Stephen Ambrose, the leading historian of our time, changed my life forever through his friendship and through his writing of Band of Brothers. Steve wrote Band of Brothers to fill his time as he prepared to write his book on D-Day. To give you an idea of what kind of man Steve Ambrose was, on Christmas morning 1995, he got up early and wrote me a letter that read, “Thanks for teaching me the duties and the responsibilities of a company commander.” Later he gave Easy Company the recognition for what they had done in World War II. I appreciate the recognition and I appreciate the fact that he never forgot me. To make sure that I never forgot him and his friendship, I placed a brass plaque over the door at the house and at the farm that reads: STEVE AMBROSE SLEPT HERE.
I first met Steve Ambrose on February 26, 1990. The meeting, which Ambrose hosted in his home in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, included Easy Company veterans Carwood Lipton, Walter Gordon, and Forrest Guth. Two years earlier, Easy Company had held its reunion in New Orleans. Ambrose took the opportunity to tape-record a group interview to support the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans’ project of collecting oral histories from World War II veterans. I decided not to join the meeting in order to let the men speak out without deference to my role in the war. It was a wild interview session. I later mailed my written account to Ambrose. When I read the transcript from the group session, I believed that some important details were missing. I asked Walter Gordon, who was Ambrose’s neighbor, to arrange a follow-up interview to set the record straight. Ambrose graciously consented and invited us to his home. Over the course of that afternoon, we discussed Easy Company’s attack at Brecourt Manor. I then suggested that Steve consider writing a history of Easy Company, which might prove a nice complement to Pegasus Bridge, a book Ambrose wrote detailing a British light infantry company that seized important bridges over the Orne River and Orne Canal on D-Day. Steve jumped at the opportunity and asked us to obtain copies of wartime letters, photographs, newspaper clippings—anything we had on E Company.
The following month Gordon wrote “the intrepid trio” of Lipton, Guth, and myself to discuss a letter that he had recently received from Ambrose. Steve thought we had “a hell of an idea and he was ready to run with it.” I provided copies of my diary and the letters that I had accumulated over the previous two decades. Later that summer, Ambrose came to my farm outside Hershey, where we spent several days discussing leadership and combat fatigue. Ambrose was an accomplished historian in his own right, and he seemed fascinated by Paul Fussell’s depiction of the “slowly dawning and dreadful realization” that each soldier experiences three phases of combat depending on the length of his time on the front line. “Two steps of rationalization and one of accurate perception,” is how Fussell describes the factors contributing to combat fatigue. The initial stage is, “This can’t possibly happen to me. I’m not going to get wounded; I’m too smart; I’m too young. Quickly following is the second stage where the soldier rationalizes, “Jesus, this could happen to me if I’m not more careful.” The third stage is, “This is going to happen to me unless I get out of here.” Ambrose seemed surprised when I informed him that I had reached the third stage in Bastogne. Sooner or later, I felt that I was going to get it. I just prayed to God that it would not be too bad. I felt that I was going to be hit sooner or later, but I never felt that I was going to break. I had prepared myself physically and emotionally not to reach the breaking point. Nor did I feel that my judgment was ever too impaired to make the correct decision.
Following three days of one-on-one questioning, Harry Welsh, Joe Toye, Rod Strohl, and Forrest Guth joined us for a group interview. A few months later, Ambrose visited Carwood Lipton, Bill Guarnere, Don Malarkey, and a group of Easy Company West Coast residents. A quick tour of the European battlefield completed his initial research. That is the origin of Band of Brothers that hit the book shelves in 1992, in enough time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of Easy Company at Camp Toccoa, Georgia. Initial sales were modest, but they increased dramatically when Ambrose published D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion of Europe. The exploits of Easy Company made national headlines and a number of veterans were invited to relate their wartime experiences to local audiences. Each of us was grateful that Ambrose did such a masterful job in telling our story in his inimitable style.
After the publication of Band of Brothers, Steve returned my diary and the stories that I had collected since the war. I immediately made a file for each soldier in Easy Company and I spent the entire next year going through everything. Friends familiar with the official records from the War Department added the operational reports from 2d Battalion and the 506th PIR. I now had the complete story of Easy Company from start to finish in my possession.
Steve Ambrose changed my life even more drastically when he sold the rights of Band of Brothers to Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The night he negotiated the deal, Ambrose took time to call me and to advise me that Tom Hanks was interested in the project and that he assumed that Hanks wanted to play Dick Winters. The conversation went something like this: “This is Steve Ambrose. I have a letter from Tom Hanks and he wants to buy Band of Brothers. He sent me the Home Box Office (HBO) series he did entitled From the Earth to the Moon. Hanks wants to produce a twelve-part series along these lines. He feels that Band of Brothers will make a magnificently, richly textured story that needs many hours to tell. I presume he wants to play Dick Winters, but I told him that Herbert Sobel was closer to the mark (kidding). Anyway, I just wanted to share the good news with you.”
Just prior to HBO’s release of Band of Brothers in September 2001, commentator Charlie Rose interviewed Ambrose and asked him directly, “Knowing as much as you do, if you had to serve in World War II and I know that you would have served, where would you have wanted to be? With the pilots? With the soldiers? With the men of the Navy?”
Ambrose instantly responded, “With Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division.”
When asked why, Ambrose elaborated: “Because the commander of that company, Dick Winters, was almost a Meriwether Lewis. He was that good. If Dick told me then, and if he told me now, to do something, I wouldn’t ask why. I would just do it. He has character, of course, but he is honest, he has a firmness of purpose, and a direction. He knows so much: how to lay down a base of fire, what are the strengths and weaknesses of every man, how to lead an attack. He knows what a good company commander should be.”
Needless to say, I was and continue to be flattered by all the attention and the recognition. But just as I said at the Emmy Awards in September 2002 when Spielberg and Hanks received the Emmy for best mini-series, I merely represented all the men of Company E who were present and all who had passed on before us. Spielberg summed up what we were all thinking when the award was handed to him: “Easy Company won this award back in 1944.” In a sense we have all become celebrities since the release of the series, but I caution myself at the end of the day to remain humble and not to let it go to my head. Ours was merely a story that had to be told.
None of us anticipated the flood of correspondence that followed the release of Easy Company’s story. Most correspondents write to express their appreciation for the sacrifices of the World War II generation. Others seek an easy solution to what constitutes effective leadership. Our lives are no longer private, but such is the price of fame. It is now impossible to keep a low profile, as everyone wants a little piece of you, striving to glean a sense of what made Easy Company such a remarkable combat unit. The attention is flattering, but nobody really knows me. The neighbors, the people whom I have known most of my life, now see a different part of me as a result of the television series. Still, it is impossible to convey the horrors of war to someone who has not experienced the crucible of combat. It is not their fault; like most veterans, I have only recently spoken about the war. World War II was, and remains, an intensely personal experience. When I have discussed the events that so shaped my life, I have talked about the war, never about myself. I prefer to keep it that way, but the letters keep arriving.
From Sister Marie Andre Campbell and Sister Marie St. Paul, two cloistered members of the Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery:
When we read about you, we said to each other: “Ah, here is a good and God-fearing man!” Goodness and beauty lead to truth after all, and no matter what state of life we live, everyone is searching for truth, and maybe that is why so many people are drawn to you after reading about the heroic deeds you and your men performed in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany during World War II.
I visited Normandy with Mom and Dad when we lived in France. The cemeteries were open when we went. . . . It was an experience I will never forget. . . . One last item: I was particularly moved by the story of Floyd Talbert. He reminded me a lot of some Vietnam Vets who came to speak to my class in college. They were “bikers”: black leather jackets, long beards, rather intimidating, but they were some of the nicest men I ever met. The war deeply affected them in ways that I could never comprehend. Just like you said in one article, it’s one thing to read and hear about it, but it’s quite another to experience combat.
From Michael Nastasi, a police officer in the New York Police Department, who wrote to me in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001:
. . . At the time, things were pretty bad and all of us were pretty distraught and confused about the whole scene, but we were also determined to do whatever we could to facilitate the recovery effort. By watching the series and reading the book about you and your men, it gave us all inspiration to carry out our duties no matter what the circumstances, and also for me personally, I realized that as in any situation, it could have been a whole lot worse. Reading about your experiences at Bastogne has humbled me and made me realize the true meaning of dedication and courage in the face of almost-insurmountable odds.
From Candace W. McKinley, “Popeye” Wynn’s daughter, who gained a greater appreciation of what her father had experienced during the war:
Knowing little about the time all of you spent during the war, watching the mini-series made me wish Daddy had talked more about it. Not the horror you all witnessed, nor the cold and isolation you suffered, but the camaraderie shared by the men . . . To think of Daddy so young, so fit and so disciplined was a sharp contrast to the way he had begun to fail physically the last two years of his life . . . When he was being interviewed by a crew from Playtone, I heard more about his time in the service than I’d heard my whole life. What he said at the end of the interview has stayed with me . . . when asked if he ever thinks about what you guys did over there, his answer was, “No, I don’t think about that. But the guys . . . I think about them every day.” . . . I am thankful that you were a part of my daddy’s life, and I truly feel the same respect for you that he did until the day he died.
From Josephine Bruster, an elderly woman from Oklahoma, who recalls watching the 101st Airborne Division land in Holland in 1944:
I want to thank you for saving my life and family. September 17, 1944, in Veghel—a Sunday afternoon the planes came and all the parachutes started opening up. It was the most beautiful sight. I shall never forget. I was a young girl of ten years old and we lived in Veghel. We were so excited and thankful to see all those American soldiers coming to free us from that awful war. Such brave men! It is because of soldiers like you that I am here today. I came to the United States in 1955, married an American, and now live in a small town in Oklahoma. I have two sons and two daughters, eleven grandchildren, and I am so proud to be an American . . . I just want to let you know what your soldiers meant to me, a ten-year-old girl.
From Linda B. Canzona, a lady in North Carolina, who wrote about her greater appreciation of her grandfather:
. . . I cannot express the gratitude I felt for you and your company while watching the series. As a result of the sacrifices made by men like you, my generation was able to grow up and live in freedom. . . . Because you were willing to tell your story, it not only gave me a greater appreciation for what your generation did for mine, but also a greater appreciation for the actions of my grandfather, who received two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart at the Battle of the Bulge. I have asked him, as has my brother, what he did to earn those medals and his response is, “It was nothing. It was just another day.” I have truly come to appreciate the contributions (of my uncles and grandfather who fought in World War II and Vietnam) . . . and now realize what freedom really means and how very blessed my generation is because of sacrifices made by others.
When I was young my family went to the beaches of Normandy. My father hoisted me up on his shoulder and as we looked out across the field of crosses, he told my brother and me that all those men died for us.
From Maggie Blouch, a junior at Palmyra Area High School, who wrote an essay for her advanced placement European History class after attending a presentation on “Leadership in the Band of Brothers”:
What or who do you think of when the phrase Veterans’ Day is mentioned? . . . . This year, I was deeply touched by the story of not just any veteran, but a man who is indeed an American hero and an example of outstanding leadership, honest, direction, and knowledge . . . As [Major Winters] began to share with us, his eyes sparkled with passion and love for his “buddies,” his mission, the events he encountered, and his version of the true band of brothers . . . He also discussed superior leadership and dedication of other men in his Company. These men included Sergeant Hall, Wynn, Nixon, Blithe, Lesniewski, Lieutenant Speirs, and Joe Toye. These many examples of selfless service, leadership, and true dedication were precisely the elements of what Easy Company was all about.
. . . Major Winters’s story transformed my interpretation of this special holiday, made me further appreciate soldiers past and present while showing gratitude for our freedom that’s often too simply taken for granted, and essentially taught me some of life’s greatest lessons: the importance of faith in yourself, faith in your cause, and faith in the people around you.
Perhaps the most succinct testimonial came from Bryce E. Reiman who wrote, “[Easy Company] has made me want to be a better human being.”
And it goes on, thousands of voices reflecting on the extraordinary achievements of ordinary men placed in extraordinary circumstances. Thank you, the men of Easy Company and thank you, Steve Ambrose.
The most frequently asked question to any member of Easy Company is, “What made your company so special?” Ambrose did his best to answer that question, but a soldier’s perspective explains what really brought us together. Major Clarence Hester, who began the war as Easy Company’s executive officer and ended the war as a battalion commander, shamelessly proclaimed that he used Easy Company when the “chips were down and they never let me down.” So close were the men that Hester freely admitted that he “knew how they looked in front, in back, dark, or light. We could call each other by name on a moonless night just by seeing the way we moved.”
Sergeant “Burr” Smith, who was yanked out of the company headquarters’ plane and moved to another aircraft on June 5, thereby escaping the fate of Lieutenant Meehan, left the army after the war, but was recalled to duty in 1952. Accepting a reserve commission, he eventually went on to become a lieutenant colonel in the postwar army, where he was in a unique position to observe the evolution of the modern military force. He served in Laos as a civilian advisor to a large, irregular force and remained on jump status until 1974. Toward the end of his career, he served as special assistant to the commander of the U.S. Army’s counterterror task force, then known only as Delta Force. In 1979, he wrote me, “Funny thing about ‘the Modern Army,’ Dick. I am assigned to what is reputed to be the best unit in the U.S. Army . . . and I believe that it is. Still, on a man-for-man basis, I’d choose my wartime paratroop company any time! We had something there for three-plus years that will never be equaled . . . not in our lifetime, anyway.”
Ronald Speirs concurred. “I was scared to death and never thought I would survive the war,” wrote the officer who commanded Easy Company for the longest period of time. “But my best days were as platoon leader and company commander with you guys.” Speirs provided another insight, this time on unit cohesion. Soldiers risk their lives for the small unit, the squad, or the platoon. The “infantry soldier is aware of the regiment, the division, and the democracy he belongs to, but his fighting spirit and good morale are caused and nurtured by his buddies, the guys in the foxholes alongside him. That is the reason men persevere in battle. Combat fatigue, the desire to flee, is stopped by small-unit morale.” I could not agree more.
I have always been proud to have been a member of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The 101st Airborne Division was comprised of hundreds of good, solid, infantry companies. We were special, but you could probably say the same thing about Companies A, B, and C. Every soldier thinks his company is special and unique. E Company, 506th PIR, stands out due to a very special bond that brought the men together in the summer of 1942. That cohesion began with Captain Herbert Sobel at Camp Toccoa. During Sobel’s tenure of command, the only way the men survived was to bond together. Eventually, the noncommissioned officers bonded further in a mutiny against his tyrannical rule and their fear to go into combat with a leader in whom they had no confidence. Good as they were prior to the invasion, it took battle experience to make Easy Company complete soldiers. 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 job well done is that you get the next tough mission. Easy Company kept right on getting the job done through Carentan, Holland, Bastogne, and Germany. I was partially responsible for repeatedly selecting Easy Company for difficult missions. E Company had every reason to be irritated with me. Whenever the battalion received a tough mission, I selected Easy Company because I knew I could count on them. The net result of sharing all that stress throughout training and combat has created a bond between the men of Easy Company that will last forever. Easy Company was the most special group of warriors and men with whom I have had the pleasure to serve.
As the years increasingly take a toll on the survivors, I take a quiet pride that so many of my wartime comrades have voiced their opinions that I have in some way contributed to their success. Floyd Talbert wrote shortly before his death, “Dick, you are loved and will never be forgotten by any soldier who ever served under you. You are the best friend I ever had . . . you were my ideal, and motor in combat . . . you are to me the greatest soldier I could ever hope to meet.” I also treasure a letter I received from the son of Staff Sergeant Leo Boyle after his father died in December 1997 from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Boyle’s son said his father spoke of very few people from the war, but, “You are the one. It is clear that his admiration of, and the respect for you, is beyond anything I know. He literally would have followed Dick Winters into Hell”—his words, not mine. Former Easy Company comrades Don Malarkey and Bill Wingett served as Boyle’s honorary pallbearers. And that is yet another reason that makes Easy Company special—they remain comrades in life and comrades in death.
Ambrose did a marvelous job summarizing the postwar lives of the men who had served in Easy Company and his efforts need little recounting in these pages. Since the publication of Band of Brothers, however, a number of Easy Company men and their commanders have passed from the scene.
Colonel Robert Sink left Germany to serve on the staff of General Maxwell Taylor at West Point in December 1945. Sink was a model officer whose charisma and leadership played a profound effect on my personal development as a combat commander. He later served as commander of both Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and its 18th Airborne Corps. He was best known for helping form the Strategic Army Corps Forces (STRAC) in the 1950s. STRAC consisted of 125,000 troopers, including two airborne divisions. Under Sink’s dynamic leadership, the Strategic Army Corps became an alert, well-trained, combat-ready striking force, capable of performing worldwide operational missions on call. General Sink’s last major assignment was as commander of U.S. forces in Panama. Lieutenant General Sink died of complications from chronic emphysema at age sixty in 1965. His place remains forever fixed in the history of the 101st Airborne Division. The Robert F. Sink Memorial Library is located on Screaming Eagle Boulevard at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Strayer, commander of 2d Battalion, 506th PIR, assumed command of the 507th PIR in July 1945 and remained its commanding officer until its deactivation in December. He was promoted to full colonel in December 1945. After he left active duty, he organized 2d Eastern Pennsylvania Airborne Combat Command, which was the first reserve outfit to actually function as a reception center in processing civilians into the military. Later he served as chief of Training Division in the Pentagon. Strayer’s last command was as the commanding officer of the 157th Infantry Brigade. “Colonel Bob” was a frequent attendee at Easy Company reunions until his death in December 2002.
Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Hester, Captain Sobel’s first executive officer, left the army in 1946 and worked for a friend for twenty-six years who promised to take him in as a stockholder. When he asked for his share, Hester was turned down for the boss’s son, so he established Hester Roofing Company in Sacramento, California. He became very successful while his former employer went broke after a few years. He visited Herbert Sobel once after the war while attending a convention in Chicago. Sobel appeared to be the same unsure person he had been in the army. Sobel and Hester enjoyed an uneasy lunch and both said the usual, “Nice to see you,” but neither had a desire to see each other again. In a letter to Carwood Lipton, Hester stated that “as an ex–GI, I have always felt Easy Company was my home.” Easy Company had given Hester a sense of purpose and responsibility that led to his self-confidence. In five short years, Hester had been promoted from private to lieutenant colonel and appointed commander of a battalion in the 101st Airborne Division. He wasn’t sure how much Easy Company had helped, but “they must have, as they are the ones I always return to.” Hester hoped that Ambrose’s book would “capture the spirit of America and the willingness of our young people to fight for a cause and go far beyond the normal effort and risks.” Clarence Hester died in 2000 at the age of eighty-four from complications due to kidney failure.
Moose Heyliger temporarily assumed command of Easy Company when I was transferred to battalion headquarters in October 1944. Following his accidental shooting by a member of his own command, Moose remained in the hospital until his discharge in 1947. He spent the next forty years as a leading horticulturalist and a landscaping consultant. Before his death, an interviewer asked Moose if he was proud to have been a member of Easy Company. “Am I proud? You bet your life I am,” my successor-in-command instantly replied. Moose Heyliger died on November 4, 2001, shortly after the release of the initial episodes of the HBO series. His passing was a deep personal loss to all who knew him.
Captain Lewis Nixon and I were together every step of the way from D-Day to Berchtesgaden, May 8, 1945—VE-Day. I still regard Lewis Nixon as the best combat officer who I had the opportunity to work with under fire. He never showed fear, and during the toughest times he could always think clearly and quickly. Very few men can remain poised under an artillery concentration. Nixon was one of those officers. He always trusted me, from the time we met at Officer Candidate School. While we were in training before we shipped overseas, Nixon hid his entire inventory of Vat 69 in my footlocker, under the tray holding my socks, underwear, and sweaters. What greater trust, what greater honor could I ask for than to be trusted with his precious inventory of Vat 69? Following the war Nix went through tough times and several failed marriages until in 1956, he married a woman named Grace and everything finally came together. Until Lewis met and married Grace, he had never found or experienced true love. It was only after his marriage to Grace that he found true happiness, peace within himself. Together they traveled to just about every corner of the world and shared many wonderful experiences together. Nix and I corresponded over the years and always shared some laughs. We told more than our share of lies at Easy Company’s reunions. My friend Nixon died in January 1995, and Grace asked me to give the eulogy at his funeral, which I did. Also in attendance were Clarence Hester and Bob Brewer. In my remarks, I made a point of quoting Grace, whose love and care had kept Nix alive for many years. In her many letters and Christmas cards, Grace’s message was always the same: “Lewis is so brave; he never complains; he always has a smile for me whenever I come into his room—and that just makes it all worthwhile.” Seven years later, Grace Nixon joined us in Los Angeles for the presentation of the Emmy for Best Documentary.
Next to Nixon, Harry Welsh was my best friend during the war. During the war he was awarded two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. Following the cessation of hostilities, Harry remained on my staff throughout the summer of 1945. Together with Nixon, he and I contemplated volunteering for duty in the Pacific. Although he had accrued the necessary points to return home to get married, I convinced Harry to stick around for a while. He was an excellent soldier, the kind of man who made an outfit click and the type of leader who won battles. Harry finally returned home to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and married his childhood sweetheart, Kitty Grogan. He went to Wilkes College and graduated with honors in 1957. Three years later, he earned his master’s degree. Welsh taught political science at the college for nine years and then served as an administrator in the Wilkes-Barre School District for several decades until his retirement at age sixty-five in 1983. Harry Welsh died in 1995 from heart failure. His beloved Kitty followed three years later.
Other Toccoa men have passed since the publication of Band of Brothers in 1992. George Luz, for one, returned home to Providence, Rhode Island, where he became a handyman. His first job was in a used furniture store where he earned seventy-five cents an hour. After four months, Luz had had enough and he became a painter for a dollar an hour. “Things were looking up,” he claimed. A few odd jobs later, he finally obtained a job with the federal government. George Luz raised a wonderful family and lived long enough to enjoy his grandchildren. “It’s been a wonderful life,” he stated in one of his last letters. When George Luz died in 1998, over 1,600 people attended his funeral—a testament to his character and community involvement. At no time was his character more evident than in the funeral home when his pastor noticed two medals placed on George’s chest: a Purple Heart for being wounded in combat, and the Bronze Star for valor. When the pastor mentioned to a family member about how proud George must have been at being awarded the medals, the response was, “We didn’t even know he received them.” That is the stuff real heroes are made of. Nobody really needed to know. George Luz typified the average soldier in Easy Company—he was tough as nails, had a wonderful sense of humor, and possessed a fierce loyalty to Company E that was second to none.
Carwood Lipton, whom many considered the best noncommissioned officer in the company, returned to civilian life after the war where he received an engineering degree from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. He remained active in the Army Reserves as commanding officer of Headquarters Company, 3d Battalion, 398th PIR, until after the Korean war, but his unit was not called to active duty. Carwood Lipton proved as adept in the corporate world as he had been in leading soldiers in combat. After a career as an executive with Owens-Illinois, a manufacturer of glass products and plastics packaging, Lipton retired in 1983. In the last two decades of his life, he traveled throughout the world and enjoyed his hobbies of golf and reading. On the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, Lipton said what most of us had felt as we boarded the aircraft destined to carry us to Normandy on June 5, 1944: “If we were afraid of anything, it was that we wouldn’t measure up. We wanted to be heroes: not to the American public or in books, but to each other.” His words proved to be a fitting epitaph. Carwood Lipton died at the age of eighty-one in Southern Pines, North Carolina, from pulmonary fibrosis in December 2001.
Denver “Bull” Randleman followed Lipton in June 2003. Bull was one of the finest noncoms in Easy Company. Like most of the men, he became a highly successful businessman and served for years as the superintendent of a heavy-construction contractor in Louisiana. He spent his last years in Texarkana, Arkansas, where he succumbed to a staph infection at the age of eighty-two in June 2003.
David Webster, a veteran of Easy Company, always said that Sergeant Johnny Martin was the sharpest soldier in the company. After the war Johnny Martin used his G.I. Bill at The Ohio State University before returning to his old job with the railroad. In 1981 he decided to start a new career as housing contractor. Within years he became a millionaire. A frequent attendee at Easy Company reunions, he usually arrived in a fancy car that flaunted his high financial status. With each passing year, he expressed his desire: “to stay alive—that’s all.” Johnny Martin passed away in late January 2005, which left only one survivor from 1st Platoon from Toccoa days. When I received a call that he had passed on, I could not help but think had I not always placed 1st Platoon in the lead, that more of Martin’s platoon members would be alive today.
Next to Floyd Talbert, Sergeant Joe Toye was the best soldier in Easy Company. Among his numerous awards were four Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars. After several operations as a result of losing his leg at Bastogne, Joe was discharged from the army in February 1946. He always respected Bill Guarnere for risking his own life to save him from being hit with more shrapnel. That was the way it was in Easy Company, said Toye, “One Screaming Eagle helping another Screaming Eagle.” Despite his physical handicap, Joe faced the responsibilities of raising a family with the same dedication he demonstrated in serving his country during the war. He worked for Bethlehem Steel for twenty years before retirement. Every man in the company would tell you that when the chips were down in combat, he would like to have Toye protecting his flank. Joe Toye died in 1995, and I was honored to be asked by the family to deliver the eulogy and to serve as a pallbearer. His tombstone said it all: SERGEANT JOE TOYE, 506TH PIR, 101ST AIRBORNE DIVISION. His time in service meant that much to him.
Gone too are “Popeye” Wynn, who apologized to me after being wounded during our attack on the artillery battery on D-Day, and T/Sergeant “Burt” Christenson, whose sketches of D-Day delighted Easy Company veterans for years. T/Sergeant Amos “Buck” Taylor, who replaced Carwood Lipton as platoon sergeant of 3d Platoon after Lipton was wounded at Carentan, remembered Popeye Wynn and Shifty Powers as two of the best infantrymen in Easy Company, always dependable to take the point when the platoon moved out. No history of Easy Company would be complete without the meticulous research of Burt Christenson, who maintained complete rosters of every man who served in the company over the course of the war. Ambrose relied extensively on Christenson to compile a list of casualties, addresses, and rosters in writing Band of Brothers.Christenson passed away in December 1999. Wynn followed three months later. Neither lived long enough to witness the accolades showered by an adoring public following the release of the HBO series.
No veteran who served in Easy Company had a more distinguished military career than Salve “Matt” Matheson, who stayed in the army and rose to the rank of major general. One of the original platoon leaders in Easy Company, Matheson was born in Seattle, Washington, on August 11, 1920. Graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles, he accepted a commission in the U.S. Army and joined Easy Company at Toccoa. Colonel Strayer and Colonel Sink rapidly recognized Matt’s talents and transferred him first to battalion and then to regimental staff, where he served from Normandy through Berchtesgaden. After the war, he served in various command and staff positions in the 82d Airborne Division and fought in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. During the Korean War, Matt participated in the Inchon and Wonson landings and the amphibious withdrawal from Hungnam. In Vietnam, he commanded 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Separate) and served on General William Westmoreland’s staff during the Tet Offensive. Later he commanded the 2d Infantry Division in Korea along the Demilitarized Zone and Army Readiness Region IV before his retirement in the early 1970s. He always took immense pride in being appointed as the Honorary Colonel of the 506th Regiment. General Matheson passed away at his home in California on January 8, 2005, leaving me as the sole surviving officer from Easy Company’s Toccoa days.
My life would certainly have been very different without Company E. I think I would have done a good job in any outfit, but Easy Company made me who I was. They brought out the best in me. If you had anything good in you, they brought it out. That is why as I look back over the six decades since the war, I find that as I meet, interact, and talk to literally thousands of people, I am always measuring them against and hoping to find men like those who served in Easy Company. They are truly my “other” family.
As I look back on the men of Easy Company and the closeness we have enjoyed over the years, I am reminded of the dialogue attributed to a senior German officer bidding farewell to his men in the HBO mini-series. Paraphrasing his words, I would say to Easy Company and the officers and men of the 506th PIR: “It has been a long war; it’s been a hard war. You have fought bravely, proudly for your country. You are a special group of men connected by a bond that only exists in combat. You’ve shared the incommunicable experience of war and have been tested under extreme adversity. You’ve shared foxholes and held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and have suffered together. You’ve lived in an environment totally incomprehensible to those who do not know war. I am proud and deeply honored to have served with every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace. I bid each of you godspeed and ask the Almighty to shower His blessings on you and your families now and for generations to come.”