“Who would like to volunteer for the tank corps? Who would like to volunteer for the air force? Who would like to volunteer for the navy or whatever? And then they said, ‘Who would like to volunteer for the airborne?’ Somebody says, ‘What’s the airborne?’ Nobody’d ever heard of it. The guy said, ‘Would you jump out of airplanes? You’ve got all your army equipment and you jump out of airplanes to fight the enemy.’ Nobody put up their hands. Then, the guy giving the speech said, ‘But you get paid $50 a month more.’ So that made it a hundred bucks. Then hands went up.” Bill Maynard, Easy Company.
In 1942, the U.S. army assembled a volunteer parachute regiment to jump behind enemy lines. Embedded in this unit was a company of men who landed to fight at the forefront of the war in Europe on 6 June, 1944. That company was Easy Company, part of the 206th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. These brave men parachuted behind enemy lines in the early hours of D-Day in support of the landings at Utah beach and to ease some of the opposition the men on the beach would face, participated in the liberation of Holland, held the frontline in the Battle of the Bulge–completely outnumbered and undersupplied–and were the first to enter Hitler’s mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. Doing so, the company sustained one of the highest casualty rates of WWII.
The American men behind Easy Company came from all walks of life, but many were living in poverty from the Great Depression. For one reason or another, each man signed up to become a paratrooper. For some, signing the dotted line came after reading about the training in the press. Others believed it was their duty. In July 1942, at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, Easy Company was formed. Little did they know that they were about to enter the history books several times over for the pivotal roles they would play in the war and the legendary brotherhood that would hold them together.
The men who couldn’t keep up with the training were weeded out quickly. Soon, friendships were formed and the strength of the company was secured. The symbol of their unit was a mountain, called Currahee, which translates in Cherokee to “We Stand Alone Together.” Each morning, as part of their training, they ran up Currahee: three miles up, three miles down. Under the abrasive and rigid Captain Sobel, they learned quickly how to be soldiers fit for war, but their respect and loyalty belonged to Lieutenant Winters.
Having packed their own parachutes, the men in the company lined up nervously and took to the skies to make their first jump. Once they had made five successful jumps, the symbolic wings were awarded and the men were considered elites. Physically and mentally, after 15 months of hard training, whether they knew it or not, the company was ready to put their training to practice. The soldiers boarded the transport ship Samaria in New York and headed for England. They arrived 12 days later. Preparing for D-Day, the soldiers were penned into a camp in England. Nobody could leave nor did any know which day they would be jumping behind enemy lines. The briefing was detailed, although the paratroopers knew it already by heart. Fields and fields of hardware, planes and machinery were about to take to the skies and head for Normandy, France.
On 5 June, 1944, no less than 13,400 American paratroopers spearheaded the Allied invasion. They flew over thousands of battleships and headed towards Cherbourg. and were dropped behind enemy lines in Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion. Unfortunately, the intended plan of action soon went awry. With anti-aircraft fire and flak all around, the paratroopers were given the green light to jump. Many missed their appointed drop zone. They landed amidst confusion and were scattered over a 20 kilometer area. Some crashed into trees and fences and many soldiers lost their weapons during the jump. Many were also shot down by the intense ground fire. Lt. Meehan, company commander, had gone down with his plane. This left Lt. Winters, promoted to Captain, in charge. Even with men scattered widely, they succeeded in causing havoc, not least since attacks in so many different areas convinced the Germans that they were under attack from a vastly superior force.
Three miles away from Utah Beach, four 105 mm cannons fired from a camouflaged German position. It was controlled by a platoon of 50 German soldiers. The airborne were ordered to take out the machine guns. The orders came in for Easy Company to take the guns with a squad of 12 men. Showing bravery and unity as a company, the men attacked the trench with Winters leading a frontal assault, and took over the weapons, saving countless lives. More than 425,000 lives were taken during the Battle of Normandy. Winters would later receive that Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on D-Day while Easy Company was credited with taking out a machine gun battery along Utah beach which, in turn, contributed to the success of the invasion.
The following day, Easy Company was instrumental in taking the town of Carentan and preventing it from being recaptured when the Germans counter attacked. 32 days later, after fights against Sherman tanks and German infantry to secure Brecourt manor and Ste. Marie-du-Mont, Easy Company returned back to England with 74 officers and men. They had jumped with 139. Such heroism was not without cost. They had three months to recover, regroup, and prepare for the next mission. Replacements were assigned and men who had been already hardened by combat and loss found it hard to accept new men who had not suffered D-Day with them and had not been a part of their training. The veterans decided to hold the new men at an arm’s length so as not to be hurt with the loss of new friends.
Easy Company then returned to England before being parachuted into Europe again on 17 September as part of Operation Market-Garden, the Allies’ attempt to capture bridges over the lower Rhine and open the way to Berlin. A measure of the “band of brothers’” effect can be gleaned from the fact that several soldiers, wounded in the Normandy action, discharged themselves from hospitals and clinics in order to rejoin their comrades. They dropped near Eindhoven, Holland where they were embraced by the Dutch who called them “the angels of the skies.” The allied forces pushed the Germans out and, after four years of German occupation, Holland was finally liberated. Much of the action centered on possession of the road between Eindhoven and Nijmegen, nicknamed “Hell’s Highway,” which was a crucial artery for supplying the Allied forces and the Germans were intent on holding it. The initial objective of Market-Garden, capturing the bridge at Arnhem, had failed, so it was imperative that control of Hell’s Highway was not lost. Despite being surrounded, Easy Company played an important role in retaining possession of the road. Just days later, a German attack in their sector was repelled by thirty-five men, again led by Winters, who routed two German companies, some 300 strong, losing only one of their own in the process. Shortly afterwards, Winters was promoted to Major to become executive officer of the 2nd battalion. He’d climbed the ranks quickly through his displays of leadership and outstanding heroism. Ultimately, Market-Garden was a failed attempt to secure a way into Germany and end the war. Nine of the Easy Company men lost their lives in Holland, but their determination had prevented the operation from descending into complete disaster. Physically exhausted, the men that were left only had a few days to recover before their next mission.
One of the most well-known battles Easy Company was involved in is the Battle of the Bulge. This was a last desperate action of the German army to turn the tide of the war. On December 16, 1944, Hitler launched a massive offensive into the Ardennes woods of Belgium, which caught the allied forces by surprise. The Battle of the Bulge was to become the largest engagement in the history of the U.S. army. 600,000 American soldiers were about to go into battle. Marching through the night, snow came in and many who were without warm clothing suffered from frostbite. In fact, the entire battalion had been sent in with grossly inadequate supplies: no winter clothing or air support, and little food and ammunition. Fire was forbidden. Whenever the air corps attempted to drop supplies, they would miss and wind up dropping them to the Germans. The German army fired everything they had at the soldiers; limbs were lost, lives were taken, and all were affected by this specific event. At this point, soldiers lived day to day and didn’t expect to survive. They were stretched extremely thin and couldn’t cover the line. The enemy would accidentally wander through and use the slit trenches (bathroom). The men dug foxholes, and waited. The 101st Airborne Division held Bastogne, but not without suffering casualties, both mentally and physically. Easy Company had entered Belgium with 145 men. After the Battle of the Bulge, they had 63. By the end of their time at Bastogne and eventually taking the town of Foy, Easy Company’s command was given to the remarkable Lt. Speirs after a devastating battle under the command of Lt. Dike.
“On December 26, 1944, General Patton’s third army broke through the German lines, allowing supplies to flow in and the injured to be evacuated. The story of the Battle of the Bulge as told today, is one of Patton coming to the rescue of the encircled 101st airborne. No member of the 101st has ever agreed that the division needed to be rescued.”
Band of Brothers
Kaufering concentration camp in Bavaria, Germany, was liberated on April 29, 1945. Before then, prisoners, mainly Jews, lived in squalid conditions. Those who were not immediately sent to their death were forced to manual labour. They had little sleep and were barely fed. They were kept in poorly heated huts that were partly submerged into the soil and covered with earth to disguise the establishment from the air. The US 7th Army and some soldiers of the 101st approached the Kaufering complex after the SS had already evacuated the camps, sending prisoners on death marches in the direction of Dachau, another concentration camp. Those inmates who struggled to keep up were often shot by the guards, who also killed hundreds when they burnt down the barracks, leaving those who were sick or too injured to burn to death. The discovery of this camp was a shock. They had never witnessed such inhumane treatment and thought the prisoners must be there for a reason besides the fact that they were Jews. For many of the men, it solidified their conviction for the war. It became the embodiment of “why we fight.”
The end of the war. The end of the line. Hitler had fallen. Germany formally surrendered on May 8, 1945. At that time, the men of Easy Company, certainly one of the finest fighting forces of WWII, captured Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden which was a village populated with only high-ranking Nazi leadership. They celebrated by drinking the Fuhrer’s champagne. They certainly deserved it! Hitler’s mountain retreat was called “Aldershorst” or “The Eagle’s Nest.” After Germany surrendered to the Allied forces, Easy Company travelled to Zell am See, Austria where they again began to train and waited to be sent to the Pacific, but nearly three months later, Japan surrendered. The war was over. On November 30, 1945, the 101st Airborne Division was inactivated from duty. The men were sent home to readjust to civilian life as best as they could. Some thrived, others struggled for years, but for the most part, they went on to lead happy lives, always thrilled to reunite at reunions with their brothers in arms.
Immortalized in the television series “Band of Brothers,” Dick Winters and the men of Easy Company, part of the 2nd battalion of the 506th Infantry Regiment in the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army, were rightly acclaimed for their bravery and daring, as well as their loyalty to each other. As a parachute regiment, it was intended that the 506th should be an elite fighting force so the training was extremely tough, but it turned raw recruits into soldiers capable of pushing themselves to the limits of their endurance and beyond in the most adverse circumstances. This ability, coupled with their amazing drive, largely born out of an unwillingness to let down their compatriots, led to a “one for all” spirit which saw the men of Easy Company regularly overcome enemy forces even in the face of overwhelming odds.
“Was I a hero? No… but I served in a company of heroes.”
–Major Richard D. Winters
Military History Monthly. Dick Winters and the men of Easy Company. 2011
Kilburn, Hamish. The Real Story Behind the “Band of Brothers” is Nothing Short of Inspirational. The Lad Bible. 2016
Richards, M., et al. Band of Brothers. New York, HBO Home Entertainment. 2010.