RILEY TIDWELL'S HOMECOMING
Tidwell did not know that his captain had been the subject of Pyle's
celebrated column until the summer of 1945, when Tidwell returned home
from Europe. The following Is a transcript of a taped conversation on
January 18, 1995, in which Tidwell described his homecoming and
Involvement with efforts to dramatize Pyle's column. It includes his
meeting Pyle's father and the actors Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum.
I got hit coming down the mountain there with Waskow. I'd got hit in the wrist. In fact, I still wear a brace now on my left arm, from my knuckles in my hand, plumb up to my shoulder on my left side. I'd got hit in my wrist, but it didn't bother [me] much, and I'd also got hit upside the head, up by the left ear. Right in front of the left ear. And I did take 15 stitches at the aid station, sewed that up. I was all right. It didn't hurt much. Except for the blood, it didn't hardly bother me. Well, they sent me back to Naples, and I was in the hospital there.
I stayed there a few days, and then they put me aboard a plane, a C-47, and I was a litter patient. I wanted to walk, but they wouldn't let me. And they put me on this plane, and there was one [patient] above me and one below me. . . . And on one side of this airplane, that's what they had. And on the other side of this airplane, it was patients who were wounded but could sit up. They had all the equipment up and down the aisle in this plane. Somewhere, where we left Italy and went out over the water, into Sicily, we hit an air pocket. That's what they told me. I didn't know. That was the first airplane I'd been on. We hit an air pocket and that airplane went down. Well, not all the way down, it just dropped a long time. And I went up. I wasn't strapped in there; I don't know why. And I hit this German litter with my head. Up above me was a German litter and a German patient, I guess. But anyway, I hit that with my head and it busted my head open. But like the other time, it didn't hurt much—it was just a lot of blood.
The pilot, I remember, came back after the plane kind of had settled down. Rain—man, it was pouring down rain! And he asked if everybody was all right. . . . I said, "Who is up there driving this thing?" and he said he had it on automatic pilot. And I told him, "I think you ought to get back up there and get a hold of this thing. That was a bad bump we had back there." We went ahead and landed in Sicily, but we couldn't leave. The water was too deep on the runway, so we couldn't take off. We were there for two days, and they had us in an old barn. And we stayed in that barn for two days, and they finally took off with us, and I went back to Bizerte, North Africa.
I stayed in Bizerte all through the winter. I don't know just how many months it was. A couple of months, I guess. And I [got] pneumonia right after I got back there. I got between sheets in a warm bed. I had got sick. So, I [also] had these bad feet, and they were telling me how bad—if I didn't do something with them, I'd lose my toes. They told me what to do, and I started doing that, to try to get circulation back in my toes. They even showed us some people who had lost their toes—they had them in [a jar]. We called 'em. pickled toes. Ha ha! So it scared me. Anyway, I went to work on my feet, to try to get them back into shape. And I must have done a pretty good job, because after that they let me out. I went to a replacement camp, up there. This is at the same time that [the Fifth Army] invaded at Anzio.
And there weren't any ships or planes—there wasn't any way to get back to Italy. You'd just have to stay in this camp, and they were walking us about ten miles a day, getting us back in shape. They said something about sending us back to England. And there was a rumor going around that said, if we go back to England then we'll go home to the States and stay a few days, and then we'll have to go on to Japan. That was the rumor. And it just scared the daylights out of me. I said, "Man, I ain't gonna do that." So I hung around there for a while, did this walking, and I got this pass and went to town. Into this little old town there in North Africa. And I went to one of these bars where you get that famous beer, whatever that mess is. Well, anyhow, I was drinking that stuff when a captain from the Air Force came in. The officers from the Air Force would talk to the enlisted men—they were just real friendly. And this man was from Texas. I forget his name. Don't know if he ever told me. I guess he did, but I don't remember it. And he said he was going to Naples, Italy, the next morning in a plane. I asked me if I could ride with him. He said, "You got a pass?" I said, "Doctor, I be illegal. I be A.W.O.L." He said, "Will you be responsible?" I said, "Sure will." And he said, "If you'll be at the airport at four o'clock in the morning, we'll go."
And so I went back to my camp. . . . I had time to walk out to that airport. I went out there the next morning, and had to crawl into the bottom of that airplane, and I kind of lay down. We landed in Naples, and he let us out. Some way or another, some officer's bag had gotten on my litter when I was wounded and was on that airplane [to Bizerte], and it wasn't mine. I had kept it for two or three months, and never had even opened it until I did, back there in that hospital, and found out there was a camera in there. The nurses around there had wanted that camera and electric razor, so I sold it to them. I got a little extra money for that. And that's what I had when I got back to Italy.
That's all I had, because I hadn't been paid in I-don't-know-how-long. But I used that money. I stayed there in Naples for three days. And I said, "I'm going to turn myself in to the MPs," because I was afraid I'd get in trouble. I was already A.W.O.L., and I didn't want to get in more trouble than I was already in. So I went down to the MP headquarters, and walked in. I pulled my dogtags out and showed them to this man sitting at the desk. And he was a sergeant. I never saw so many stripes in my life—man, he was way up there. He had hash marks halfway up his elbow. And he was red-headed. I'll never forget it. I walked in, handed him my dogtags and said, "Sir, I'm A.W.O.L." And he said, "Where from?" and I said, "North Africa."
He said, "How'd you get here?" And I said, "I flew on an airplane." And he said, "What are you trying to do, then? Where are you going? How come you're here?" And I said, "I want to get back to my outfit."
He said, "Where is your outfit?" and I said, "On the front lines." And he said, "Man, you got to be crazy." And I said, "Yes, sir, I guess I am. But this is what I want. All my friends are up there, and I was afraid I was going to get shipped out to somewhere else, to go somewhere where I didn't know anybody."
Go to Japan? I didn't want to do that. 'Cause I wanted to stay with my friends up there. So I went "over the hill" to go back. His [the sergeant's] name was Tidwell, and he was from Alabama. Man, you talk about treating me nice! He put me on patrol duty, and I stayed on patrol duty. That was Friday, and I stayed on patrol duty Friday night and Saturday, and Saturday night he took me out to the stockade and I stayed in a building. The next day, they loaded up a bunch of those A.W.O.L. soldiers that came in off the front lines and got a pass and got drunk and didn't go back. They load 'em up in trucks and take 'em back to the front lines. So, that Sunday night—actually, it was early Monday morning—they loaded up a load of them, and they gave me a rifle, and I sat on the back, and they told that driver, "Take all these to their outfit, and check them out, and when you get through take this man to his outfit." So, I wound up back at my outfit.
I got back just before they was bombing the monastery [at Cassino on February 15, 1944]. I told [my new company commander] what I'd done. He asked me how come I'm back there, and where I'd been, and I told him. I said, "I went over the hill from North Africa. Caught me a plane and got back here. And I'm back." He said, "I guess there isn't going to be anything done about it, because I haven't heard anything and nobody ever sent me any papers. So I don't know, so everything's fine." It never went on my record.
I went on up as far as . . . the Anzio beachhead. And then we went out through Anzio and on through Rome.
We got relieved and pulled back in towards Naples. Then we were going in to southern France. And right away, after we got there, they pulled me back, and sent me back to Naples, Italy, and I got on rotation to come home. So it wasn't too long after that I got on a boat and came on home.
Somebody in the news media, when we got back to . . . Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, I believe it was, somebody asked about Captain Waskow. I said, "Yeah, I brought him down the mountain." So they just said something about it, and wrote something down, and I didn't even think any more about it. And I went on out of there, and into El Paso. . . . I came back home and stayed for thirty days, and then went to Miami, and then from Miami, I went back to New York. Long Island. I was on Long Island for a while, at the hospital. And I did some work there. They sent me on special duty to drive a staff car when Eisenhower's son graduated at West Point. And I went on up there and drove a staff car for that. Then they sent me to Fort Dix, New Jersey. I was picking up cigarette butts out there with a stick, and trash on the streets, when some sergeant drove up in a car, and told me the colonel wanted to see me in the office. I couldn't imagine why. But anyhow, I got in the car and went on up there with him, and that's the first time I knew about Ernie Pyle's story.
Mike Sweeney: So this would be late 1944?
Riley Tidwell: No, I didn't get back until 1945. 1 got back in July, I believe it was. So, he picked up some papers and told me they wanted me at Radio City in New York City, I got traveling orders and expense money to use—whatever they give you, you know—and packed my other uniform. I didn't have but two. So, I took off for Radio City, New York, and I met the people there I was supposed to see. They talked about this deal that they were going to have in Indianapolis, in Indiana, for Ernie Pyle [who died in April 1945]. And they wanted me to go. They didn't make the decision, that day, that I would really be going. My wife at that time was out on Long Island. So I told them I’d like to go out to where she was, if I could. And they said, "Well, take a couple of days and go." I said, "Well, you have to make this all right with my company commander back there at Fort Dix." So they did. I went on home, stayed a couple of days, and came back. And I got on the train there, and went into Indianapolis.
Riding those old coal-burners, you can imagine what I looked like, riding a train from New York City to Indianapolis, with coal cinders blowing back in there. I was as dirty as a pig. And I was supposed to report to the Lincoln Hotel, in Indianapolis. To a Mister Brackett. So, I went into the hotel, with my little duffel bag, and told them I wanted a room. They said, "What price?" and I said, "Whatever the Army pays." Three dollars a night, I believe it was—three dollars and a half, whatever. And that got a room. And they turned that book around for me to sign in, and I signed, and he asked me, "Are you Riley Tidwell?" And I said, "Yes, sir, sure am." He said, "You don't need a room. You got a suite here." I didn't know about that. So they took me upstairs, and I never saw such a room in my life. Never been in a room like that. Oh, man, it was beautiful.
And my bathtub was iced down in beer. So I spent the night in the bathroom. I didn't want to go in there and sleep in no bed. Not with all of that beer in there. So, the next morning, this Mister Brackett came up and I found out what I was there for. He told me that I was to do the Ed Sullivan Show—the Vox Pop program, at that time.
Mike Sweeney: From Indianapolis?
Riley Tidwell: Yeah, from Indianapolis. They were there for the premiere of The Story of G.I. Joe. I went there for the Ed Sullivan Show. They had a deal, in Vox Pop, where they had people in the audience, just lots of people—it was all radio, no television—and they advertised for Bromo-Seltzer. They threw a handful of money out into the audience for people to pick up. Now, what their gimmick was, I don't remember. But anyway, they showed 'em a bunch of stuff that I got. A suit of clothes. They told me they thought I was fixing to get out of the service, so they were going to give me a suit of clothes to wear when I got out. I never had a suit on in my life. But anyway, it was somebody else's suit they hung up. I got luggage, and all kinds of good stuff, and then I went out to see Ernie's—was it is mother, or his father?
Mike Sweeney: His dad. His mother had died.
Riley Tidwell: His dad and his Aunt Mary. I went and sat between them when the movie came on, so I could tell them about the last time I saw Ernie Pyle. Now this was all new to me. I didn't know what-all I was getting into. . . . After that, I got on a plane and went to Washington, D.C. . . . and the MP's met me out there the next morning at the airport. I didn't know what all that was about, either. I was scared to death. Not ever having been in anything like that, I really was nervous about it.
But, they picked me up and took me to this place, and they wanted me to change clothes, and get new clothes and all that. And I didn't know how to get new clothes--didn't have enough money to buy any. But they got me a new uniform, and they sewed on all the patches, I'd never seen so many ribbons in my life. I had ribbons all over me! So, anyway, they went to the National Press Club, that night, in Washington, D.C. There's where I did the show with Burgess Meredith—he played Ernie Pyle in the movie. He was there. And Dinah Shore was there. And the boys who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. I met all them. And I did my part of that show.
They introduced me, and I came out and told them the story about picking up the captain. And about the little bag of sand. That was when the Germans were pushing us back on the beaches at Salerno. One of the boys had a little old Bull Durham full of sand that he'd brought from home with him. The Germans had us just about pushed into the water there on Salerno, and he just poured that little old bag of sand out on the beach, and said, "Now, we ain't going on no farther back than this. This is Texas."
The paratroop was landing behind us, and we pushed the Germans on out of there. What that little old bag of sand had to do with it, I don't know, but it might have helped a little. Anyway, I told that story.
And I had a long talk—I've still got the script, what I was supposed to say, and all. I told Burgess Meredith, "Say, there's a lot of stuff in here about me that I didn't do. There's too much stuff in here; I didn't do all this." And he said, "What you don't want to say, you mark it out." So I got that script down, and I went through it. Things I didn't want to have to say, and didn't want to do—that I didn't do—I marked it out.
Mike Sweeney: Was this script for radio, or was this just for inside the building where the press club was?
Riley Tidwell: Well, it was in there at the press club, but they were doing it on radio. And we had a big dinner there. And I met Governor Lee O'Daniel—I mean Senator Lee O'Daniel, who used to be the governor of Texas. "Pappy" O'Daniel. We were in line, kind of an L-shaped line, to get something to eat. And a lady behind me, you know, real nice-looking lady, but an older lady, she said, "You Riley Tidwell?" And I said, "Yes, ma'am." And she said, "How's it feel to become a hero overnight?" And I said, "Ma’am, I don't know what you're talking about." And she said, "Well, I know more about you than you know about yourself." And, uh, then she introduced herself. She said, "I'm Lady Halifax from Great Britain." I didn't know Lady Halifax from Waxahachie. Much less Great Britain. Anyway, Lord Halifax and Lady Halifax were there, and a lot of the big shots in Washington were there. So, it was quite a deal. . . .
I went back to New York. They interviewed me there. They wanted me to go on the radio. The Army had a deal in radio—what'd they call, Armed Forces Radio?
Mike Sweeney: Right.
Riley Tidwell: The Army wanted me to join that, but I didn't want it. I could have told them that. They said, "Well, what would you like to do?" And I said, "Well, if I had enough points, I'd like to get out of the Army." My points were all overseas. I didn't even know how many I had. But anyhow, I went back to . . . Fort Dix, and it wasn't any time after I went back to Fort Dix that they sent me to San Antonio to be discharged.
I was back home just three or four days, when I got this notice to report to Dallas, to the Adolphus Hotel. And I went to the Adolphus, and who was there but Robert Mitchum. He played the [Waskow role] in the movie. And he and I had one of the greatest weeks that anybody could ever have, I guess. He and I traveled all over Texas. One of the nicest guys you could ever want to meet. We had one great time.
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