In late July occupation duty came to an end. Second Battalion, 506th PIR, now bore little resemblance to the organization that had fought through Bastogne, Alsace, and Berchtesgaden. With few exceptions, the Toccoa men were gone, having rotated to the States. To escape the boredom, I traveled up and down the Continent three times inside of two weeks. I was bored, tired, sore, and looking for constructive ways to bide my time. On one occasion I supervised a large convoy of trucks to Paris for redeployment to the Pacific. It was a mess. Everybody turned in their worst trucks and tires. There were no tools to change tires and the drivers were a bunch of “8-balls.” Many of the soldiers were replacements with little or no combat experience. Since most of the battle-hardened NCOs had already returned to the States, discipline became a major challenge. I worked my head off keeping that mob together and at the same time, I drove them into the ground. By the time I returned those soldiers to Austria, they knew just what an officer in the paratroops was like—dominating as hell!
Colonel Sink was quite pleased with the job though, and he allowed me a couple of days to recuperate and then let me come up in a special chartered plane while the 506th PIR departed the Zell-am-See–Kaprun-Bruck area and traveled by train to Joigny, France. Joigny is an old town of narrow, cobblestoned streets situated eighty miles southeast of Paris. Like any other French town, it was hot, dirty, and, being French, I could not say much good about it. We moved into living quarters formerly occupied by the 13th Airborne Division. The conditions in the camp were absolutely terrible for the men. Latrine facilities were nonexistent, so I procured lumber and equipment to build several latrines. Washing facilities consisted of two little faucets about 100 yards from their quarters. The men were forced to live like pigs. Apparently nobody gave a damn, so the battalion began building washstands and coverings so the men could wash and shave with hot water. Evidently this facility once served as a Nazi work camp and the 13th Airborne Division seemed content to live like that for seven months.
Nonfraternization remained a problem, just as it had in Germany and Austria. The nonfraternization policy stipulated that all German, Austrian, Hungarian, and Rumanian women were out of bounds. That left Poles, Russians, and French foreign laborers, and it was quite a problem to tell the difference between the nationalities. I did the best I could to defuse potential problems and just said, “No messing around at all.” That covered it altogether, as far as I was concerned. However, I was army-wise enough to know that what went on behind my back was more than just a little fraternization, but what I didn’t know didn’t hurt me. As far as I was concerned, the results were 100 percent okay, at least on the surface. I just made myself heard, but nothing happened. I asked for 100 percent, received maybe 40 percent, but to all appearances, the results were as I wished. After about three months of being in charge of these men, they sort of snapped to when they saw me coming. I was not exactly a grizzly bear, but if something was not right, somebody heard about it pronto. The entire process of dealing with the fraternization issue was the sort of thing that convinced me that I did not belong in the army after all.
To escape the boredom, I took a week’s leave and visited England. Captain Nixon accompanied me and through a little creative collaboration, we stretched a seven-day leave into fourteen days. I had a wonderful time—went straight to Aldbourne to visit the Barnes family and I spent ten beautiful days right there. Mr. Barnes had passed away in October 1944, shortly after we left to jump into Holland, leaving only Mother Barnes and her store. I knew she had saved my room and bed for me, just as I left it, and there would be a cup of tea. I went to town once to a show, but the rest of the time I just puttered around the garden, cut the grass, or slept. It was my way of thanking the Barneses for being my second parents. After ten days in Aldbourne, I traveled to London and spent four days just watching shows. The day I was supposed to leave, the plane didn’t show up, so I returned to London for one last fling. That evening was the most lonesome night I had spent in years. The city was full of air corps men, not a man or soldier in the bunch. I couldn’t talk to any of them; they were mere boys, kids, no depth. Hell, I quit and found a corner in the lounge to myself and read. Get me back to my battalion!
When I returned to my unit, everyone wanted to know what kind of time I had, and how I had spent my leave. Most were surprised when I mentioned that I had spent the majority of my leave in Aldbourne until I told them that going to Aldbourne was like going home. What these men had forgotten was what home was like, what a real home was. Oh, they wrote home to their folks and friends, and they talked and planned about coming home, but you can’t actually be away from home three or four years and remember what home is like. That was precisely why “my home” in Aldbourne meant so much to me. As I wrote Mrs. Barnes, “I was still walking around on that cloud that you had put me on during my recent visit. I really enjoyed those songs and hymns that were so dear to you, as well as those Bible readings and prayers.” That was just the way things should be, and it was so soothing to me to find a small niche in this mad world that was still sane, quiet, peaceful, and in order.
Later, I attempted to tell Mrs. Barnes, albeit inadequately, what she had meant to me during the war. Now that the fighting was over, I needed time to relax. Physically I always was fully prepared even in the hottest combat, but mentally I was strung tight as a fiddle. I knew when something was wrong and I could tell exactly what it was, but responsibility, work, the accumulation of past problems, and present and future challenges had placed me in such a mental state that I began functioning more like a military machine than an understanding officer and a human being. After seven day’s under Mother Barnes’s care, I regained a lot of the caring that I had forgotten existed. As I told her, “There were times when your influence on me permitted me to pass my thoughts and feelings along to other officers and men.” I addressed my letter, “Dearest Mother.” After I finally returned to the States, I maintained my friendship with Mrs. Barnes through a warm correspondence and exchange of gifts until her death in the 1970s.
On August 11, Colonel Sink received a well-deserved promotion, and he was assigned as assistant division commander of the Screaming Eagles. During the war many officers had accepted promotions and moved up the chain of command, but Sink always elected to remain with the 506th. I had thought about that as the war went on. Sink was very proud of the regiment and was very dedicated to it. With the fighting now over, I was happy that he finally received (and accepted) just recognition for his services. In recommending Colonel Sink for promotion to brigadier general, General Taylor stated that our regimental commander was “temperamentally quiet, resolute, and cool under the most trying conditions of battle. He possesses all the qualities desired of an Airborne General Officer.” In short, Bob Sink was an extraordinarily talented officer who was the heart and soul of the 506th. He did things with a personal flair, and his southern drawl was full of homespun sayings that endeared him to the regiment he led so gallantly beginning in July 1942. He always talked to his soldiers on a man-to-man basis. He gave us all a sense of “we.” The 506th PIR was going to fight the war together, not as a series of independent battalions. To have been a member of the “Five-Oh-Sink” had been a badge of honor.
How Colonel Sink welded a disparate group of citizen soldiers into a first-class fighting unit is a topic that merits a book of its own. The army had given him kids fresh off the streets. Many were undernourished and poorly educated. The officers were not much better—and I include myself in that group. I was a year out of college. I had gone through Officer Candidate School, so I was a newly minted second lieutenant, a ninety-day wonder. This was the kind of officer Sink was assigned and told to turn the group into a crack airborne unit. Colonel Sink straightened us out. He was the one who put it all together. I was highly skeptical of his ability at first, but he proved me wrong. In my opinion, our regimental commander was one of the finest West Point officers of the war. Colonel Sink remained in the army after the war and retired with the rank of lieutenant general.
With Sink transferred, his executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Chase, became commander of the 506th PIR. Three days later, on August 14, Japan surrendered. Apparently the atomic bomb carried as much punch as a regiment of paratroopers. It seemed inhumane for our national leaders to employ either weapon on the human race. Within weeks of Japan’s surrender, General Taylor left the 101st to assume duties as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Colonel Sink followed Taylor to West Point in December. Now everyone was going home, regardless of points.
With the war finally over, my time in Europe drew to a close. On September 2, the day Japanese officials signed the documents of surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, a number of officers with the necessary points departed for the States by plane. Though Colonel Sink had declared me essential, as of the 15th of the month, all officers were now allowed to leave if they desired. Naturally, I wished to go. In May I had contemplated transferring to the Pacific, but after four months of occupation and “make work,” I was ready to return to civilian life. I could see in the wind just how the army was changing, or at least close enough so that I could appreciate the fact that I did not wish to be associated with it in any way. In the paratroops, the money looked good. That was the end of it though, for it was a big party after that, with troopers growing lazy, both mentally and physically and going to hell fast. They could have it all; I’d dig ditches first.
It would have been an honor to leave for home with the 101st Airborne Division, for I was a bit sentimental about my outfit. The thing was, however, there were only about half a dozen officers and men left who were worth saying hello to or goodbye. Late one evening, Speirs, Welsh, and Nixon—my remaining buddies—dropped in and spent a few hours reminiscing about the good times we had shared. Nixon departed Joigny the next week, making me about as lonesome as a lovesick sailor who married a Wave on an eight-hour pass. As for Harry Welsh, he became my constant companion, but drinking remained his outlet to pass the time. During one of his spells, he told off some soldiers from another command. Being a good friend, I smoothed things over by sending Welsh off and explaining that Harry was just a bit “off”: too many mortar shells and artillery barrages—just feeling the reaction since the war was over.
Other memories of Joigny are few. Each day I would go for a run, play football, or join the men for a baseball game. On September 20, I made my final parachute jump, which was my first since we had jumped into Holland the previous September. Exactly one year earlier, we had hit Holland and attempted to hold open fifty miles of road so the British 2d Army could make an end run. I’m not sure why I scheduled this jump other than to break the monotony of things around Joigny. It was a voluntary exercise and those who did not wish to jump just had to say so. Quite a few of the men came up with flimsy excuses to miss the jump, feigning illness when the real reason was nothing more than to avoid injury. Others, like Staff Sergeant Robert T. Smith, participated just to see if he still “had the guts to do so after not jumping for a year and three days.” Yet even Smith agreed that he experienced the worst three minutes that he had ever spent on a jump since he was among the four “high pointers” who weren’t sure that they were doing the smart thing. Having survived the war, Smith and the veterans who had jumped into Normandy no longer desired taking unnecessary chances with regard to their physical safety.
As the paratroopers put on their chutes and boarded the aircraft, more than a few suddenly got very serious. In combat, these same paratroopers usually horsed around before climbing aboard the plane. Things seemed different now, but as soon as the veterans buckled up, they started to play around and to rib the replacements. After the aircraft took off, Staff Sergeant Smith reconsidered the wisdom of risking his life on an unnecessary jump. In his own words, he “couldn’t talk, he couldn’t move, he felt stiff all over, and he had sweat pouring from his eyes.” Once out the door, however, the panic left him as he felt that friendly jerk that signaled that his canopy was fully deployed. Personally, I would jump for $10, and for $100, I’d land on my head. During the war if a man refused, it was standard operating procedure (S.O.P.) to send him to the guardhouse, no pay, and at least six months’ hard labor. My, how things had changed! Now, they just said, not today, thank you. Oh well, I didn’t hold anything against them, provided that they were old combat men.
Four days before my last parachute jump, I reflected on where I had been one year earlier when we jumped into Holland. I wished that I could relive some of those thrills and glows of satisfaction that filled a man when he outmaneuvered, outfought, and outguessed the enemy. Great sport! Then there was the day that a lieutenant in the company (Lieutenant Brewer) was shot. I had told him a hundred times in training not to walk around in front like that or he would get it, sure as hell. That day I walked up front with Brewer, demonstrating just how I wanted his platoon to cross this open field to the suburbs of Eindhoven. He took off, but he didn’t think—which was why most people got shot. As I walked two hundred yards behind him, I remarked to some of the men, “He’s going to get it.” He did, seconds later, right through the neck. Brewer went down like he had been hit with a baseball bat. Then I was forced to make one of my better decisions. I took over the platoon and pushed them forward to the town and sent back for another lieutenant to replace him. It ended up that I had to remain with the lead platoon until we secured the town. By pushing forward, we saved a lot more men and the medics were able to save Brewer’s life.
Though I yearned for the days when I commanded Easy Company, I didn’t long for the Dutch weather, which had produced such misery. For one thing, I would never spend another night like that one a year earlier: I was wet through and through, and naturally being a paratrooper, I did not have a change of clothes—no blanket, nothing. And it was cold as a son-of-a-gun. Things were all “snafued,” walking around in the black of night, not knowing where we were exactly, where anybody else was, and houses burning, people crying, shaking hands, and every bush a prospective enemy.
By the final week in September 1945, preparations were made to send the remaining members of the 101st Airborne Division back to the States. Rumors circulated throughout the camp that all remaining “eighty-five-pointers” and a quota of high-point officers would leave soon. I immediately went to see Colonel Chase and presented my case for my early departure. All I wanted to do was to get out of the army, to return home, and to start my new life. If I stayed, I would have sat around every night with old soldiers and fought the war over and over through stories and memories. I couldn’t live like that. There was far too much chickenshit in this man’s army, now that the fighting was over. In fifteen minutes Chase vowed that I was okay, that I had done right by him, and now in my hour of need, he’d do okay by me. He did just that. Regiment issued orders on October 1 to transfer me to the 75th Infantry Division, which was to be filled with high-point men and was scheduled to return home with the 16th Corps Headquarters in the early part of October. For my last Saturday night with the 506th PIR, I attended a regimental party. Actually I made only a token appearance, having delegated my work to junior officers with considerably more social experience than I possessed.
When I received the news that I would be going home, I could hardly believe it. I had been lucky enough to live through this whole damn mess and get a round-trip ticket home. Home! My gosh, would my folks even know me? Would I know them? My sister? Chow? Water—hot water. And milk, I really had not had any in over two years at that point, not real milk with calcium in it. Returning home, however, proved to be a more difficult task than I expected. Originally the enlisted soldiers were going to Reims while the 75th Division and the officers were scheduled to depart from Marseilles in southern France. A strike by transportation handlers, coupled with the army’s usual red tape and bureaucracy, delayed our redeployment. Two weeks after I was scheduled to leave, I was still in Camp Pittsburgh, France, where I was now serving as 2d Battalion executive officer of the 290th Infantry Regiment, 75th Infantry Division. Naturally I had daily contact with the other officers in the battalion, few of whom had spent much time in combat. What little contact I had with these officers was reserved for them telling me how the 75th Infantry Division had won the war. Their first action had been in the Ardennes on Christmas Day, 1944. Seemed that I remembered that day as well.
To compensate for our delay, headquarters issued us three-day passes which were supposed to soothe our ruffled feathers about being confined in Europe when all we wanted was to return to the United States. I for one had joined the 75th Division to return home, not to go on pass. What’s more, headquarters rescinded the order that stated all field-grade officers with less than 100 points could not go home. I now had 108 points and was about as rare as a man in a Wave barracks.
On November 1, I finally arrived at the staging area following a two-day ride through the French countryside. I was now commanding the battalion since the commanding officer had been transferred because he didn’t have sufficient points. Watching a bunch of low-point officers trying to make the ship was a sight to behold. As the train transited the country, my chief concern was keeping 1,150 G.I.s from riding on the top of the cars and jumping off the train to kiss the girls. The experience certainly kept a fellow from becoming despondent. Our staging area at Marseilles was a hill so hard that in order to pitch tents, the soldiers used iron stakes. I spent my last afternoon in France driving a jeep through the streets of Marseilles. The port was mighty big and in relatively fair shape, but the Germans had sunk a lot of ships and destroyed a number of piers and warehouses evacuating southern France during the summer of 1944. As for the town itself, Marseilles was rough, tough, and ugly, a typical port town.
On November 4, I climbed aboard the Wooster Victory en route to Hampton Roads, Virginia. As the ship left the harbor, I couldn’t help but remember a similar voyage when the S.S. Samaria had departed the United States. In the interim between both voyages, two years had passed, but I had aged two decades, a seemingly lifetime of war encapsulated in twenty-two months. Like most soldiers, I would never be the same, but I would adjust, just as we had done when we arrived in England in September 1943, and as we had done following our baptism of fire on D-Day. The U.S. Army processed me for separation on November 29, 1945, at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, only a few miles from my home in Lancaster.
The next day, the 101st Airborne Division was officially deactivated. Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, no longer existed. When I received the news, I was saddened because the division had been my home for the better part of three years. Originally the 101st was the airborne division scheduled to remain in the postwar army, but with the departure of General Maxwell Taylor to West Point and a highly publicized public relations campaign engineered by Major General James Gavin, the commanding general of the 82d Airborne Division, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall personally intervened to save the 82d. Since the peacetime military force only fielded a single airborne division, the Screaming Eagles passed into history. The whole thing, to me, felt like an insult.
When I reached home, one of the first things I did was to go directly to the post office, where the Internal Revenue Service office was located, and insist that I pay the income tax on my income as an officer. The IRS man looked at me incredulously and said, “Son, you don’t have to do this even though the regulations say you must. We will waive this return.”
I responded, “Sir, I want to pay my part of the bill. I am proud to be an American!”
He bowed his head and we figured out my bill, which I immediately paid in full.
My expectations upon returning to civilian life were no different than most servicemen lucky enough to come home. I was ready to change my army fatigues for civilian attire. My priorities consisted of finding a decent job so I could make a comfortable living, finding a wife, beginning a family, and finding peace and happiness. I remained on terminal leave until my official discharge on January 22, 1946. At long last I was Mr. R. D. Winters again. Proud as I was of my wartime rank, I never used it in my postwar life. I enjoyed my civilian status after four years of war.
While I was extremely happy to put the army behind me, I realized that I was a different man than I was when I joined the army over four years earlier. The war changed me in many ways, as it does all who experience combat. Having witnessed so much mass suffering and unparalleled barbarism that mankind is capable of inflicting upon itself, I don’t see how any survivor can ever be cruel to anything again. In addition, I was a far better judge of character than I had been in 1941. That feeling remains with me today, fully sixty years after the war. When I meet people for the first time and get to know them, I can’t help but judge them and size them up. Do they have leadership? Would they be good in combat? Do they pass the test?
I was also more disciplined than I remembered being before I deployed to Europe. This discipline helped me adapt to civilian life once I returned to Pennsylvania. Like all veterans, I had to adjust to society, the life that you are going to share with others in order to make a living. I certainly never confused the challenges in the workplace with what I had experienced in combat. There would be no life-and-death struggles in the corporate world. Business hardly equates to war. Such comparisons demean the word.
Within two weeks of returning home, I accepted Lewis Nixon’s invitation to travel to New York City and meet his parents. His father offered me a job and in January 1946, I became personnel manager for the Nixon Nitration Works in Nixon, New Jersey, for $75 a week. While working, I took advantage of the G.I. Bill and attended refresher courses in business and personnel management at Rutgers University. The G.I. Bill provided me the opportunity to adjust my frame of mind from military to business. I married Ethel in 1948 and was later promoted to general manager of Nixon Nitration Works, where I remained until my recall to service for the Korean conflict.
Now a family man, I had been briefly recalled to active duty for the Korean War in June 1951, with orders to join the 11th Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I had seen enough of war, so when the army in its infinite wisdom granted reservist officers a delay of six months to report for active duty, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to see General Tony McAuliffe, who was the U.S. Army’s personnel chief. I asked if he remembered me and he certainly did. After a few minutes of informal conversation, I told him that I would like to be excused from going to Korea. McAuliffe sat there, nodding his head understandingly, and he asked me point-blank if he could make battalion commanders out of the officers currently graduating from West Point and from the universities around the country. From what I had seen of the peacetime army in Europe and the United States, I responded, “No, sir, I don’t think you can.”
“Well, that’s your answer,” he said, “So, there isn’t a whole lot more to say.”
I thanked him for his time and left, went back home and packed—not for overseas, but for Fort Dix, New Jersey. There, the army assigned me as a regimental plans and training officer. Compared to my wartime experience, training at Fort Dix was simply terrible. I had always prided myself on my ability to adjust to any situation, but training new officers who couldn’t care less about attending classes exceeded my patience. I couldn’t wait to get out, so I volunteered for ranger school. Before long, I received orders for overseas deployment. I traveled to Seattle, the port of debarkation, and was going through the indoctrination and preparation when an administrative officer walked into a room full of officers and announced, “There is a new order. Any officer who has been recalled involuntarily does not have to continue to Korea. He can resign. If there are any officers here who would care to take advantage of this, please step forward.” I stepped forward and that’s how my military career came to an end.
Deciding not to return to Nixon Nitration Works, I became a production supervisor of an adhesive plaster mill for Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In 1951, I had purchased a 106-acre farm in Pennsylvania along the foothills of the Blue Mountains, east of Indiantown Gap. I rented the old farmhouse to a young family and eventually started building a new home for our family, stone by stone. Wanting to return to Pennsylvania to be closer to the farm, in 1955 we rented a home near Gettysburg and I found employment in the agricultural field with Whitmoyer Laboratories and then several other companies. During this time we continued to spend all possible weekends at the farm, and our home was finally well enough along for us to move into in 1960 when our second child was ready for first grade. Here, I finally felt I had found the peace and quiet that I had promised myself on D-Day.
In 1972 I formed my own corporation and for the next twenty-five years, I distributed animal health products and basic vitamin premixes to feed mills in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In 1979, when the push for recycling had begun, I was asked by Hershey Chocolate Company if it was possible to sell their waste candy by-products for animal feed. Planning to use the contacts that I had developed over many years, I agreed to a contract with them to manage a warehouse to store and process the material. With my two employees, and Ethel as office manager and secretary, we went to work cleaning up the abandoned plant and putting it back in working order. We hired more men and as we found that cattle and hogs loved chocolate as much as humans, we soon became a thriving business selling to feed mills and large farmers. With experience and a little imagination, I found new uses and new combinations for the products and we finally were shipping material to new customers in other parts of the country and overseas. With the business prospering, Hershey Chocolate Company decided to take over the running of the warehouse. I continued as a distributor of nutritional premixes until I finally retired in 1997.
By 1980, with employees and office staff to help me at work, I had been able to attend the Company E reunion. Life before that had been too hectic to think much about my wartime experiences and like most veterans, I was too busy earning a living, but I had always maintained contact with the men by phone, letters, and occasional visits from the closest ones or any men passing through the local area.
The 1988 reunion in New Orleans and the contact with author Stephen Ambrose sparked a new interest in recalling my war experiences, and I dedicated myself to putting my memories as well as the letters from the men in order. Our second home in Hershey became the central repository for private correspondence and official records of the company and the battalion in which I had served. Telling the story of Easy Company not only became my motivation, but also my passion. Hence, when Ambrose wrote Band of Brothers, the records that I had compiled over the years became his primary source.
Beginning in 1946, former Sergeant Mike Ranney, Sergeant Bob Rader, and Corporal Walter Gordon began organizing Easy Company reunions. Later, Bill Guarnere took up the torch and encouraged the members of the company to stay in touch, but it was Ranney, who had earned a journalistic degree at the University of North Dakota, that served as the principal organizer of the initial reunions. He had hoped to write his memoirs and a history of Easy Company that he intended to entitle Easy Does It!, but his premature death in 1988 at the age of sixty-five halted his efforts. It was a shame that Easy Company lost Mike Ranney before we found Steve Ambrose and before we started to get organized to write Band of Brothers. Mike was a natural journalist who would have added immeasurably to the project.
At first only a few veterans attended the reunions, but as the years went by, more Toccoa veterans and their subsequent replacements assembled on an annual basis. Few officers attended the initial reunions, but in 1980, I called Moose Heyliger and Harry Welsh and convinced them to join the men in Nashville. Buck Compton, Clarence Hester, Bob Strayer, and Lewis Nixon completed the officer contingent that attended the Nashville reunion. Few had changed, and “Blackbeard” Nixon still tried to convince everyone, albeit unsuccessfully, that he really did shave every day. In total, thirty members of Easy Company attended the reunion in Nashville. Since it was my first reunion, I was overwhelmed when the men presented me a gold-plated mess kit with an accompanying poem.
In September 1987 I returned to Europe for the first time since the war. Accompanied by Walter and Betty Gordon, Ethel and I dined with Louis de Vallavieille in Paris. The next day Louis and Michel, the brother who had been shot on D-Day, escorted us to Normandy. I was anxious for a tour of the field that had played such an important role in my life and that of Easy Company. Michel, who never harbored any ill feelings at being shot by American paratroopers on June 6, gave me a test to ensure I was who I claimed to be. Taking me to a field near Le Grand Chemin, he inquired if it looked familiar. “No,” I said, “this doesn’t look familiar.”
We then went to another field and he repeated the question. I gave him the same response.
After several hours he brought me to the field outside Brecourt Manor and asked again, “Does this look familiar?”
“Now, this is familiar. Number one gun was there, number two gun was here, and so on down the line.”
Nascent memories returned after a half century. Walking across the field that housed the German 105mm howitzer battery created an eerie feeling. In the recesses of my mind, I could see “Popeye” Wynn, “Buck” Compton, Bill Guarnere, Joe Toye, Don Malarkey, Carwood Lipton, and the other members of our small band who had conducted an assault against overwhelming odds. Words simply escaped me as I traversed the area from every conceivable direction. The hedgerows and drainage trenches had largely disappeared, but the tree lines and the locations of each gun remained very distinguishable.
I returned to Brecourt and the other battlefields several times over the next decade, the last time in June 2001 for the premiere of the HBO series Band of Brothers. I chose not to participate in the preliminary tour and party in Paris. I didn’t want to be part of that—it just wasn’t in my nature. I preferred quiet reflection to reminisce about Easy Company’s baptism of fire fifty-seven years earlier. Though I always considered Easy Company’s performance on the dike in Holland on October 5, 1944, as my apogee as a company commander, Brecourt remained more special to me. Nothing has ever equaled our baptism of fire on D-Day. Ernie Pyle wrote that the first pioneering days of anything are always the best days. That is the way I feel about Brecourt. There was something special about silencing those guns that never was repeated. Brecourt was Easy Company’s initial trial by combat and the place where I demonstrated to myself that I measured up to my personal standard of leadership. That is what made it special. Consequently, rather than joining the other veterans in a large hotel, Ethel and I spent eight days and nights at a Norman château near Brecourt so I could return to the battlefield each morning to walk the fields and to study the battle. My wife and I were warmly welcomed by Charles de Vallavieille, the grandson of the French colonel who owned Brecourt in 1944. Nearly six decades earlier, I had been the first American soldier to trespass on the de Vallavieille farm without Charles’s grandfather’s permission. This time I asked and received permission to return to Brecourt Manor. Special memories vividly returned as I stood in the remnants of the trench, gazing at the hedgerow across the field from where we received the machine gun fire as we assaulted the artillery pieces. The sapling from which Sergeant Lipton fired on the enemy was still there, though the tree had long since died. One morning I retraced my steps from Le Grand Chemin through the fields and ditches that now presented far greater obstacles than the hedgerows on D-Day. After the formal ceremony on June 6, we returned to Paris in time for the farewell banquet with the other men.
Charles de Vallavieille cordially invited me to return for the sixtieth anniversary celebration, but considering my advanced age, I felt it in my best interest to live within my limitations and watch the celebration at home. Even though I could not return, Charles continues to preserve the memory of the soldiers who liberated his grandfather’s farm. “It’s like when a friend asks you to watch over his grave,” he says, “You can’t ignore the sacrifice.”
Returning to Hershey was bittersweet since I realized that I would never return to the battlefield. Still, I had a lifetime of memories and I remained determined to pass on the “untold stories” from all the men to future generations. Simply tell the stories of the men; the rest will take care of itself. Personal rewards, profits, recognition, and enumeration have never been important to me. Even when the Franklin D. Roosevelt Foundation selected me to represent the U.S. Army veterans of World War II when it presented its 2001 Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms/Freedom from Fear Award, I did so only as a representative of the American G.I.s who won the war. At the ceremony, news anchor Tom Brokaw said that the courage and service demonstrated by the five representatives of the military services “made possible a world of peace and justice and dreams that we continue to fulfill today.”
Brokaw also called us “heroes,” but I have always been uncomfortable with that term. Only a few heroes came back from the war. The real heroes lie under white crosses in North Africa, Europe, and across the Pacific. I still cannot visit the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach without crying for the men who never had the opportunity of achieving the peace that many of us have enjoyed. I know plenty of heroes, but I am certainly not one. Bill Guarnere is a hero for leaving the safety of his foxhole to help his buddy who had been severely wounded. Floyd Talbert and Joe Toye are heroes of the first order—so are Popeye Wynn, Babe Heffron, and scores of others who carry the wounds of war as badges of honor.
Perhaps the best characterization of what a true hero consists is found in a letter Sergeant Mike Ranney sent me in January 1992 shortly before he went back into the hospital for a series of tests. Historian Stephen Ambrose used the passage to conclude Band of Brothers because Ranney encapsulated the cohesion that became the hallmark of Easy Company. “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.”
Mike Ranney then signed the letter “Your Easy Company Comrade.”