NONFICTION: The story of three men in World War II – a filmmaker, a journalist and a soldier.
On Dec. 14, 1943, on a hill in the Liri Valley in Italy, the body of U.S. Army Capt. Henry Waskow was carried down the slope on a mule. His men deeply mourned Waskow, one of the most popular and capable officers in the 143rd Regiment.
Waskow, though, was but one of the many casualties of the campaign, and he might be forgotten today if not for two men who followed the battle and talked with Waskow’s men. One was the most famous war correspondent of World War II, Ernie Pyle; the other was filmmaker John Huston. Through their work, Pyle and Huston would make Henry Waskow one of the war’s famous American soldiers.
St. Paul writer Tim Brady — author of another superb World War II story, “Twelve Desperate Miles” — has found a terrific subject in the convergence of these three men and their parts in creating an American legend.
Pyle, 43 when he landed in Italy, knew nothing, said a colleague, “of strategy or military affairs,” so he concentrated on human interest stories. No detail about the life of the GI in Europe was too insignificant to report. His bestselling collection of dispatches, “This Is Your War,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944.
Huston, the colorful and successful director and screenwriter, was assigned the task of making a documentary by the War Department. Huston was having a problem getting the proper footage to meet President Franklin Roosevelt’s instructions that “the public be shown the grimness and hardness of war through still and motion pictures.” He found it in the battle for San Pietro.
Pyle’s story on Waskow’s death touched the hearts of millions. “I have known,” Pyle wrote, “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 Captain Henry T. Waskow of Belton, Texas. … He was very young, only in his middle 20s, but he carried in him a sincerity and gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.”
“It was,” writes Brady, “one of those stories which catches the essence of the times. … Americans understood immediately that Henry Waskow stood for thousands of others who had already perished, and thousands more whose deaths were yet to come.”
Huston’s film, “The Battle of San Pietro,” in 1945, was hailed as one of the most realistic portrayals of American infantrymen ever made. Pyle never saw it; a few weeks before its release he was killed in the Pacific.
As concise and distinctive as Pyle’s dispatches and as forceful as a Huston film, “A Death in San Pietro” is a fine memorial to three dedicated Americans.
Allen Barra’s latest book is “Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age.”