This Memorial Day, Remember the Young Lives Cut Short

From a Washington Post editorial:

A prominent journalist of the World War II era complained once about the frequent use of the word “boys” when speaking of U.S. troops in the field. After what they’d been through, he said, they were not just a bunch of kids out on an adventure. In fact, the average age of those who died in the Second World War was about 27, and their numbers did include a good many youths. But the term was meant more as an expression of affection and solidarity — “our boys in uniform” — than as a description. It also reflected the poignant truth of their untimely deaths: much too young.

This element of vulnerability, fear and helplessness is hard to express in a Memorial Day speech or remembrance. Nothing can quite convey the devastation of those who knew and loved “the fallen,” a euphemism that ennobles their sacrifice but also fails to capture the awfulness of violent death.

The words that are perhaps most suited for Memorial Day were written 78 years ago by the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, whose name became known in just about every American household during World War II. He described in simple, powerful prose the lives and deaths of the soldiers he accompanied through some of the worst fighting, with a special feel for the enlisted infantry.

Pyle’s account of the death of a beloved young Army captain named Henry T. Waskow during the fighting in Italy was first carried by the old Washington Daily News. He described the scene as bodies of the American dead were brought down from a hill on the backs of mules: “The Italian mule-skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night.” As the grim work proceeded, the bodies being laid out alongside a low stone wall, one of the soldiers said quietly, “This one is Captain Waskow.”

“The unburdened mules moved off to their olive orchard,” Pyle wrote. “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.”

A soldier “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.”

The story of Capt. Waskow’s death became an instant classic in the United States and has been reprinted many times over the years. It does not deserve to become a neglected classic now, not when it is only a few keystrokes away and when young people continue to be deprived of their lives and their futures — by neglect, greed, orchestrated hatreds or delusional aggressions — in places from Ukraine to Uvalde, Tex.

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