A Company of Heroes: The Story of the Band of Brothers

Picture of five veterans of the 2nd Battalion, 506th PIR at a reunion|October 2008|Courtesy of Fred Hen- stridge Photography

World War II began in September of 1939 when Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany after its invasion of Poland. Although other allied nations, such as Canada and Australia, joined Britain and France in their battle against Germany, the United States remained uninvolved. It wouldn’t take part in the Allied war effort until late in 1941, when it was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor. However, there are two main reasons why the U.S. didn’t get involved in the war before Pearl Harbor. First, it was too much of a risk for the United States to participate in another worldwide conflict following World War I. The second reason was that many Americans viewed the conflict in Europe as a European problem and did not necessarily see America as needing to play a significant role in it. But the United States was forced into the war on December 7, 1941 when Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor unexpectedly. Individuals living on the mainland of the United States didn’t need to hear the explosion of bombs or the men’s screams that echoed throughout Pearl Harbor to know what it meant. For a lot of young Americans, Pearl Harbor was like a calling. It filled Americans with rage, vengefulness, and a sense of duty to put their lives on the line for “the good fight.” Some were so motivated to serve that they even lied about their age.1

The men of Easy Company—506th Parachute Infantry Regiment 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army—came from all different walks of life. These men were farmers and coal miners, mountain men and sons of the Deep South.2 Some were dirt poor, while others were middle class. All of them, however, were citizen soldiers. The men of Easy Company came together in the summer of 1942. By that time, the Europeans had been at war for three years. Less than years later, these men would become an impressive and unparalleled company of airborne light infantry.

Easy Company’s many accomplishments would include the capture and putting out of action a German battery of four 105mm cannons that were looking down on Utah Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944: D-Day. They would go on to lead their way to Carentan, fight in Holland, hold the perimeter at Bastogne, lead the counter-defensive in the Battle of the Bulge, fight in the Rhineland campaign, and ultimately take Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden. The one hundred and forty men and seven officers who formed Easy Company all came from different lives and livelihoods, but they also had a number of things in common. All the men were white (with three exceptions), they were all unmarried, and they were all physically fit from being hunters and athletes while in high school. They volunteered for the paratroopers for the thrill, the honor, and the fifty-to-one-hundred dollars monthly bonus that such paratroopers received. The bonus was indeed very nice, but the vast majority sent it to their families each month.3

However, the men of Easy Company volunteered to jump out of airplanes for two significant reasons. The first reason, in Robert Rader’s words, was that, “The desire to be better than the other guy took hold.” Each man wanted to make his time in the U.S. Army an experience of maturation, challenge, and learning. The second reason was that they did not want to go into combat with poorly trained, poorly motivated, and poorly conditioned draftees. The men of Easy Company wanted to look up to the guy beside him during combat, not look down on him. The men needed the confidence that the man beside him was trained and ready to kill the enemy and save his life if needed.4

Although this “Band of Brothers” had each been hit hard during the Great Depression, they still had a deep love for their country. Rather than complaining, the men reflected on the strengths that they had gained going through those hard years. From the Great Depression, they became self-reliant, always accustomed to hard work, and ready to take orders. Through the sports and activities they had practiced during their high school years, they were able to build confidence and self-worth. The Band of Brothers knew they were heading towards danger, and some may have even resented having to sacrifice their youth to a war that they never caused. But most decided to look on the positive side of things during their Army careers. They were volunteers, meaning any of them were allowed to walk out at any time. Some men did, but most of the Band of Brothers did not. The Depression was over and the lives of these men would be changed in a profound way.5

Again, the 101st Airborne paratroopers were volunteers who were motivated by becoming an elite unit and receiving extra pay. The recruit would go through a vigorous training program at jump school; physical training exercises, such as forced marches, running, and obstacle courses, would test their endurance and make or break the recruit. The men were also taught how to properly pack a parachute, guide their parachute, and land successfully from a jump. The recruits would jump from two hundred and fifty foot high towers to practice, but the true test was jumping out of an aircraft for their first time. The stakes were high; if the men hesitated too long or chose not to jump, they would be reassigned to a different part of the Army.6

Paratroopers were also dressed in special clothing and given equipment that would assist them throughout their dangerous missions. However, paratroopers were also dragged down with the heavy load of equipment that they had to carry for long combats. The uniform consisted of jump boots, a jump jacket, and trousers. Sometimes, the uniform included knee pads, a helmet, and gloves. The equipment included a parachute, an emergency reserve parachute, a life-preservative vest, rope, a canteen, an entrenching tool, rations, a compass, camouflage paint, and a switchblade. Some of their weapons consisted of a fighting knife that was attached to their lower leg, an M1 garand, an M1 A1 Thompson submachine gun, and grenades.7

The 101st Airborne’s mission was to do a nighttime drop into Normandy, France, jumping straight into fog and chaos in a scattered radius, being separated from each other on the ground in the dark. To tell themselves apart from the enemy, the paratroopers would use the clickers that had been given to them, and use a code word. Some men lost their equipment, drowned, and even got stuck in trees or on utility poles. Others were shot by the enemy before they could even liberate themselves from their parachutes.8

The 101st Airborne would later take part in further operations, such as Operation Garden in the Netherlands. They fought off continuous German counterattacks. The 101st would also take part in the Battle of the Bulge from December 1944 to January 1945, fighting off German counteroffensives. Following the Battle of the Bulge, the U.S. paratroopers would also participate in the allied invasion into Germany in 1945.9

Landing on Utah Beach | 1944 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

From May 9 to 12, 1944, the 101st had its dress rehearsal for D-Day, code name “Operation Eagle.” The men would practice every action that would be needed in the upcoming day, from loading their personal equipment, to spending the same amount of time in flight. On May 10 and 11, Easy Company received its briefing for Operation Eagle. The objective was eliminating a German gun battery covering the beach, just as they would do on June 6.10

At dusk on May 11, Easy Company and others took off for a simulation run to Europe. The planes actually flew over England for about two and a half hours. The men of Easy Company made their jump over their designated drop zone after midnight. The exercise went smoothly for the men of Easy Company, but other companies had their troubles. Nearly five hundred men suffered from broken bones, sprains, or other various injuries. On the last day of May, training had come to an end. The men were disciplined, prepared to carry out orders, and now were experts in not only the use of their own weapons, but others’ weapons too, including German weaponry. They knew how to operate a radio, how to use hand signals, and how to recognize smoke signals. Additionally, they all knew each other and more importantly, trusted each other. The men of Easy Company had made the best friends they ever had and would ever have.11

On June 6, 1944, Easy Company jumped too low from planes that were moving too fast. As the men jumped out of the planes, their bags tore loose and plunged toward the ground. Along with the extra weight and speed, the men of Easy Company experienced more shock than they anticipated when they hit the ground. Jumping at about five hundred feet or less, they hit the ground seconds after opening their parachutes, hitting the ground quite hard. In a diary entry, Major Dick Winters attempted to recreate his thoughts in those few seconds he was in the air: “We’re doing 150 MPH. O.K., let’s go. G-D, there goes my leg pack and every bit of equipment I have. Watch it! They’re going to pick me with those machine guns. Slip, slip, try and keep close, try and keep close to that leg pack. There it lands behind the hedge. There’s a road, trees-I hope I don’t hit them.” Most of the men had a similar experience. Only a few of them were in the air long enough to orient themselves, but many were able to tell from the direction the planes were flying. All across the English Channel, paratroopers were fighting skirmishes, reuniting in ad hoc units, defending positions, harassing the Germans, trying to connect with their units. The dropping of scattered man actually turned the situation into a plus. The Germans became confused and acted in a hesitant manner while they heard reports scattered everywhere, overestimating the number of paratroopers they were dealing with. Once reaching the ground, some men noticed that they had lost their weapons during the jump. Many weapons and pieces of equipment were torn off while parachuting due to force of the wind. Among these men was Major Dick Winters, who reassured his men saying, “We are not lost, Private. We are in Normandy,” meaning that they were where they were supposed to be, and need to get the job done. The company that had been trained for this moment was going into action.12

Winters went straight to work. He ordered the men of Easy Company to drop all the equipment they had been carrying, except for their weapons, ammunition, and grenades. The reason for this was because the attack was a quick frontal assault with support of a base of fire from different directions. Winters would lead the charge straight down the hedge. “We fought as a team without standout stars,” Carwood Lipton said. “We were like a machine. We didn’t have anyone who leaped up and charged a machine-gun. We knocked it out or made it withdraw by maneuver and teamwork. We were smart; there weren’t many flashes of heroics. We had learned that heroics was the way to get killed without getting the job done, and getting the job done was more important.”

With twelve men, Easy Company destroyed a German battery that was looking down on Utah Beach. The Band of Brothers saved a lot of lives when it destroyed that battery, as it had a telephone line leading to an observer who was calling shots down on the U.S. fourth infantry as it unloaded on the beach below. Easy Company made a significant contribution to the success of the invasion. As Carwood Lipton said, “The attack was a unique example of a small, well-led assault force overcoming and routing a much larger defending force in prepared positions. It was the high morale of the Easy Company men, the quickness and audacity of the frontal attack, and the fire into their positions from several different directions that demoralized the German forces and convinced them that they were being hit by a much larger force.”13

After the Nazi defeat of France in June 1940, and during that summer’s assault on England (that Winston Churchill famously called “their finest hour”), the Germans decided to plan a surprise attack against the Soviet Union under the codename Operation Barbarossa. The execution of that invasion began on June 22, 1941. From that point until D-Day, the Soviet Union single handedly resisted the bulk of the German military might. A majority of the invasion was fought in Russia. Stalin pleaded with his allies throughout 1942 and 1943 to initiate a “second front” in the west to force the Germans to reallocate some of its resources away from Russia. FDR’s advisers were in favor of an early assault on northwest Europe. However, Churchill believed a large buildup of forces in Europe was necessary to guarantee success, but that that buildup would take time. Roosevelt agreed with this tactic, as he wanted the Americans to keep focus on fighting Germany. Stalin and Churchill also initiated a combined bombing offensive against Germany.14 

Years of planning the largest cross-channel invasion in history, that would open up that second front, became months, and then weeks, and then days. June 5, 1944 was the intended date chosen by General Dwight Eisenhower for the invasion of Western Europe to attack Hitler from multiple fronts. However, bad weather and poor visibility caused a delay. Thus the operation was moved to the following day. By dawn on June 6, numerous paratroopers and gliders were already behind enemy lines, securing bridges and exit routes for the invasion force, so that they would have a safe path to continue deeper into Europe once off the beaches. The amphibious invasions began around 6:30 in the morning, the largest in human history. U.S. soldiers faced tough defenses at Omaha Beach, where Americans suffered over two thousand casualties. However, in the end, one hundred and fifty-six thousand Allied troops successfully invaded Normandy’s beaches. It is estimated that over four thousand Allied troops lost their lives during the D-Day invasion, not including the thousands more who were wounded or missing. A few days later, on June 11, the beaches were fully secured and over three hundred thousand soldiers, more than fifty thousand vehicles, and about one hundred thousand tons of equipment had landed at Normandy. This was what the Allies needed to turn the tide of the war’s Western Front in their favor. The United States was now providing a vast amount of resources and men that Hitler would not be able to match.15

After the Normandy invasion, Easy Company returned to England with seventy-four men, having initially jumped with one hundred and thirty-nine troops. The men of Easy Company then landed in Holland to participate in operation Market Garden, which was a high risk operation that ultimately failed. The initial goal of the operation was to secure the bridges over the Maas, Waal, and Rhine Rivers in order to go around the large German defenses and to ensure a quick advance towards Berlin. The decision of spreading the airborne landings more than one day was the main reason for the failure of operation Market Garden. Eisenhower believed that operation Market Garden was a risk that was necessary, as he believed that the first rule of pursuit of a defeated enemy is to keep after him, stay in contact, press him, and exploit every opportunity. He believed it would have been criminal of him to have not attempted Market Garden.16

By the end of August 1944, the Allies had reached the Seine River, Paris was then liberated, and the Germans were being removed from northeastern France; this concluded the Battle of Normandy. This invasion turned the tide for the Allies and would lead to Germany’s surrender within a year.17

Throughout this mission, Easy Company failed to get the bridge at Son, it failed to get through at Nuenen on its way to Helmond, it failed in the drive to Udenm, and it failed in its initial attack on the German salient south of Veghel. There were many causes for these failures. The first and most significant cause was that the German opposition outmanned and outgunned the company. 101st Airborne did not have the artillery nor the manpower in order to launch a successful offensive against the Germans. The second reason was that the German troops fought as well as the Americans did. Third, the coordination between the British tankers and the American infantry was poor. Easy Company and the Guards Armored Division had no prior training in working with each other and therefore were not able to work together seamlessly in pursuit of defeating the local German forces.18

Overall, the idea that a force of several different divisions could be supplied by only one highway could only be accepted by overconfident leaders. Easy Company was one of the one hundred and fifty or so companies that paid the price for such a hubristic attitude. The company jumped into Holland on September 17 with about one hundred and fifty officers and men. Ten days later, it was down to one hundred and thirty-two.19

Their mission in Holland dragged on. The bitter cold weather didn’t make it any better and added to the misery of the typical rainy days that occurred every day. It was not until late November that Canadian units began to replace the 101st Airborne. Easy Company was pulled out on the night of November 24-25. The men were boarded onto trucks for the trip back to France for rest, refitting, receiving replacements, and a shower, which most men had not had in about seventy days. Easy Company had jumped on September 17 with one hundred and fifty-four men and officers. It came out of Holland with ninety-eight men and officers. The men of Easy Company had taken sixty-five casualties in Normandy, so its total by the end of November was one hundred and twenty men, of whom not one was a prisoner of war. As the trucks drove down the roads of Holland, the Dutch lined the streets to cheer on their liberators. “September 17,” they shouted, as the convoy moved throughout the towns. However, the men of Easy Company did not feel like conquering heroes that day.20

On April 30, 1945, in his bunker under his headquarters in Berlin, Adolf Hitler committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule and then shot himself in the head. Although he was growing increasingly mad, Hitler continued to give orders and meet with close subordinates. During this time of withdraw, he also married his long-time mistress Eva Braun one day before his suicide. In his last will and testament, Adolf Hitler appointed Admiral Karl Donitz as head of state and Josef Goebbels as chancellor. He then left for his private quarters with Eva Braun, where they both poisoned themselves and their dogs.21

On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered to the Allies in France, ending the European theater of war and the Third Reich. The surrender was shocking to the Germans, as they had been told all along that their military was on the verge of victory.22

On April 29, 1945, Easy Company had stopped for the night at Buchole, in the foothills of the Alps. It was here that they saw Kaufering, their first concentration camp. The camp was not an extermination camp, but a labor camp. Although it was small and designed to produce war goods, the men of Easy Company couldn’t fathom the enormity of the evil. They witnessed the victims of Nazi brutality and beliefs of Aryan superiority in the striped pajamas of the worker inmates, three-quarters of them starved, by the thousands; they looked like walking corpses. The situation was described through radio to the regiment and help was asked for. Easy Company stayed in Buchole for two nights. “The memory of starved, dazed men,” Major Dick Winters wrote, “who dropped their eyes and heads when we looked at them through the chain-linked fence, in the same manner that a beaten, mistreated dog would cringe, leaves feelings that cannot be described and will never be forgotten. The impact of seeing these people behind that fence left me saying, only to myself, ‘Now I know why I am here!'”23

On May 3, Easy Company received orders to move out at 0930 the following day. Their objective: Berchtesgaden. Berchtesgaden attracted a lot of troops in all the armies as Hitler had his home there and a mountaintop stone retreat called the Eagle’s Nest. It was to the Eagle’s Nest that the leaders of Europe had come to be humiliated by Hitler in 1938. Just as the world had, these leaders feared Hitler. However, Hitler was dead, so the fear no longer existed, but that only increased the curiosity of Hitler’s favorite retreat. It was at Berchtesgaden that most of the loot collected by the Nazis from all over Europe was held. The retreat was filled with money, in gold and various currencies, along with art by famous artists stolen from museums across Europe. Thus, everybody wanted to get to Berchtesgaden. Easy Company got there first.24

Easy Company was born in July 1942 at Toccoa, Georgia. Its existence came to an end three years later in Austria. Within those three years, the men of Easy Company had seen more, endured more, and contributed more than most men can in a lifetime. They made unbreakable friendships with others who were willing to give their lives for them. In 1991, Major Dick Winters summed up his company’s history and its meaning:

“The 101st Airborne was made up of hundreds of good, solid companies. However, Easy Company, 506th P.I.R. stand out among all of them through that very special bond that brings men together. The stress in training was followed by the stress in Normandy of drawing the key combat mission for gaining control of Utah Beach. In combat your reward for a good job done is that you get the next tough mission. Easy Company kept right on getting the job done through Holland-Bastogne-Germany. The result of sharing all that stress throughout training and combat has created a bond between the men of Easy Company that will last forever.”25

Forty-eight members of Easy Company had given their lives for their country. All had given what they believed were the best years of their lives to the war. The men of Easy Company had volunteered for the paratroopers because they had wanted to be with the best and be the best. After the war, they wanted nothing less from civilian life. In one of his last newsletters, Mike Ranney wrote: “In thinking back on the days of Easy Company, I’m treasuring my remark to a grandson who asked, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ ‘No,’ I answered, ‘but I served in a company of heroes.'”26

  1. “From Arsenal to Ally: The United States Enters the War,” 2018, The National World War II Museum (website), https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/arsenal-ally-united-states-enters-war.
  2. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 15.
  3. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 16.
  4. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 16.
  5. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 16.
  6. “U.S. Paratrooper (World War II),” video file, 4:51, YouTube, posted by Simple History, November 3, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxCRCMLJ0PU.
  7. “U.S. Paratrooper (World War II),” video file, 4:51, YouTube, posted by Simple History, November 3, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxCRCMLJ0PU.
  8. “U.S. Paratrooper (World War II),” video file, 4:51, YouTube, posted by Simple History, November 3, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxCRCMLJ0PU.
  9. “U.S. Paratrooper (World War II),” video file, 4:51, YouTube, posted by Simple History, November 3, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxCRCMLJ0PU.
  10. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 60.
  11. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 60.
  12. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 65.
  13. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 84.
  14. “Invasion of the Soviet Union, June 1941,” 2018, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/invasion-of-the-soviet-union-june-1941
  15. Myra Immell, “D-Day: An Overview,” In D-Day (Perspectives on Modern World History) (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012), 13-19.
  16. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 138.
  17. Myra Immell, “D-Day: An Overview,” In D-Day (Perspectives on Modern World History) (Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012), 13-19.
  18. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 138.
  19. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 164.
  20. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 164.
  21. Simon Dunstan and Gerrard Williams, Grey Wolf (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2011), 171.
  22. Simon Dunstan and Gerrard Williams, Grey Wolf (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2011), 171.
  23. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 262-263.
  24. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 264-265.
  25. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 289-290.
  26. Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 307.

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6 Responses

  1. This article did a great job of portraying these brothers in actions and their life. The author did a fantastic job of captivating the reader and grabbing our attention, while informing us in a very informative manner. I really like how this story highlights their important roles in the victory that led to the Truman Doctrine that provided aid to Greece and Turkey who were in an internal conflict against communist parties to protect their democracy.

  2. I wonder why the regiment was called “Easy Company—”maybe to embody that “get the job done” attitude of these paratroopers? Either way, I think Major Winters was right when he said that the bond between the Band of Brothers was one that would last forever; looking at the last picture, the 506th P.I.R (assuming that is indeed them being pictured) seem to be close and genuinely happy, and comparing that with the first photo, I still get that same vibe from the men.

  3. Great article and an amazing story about true heroes. These men played a part in the victory that led to the Truman Doctrine that provided aid to Greece and Turkey who were in an internal conflict against communist parties to protect their democracy. Post-WWII, the United States was in a position to protect nations against the autocratic rule of Stalin.

  4. Such an informative and interesting article! Very captivating. Honestly I am unfamiliar with this band of brothers during World War II. Their sacrifice and service really gives another extent of the Normandy landings and how important it is. These men were a small yet important part for the transition for many countries in World War II because of the battle in Normandy. I loved reading your article. Great job. 

  5. A fantastic article about a group of men who deserve every one of the praises they are given. The actions of Easy company and the other paratrooper divisions during the second world war were imperative to the success of the Normandy landings. Their sacrifices should never be understated and the horrors they endured are something many of us will never truly understand.

  6. The story of the Band of Brothers has always been a great interest to me. It seems like the author is extremely passionate about this topic. While studying WWII in high school, D-Day was the last event that was studied in that class, therefore, it was deemed as the highlight of the war. But if it was not for the resilience of these men who fought in the battles before this one, such as “Operation Eagle”, the defeat of the Axis would not become one of the world’s biggest celebrations.

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