Battlefield Souvenir

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Whether because of Sobel or in spite of him, the men of Easy Company coalesced into a crack outfit. They scored so high on a physical-fitness test that the suspicious Department of the Army insisted they take it again—only to find they’d done still better the second time—and they came to be so good at carrying out orders in darkness, one man recalled, that “I could see a silhouette at night and tell you who it was by the way the helmet sat on his head.”

For those of us profoundly grateful never to have been in action, the courage routinely displayed by the 506th perpetually astonishes.

Still, their first jump into combat over the coastal town of Ste.-Mère-Eglise on the night before D-day, might well have been their last. The planes from which they leaped were barely five hundred feet above the ground so that the men landed just seconds after their parachutes opened. In his diary a few days later, Lieutenant Winters tried to remember what the jump had been like: “We’re going 150 MPH. O.K. Let’s go. G-D, there goes my leg pack and every bit of equipment I have. Watch it boy! Watch it! J-C, they’re trying to pick me up with those machineguns. Slip, slip, try and keep close to that leg pack. There it lands beside that hedge. G-D that machine gun. There’s a road, trees—hope I don’t hit them. Thump . . .”

They landed hard, but running. A unit of 50 elite German paratroops had trained a battery of four 105-mm cannon on Utah Beach. Easy Company was ordered to take them out. It was the soldiers’ first taste of combat, but the training Sobel had insisted on paid off. One by one, Winters and his men coolly took the guns. “We fought as a team without standout stars,” a sergeant recalled. “We didn’t have anyone who leaped up and charged a machine gun. We had learned that heroics was the way to be killed without getting the job done.” Easy Company lost four dead and two wounded, but it had silenced an entire battery, killed fifteen Germans, taken twelve prisoner, and wounded or driven off the rest.

Winters and two others were decorated for their actions that day, and in the coming weeks there would be plenty more opportunities for valor. Easy Company led the assault on Carentan, which lay astride the all important highway from Cherbourg to Caen to St.-Lô. When a German machine gun opened up, every man rolled into the ditch, everyone except the normally quiet Winters, who stood up in the middle of the road as bullets flew around him and bellowed as loud as he could, “Come on! Move out! Now!” His men did as they were told. “It was so out of character,” one remembered, “we moved out as one man.”

Later Easy Company would hold the perimeter at Bastogne, lead the counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge, battle across the Rhineland, liberate a Nazi slave labor camp, and finally join the race for Berchtesgaden, from which the Allied command feared Hitler might direct a guerrilla war.

Band of Brothers is filled with stories of combat, but it is the tiny details of life between battles that remain with me: The man wounded so early in the fighting that he was a novelty in his London hospital ward and was solemnly awarded not one but three Purple Hearts; the sergeant who could not stop from singing “I’ll Be Seeing You” over and over again to fill the snowy silence between shellings at Bastogne; the German soldier, also at Bastogne, who stumbled out of the forest and into Easy Company’s line of fire, dropped his pants, and was allowed to finish relieving himself before Winters shouted for him to surrender. The men of Easy Company were unabashed about the looting they did during the war’s final weeks. Having done what they did, seen what they had seen, they felt—and still feel—that they were entitled to all the Lugers and watches they could “liberate,” and it is hard to argue with them.

The Army Air Force beat Easy Company to the Eagle’s Nest. But there was still plenty of loot to be had. One man took home two of Hitler’s photo albums. Two more made off with the Führer’s flatware. Another commandeered Hermann Göring’s Mercedes-Benz and, when ordered to turn it over to the top brass, made sure all the windows were shot out first.

Then, on May 7, 1945—the day Ted Peck scooped up this gift for my grandfather—word came that the Germans had at last surrendered to Dwight Eisenhower. The war in Europe was over.

Easy Company celebrated with champagne from Göring’s cellars, and Ambrose’s book includes a memorable Signal Corps snap shot of a sergeant, surrounded by empties, doing his rueful best to get up the next morning.

Band of Brothers is a vivid reminder of what ordinary Americans can do in extraordinary circumstances, but it also helped me see my battlefield souvenir in a new and more reassuring light, not as a memento of the evil man who once owned it but as a reminder of the men who obliterated the evil.