2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division
In honor of Veterans Day, I’d like to pay tribute to the legendary Easy Company of World War II fame. A company of ordinary men who became some of WWII’s most extraordinary soldiers. Originally made famous by Stephen E. Ambrose’s iconic book Band Of Brothers, and later reaching a wider audience through the acclaimed HBO mini series of the same name. These men parachuted into France on D-Day, fought in Holland, held the line while surrounded in the Battle of the Bulge, pushed the counteroffensive through Germany and finally captured Hitler’s famed Eagle’s Nest. It is said that during war, the reward for a job well done is the next tough assignment, and as Easy advanced throughout WWII, they continued receiving the tough assignments.
Easy Company Origins
Today jumping out of an airplane is a right of passage for every millennial who visits Interlaken, but in 1942 it was an alien concept. It was so foreign that the army offered an extra $50 a month to join the Airborne division. The men who joined grew up during the bleak days of the Great Depression. Hard times that would make the youth of today tuck tail and run. These were resilient, tough, and resourceful young men; who came together at Camp Toccoa in Georgia.
The original commander of E Company was Herbert Sobel. A man known for his pettiness, vindictiveness, and extreme strictness. Sobel trained his company harder than all the other companies in the regiment. The men hated Sobel for his stern and uncompromising approach. But, it actually was a blessing in disguise as the men bonded over their shared hatred and formed a one for all mentality that would prove priceless in battle.
The company shipped over to England in preparation for the invasion of mainland Europe. It was becoming more and more apparent to the men that Sobel, although strong in training soldiers, did not have the tactical competence and leadership abilities needed in battle. The NCO’s (non-commissioned officers) actually mutinied, going to the regiment commander and threatening to surrender their stripes if Sobel was not replaced. The brass was not impressed, but the point had been made, and shortly before D-DAY, Sobel was replaced as company commander.
In the early morning hours of June 5th, 1944, Easy Company parachuted into France behind Utah beach.Their mission was to take out the heavy guns firing on the beach and open up the causeways so the allied forces pouring onto the beach could advance. However, the planes encountered anti-aircraft fire from the Germans. The nervous pilots flew too fast and too low. When the men jumped, most missed their drop zone and lost equipment/weapons. The entire company was scattered throughout the French countryside. Even so, Easy Co. managed to pull their weight and then some during the battle.
Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Winters was able to link up with other members of the company and lead an assault on a German artillery battery that had US forces pinned down on Utah beach. The German battery was manned by approximately 60 soldiers. Although outnumbered 3 to 1, Winters successfully led his men in destroying the German 105mm howitzers and machine gun positions. This saved an innumerable amount of American lives. The tactics used by Winters are still taught today at the US Military Academy as an example of textbook assault on a fixed position by a numerically inferior force.
Unfortunately, Sobel’s replacement as company commander was killed during D-Day. Winters was then promoted to Captain (he would eventually be promoted to Major) and given command of Easy Company. In the days and weeks following D-Day, Easy Co. was instrumental in capturing the heavily defended town of Carentan. This allowed all allied forces to rendezvous and provide the vital flow of armor and equipment inland.
But the Germans wouldn’t go away quietly. They launched a counter attack to retake the city. Mortar, tank, and machine gun fire was concentrated on the allies. Dog and Fox companies abandoned the flanks, leaving Easy exposed and alone to hold the line. The men remained staunchly in position and held strong against the barrage of fire. Following more than a half day of grueling battle, allied tanks and reinforcements arrived to push the Germans back. E Company stood tall at a pivotal moment of the battle when other units were forced to fall back.
After over a month fighting in France, Easy Co. received a much deserved reprieve. They were withdrawn back to England for reorganization and to prepare for their next mission.
Operation Market Garden
In the Fall of 1944, Easy Co. parachuted into Holland with the goal of securing bridges over the Rhine and gaining a pathway into Germany. Several soldiers who were wounded in Normandy, “discharged” themselves so they could be with their comrades and partake in the mission. The operation was initially successful as E Company, along with other allied units, liberated the Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Nijmegen as well as many smaller towns. However, the mission was ultimately a failure because the allies were halted by the Germans at the Rhine. Yet, Easy Co. exemplified their valor and bravery in battle once more.
After the advance was stopped at the Rhine an “Island” formed – a small stretch of land between the Rhine and Waal rivers that was intensely fought over. Easy Co. was tasked with covering too much ground with too few men. It wasn’t long before the Germans recognized this vulnerability and planned a massive attack to take the Island. One night, the Germans snuck over 100 men behind Easy Company’s line. Luckily, a patrol encountered the enemy movements. They came under heavy fire, all were wounded, but still managed to report back to the company command post.
Dick Winters immediately organized a patrol to investigate the German penetration of their lines. After some solo reconnaissance, Winters realized he and his men were vastly outnumbered (roughly 4 to 1). However, Winters also understood that it would soon be daylight and the Germans would be able to outflank them. Putting the entire battalion in jeopardy, Winters decided he had no option but to go on the offensive.
Supported by light machine gun fire, Winters organized three assault columns to charge the Germans. Sprinting 200 to 300 yards, Winters was the first to reach the Germans, who were all taking cover from the barrage of machine gun fire. Winters began firing, by himself, into the solid mass of Germans. Taken by complete surprise, the Germans began to frantically retreat. Easy Co. continued the pursuit of the Germans, pushing them back across the Rhine. E Company captured 11 prisoners, killed dozens, and saved countless American lives by thwarting the German ambush.
Also while on the Island, Easy Company participated in Operation Pegasus, which freed over 100 British soldiers who were trapped in German occupied territory near Arnhem. During their time in the Netherlands, Easy Company continued to distinguish itself as one of the finest rifle companies in the US Army. Yet their toughest task still awaited them in the dense Ardennes forest.
Battered Bastards of the Bastion of Bastogne
The Allied forces’ successful invasion of Normandy and subsequent drive across the rest of France had many people saying the war would be over by Christmas. Hitler, who no doubt was feeling the pressure, played his final card and launched a massive surprise counteroffensive on Dec. 16th in the dense Ardennes forest (on the Belgian, French, Luxembourg border). The goal was to cut through the Allied forces, retake the Belgian port of Antwerp, and turn the tide of the war back in Germany’s favor. The tactic was initially a major success. The Nazis caught the Allies totally off guard and were able to break through the lines. However, reinforcements were rushed in and the German advance was halted, creating a “bulge” in the lines.
Easy Company was one of the units that was rushed in to stop the Nazi penetration. Since there was so little time to get to the front, the men did not have any winter clothing and only limited rations and ammunition. The weather was almost unbearable; snow, low visibility, and freezing temperatures. The men struggled mightily to dig foxholes, sometimes only getting a foot or two into the frozen earth. There was little to no aerial support due to weather, so the men were shelled constantly. During these daily bombardments all the men of E Company could do was try to find some sort of cover and hope for the best.
Tasked with holding the vital crossroads outside the town of Bastogne, Easy Co. was soon encircled by the Germans. Freezing, surrounded, alone, and low on ammunition/food, the deck was clearly stacked against E Company. But true character is defined in how you handle adversity. The paratroopers constantly fought off repeated attacks. Eventually the German commander sent a note to General McAuliffe, head of the 101st Airborne, offering an ultimatum: surrender or face complete annihilation. McAuliffe, who was not one for cursing, responded with one word: “NUTS!”. When the note was delivered to the Nazi commander, he did not understand, so the American dispatcher explained, “In plain English? Go to hell”. The Battered Bastards of the Bastion of Bastogne as they would become known in newspapers across America continued to hang on.
By New Years 1945, Patton’s Third Army had arrived to reinforce the beleaguered lines. Now it was time for Easy Company and their fellow units to go on the offensive once again. For the remainder of January, they fought through deep snow drifts, shrinking the bulge and eventually pushing the Nazis back into Germany. The Battle of the Bulge was Easy Company’s and America’s defining moment of WWII. But it did not come without great sacrifice.
Recognition from Churchill
Company stalwarts like Sergeants Joe Toye and William “Wild Bill” Guarnere were severely wounded, both losing a leg during a massive artillery attack. Guarnere was actually injured while trying to drag an already hurt Toye to safety. Up against seemingly insurmountable odds. Pushed to their breaking point. The men of Easy Company did not waver and continued to fight for the man to his right and to his left. An admiring Sir Winston Churchhill said, “This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever famous American victory”.
Easy Company’s Final Days
After the Battle of the Bulge, life got relatively easier for Easy Company. In February 1945 they were transferred to Haguenau, France and given the mission of holding the Siegfried line – the Nazi defensive front blocking entry into Germany. By April the German army was crumbling and Easy Co. was able to advance into Bavaria. They expected to face the fiercest fighting from the most ardent Nazi supporters.
However, what they encountered was war weary soldiers, all too happy to lay down their arms, surrender and go home. During their march across Germany, Easy liberated the Dachau concentration camp. The men were horrified and aghast by the decimated state of the prisoners. At the time, no one knew about the unspeakable atrocities that took place in the concentration camps. A truly somber experience for all.
The Eagles Nest
Still, Easy had to push on, deeper into Bavaria. Just before they reached the border with Austria, E Company arrived at Hitler’s famous Eagles Nest, his residence nestled high in the Alps. This became the 101st Airborne’s new command post. The Eagles Nest is located near Berchtesgaden, a picturesque mountain town, where the most senior Nazi party officials had homes. This beautiful slice of the world is where Easy Company was on May 6th 1945, VE Day, signifying the end of WWII in Europe. The young men celebrated by raiding Hitler’s personal wine cellar. 10,000 bottles of the finest wine, liquor, and champagne in the world. The top notch alcohol could not have been wasted on a more deserving group of people. The party got so wild that senior command had to station guards outside the wine cellar so things didn’t get too out of control.
From there, Easy Company held occupational duties in Germany and Austria. The men enjoyed the peaceful and stunning surroundings until the company was disbanded in late 1945 and sent home.
The men of Easy Company came together from every corner of America. Each had the same goal for joining the Airborne division: to train with the best and prove they were the best. But once they entered the crucible of war, that goal changed to ensuring they did not let down their brothers in arms. At the micro level, E Company’s loyalty to each other cannot be understated. But looking at the macro, Easy Co. was collectively defending not only America, but the entire free world by refusing to break and spitting in the face of tyranny. It’s easy to forget that we’re talking about mostly 21, 22, 23 year old kids performing these heroic feats.
Even after the conclusion of WWII, the men of E Company would be forever connected through the shared bonds forged during battle. Some would go on to have monumental careers, like Lieutenant Lynn “Buck” Compton. Buck became the district attorney for Los Angeles and successfully prosecuted Sirhan Sirhan for the murder of Robert F. Kennedy. Others would go back to nondescript lives, like Joe Liebgott, who drove a taxi cab in San Francisco. But regardless of what the men did in their post-war lives, they continued to remain in touch through letters, visits, and reunions. Always there for one another and never wanting to let a comrade down.
The Greatest Generation
The men of Easy Company perfectly personify why this era is considered America’s greatest generation. In today’s polarized world, I believe a lot can be learned from Easy Company. I guarantee they did not see eye to eye on everything, but when the chips were down they did not splinter or turn on each other. They stood shoulder to shoulder with one another, sometimes to the death.
I can’t recommend both Stephen Ambrose’s book, as well as the HBO mini series highly enough. If you haven’t already, watch the show. Read the book. I think you’ll acquire a deeper appreciation for America and the sacrifices made on its behalf. I’ll end this with one of my favorite Easy Company tidbits that exemplifies the selflessness of the extraordinary men who made up the unit. A granddaughter was asking her former E Company grandfather about the great war he fought in. She asked “Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?”, he responded “No, but I served in a company of heroes.”
For another quick read on the legend of Easy Company 506th PIR, check out this article from Military History Matters.
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