By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
PHILADELPHIA – If anyone had the poor taste to ask “Wild Bill” Guarnere how he lost his right leg, he’d growl, “A shark bit it off, don’t bother me.”
For almost 50 years, he and his best buddy, Edward “Babe” Heffron, didn’t talk about their war experiences. Not to each other, not to family and certainly not to strangers. But they never forgot a minute of them. That’s the way it was. They could be in a bar watching the Saturday Notre Dame game, where almost everyone else was a World War II vet of the Army, Navy, Air Corps or Marines. The war never came up.
That all changed in 1993 when historian Stephen Ambrose’s book “Band of Brothers” was released, and more so when it later became a highly acclaimed HBO miniseries.
“Band of Brothers” chronicles the accomplishments of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, which in the brief period from June 6, 1944 until the end of the war in Europe proved itself to be one of the most efficient and deadly fighting units ever created.
Guarnere and Heffron were born in South Philadelphia 18 days apart in 1923, and are survivors of the crucible of the Great Depression. Guarnere was from 17th and McKean Streets, either in St. Thomas or St. Monica Parish, depending on which side of McKean Street his parents and their 10 children were living at the time.
Heffron was from Wilder Street near Second in Sacred Heart Parish where his parents and their five children shared a “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” – three rooms, one atop the other in a “gut” or alley near the church.
After Pearl Harbor the men didn’t wait for the draft, they enlisted, choosing not just the army but its roughest, toughest fighting unit, the paratroopers.
Guarnere got to Camp Toccoa, Ga., in July 1942 where the newly formed 506th Paratroop Infantry Regiment was to train as a unit. He was assigned to Easy Company, headed by Lieutenant Herbert Sobel.
Sobel was a martinet and demanding taskmaster; no matter how hard the other units trained, Easy trained twice as hard. Under this rigorous program Easy became a highly disciplined unit, and Guarnere rose to the rank of sergeant. But the men hated Sobel, not only because of the seemingly mindless discipline, but because field maneuvers showed he lacked the necessary tactical skills needed by a field commander.
“Out of 150 men, 149 including me, wanted to kill him” Guarnere said. “We knew if we went into combat with him we’d all be dead.”
The 506th was in training in England in December 1943, awaiting deployment when the NCOs, including Guarnere, went to the regimental commander to turn in their stripes rather than serve under Sobel. The commander got the message and transferred Sobel to a training unit.
Easy Company, along with the rest of the 101st, received its baptism of fire in Normandy on June 6, 1944: D-Day.
They were parachuted in behind enemy lines – with Easy’s mission to destroy defenses trained on Utah Beach. At first, things did not go well for Easy. They parachuted miles from their target zone and their new commander, Captain Thomas Meehan, a Philadelphian, was one of 18 members of the company killed when their plane crashed. Under Lieutenant Dick Winters, 11 troopers, including Guarnere, located and eliminated an enemy artillery battery aimed at Utah Beach, killing or wounding all of the 50 or so German soldiers manning it.
Winters was a Mennonite. “They don’t want to fight; I called him the Quaker. I didn’t know if he could lead us,” Guarnere said. But Winters proved more than competent, and a great leader.
Guarnere, who three days earlier learned his brother Earnest, a Navy medic, was killed in Italy, was especially active in the fight, taking his grief out on the enemy. He later received the Silver Star for his action that day. “If I didn’t kill them, they would have killed me, and I wouldn’t be here talking to you today,” he said.
Meanwhile, Heffron was training for a different airborne unit but after the Normandy invasion he was assigned to Easy Company on the first wave of replacements for the killed or wounded. As a member of Guarnere’s platoon he was assigned as a machine gunner. The two men with shared South Philly roots hit it off immediately.
Easy’s next big campaign came in the fall of 1944, as part of Operation Market Garden, an attempt to break through to Germany by way of Holland. A strategic failure, it nevertheless helped weaken the German forces before the final push the next year. Both Guarnere and Heffron saw vigorous fighting and Heffron suffered minor wounds which briefly took him out of action. Hospitalized, he went AWOL and returned to his unit.
Before leaving home his mother had given him a scapular and rosary, both of which he always wore. While trying to barrel his way over a dense hedgerow when under fire, the rosary flew off and he was about to risk exposure to retrieve it when he found it had landed in his helmet, which had also flown off. “I still have both the scapular and the rosary,” he said.
Guarnere received his first serious wound during that campaign, taking a bullet in his leg. He too went AWOL from the hospital to get back to his men but was caught, court-martialed and demoted to private. Eventually, they let him return to Easy, where the court martial was ignored and he kept his stripes.
Easy’s greatest test was the Battle of the Bulge, when as part of the 101st they were sent to Bastogne to hold it until reinforcements could come. Bastogne, where seven roads converged, was vital to protecting the port of Antwerp, a major staging area for the Allied Forces.
“Bastogne was the hardest. The weather was so cold our weapons were freezing,” Guarnere said.
Typical of Airborne units, Easy had many Catholics and each regiment had a Catholic chaplain. At Bastogne it was Father John Maloney, who came up to the front and celebrated Mass using the hood of a jeep as an altar.
Due to the danger of shelling, the men did not congregate before the altar. Instead, they stood apart. “At least if we die, we are going to die in the state of grace,” Heffron remarked to fellow soldier Skip Muck after receiving Communion.
“You’re right, Heffron,” Muck replied. He was killed a few days later.
Seeing friends die was a constant occurrence, but at no time did the men of Easy even consider giving up. In spite of many deaths and injuries, not a single man in the Company was ever taken prisoner.
Both Guarnere and Heffron insist, even if instead of saying “Nuts,” General Anthony McAuliffe had acceded to the German demand for surrender, Easy Company would have disobeyed the order and kept fighting.
Guarnere’s war ended near Bastogne Jan. 3, 1945. He was in his foxhole praying as never before, because the unit was under heavy artillery fire. Joe Toye, another sergeant, was hit, his leg was mangled and he was bleeding severely. Guarnere crawled out to pull him to safety, and he too was hit – his leg was blown off. Nobody thought either man would survive, but they both did.
Heffron continued in the war, fighting through Alsace Lorraine and ultimately was the first man to get to Hitler’s retreat in Berchtesgaden. In Dusseldorf he had an extraordinary experience. He and another soldier came to a bunker. Standard procedure was to kick the door in and throw a grenade, killing whoever was inside. Heffron kicked in the door, but something made him say, “Browning, hold your grenade.”
Heffron trained his Tommy gun on the inside and looked. There was young woman of about 20 with two little children holding on to her skirt and an elderly couple behind her.
“It really upset me knowing what I almost did, but a voice told me, ‘don’t throw the grenade,'” Heffron remembers. “The little girls must be 60 now and the woman a grandmother I hope they have all had good lives.”
After the war Guarnere and Heffron returned to their row-homes in South Philly and got on with their own lives. Guarnere married Frannie, the girl he met at age 13 and kissed goodbye before going off to war. Heffron eventually married too. Both raised families.
After “Band of Brothers” was written they became mildly famous, and a few years ago co-wrote their own book, along with Robyn Post; “Brothers in Battle: Best of Friends,” which is every bit as good at the Ambrose book.
Now 85, they are treated as heroes.
The real heroes, Guarnere and Heffron contend, are the 51 men of Easy Company killed in action, as well as the medics and chaplains who did so much for them. When Father Maloney died in New York, Guarnere was part of the honor guard at his funeral.
“The greatest heroes are the mothers,” Guarnere added. “It doesn’t matter if they are American, German or Russian. The mothers cry, not for a day but for the rest of their lives.”
Not a day goes by that he doesn’t pray for his brother Earnest.
Heffron prays too, usually at St. John the Evangelist Church in Center City. He prays for all the men who died. “I go to St. John’s because it’s near the OTB track at 17th Street,.” he said.
Heffron loves the horses; he bets by the jockey, and sometimes Guarnere bets with him too, but like a true South Philly native, he picks the horse by its number. They still see each other almost every day.
Brothers in battle: best of friends.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.