Ernie Pyle

The great war correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed by gunfire on the island of Ie Shima 71 years ago today. He was 44.

Pyle’s Albuquerque home, a branch public library since 1948, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006. He and his wife Jerry picked Albuquerque when they decided to settle in 1940 and built the small house for $3848.

This is often regarded his best column.

The Death of Captain Waskow

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.

Speaking of Books

Family Life by Akhil Sharma won the Folio Prize for fiction last night. According to a New York Times report, Family Life, a “semiautobiographical second novel, tracks the Mishra family, who migrate to Queens from Delhi in the 1970s, but whose life slowly unravels when one son suffers a freakish accident.”

George Saunders’s short-story collection Tenth of December won last year.

Best Books

In 2003, The Guardian published a list of 100 greatest novels of all time.

Beginning in October 2013, “[w]ithout any reference to the 2003 list…a serial account of the classic English and American novel, from A to Z, and from the late 17th century to the present day.” The 100 best novels.

Seventy-eight essays have been published so far — the most recent, published today, is for book 78, To Kill a Mockingbird.

And, “[a]fter keen debate at the Guardian’s books desk, this is our list of the very best factual writing, organised by category, and then by date.” The 100 greatest non-fiction books. From 2011.

List of the Day

In 1999, San Francisco Chronicle readers ranked the 100 best non-fiction and fiction books of the 20th century written in, about, or by an author from the Western United States.

NewMexiKen has posted the top 10 from the lists several times — because the lists are interesting — but primarily to honor Wallace Stegner, who was born 106 years ago today.

Stegner is first in fiction, second in non-fiction; now that’s a writer.

Timothy Egan wrote an appreciation of Stegner in 2009, Stegner’s Complaint.

Angle of Repose

TOP 10 FICTION
1. “Angle of Repose,” by Wallace Stegner
2. “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck
3. “Sometimes a Great Notion,” by Ken Kesey
4. “The Call of the Wild,” by Jack London
5. “The Big Sleep,” by Raymond Chandler
6. “Animal Dreams,” by Barbara Kingsolver
7. “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” by Willa Cather
8. “The Day of the Locust,” by Nathanael West
9. “Blood Meridian,” by Cormac McCarthy
10. “The Maltese Falcon,” by Dashiell Hammett

TOP 10 NON-FICTION
1. “Land of Little Rain,” Mary Austin
2. “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” Wallace Stegner
3. “Desert Solitaire,” Edward Abbey
4. “This House of Sky,” Ivan Doig
5. “Son of the Morning Star,” Evan S. Connell
6. Western trilogy, Bernard DeVoto
7. “Assembling California,” John McPhee
8. “My First Summer in the Sierra,” John Muir
9. “The White Album,” Joan Didion
10. “City of Quartz,” Mike Davis