The tumult and jubilation surrounding her was a celebration of the liberation of Eindhoven on September 18, 1944, by American GIs — a day of joy and hope, when Allied forces dropped into Holland at the beginning of Operation Market-Garden. Ultimately, however, the operation would be unsuccessful, and it would be months before all Netherlanders could celebrate their liberation with certainty.
But here on September 18, 2002, the Dutch were pouring free beer and wine as fast as the American and British veterans and their friends could drink it. A swing band played ’40s classics. A bagpipe troupe strode through the throng piping and drumming at full throttle, to the crowd’s great delight. The Brits sang ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ To add to the excitement, accompanying our tour group in Eindhoven that day was the man credited with being the first Allied soldier to enter town: Edward ‘Babe’ Heffron of Company E, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division — the Easy Company of paratroopers made famous in the book Band of Brothers.
That was just one of the unforgettable moments some 40 of us were lucky enough to experience on a Band of Brothers tour in September 2002, which followed up on the success of HBO’s television miniseries. World War II Magazine’s editor, Chris Anderson, who has been involved with Easy Company and followed its story for several years, had designed the tour, and it was operated by Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours of New Orleans. The World War II and Ambrose connections made it unique. After all, it was the late Stephen Ambrose who wrote the book that became the television series.
Heffron and fellow Easy Company vet Bill Guarnere were along on the tour with us. World War II‘s Anderson and Easy Company historian Jake Powers were our guides. Easy Company’s revered ex-CO Dick Winters came along on videotape, in commentary recorded by Anderson before the tour; we watched the videos on the bus as we rode between sites.
It was a compatible group of people, all ages, all interested in the same thing: getting closer to, understanding and appreciating the experience of a combat soldier in World War II. There was always more to talk about than there was time — on the bus, over dinner, until late in the hotel bar. We had all seen the HBO series, of course, but watching it on the bus as we traveled the roads Easy had followed, with Guarnere and Heffron watching with us, added a dimension that’s hard to describe. It lifted the history out of television and made it real to us — so real that we occasionally felt we could touch it.
The tour followed Easy Company’s route almost precisely, beginning in north Georgia, where the company was formed. There’s only one building left of the Camp Toccoa of 1942, but the heat, the humidity and the hill are still there. We climbed the potholed dirt road up Currahee in an old school bus — our big bus couldn’t make the narrow track. Bouncing sometimes halfway to the ceiling, we didn’t work the way the 506th recruits worked, but the mountain let us know it was there.
The next day we were walking the lanes of Aldbourne, England, where Easy Company waited and trained for the D-Day jump. We ran our fingers along the slats of the stable where Cleveland Petty and others carved their names and initials as permanent reminders of their passing through. We sat on the bench at the top of the Aldbourne churchyard where Winters would sit at the end of a day, and where he met the English couple who became first his landlords and then his lifelong friends. The current owners of the shop where Winters was quartered let us all have a look into his old room.
We even flew the English Channel in a Douglas C-47. For the flight, we split into two groups. The first went in early afternoon. The second, my group, was delayed until almost dusk — a mild annoyance that turned into another unforgettable experience which helped bring home the point of the tour.
Thus we, like Easy Company on the evening of June 5, 1944, flew into the night. The sun was setting as the plane, with all its noise and vibration, seemed to float off the runway. The C-47 climbed to not far above jump altitude — maybe 1,500 feet, I guessed — as the fields and forests of the south coast of England faded into the dusk, and the whitecapped Channel slid beneath us as the last light faded.
We skimmed below a thickening cloud bank, watching the dark silhouette of the Cotentin Peninsula — where Easy had jumped — come up on the right. We crossed the now-black coast of Normandy somewhere between Omaha and the beaches the British had landed on. At about the time Allied paratroopers would have begun seeing flak bursts and tracers, we saw only the tiny lights of towns like Port-en-Bessin, St. Laurent and Grandcamp-les-Bains tracing the coastline.
Then, light again. The bright circle of the city of Bayeux, the sharp spire of its cathedral unmistakable at the very center, glided past as we descended toward Caen.
The next day we stood with Guarnere where he had hit the ground in the town square of Ste. Mre-Eglise. We paid an emotional tribute at a monument to the men killed in the crash of the C-47 carrying Easy Company CO Thomas Meehan. The group walked the field at Brcourt Manor where Winters, Guarnere and a dozen or so fellow soldiers destroyed a German battery that had been shelling Utah Beach. We posed for a group picture in the square at Ste. Marie-du-Mont, on the spot where a group from Easy had stood on June 7, 1944.
Nearing the end of our day, the tour proceeded to the small farm where Easy spent its first full night in France. It’s where Winters walked down a country road alone and promised himself that, if he made it home, he would buy a farm and live in peace. I walked down the lane to a sharp jog, where the hedgerow ended and opened into a field. Alone, I could look off into the distance and think in silence about what Winters had vowed. I silently thanked the rest of the group for not choosing to walk down the road that far just then.
At Carentan, the road down which Easy attacked is still there. The window where the MG42 was waiting is there, too, rebuilt after the war. It is a long, straight shot down that road, with little place to hide. You can see why the company jumped into the ditch when the German machine-gunner opened up. You can see what a humbling act of leadership it was for Winters to stay on the road, literally kicking butt to get the company moving again. You can see what courage it took to get back up out of the ditch and charge down that road.
In the American cemetery above Omaha Beach, we paid our respects for the first time at the graves of Easy Company’s casualties. As we would again later on, we laid down bouquets and then stood for a moment of silence.
Paris was then, fortunately, just an overnight ride between Normandy and Holland. We were happy to have a long dinner and an early night, or to go take a quick look at the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame Cathedral or another landmark that someone might never have seen before. No one felt like a tourist.
After Eindhoven and its celebration of liberation, the group visited the airborne museum in the former hotel west of Arnhem where the British 1st Parachute Division held out as long as it could before surrendering. We looked out from the heights along the Lower Rhine where German artillery spotters watched for the men of Easy to poke their heads up from their foxholes. Then we crossed the river to what everybody calls the Island.
Our bus parked at the crossroads on the dike, looking down at the field where some 30 men of Easy surprised and destroyed two SS companies. We would have known where we were without being told; it looked like what we had all seen on television. There was the ditch along the dike down which Winters and a small group made the night attack on the machine gun that had been set up there; the field that Winters, running ahead, led the platoon across in the next morning’s attack; the raised roadway onto which he jumped, where he found himself looking straight into the eyes of a single sentry. Was this the place where — and maybe, you ask yourself, the reason why — he fired his last shots of the war?
The farm at Schoonderlogt, battalion headquarters in 1944, still looks just as it does in that often-seen photograph of a young and quietly confident Winters, helmet under his arm, standing in front of an archway. We all posed for pictures in front of the same archway. Someone came up with a helmet we could hold the identical way. It was fun, but after what we had seen and felt, it rang a little hollow.
We went on to Bastogne. Just outside that pivotal Belgian crossroads town is the gray, star-shaped monument on the heights of Mardasson. You can walk on its top and see Bois Jacques, dark on the low ridge just to the north, where Easy helped hold the line. The town is to your back, and you can feel how tight that ring must have been in the cold and snow of December 1944 — a very small circle indeed to be inside when surrounded by people shelling you.
Our first close look at Bois Jacques was from the brick train station, now a farmhouse. The tracks are gone, marked by a grassy path. Just across the path and to the right are the woods where Easy tested the German lines in a combat patrol, and Heffron lost his foxhole mate, John Julian. Across a pasture, flanking the road going north, are more dark pines, planted in rows so close together that no sunlight reaches the forest floor.
‘Beau Jack’s Woods,’ some of the vets seem to call it. You can’t see into it very far at all. We walked into the trees with Guarnere and Heffron, seeing more and more small depressions between the rows. Foxholes, now almost filled with the soft humus of a half-century’s accumulation of pine needles. Someone dug into one and came up with a corroded M-1 cartridge casing.
From the north side of Bois Jacques, the woods where Guarnere lost his leg, we looked down into Foy, across the field where Lieutenant Dike lost his nerve. Then most of us walked the three-quarters of a mile or so into the town, where pitted walls still testify to Easy’s attack.
Later that afternoon we gathered in Rachamps, where a local choir had serenaded the company the night it had taken the village. While we were there, Belgian veterans, townspeople and officials from around the region came to honor Heffron and Guarnere and plant a tree for peace. Then we went with a large local crowd into the church to hear a concert, just as Easy Company had done.
The choir sang like angels, first two songs in French that had been sung in 1945, one that translates as ‘God, Protect My Country’ and one to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ They ended with a song in English that Easy had not heard more than a half-century earlier, but its haunting sound rang loud and clear through every heart in the church and left few eyes dry. It was an American spiritual, I think, that we all recognized but none could name.
‘Freedom!’ it began. ‘Freedom!’ And the choir hung on the last syllable as it echoed down the stone nave. ‘No more running,’ I think it went. ‘No more shooting. No more fighting over me….But before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and come home, dear Lord, to thee.’
The applause was thunderous. Nobody said much for several minutes.
The next morning, after a night in Luxembourg, we visited Easy Company’s graves in the American cemetery there. One is Julian’s. Heffron hadn’t been there before. He went ahead of us, paid his silent respects, touched the top of the cross and turned away from the rest of us. His shoulders were shaking.
The tour now passed back through France, and we listened to Heffron on the riverbank at Haguenau, where Easy’s ‘last patrol’ had stolen across in the night to take prisoners — and had paid for it with another life. There the often-taciturn Heffron talked longer than he had before on the tour. Loss, especially, seemed to be on his mind.
We went on into Germany. It was oddly surprising to realize it was the first time Guarnere had ever been there. He hadn’t made it this far the first time.
The rain that had begun the night before now followed us down the autobahns across most of southern Germany, sealing us off from the world in a thick, wet blanket. It began breaking up as we arrived at Dachau. We would have gone to the site of the camp Easy liberated at Buchloe if there had been anything left of it.
Dachau is preserved as a memorial, with a museum that was being remodeled when we were there. When the camp was built, it was a couple of miles from the town that now looks directly over the barbed wire at its remains. The encircling farmland was a sealed military area; one didn’t ask what was happening there. The overarching question — how could such things happen in a ‘civilized’ country in the 20th century? — was on everyone’s mind. The memorial’s director said she had no real answer.
We ended the tour where Easy had ended the war, traveling into the far corner of Germany, near the Austrian border. While in Berchtesgaden, we visited nearby Obersalzberg, site of Adolf Hitler’s second capital and his lavish Berghof mountain home (of which nothing remains), along with the tunnels intended for a last-ditch Nazi defense that never happened. Finally we moved on to Zell am See and Kaprun, where Easy secured prisoners and relaxed, and from where, eventually, the Band of Brothers began disbanding, going their separate ways home.
Our last dinner of the tour was to be held in the Kehlsteinhaus, the Eagle’s Nest, the mountaintop retreat built for Hitler above Berchtesgaden as a 50th birthday present from the Nazi Party. Easy Company GIs were the first to reach it at the very end of the war.
The Eagle’s Nest is now a modest restaurant for day visitors. It was spared from destruction because Hitler, it turns out, rarely went there. But the rain had turned to snow on the mountains, and the steep access road was closed, preventing our visit.
It didn’t matter. It had been a fantastic trip. The Eagle’s Nest and its gilded elevator and panoramic views would have been icing on the cake. It turns out we didn’t need the icing.
In Winters’ last tape of the trip, he expressed his hope that we would help keep alive the story of Easy Company. Each of us hopes we can. It’s a story that, if you listen closely, has unexpected lessons to teach new generations.
The Band of Brothers tour went a second time, in April 2003, with Easy Company veterans Earl McClung and Paul Rogers. A third trip is planned for May 14-28, 2005. It is expensive, at $6,275 — chartering C-47s isn’t cheap — but as the ads say, some things really are priceless.
Several small specialty companies offer a broad range of other worthwhile tours to different World War II battlefields in both Europe and the Pacific, and some larger companies also offer a few. Many of them follow the routes of specific units. They all tell stories of endurance, courage and sacrifice that apply in almost infinite variation to the war’s veterans. Each story is as compelling in its uniqueness as that of Easy Company. Those stories, too, should not be forgotten. Keeping one alive helps keep all alive.
This article was written by Bob Anderson and originally appeared in World War II‘s 2004 Special Collector’s Edition of issue of Band of Brothers.