Of all the WWII histories I’ve read so far—with the exception of In the Garden of Beasts—Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose was one of my favorites. Instead of a sweeping history of the war, or of the war in Italy or North Africa or the Pacific, it’s a history of a group of men, a Band of Brothers, that accomplished amazing things. Plus, I think it incredibly appropriate to blog about this group of men on (or shortly after) Memorial Day.
The men in Band of Brothers are those of E (Easy) Company in the 2nd Battalion and 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. After extensive training, their first introduction to war was parachuting behind enemy lines in the Invasion of Normandy—you know, D-Day. That D-Day—on June 6, 1944. Now, although the war ended in 1945 and D-Day marked a huge change in the tides of the war, there was still plenty of fighting left.
Starting with Normandy, the men of Easy Company fought their way across Europe, liberating Carentan, France, before moving through Holland to Bastogne, Belgium. Here, surrounded, by Germany troops, Easy Company defended the town and eventually came out victorious. The company then made its way to Germany and Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden in May 4, 1945.
Of 140 men of the original Easy Company plus 226 replacements and transfers throughout the war, 49 men were killed in action.
In case my overview seemed a little unimpressive, let me restate that Easy Company surmounted unimaginable odds. The men survived a commander, Captain Sobel, that seemed little more than a sadist; jumped behind enemy lines and found invaluable intelligence of German gun placements that saved countless lives on Utah beach; dismantled a German battery (hundreds of men) with a handful of soldiers; held position in Belgium when under siege by the Germans during Battle of the Bulge; and suffered horrible conditions.
The Characters. Major Richard Winters, who was the captain of Easy Company and was eventually promoted to the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, was an amazing man. Ambrose described his as a fierce warrior with a gentle heart, a natural leader, well-loved, a brilliant tactician, and cool under pressure. Indeed, Major Winters stayed calm in the heat of battle when others did not, and he led his men—never followed—into danger. He survived the war, dying in 2011 at the age of 92. That is a life well-lived.
Ambrose did a great job of describing the other men, the different personalities and quirks. When reading the book, you’re immediately impressed with how funny these men were in dire circumstances, how modest and brave. And yes, how immature at times; how they reverted to irreverent boys when the danger was passed. They were, above all else, regular men who fought for freedom and good, yes, but mostly fought for his brother in arms.
The Storyline. Because Ambrose is following—mostly—one company of men instead of all of them, on both sides, in complete World War II histories, you get a sense of the timing, of how the stories unfold over the course of the war. Easy Company jumped into Norway and spent time kicking butt in France, then they moved to the Netherlands and Belgium and finished in Germany. I like the clarity, the sense.
The Writing. Ambrose brought this story to life, like no true WWII story has since I started. Maybe it was the focus on just a small group of men or the courage of those soldiers or his haunting prose. Either way, I couldn’t have asked for anything more in a book:
“Within Easy Company they had made the best friends they had ever had, or would ever have. They were prepared to die for each other; more important, they were prepared to kill for each other.”
Yeah, it’s a little dark, but it’s a reality of war. But it’s also funny:
“Chickenshit is so called – instead of horse- or bull- or elephant shit – because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously.”
But mostly this:
“‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?'”
“‘No,’ I answered, ‘but I served in a company of heroes.'”
If you want to understand war on an individual basis, to see the horror inflicted upon the individual and that individual’s ability to rise above all expectations, then read this book. Every person should at least glimpse the warrior (in all ages of U.S. history) that has made this country great.