The story of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, whose story through WW2 is unique and compelling. Ambrose weaves deep research and endless interviews with the men of Easy to create something truly incredible to read. Upsetting, touching, thrilling, emotional, uplifting all at once; it's a hell of a story.
The men who had volunteered to become paratroopers were children of the depression era. They had a hunger to do, to be and to act. They all had a love of country, even after the preceding lean years they had all experienced.
They all had a desire to be and be among the best, because their view was that it was better to be in front in the most danger with someone you could rely on, than instead further back with someone you couldn't. There was an intense training regime that made sure of this. Currahee, the hill next to the camp, was where they ran 3 miles up and 3 miles down several times a week.
'The result of these shared experiences was a closeness unknown to all outsiders. Comrades are closer than friends, closer than brothers.' (Page 21)
There was a competitive atmosphere and it was difficult to make it through the training without washing out. In the 506th PIR, From 500 officers, only 148 made it through. From 5300 enlisted me, only 1800 made it through.
Officers were almost universally respected, especially Winters. Sobel, though, was universally hated as a 'chickenshit' officer: petty meanness, careerism and sadism that did nothing to help win the war and everything to turn the men sour against him.
Of Winters: 'He was an officer who got the men to perform because he expected nothing but the best, and "you liked him so much you just hated to let him down." He was, and is, all but worshiped by the men of E Company.' (Page 23)
After Toccoa, the men moved onto Fort Benning and Camp Marshall for jump and combat training. Jump training was broken into four steps:
'The first man stepped up to the open door. All the men had been ordered to look out at the horizon, not straight down, for obvious psychological reasons.' (Page 31)
'"From then on the jump was fun. I drifted down, oscillating, or, as civilians would say, swinging to and fro, and joyously looking around. The sky was filled with high-spirited troopers shouting back and forth."' (Page 32)
In Camp Marshall in North Caroline, they went on manoeuvres at day and night, even more jumps, simulated fighting behind enemy lines. There were promotions and rearrangements as Battalion HQ was staffed mostly with officers from Easy Company.
5000 men were packed into a ship made for only 1000. It was cramped and unpleasant, but it took them where they needed to go: England. First Liverpool to dock, then down to the small village of Aldbourne where they would be based for their training.
'In Aldbourne, they were in the midst of a small English village, where the people were conservative, set in their ways, apprehensive about all these young Yanks in their midst.' (Page 44)
They were no longer isolated men in training, but among real people in Little England. In another sense they were among people who had long been a part of the war, being as close as they were to mainland Europe there.
'Well-disciplined as they were, the men quickly caught on to the basic idea that they should save their hell-raising for Swindon, Birmingham, or London; in Aldbourne, they were to drink their beer quietly in the pubs, in the British manner.' (Page 45)
Their training quickly intensified, and they spent a good deal of their time in training that helped them in 'getting to know the ground'. That is, they went on problems that helped them use ground—the way it was shaped and laid out—to their best advantage.
Against the backdrop of weekend partying by the men in nearby Swindon, Resentment of Sobel grew to fever pitch. There was also the matter of a stand-off between him and winters along with the threat of court martial. The NCOs wrote letters declaring their intent to lose their stripes, and it was resolved by Col Sink quietly removing Sobel to a training facility.
'Beer was cheap and plentiful, once out of Aldbourne all restraints were removed, they were getting ready to kill or be killed, they were for the most part twenty or twenty-one years old.' (Page 48)
'Their youth and vigor vibrated in every park and pub. To Piccadilly, Hyde Park, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, Victoria they came. The uniforms of the Canadians, South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders, the Free French, Polish, Belgium, Holland, and of course the English and Americans were everywhere.' (Page 49)
In the run up before D Day, they were thrown against all. kinds of simulated attacked and problems at night and day. They were being weighed down by ever-increasing amounts of gear and doing practice jumps, all in preparation for one thing.
'Training had come to an end. There had been twenty-two months of it, more or less continuous. The men were as hardened physically as it was possible for human beings to be.' (Page 61)
The jump on Normandy turned to chaos. The planes hit a bank of clouds and immediately spread apart, as they are supposed to, to avoid hitting each other. Then the anti-aircraft fire started, leading some of the inexperienced pilots to panic and send their men out sooner than they should have so that they could get out of there. No pathfinders had made it for Easy company's drop, meaning there was no signal from the ground. The men dropped, spread out and scattered and very few anywhere near their drop zones.
'Winters prayed the whole way over, prayed to live through it, prayed that he wouldn't fail. "Every man, I think, had in his mind, 'How will I react under fire?'"' (Page 67)
'They jumped much too low from planes that were flying much too fast. They were carrying far too much equipment and using an untested technique that turned out to be a major mistake.' (Page 71)
When dropping, their leg bags snapped and fell away from them, leaving many of them without adequate equipment. They were scattered over 20km and were hardly able to complete their original objectives, but they still did what they were trained to do: harass, confuse and disorient the enemy. Which they did.
'All across the peninsula, throughout the night and into the day of D-Day, paratroopers were doing the same-fighting skirmishes, joining together in ad hoc units, defending positions, harassing the Germans, trying to link up with their units. This was exactly what they had been told to do. Their training and confidence thus overcame what could have been a disaster, and thereby turned the scattered drop from a negative into a plus.' (Page 75)
In the morning, while the landing took place, once-scattered groups of Easy company had begun to form up along with other parts of the 506. Winters led an attack on a position of fixed artillery pieces that were shelling Utah beach from Brecourt Manor. His plan of attack is still taught to this day, and it's assumed to have saved many lives on those beaches. The men took risk in those first 24 hours they might not have taken had it not been their first time.
They next moved to take Carentan. When the German MG opened up, the men split and dived into the ditches. Winters stayed up top, dancing around the bullets, shouting at the men to get moving. He didn't get hit. After taking Carentan, they remained fighting in the area for another three weeks, suffering 50% casualties.
'Malarkey recalled that during "this tremendous period of fire I could hear someone reciting a Hail Mary. I glanced up and saw Father John Maloney holding his rosary and walking down the center of the road to administer last rites to the dying at the road juncture."' (Page 97)
'Easy had jumped into Normandy on June 6 with 139 officers and men. Easy was pulled out of the line on June 29 with 74 officers and men present for duty.' (Page 105)
On their return there was a realisation of the sheer reality of the number of dead. They had to grapple with the guilt of surviving, and work their way around the psychology of dealing with death. Unlike before their first jump, they were now more apprehensive of a second jump because they knew the reality of what faced them.
'The men of Easy have little memory of that week in London. The American paratroopers were the first soldiers to return to England from Normandy' (Page 108)
'In short, the operation was a roll of the dice, with the Allies putting all their chips into the bet.' (Page 121)
Market Garden was a chance for the Allies to take a succession of bridges in Holland, allowing British armour to cross the Rhine and enter into the German heartlands long before it would otherwise have been possible. It was a high risk operation, though, contingent on umpteen things going correctly.
Men who had been wounded in Normandy went AWOL from hospitals to get back to Easy earlier than they should have, just so they didn't miss out. One man who'd been shot in the ass had to stand up on the plane over because it was too painful for him to sit down the whole way.
'The Dutch were ecstatic to be liberated. The parish priest, Hussen of Son, handed out cigars. Orange flags, forbidden by the German occupiers, flew from the windows.' (Page 124)
After initial success and catching the Germans by surprise, they began to counterattack and the situation quickly became difficult. Bitter fighting started and Easy had to pull back. Market Garden had been a huge intelligence failure, the assumption being that the Germans had broken morale, poor supplies and bad organisation. None of this was true. About 8000 British paras were lost in Arnhem, where the fighting was worst.
'Winters spotted a patrol coming toward Uden. He ran down the stairs, gathered the platoon, and said, "Men, there's nothing to get excited about. The situation is normal; we are surrounded."' (Page 131)
The failure of Market Garden had about five causes according to Ambrose:
During Market Garden, Winters led a daring raid on two bunched up SS groups, inflicting heavy casualties on them.
'He was exhausted. ... He couldn't understand it, until he counted He realized that he had fired a total of fifty-seven clips of M-1 ammunition, 456 rounds. That night while trying to stay awake on outpost duty and trying to calm down after being so keyed up, Christenson pissed thirty-six times.' (Page 152)
The mentality of the man 'on the line' comes into focus for Ambrose. The mentality of the here-and-now was dominant for the front line soldier. For them, there was no past or future; they simply did not exist. This led to unusual behaviour, including stopping in the middle of a firefight to seek souvenirs such as Luger pistols and swastika flags.
'Souvenirs appeared to give the soldier some assurance of his future beyond the destructive environment of the present. They represented a promise that he might survive."' (Page 155)
Soldiers also quickly learnt, more than civilians would ever know, that everything external is replaceable. Life is not. They made a point of not learning the names of replacements because they knew they wouldn't be around for very long.
'The experiences of men in combat produces emotions stronger than civilians can know, emotions of terror, panic, anger, sorrow, bewilderment, helplessness, uselessness, and each of these feelings drained energy and mental stability.' (Page 203)
The Ardennes Counteroffensive by the Germans was a desperate final push and it succeeded, at first, thanks to the following:
The offensive was enormously damaging and killed/captured many Allied troops. Eisenhower, though, moved quickly to identify Bastogne as a strategic point to be held at all costs and organised a massive resupply effort to take troops and supplies to the line to hold it there.
'When Easy set out to meet the Wehrmacht on the last, greatest German offensive, the company was under strength, inadequately clothed, and insufficiently armed.' (Page 175)
The conditions were hell, frozen over. The men dug foxholes in the woods North of Bastogne itself, totally cut off, and held the line for around a month under constant fire and attack from the Germans. In the foxholes, talk turned to home.
'We talked about what we were going to do when we got home, about a trip to Paris in a couple of weeks, go to the Follies. Mainly we talked about going home.' (Page 183)
In January of 1945, Patton's armoured division broke through to relieve the 101st.
'The 101st still had a complaint. As the story of the Battle of the Bulge is told today, it is one of George Patton and his Third Army coming to the rescue of the encircled 101st, like the cavalry come to save the settlers in their wagon circle. No member of the 101st has ever agreed that the division needed to be rescued!' (Page 191)
After the counteroffensive was broken, they had to move North to take Foy and Noville.
Of all the people that they had met since coming from the states, the men of Easy ended up liking the German people and Germany the best. They had the creature comforts they were used to from home, the German people not having experience as many hardships during the war, their homes were more comfortable and better equipped for their stays.
'The reactions of the men of Easy to the German people depended on their different preconceptions and experiences. Some found reasons to reinforce their hatred; others loved the country and the people; nearly every one ended up changing his mind; all of them were fascinated.' (Page 248)
The further they went into Germany, the more the German would surrender. Sometimes in pockets, sometimes en masse.
'The men began to see German soldiers in small groups, trying to surrender. Then larger groups. Finally, more field gray uniforms than anyone could have imagined existed. Easy Company was in the midst of a German army in disintegration.' (Page 261)
The men also began to see camps of displaced persons, realising the truth of the success of the third reich for what it really was, a cruel economy built on the backs of slaves. They also found at least one jewish prisoner camp which horrified the men. General Taylor ordered local townspeople, under martial law, to clear things up.
Towards the very end of the war, the 101st moved towards Berchtesgaden in Bavaria (the spiritual home of the Nazi party) to forestall any attempt by remaining Nazi fanatics to start a guerrilla war from there. They arrived to no resistance and took up residence there and then, looting what they could.
There followed much celebration and revelry as the Germans surrendered and as they discovered enormous stockpiles of 'Hitler's champagne' and other booze.
'Troop Carrier Command lent the regiment a C-47 for the afternoon, and there was a jump of twelve men into the lake. Food and drink was plentiful.' (Page 281)
From there, they moved to Kaprun in Austria where, finally, after much more celebration and relaxation, the company disbanded.
'The company had been born in July 1942 at Toccoa. Its existence essentially came to an end almost exactly three years later in Zell am See, Austria. In those three years the men had seen more, endured more, and contributed more than most men can see, endure, or contribute in a lifetime.' (Page 289)
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