75 YEARS AFTER D-DAY: REMEMBERING THE BAND OF BROTHERS VETS
The 10-hour, Emmy-winning HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, based on Stephen Ambrose’s best-seller, and executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, recounts the achievements of an elite team of U.S. paratroopers during World War II. Producer Jodie Burke, along with director Mark Cowen and writer William Richter, created the documentary “We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company” that accompanied the series.
Over a two-year period from 1998-2000, the filmmakers traveled the United States interviewing the surviving members of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of the US Army that the miniseries is based on.
1) What was D-Day and why is it important to commemorate it?
On June 6, 1944, some of World War II’s bravest soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy and waded or swam ashore with the objective to fight the enemy and take France back from the Nazis. The men of Easy Company were paratroopers. They boarded C-47s in England, flew across the English Channel and jumped out, parachuting behind enemy lines. Their mission on D-Day was to take out the enormous guns that the Germans were using to fire on all the Allied forces arriving on the beach.
2) Who did you interview and what was that experience like?
Will Richter, Mark Cowen and I had the honor of conducting person-to-person interviews of all of the surviving members of Easy Company that were willing to talk to us. Our intention was to tell a personal story of World War II in the European theater, from the soldier’s point of view. Our goal was to get as close to the truth as possible. We were the first team out, and all of the material we collected was given to the writers and directors who were still writing the episodes. The miniseries was still in development. They hadn’t cast it or started production yet.
As documentarians, we flew all over the country and interviewed the men in their homes. Typically, we would show up and the whole family would be there to greet us, because they all wanted to hear Grandpa tell what happened to him in the war. Most of the men had never spoken about their experience before, not even to their wives. It sometimes got very emotional and intense, because we were asking them about the most harrowing experience of their lives, which happened when they were still essentially teenagers, and they’d sat with it in silence until they were almost 80 years old. Imagine. We went through a lot of boxes of Kleenex.
Eventually, we got to a point where if someone (including us) didn’t break down into tears during an interview, we felt we must be doing something wrong. We also attended their reunions in Denver and New Orleans. That was fun, because they really came alive when they got together. They liked to party. I can’t look at a bottle of brandy without hearing Babe Heffron burst into song. He would call me up and sing into my answering machine, “Bridget O’Flynn, where have you been?” In another life, Babe could have given Mickey Rooney a run for his money on Broadway. If you watch our documentary (available to rent on Netflix, Disc Six) you can hear him singing it as the credits roll at the end.
Babe was Irish and did that spontaneously during his first interview, serenading me as I sat on Bill Guarnere’s stairway in a pool of sweat. It was a stifling July day in 1999, over 100F in South Philly, and we were all in this rowhouse with the windows and drapes closed to keep the light and sound out for filming. The air conditioner made too much noise, so we couldn’t have it on when we were shooting. It was hot. When we arrived, Bill and Babe started shouting at Will and Mark straight away, and I couldn’t figure out what the issue was until Guarnere said, “Don’t let her carry that heavy camera equipment! She’s a delicate flower!” I loved them immediately.
For the record, Babe was a Company E replacement and did not jump on D-Day, but Guarnere did. Right before they boarded the plane in England, Guarnere found out that his brother had been killed fighting, and he was in a rage. He wanted to avenge his brother’s death. He told us he was determined to kill as many Germans on D-Day as he could. And he did.
3) Did they volunteer or get drafted?
All of the E-Company men volunteered to become paratroopers. After Pearl Harbor, they knew they would be drafted, but they wanted to fight with an elite squadron. They figured they had a better chance of surviving World War II if they were with the best of the best. It took a lot of skill, athleticism, intelligence and training to qualify to be a paratrooper. Also it paid $50 more, so that was an extra incentive to some.
4) Describe the conditions on D-Day, 75 years ago.
They told us the sky was pretty clear, leaving England and flying across the English Channel. Carwood Lipton was jumpmaster, and he recalled lying in the open door of the plane, looking out to see the water below filled with thousands of ships and battleships. It was a tremendously large invasion. As the planes flew closer to the French shore, the anti-aircraft flack started, and it was terrible. The planes were getting hit and the sky was lighting up with tracer bullets like it was the 4th of July, only ten thousand times more intense. The paratroopers just wanted to jump out. The planes were flying at speeds of about 150 miles per hour on D-Day, maybe faster, and flying lower than they should have been. The force of the prop blast blew their leg bags off, which is where they carried their weapons. As they came down, they got shot at the whole way by machine gunners on the ground. It was tricky to figure out which way to slip to avoid getting hit.
5) What impressed you most about the men of Easy Company who jumped into D-Day?
Selflessness. Bravery. Courage under fire. Excellence. They all laid down their lives for us on D-Day. They were young men, in their late teens and twenties, who hadn’t gotten a chance to live their lives yet. It is difficult to put into words.
6) Are there any particular stories about D-Day that stand out to you, or that you continue to reflect upon?
Band of Brothers is the story of ordinary men who became extraordinary soldiers. They were very young, and just like us, regular Joes, farm boys, factory workers, college students. They were not professional soldiers. But they had to go fight. They had a call to duty. The Allied invasion was spearheaded by 13,400 American paratroopers. We only talked to a hundred or so of them, but I think about how each man managed to draw on what made him unique. The military trains you to become part of a machine. But actually, it was individual excellence that helped these guys not only survive, but win the war.
For example, Shifty Powers, a sweet man with a love for nature and a wonderful sense of humor, became a sniper, because he’d honed his skill with a rifle growing up in the wilds of Appalachia. He shot squirrels for dinner as a kid. And Lynn “Buck” Compton was an All-American football and baseball player at UCLA in 1942. He was a catcher who played with Jackie Robinson and Compton intended to play for the major leagues too, but the war interrupted those plans.
On D-Day, when 2nd Lt. Compton jumped, there was such an opening shock from the propeller blast that the strap on his helmet broke and the wind ripped his leg bag off as he was parachuting down. He had packed everything—all of his weapons into that leg bag, so although he hit the ground safely, he only had a few candy bars and a knife. There was enemy in every direction.
He took weapons from the bodies of dead soldiers he came across. A rather haphazard way of arming yourself. Compton managed to meet up with his buddy 1st Lt. Dick Winters, the officer in charge of E Company on D-Day, who had collected a team of 12 men. Some of these guys were from E Company and some were from others. Their objective on D-Day was to take out a German battery of four 10.5 mm German howitzers firing on Utah Beach, wiping out the Allied troops as they landed on shore. The guns were hidden on a farm called Brécourt Manor. The position was controlled by a platoon of 50 German soldiers. Easy Company was ordered to take the guns out with a squad of only 12 men.
At the risk of oversimplifying it, Winters’ basic strategy was to divide into two groups. He took half the men and he gave Compton the other half, with instructions for Compton, the All-American baseball player, and his crew (Guarnere, Don Malarkey and Popeye Wynn) to take hand grenades and throw them at the big guns that were wiping everyone out. Winters and his squad provided cover for them. Baseball’s loss was the world’s gain. Compton threw his grenades as high and as far as he could, and they all hit their targets. E Company saved thousands of lives that day and Compton was awarded the Silver Star for disabling the guns. After the war, it was too late for Compton to play professional sports. He sacrificed his chance. So, he became a cop, because he wanted to play baseball, and the LAPD had the best baseball team. Compton went to law school and eventually became a District Attorney in Los Angeles and a judge. He was actually the lead prosecutor in Sirhan Sirhan’s trial for the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
7) What was Richard Winters like and what made him a good and effective leader?
Smart, serious, empathetic, elegant, kind, strong, strict, super observant. Self-disciplined. His mantra was the Fort Benning slogan: “Follow Me.” Follow me over that hedgerow and follow my example. Even when he was in his 80s, when we met him, he had this stealth way about him. He moved silently. We went out to his farmhouse in Hershey, Pa. to interview him the first time. It was a hot, humid, windy day and his wife Ethel had prepared us this incredible luncheon spread in the barn. I was hungry and piled up way too many things on my sandwich and forgot to cut it in half. It was really stupid. I sat at the picnic table, studying how to pick up and eat this enormous thing, when out of nowhere THWAP! My sandwich split apart into two neat halves. It was totally shocking! Someone had been reading my mind. I turned to see Major Winters replacing his jump knife in his combat boot. (Probably the same pair he’d worn from training in Toccoa, Georgia all the way through the war from England to France to Belgium and Germany where he and his men captured Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.) It took my breath away, actually. I had no idea he’d been watching me, that he was armed with a knife! That he was even nearby. I thought he was talking to Mark and Will in the barn. It’s a simple illustration, but it encapsulates everything that made him an exceptional leader: Winters quickly sized up the situation, and decided quickly and correctly, the best way to take care of it, whatever the problem was. That’s what he did all throughout the war. I could see following him anywhere, because chances are that would be the best way to stay alive.
Winters was a gifted writer too. His notes and journals formed the basis for the best-selling book that Steven Ambrose wrote, and later, for the writers of the miniseries. He collaborated with Tom Hanks and Erik Jendresen, the head writers of the miniseries, working with them seven days a week for six months to get the truth on paper. Winters fact-checked every episode.
Anyone who has ever tried to keep a daily practice of writing in a journal knows, it is not easy to be consistent. Winters had enormous self-discipline. He was unfailingly consistent all the way through training and the war, despite conditions that were less than ideal for writing. Without his careful, accurate, faithful notes recording it all as it happened, there would be no Band of Brothers. He was a very hardworking and humble man who pursued excellence in everything he did. Also, it should be noted that Ethel was a librarian and I’m sure she had a hand in keeping his papers organized.
Q: What was the most challenging part of interviewing the men of Easy Company?
Time. Early one, one of the men died as we were driving to his house to interview him. We didn’t get there in time. His story goes untold, lost forever. It put a lot of pressure on us to try to get the best information we could from these guys before they left us. Another challenging part was knowing how far to push someone when you could sense you were running into a very emotional, dark, terrifying or powerful memory, and when to back off and drop the line of questioning.
8) What was the most fun part?
Just getting to know them and hear all the stories. Being able to find out what happened to them after the war. They were brothers with this intense bond, and then they went their separate ways. Some became wealthy businessmen, one guy became a postman, another went back to farming. They basically just dropped their weapons and went home. It was fascinating after “studying” them in the book, to meet them as old men and witness what they made of their lives.
9) What did you learn from these veterans?
They taught me about what it means to have courage, and to be brave. Courage is not a lack of fear. Courage is knowing how terrifying or difficult the situation is, and then going forward into it. Helping to make this documentary was a life-changing experience.
10) Do you think you could have done what they did on D-Day?
I don’t know. (Let’s not forget I’m a delicate flower!) Jump out of a plane flying way too fast and way too low over a choppy, ice cold sea… while being shot at by machine guns…and parachute down in a hail of fire and bullets… to a bloody battlefield? Where you would land without a weapon? Expected to wipe out one of the strongest armies on earth?
What they did was astonishing.
11) What does it mean to be a hero?
According to the men of Easy Company, the only heroes are the ones who did not come back from the war. The rest of them were just doing their job. To me, they are all heroes.