The Last Fellows of Easy Company

Band of Brothers

Image on the right courtesy of HBO/BBC

The Last Fellows of Easy Company
| Published March 18, 2014 |

By Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

They jumped into hell on Earth and saved the world, those boys of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne.

The United States Army volunteered them for high-risk operations throughout World War II—parachuting into France early D-Day morning, Operation Market Garden in Holland, Battle of the Bulge, and even capturing Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden, according to the book Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends.

William “Wild Bill” Guarnere and Edward “Babe” Heffron tell their own story, fighting their way up from the tough streets of South Philadelphia, through the European Theatre and then as close friends the remainder of their lives.

You've probably seen the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers associated with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, but you should read the pair's book, along with Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers and Maj. Dick Winters' Beyond Band of Brothers. I know it's a lot of reading, but consider it an enthralling history lesson where you won't be bored. Tom Hanks wrote the introduction to the book co-authored by Guarnere and Heffron, characters portrayed in the elaborate mini-series which depicted—with sometimes gruesome realism—the horrors these soldiers faced each day.

Many people nowadays seem to care about themselves and what the world is doing for them right now, maybe overlooking those who battled and died so they could have a decent life.

These paratroopers share incredible stories about the Screaming Eagles, how many of them fought, went hungry and died, taking 150 percent casualties. The men co-authored the nationally best-selling memoir with Robyn Post, formerly a Philadelphia Magazine editor and writer.

Their life's vignettes flow seamlessly, beginning in their South Philly neighborhood, then where they met at jump school, D-Day, England, Holland, France, Bastogne, Germany, home, later visits to Europe and then Hollywood.

The 506 produced a double-fistful of Medal of Honor recipients, with men from the group seeing action in Vietnam, along with Iraq and Afghanistan. Ironically, the Nazis and numerous other foes throughout the years were unable to kill off the elite rifle unit of the 101st Airborne Division, but the US Government did so with one swipe of a pen. An Army-wide reduction of brigade combat teams recently allowed bean counters in Washington, D.C. to fold the group in with other units.

There are numerous other books for those who want more detail and more perspective on the members of a unit which saw so much action in Europe, including The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulge and the Epic Story of WWII’s Most Decorated Platoon, and Easy Company Soldier, by Sgt. Don Malarkey, also a member of the unit.

Malarkey has a special place in the world of movie background trivia. Back in 1989, he travelled with some of his Easy Company pals to some of the same places where they had fought during the war, including Normandy and Bastogne. Accompanying them was the author and historian Stephen Ambrose, and among their memories shared during that trip, much of which was used to form the book Band of Brothers, there was also the true case of the four Niland Brothers of Tonawanda, N.Y. Two were killed on the beaches of Normandy, and the third—missing in action—was eventually presumed dead. The fourth brother, Fritz Niland, was a friend of Sgt. Warren Muck, Malarkey’s closest friend from the war. And Muck, as it turned out, also grew up in Tonawanda. Fritz was the only survivor of the family. The anecdotal incident became the spark for the fictional tale of the missing brother in the screenplay for Saving Private Ryan, which became one of Spielberg’s most important films.

One sad note: Guarnere, who was 90, passed away March 8, 2014 after living in his South Philly row house for 60 years. Heffron passed away just this past winter, on December 1, 2013, a week after the death of Earl McClung, who also was portrayed in Band of Brothers.

Don Malarkey, 92, lives in Oregon, and until just recently was still a sought-after speaker at special events.