the heaving darkness of the Mediterranean,” Pyle continued, “I realized vividly how everyone in America had changed, how every life had suddenly stopped and as suddenly had begun on a different course. Everything in this world had stopped except war and we were all men of a new profession out in a strange night of caring for one another.”1

From the Biscayne instructions were megaphoned back on how to help the transport barge with its bad engine. The young captain of the sub-chaser called out his “aye-aye” and with a dash of newfound certainty, added that any subsequent problems would be dealt with on his ship alone. “If there is any change,” he called to the Biscayne’s commander, “I will use my own judgment and report to you again at dawn. Good night, sir.”

Then off sailed the young sub-chaser captain, with his similarly young crew, to aid the stricken transport.

Pyle saluted the young skipper and all the others in the armada: “Not a pinpoint of light showed from those hundreds of ships as they surged on through the night toward their destiny, carrying across this ageless and indifferent sea, tens of thousands of young men of new professions, fighting for . . . for . . . well, at least for each other.”

BY THE TIME Ernie Pyle’s stay in the Mediterranean theater had stretched to this point, it was hard to know if he was a new man, a changed man, or a man who had found his calling.

After months of covering the war from every possible angle—frontline to aerodrome; signal corps to backstage with Mitzi Mayfair—Pyle had grown so at ease with what he called the “magnificent simplicity” of life on the frontlines that he was almost uncomfortable in any other setting. That included a pleasant cabin in the U.S.S. Biscayne, or the beaches of Tunisia, where he had been resting for a few weeks in the wake of the North African campaign. Pyle simply wasn’t at ease away from those whose stories he had come here to tell.

Middle-aged in 1943 and a thin wisp of a man, Ernie Pyle’s hair had once been a lively red but was now melding into to an ill-defined mixture of gray, white, and yellowish orange which he wore combed back and usually covered with some military-issue cap. At a fighting weight around 110 pounds on a five-foot-seven-inch frame, Pyle was so frail, he looked like he’d been raised on K-rations and Chesterfield cigarettes. Maybe it was that unassuming stature that helped Ernie Pyle fit in anywhere. No matter whether he was slipping into a circle of GI’s leaning on a tank, or chatting with Ike himself, Pyle seemed to garner the confidence of everyone he met.

His goal was simply to tell the stories of the people who were gathered here to wage war. Pyle was, as one journalist later wrote of him, “a slight, gnome-like man who hated the whole business. He knew nothing of strategy or of military affairs, and so he concentrated on human-interest stories. No detail about life for the GI in Europe was too insignificant to report—he once wrote about the colour of the soldiers’ foot ointment—no complaint too minor to mention, no message too mundane to relay . . .”2

Pyle was not the sort of man to claim he was serving some sort of higher cause by staying out in the field with his GI buddies. In fact, higher causes in general were not of great interest to him. For the length of his first twenty-some years as a journalist, Ernie Pyle had been an unassuming reporter; a writer less concerned with tackling big issues than in finding stories where others saw the commonplace and mundane.

As it turned out, by covering the war in this same fashion he was telling mothers, fathers, and girlfriends back home precisely what a growing number of them wanted to hear. They got enough of troop movements and battle descriptions from the wire services and in the dailies; what they longed for, it turned out, was a sense of how the boys were doing. Enter Pyle, for whom few details of a soldier’s life were too picayune or prosaic for him to ask and write about. He told what they ate and how they ate it; how they set up camp after terrifying and exhausting days of battle; he described how they shaved and how they bathed; how they talked to one another and what they said in quiet moments when the war seemed as far away as their homes back in the States.

Pyle was hardly a saint and hardly without flaws. Lee Miller, his editor back in the U.S., caught the full brunt of Pyle’s insecurities in letters Pyle sent home. He worried about his writing talents, the state of his unraveling marriage, his myriad illnesses, real and imagined, and whether or not he had the ability to honestly capture the war. He drank too much and moaned and groaned mightily. But for all his uncertainties and personal problems, in the grand scheme of things, and to a growing number of readers back home, Pyle seemed to be doing the work of the angels.

BORN IN SMALL-TOWN Indiana at the turn-of-the-century, Pyle was the only child of a farm family. His father was taciturn but kind hearted. His mother was opinionated and the driving force in the family. Pyle did the standard farm chores of the era, and generally hated doing them. He went to school, elementary and secondary, in the town of Dana. A trip to Chicago when he was a boy with his father might have prompted his first interest in journalism. He got his hands on some of the city dailies and was impressed with the comic-strip heroes and liked seeing the names of the writers in bylines.3

Ernie Pyle was slightly built even as a boy, and not much of an athlete. But like a lot of Indiana kids of his era, he became enamored with auto racing after the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911. The family got a Model T soon after Henry Ford began mass-producing them, and Ernie, at age sixteen, was wheeling around Dana with buddies. His first heroes were the drivers at the “brickyard”—nicknamed for the paved bricks that served as the first track. Even later in life Pyle would get to the 500 whenever he was able, and press his ear to the radio when he wasn’t.

After graduating from high school in the spring of 1918, Pyle enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He was sent to the University of Illinois for training and was just on his way to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago when the war ended. By the fall of 1919, he had enrolled at Indiana University in Bloomington, about 90 miles from his hometown.

As a shy, small town freshman, Pyle mumbled to a counselor that he might be interested in the practice of journalism. Unfortunately Indiana did not yet offer degrees in that subject. Pyle started out studying economics, but as a sophomore, not only took his first course in journalism, but signed up for the staff of the Daily Student, the school newspaper. Predictably nicknamed “Red” for his hair color, Pyle loved covering sporting events because of the travel involved, and would find whatever means possible to get to out-of-town contests, including one trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Indiana took on Harvard in a 1921 football game.

In the spring of 1922, the baseball team was set to travel to Japan for a series of games, and Pyle determined he would go, too. To finance the trip, he found a job as a cabin boy on the ship that was taking the team across the Pacific. The cruise brought him his first view of the wide world.

When he returned to school in the fall, Pyle became editor-in-chief of the Daily Student, but skipped finishing his senior year at the university when he was offered a job at the LaPorte [Indiana] Herald. Among his first assignments was covering a local meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, then a major force in Indiana politics. A newcomer to the town and a stranger at the meeting, he was quickly pinpointed as an interloper by attendees and Klan members followed him home to his room at the LaPorte YMCA. There Pyle was threatened by the KKK and told not to write anything about what he’d just seen. Undaunted, the cub reporter filed his story.

Just three months later, a friend from the Daily Student recommended Pyle to an editor at the Washington Daily News and Ernie got his first big-time job at $30 a week in the nation’s capital. He worked first as a reporter, and then as a copy editor, where he honed the sort of crisp writing style that would become his trademark. He made friends with Lee Miller, another young reporter at the paper, and also developed a few eccentricities. Because Pyle didn’t have to travel very far from his own desk, and always complained about feeling cold, he started to wear clothing that was hardly typical for a big city newsroom. He liked to match lumberjack shirts with a long stocking cap for warmth.

In 1923, Pyle fell in love with a young woman from Minnesota named Geraldine “Jerry” Siebolds, who worked as clerk at the Civil Service Commission in D.C. They made a good match: like Ernie, she was a bit of a free spirit, rolled her own cigarettes, read and wrote poetry, and liked to travel. They married in 1925 and took an apartment together in Washington, where they kept just a few pieces of furniture. The floor, according to Miller, was coated like a saloon’s in small bits of tobacco fallen from haphazard rolling.4

Soon after the wedding, Pyle grew tired of his copyediting job. He and Jerry took their savings—$1000 stowed in the boot of a Ford Model T—and hit the road for a cross-country tour to L.A. and back to the east coast. A pause in New York turned into something longer when Pyle took back-to-back newspaper jobs, first with the Evening World and then with the Post. When Lee Miller took over as managing editor at the Washington Daily News, Pyle and Jerry packed up their few belongings and headed down the power corridor, back to D.C., where Ernie, with a bump in salary, served as a telegraph editor, a crucial function at any newspaper in the day. The ability to turn abbreviated telegrams into sharp prose was a highly admired skill, and Pyle did the job well. Still, he wasn’t quite satisfied.

It was 1928. The year after Charles Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic and public interest in airplane flight was at its zenith. Pyle got the bug himself and soon began a four-year stint as one of the nation’s first columnists on all matters of aviation. Over that time, he met all the hero fliers of the day, from mail pilots to Amelia Earhart. By logging almost 100,000 air miles, Pyle was able to gain the trust and confidence of the flying community, and his and Jerry’s apartment in Washington became a salon of sorts for wingmen and women passing through the city.

Pyle liked the work and continued with the column even after Lee Miller left the Daily News to take another job in the Scripps-Howard chain. A couple of years after Miller’s departure, Pyle was promoted to the managing editor job, which prompted a group of pilots so fond of Pyle and his work to gift him with a watch, presented by Earhart in a ceremony at the Washington-Hoover airport.

Two years of serving as the managing editor of the Washington Daily News was plenty for Pyle. The daily grind of turning out a newspaper wore thin and by late 1934, he was ready for a break. He and Jerry drove on another cross-country tour of the country. This time, he came back to the east coast by way of a steamer, through the Panama Canal, the Gulf of Mexico, and up the eastern seaboard. He happened to arrive back at the Daily News just as one of the paper’s syndicated columnists, Heywood Broun, was on vacation. Pyle got permission from the editors to fill in with a series of stories describing his tour with Jerry; and thus was born his column, the “Hoosier Vagabond.”

For the next five years, Ernie Pyle, usually accompanied by Jerry, traveled far and wide, beyond the continental U.S. to Hawaii and Alaska, Canada, and Central and South America. He wore out two cars and five sets of tires as he sought out stories and profiles that others had missed: Pyle wrote about a leper colony in Hawaii; the Dust Bowl in western Kansas; a cook in a Nashville restaurant who had once been a slave of President Andrew Johnson. He wrote about, in the words of one admirer, “the shepherds, hat-check girls, tugboat captains, crab fishermen, silver miners, moonshiners, revenuers, soda jerks, agate hunters, abalone divers, sharpshooters, and Death Valley cave-dwellers whom Pyle chatted up [along the way].”5

Jerry took on a persona of her own in the columns. Pyle referred to her as “That Girl” and she became, in his characterization, a slightly world-weary, but nonetheless game companion, offering the occasional sardonic note and far-off gaze to the “Hoosier Vagabond’s” travel.

In fact, their life was not all carefree, windows-down, cross-country cruising. As the trips multiplied, so, too, did the bleak roadside motels and the lonely nights spent sliding a liquor bottle back-and-forth on the night table between them. Jerry grew reclusive on these trips, staying in their hotel rooms, reading, drinking, working crossword puzzles as Pyle ventured out, collecting his stories. She was depressive and her alcohol use exacerbated the condition. In 1937, 1938, and 1940, she had alcohol-related breakdowns that landed her in sanitariums for prolonged stays. In this era, when Alcoholics Anonymous was just getting organized and the disease model of the affliction was non-existent, effective help was hard to find. Despite Pyle’s deep and loving concerns for a woman who had been for years, not only his wife, but his boon companion, Pyle himself frequently abused alcohol, too. He thought that Jerry’s problems could be contained if she “just cut back on the booze.”6

After her last breakdown, the two decided it would be a settling influence on their lives and Jerry’s recovery if they had a permanent place to call home. They decided to build a house in a favorite spot—Albuquerque, New Mexico—and contractors were hired to construct a small ranch-style home just outside the city.

Even before it was finished, however, Ernie Pyle began to feel the tug of the great story of the day: the war in Europe. France fell to Germany that summer and the Luftwaffe began its almost nightly bombing of London in September. In somber, urgent tones, Edward R. Murrow reported the story as a struggle of good versus evil, and Pyle felt compelled to be there.

He asked Scripps-Howard to send him to England. His idea was to cover the war in the same way he’d covered everything else in his journalistic career. He wrote to Miller, who was working again at Scripps-Howard, telling the editor that he wasn’t interested in reporting “a message” about what was happening in London, but to write on ”the same old basis the column has always been written on, of making people at home see what I see.”7

Scripps-Howard gave him the go-ahead. He left “That Girl” to deal with the contractors in Albuquerque and her own demons. Pyle headed off to become, at age 40, a war correspondent. The London Blitz loomed in his future.


The Texas Division

ON THE 4TH OF JULY, 1943, the 143rd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 36th Division, known variously as the Texas Division, or the T-Patchers, for the distinctive T insignia sewn onto the upper arms of their uniforms, marched in a holiday parade in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. Led by the Sultan’s Guard, native troops dressed in bright red Moroccan garb, the parade also included U.S. Navy aviation personnel from the nearby Port Lyautey airfield and the 1st Armored Division. The marchers were followed by a single column of sand-caked vehicles, moving at a snail’s pace. According to the commander of the 36th, General Fred Livingood Walker, who was at the head of the parade, the long line of loud, grungy tanks and trucks following the colorful regimental guidons and the brilliant native uniforms of the Sultan Guard discouraged a large number of parade spectators. The crowd soon began to dwindle as the procession dragged on.

For Walker and his division, it was nonetheless a good day. The regiment he had picked to show off the crisp military style of the 36th—the 143rd, which included Henry Waskow’s Company B—had made positive impressions on visiting officers, including a handful of French generals, and Generals Mark Clark and Ernest Dawley, Walker’s commanding generals in the U.S. Fifth Army. Not only did he receive a number of compliments from his fellow officers on the presentation of the 143rd, more important, over lunch afterward, Walker learned from Clark that the 36th was finally being tapped for duty. After several false starts and last minute cancellations, they were going to see action soon.

The 36th had been in North Africa for three months now and was ready for combat. Comprised for the most part of Texas National Guard units (thus the division’s nickname), with a few Oklahoma companies sprinkled in, the 36th had been first called into active duty in November 1940. Stationed at Camp Bowie in Texas at the start of its service, the division had been moved around the country for the next two years, taking part in the vast war games in Louisiana in the late summer of 1941 before returning to Texas. Then it was on to Florida, where they took part in more war games; and up to Camp Edwards in Massachusetts in August 1942, where the division heard its first rumors of being shipped overseas.

General George Patton visited Walker and the 36th on Cape Cod in late August, soon after the division arrived in Massachusetts. His appearance was marked by mystery regarding upcoming Allied plans. Patton had come from England where he had been assigned by General Eisenhower to head the Western Taskforce of Operation Torch—the portion of the invasion of North Africa aimed at Morocco in November 1942. He was home now to gather troops for that task. But the operation was top secret and Patton could make no mention of its details.

When he arrived at Camp Edwards, Patton asked to meet privately with Walker, where he confided that he wanted the 36th for a soon-to-happen Allied action. Patton, however, could not tell Walker where, when, or how this attack was to occur, or when the division would know with certainty that it was being called to combat. Still, the general asked Walker for leave to address the 36th in order to rouse them for upcoming battle.1

Walker was a long-time U.S. Army officer and knew enough of George Patton to take his drama with a grain of salt. In fact, he had something of a history with “Georgie,” as Patton was called by most of his family and Army friends.

Walker had been a member of the Ohio National Guard as an undergraduate at Ohio State University and was commissioned in the regular army soon after graduating with a degree in mine engineering in 1911. He served in the Philippines as a second lieutenant, and with General John “Black Jack” Pershing in Mexio, prior to World War I.

Walker went to France in 1917 and earned a Distinguished Service Cross for bravery during the second battle of the Marne. Between the wars, he served once again in the Philippines as well as in China. He also graduated from the War College in Washington, D.C., served as an instructor there and at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was commandant at Shattuck Academy in Minnesota for five years in the late ’20s and early ’30s.

By the start of World War II, he was a well-respected field general but not a rising star in the army. His countenance suggested a man who understood that status. His gaze was forthright with just a hint of irony in the line of his mouth. His eyes were dark and eyebrows darker—both urged no nonsense. Fifty-four years old when he was appointed commander of the 36th, Fred Walker looked his age.

His appointment to the Texas Division came in the midst of a hurricane warning in Louisiana, just prior to the war games that the T-Patchers took part in that September 1941. Aside from the inauspicious weather, it was an appointment that Walker didn’t immediately relish. Despite his beginnings as a soldier in the Ohio National Guard, Walker had long since turned “regular” army. He knew that guard units were often considered sloppy and amateurish by “regulars.” Conversely, guard unit members could be suspicious and unfriendly toward regular army folk, especially those who were taking command as he was, after the 36th had been training on active duty for almost a full year. There was also the fact that as a commander of a National Guard division way out in Texas, Walker was a far sight from the career-changing happenings emanating from George Marshall’s office and the War Department in Washington.2

But as the 36th and the general got to know each other through the following year, respect grew and became mutual. The young Texans under his command tended to be unassuming and hard-working characters, with the occasional streaks of wildness and lack of discipline that came with their age and the fact that they were, by and large, country boys who hadn’t seen much of the world. Walker, on the other hand, was plain-spoken and liked plain-spoken people.

He was not the sort of officer to be overly impressed with a flamboyant general such as George Patton. In fact, after those war games back in Louisiana, Walker was one of a number of participants who had groused about the way Patton and his armored division had played. Down in the bayou a year earlier, Walker and the 36th had been assigned an area to defend against Patton’s tanks, except the Army at the time had no anti-tank weaponry to supply his troops. In lieu of these, Walker and company had simply made handwritten signs that read “Tank Destroyer” and placed them strategically around the landscape as a means to indicate to the game umpires that the area was defended.

Another inventive group from the 36th anti-tank battalion had an officer whose father owned a machine ship in Fort Worth. Prior to the Louisiana game, he went to an auto salvage yard and then back to his dad’s shop, where he welded a few mock guns, using axle housing for the barrel.3


On Sale
Nov 5, 2013
Page Count
304 pages
Da Capo Press

Tim Brady

About the Author

Tim Brady is an award-winning author, whose book Twelve Desperate Miles received wide acclaim. He is a regular contributor to PBS and currently writes for History Channel Magazine, Minnesota, and Minnesota Monthly.

Learn more about this author