Band of Brothers

By George Morris

You never expect anyone outside the skinhead community to say anything good about Adolf Hitler, and certainly not at an Army reunion. But in a conference room of a New Orleans hotel in 1992, I asked Don Malarkey to explain the camaraderie he shared with the men he fought beside.

He stopped, rubbed his eyes and apologized for the emotion before he attempted an answer.

“I thank Adolf Hitler for every day that I had with these people,” Malarkey said. “We’re closer than family.”

Malarkey, of course, was a member of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne — whom the world now calls the “Band of Brothers.” But before the HBO series that catapulted them to worldwide fame, Stephen Ambrose’s book by the same name documented their exploits. To my great fortune, Easy Company held a reunion that coincided with the publication of that book, which let me sit down with Ambrose and some of the 45 who attended.

Ambrose was already an eminent scholar at the University of New Orleans and prolific chronicler of World War II, having already written numerous books, including a multi-volume biography of Dwight Eisenhower. When he’d learned about Easy Company holding a 1988 reunion in New Orleans, he showed up with a tape recorder expecting only that their reminiscences could be included among the oral histories he’d planned for the UNO Eisenhower Center’s D-Day Project.

Ambrose didn’t realize what he had. The D-Day Project would grow into the National World War II Museum. The oral histories turned into “Band of Brothers,” following men from training in Toccoa, Georgia through D-Day, Operation Market-Garden, the Battle of the Bulge all the way to war’s end.

“I’ve been doing this business of interviewing veterans for 30 years,” Ambrose said. “All armies through history try to create that kind of a bond. It was done better with this company than any other that I know of — Civil War, Revolutionary War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, whatever.”

That night in New Orleans, nobody could imagine that men like Dick Winters, Eugene “Doc” Roe, Edward “Babe” Hefron, Denver “Bull” Randleman and Bill Guarnere would become household names in a few years. But their stories were that compelling. The casualty rate for Easy Company was almost 150 percent. Friends saw friends die horrible deaths, with no time to grieve. They fought in some of Europe’s fiercest battles, often in horrible weather. They knew that, short of a crippling injury, they wouldn’t go home before Germany surrendered, and they fully expected to be sent to fight Japan when that happened.

“Every one of those men in there will tell you, “If I knew then what I know now, I never would have done that,’ ” Ambrose said.

Yet, even Ambrose may have underestimated the Easy Company bond.

“We went through such tremendous hell,” Malarkey said. “We probably would do it again if we could do it with the same people.”

 

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