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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

GI Joe, Then and Now

There have been a recent spate of films based on the GI Joe toy 'character' - they're actually pretty good, fast-paced and containing a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor. Very high-tech, lots of CGI, and the premise is that of a very 'special unit' saving the world.

But the real GI Joe really did help save the world.

In December of 1943, the writer Ernie Pyle was 'embedded' (to use today's term) with the 143rd Infantry Regiment during a series of attacks aimed at capturing the Italian town of San Pietro Infine, on the western slopes of the Apennines south of Rome.

It was a miserable campaign; Rome is on the same latitude as Chicago, and the winter was cold and wet, the mud 'too thin to drink and too thick to plow'.

Ernie Pyle made a friend, Captain Henry Waskow from the cotton country of southeastern Texas. Waskow came from a large and desperately poor family, becoming an officer through a scholarship to Trinity College and service in the Texas Guard.

Waskow was a hard worker, and took his command responsibilities with a seriousness that was almost desperate. He felt that he'd never really been young.

He never grew old. On the evening of Tuesday, December 14, a shell fragment tore open his chest.

Ernie Pyle saw his body brought down from the hills, slung across the back of a small Italian donkey. When he was unloaded, Waskow was balanced on his feet for a few seconds, a ghastly imitation of life.

Pyle wrote about Waskow's men, coming to pay their respects. One said, "I'm sorry." Several swore. Another smoothed the dead officer's collar, and straightened out the torn clothing around the gaping wound - and then simply held Waskow's hand.

The dispatch was filed, and duly printed on the January 10, 1944 edition of the Washington Daily News. Ernie Pyle felt he'd lost his touch, but it was probably the best piece of writing to come out of the Second World War.

And it became a movie, The Story of GI Joe. Burgess Meredith played Ernie Pyle, and Henry Waskow (renamed 'Walker' in the film) was played by Robert Mitchum.

GI Joe, in a thousand advances and in a million foxholes, was given flesh by Ernie Pyle's words, and substance by Robert Mitchum's acting, in the very real personage of Henry Waskow of Texas.

He saved the world.

It would be facile to rant, now, about the hijacking of the name for a cheap series of action movies, and plastic toys.

But it's okay. We're payed homage, through Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. The stories are safe, in Stephen Ambrose's wonderful books, and Rick Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy" (from which most of the material for this story came).

We won't forget. Now go, and enjoy that CGI with your kids!

I think Capt. Waskow would be pleased.

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