Their bravery and strength of character was famously dramatized in the lauded 2001 HBO series Band of Brothers. But the real tale of the American paratroopers who fought in some of the fiercest campaigns of World War Two is even more inspiring. This, then, is the story of the 101st Airborne Division’s Easy Company
Company E’s tale began in July 1942 at the U.S. military base Camp Toccoa, Georgia. It was here that one of America’s first parachute regiments would train in preparation for an eventual assault.
Interestingly, many young American men wanted to become paratroopers, both out of a sense of duty and as a personal test. Richard Winters, the man who would go on to command Easy Company, recalled that it was “a new thing that looked like a challenge.”
But becoming a paratrooper was no easy task. For instance, the buildings at Camp Toccoa had no windows and little to no electricity, and the physical training was exhausting. Don’t believe us? Among the defining features of the program were the twice daily marches up Currahee, a 1,700-foot-high hill near the Camp.
Yet it was precisely because of the difficulty of their time at Toccoa that Easy became the sole outfit in the airborne division to skip the physical conditioning stage of jump school. So a total of five successful parachute jumps later, the soldiers received their “jump wings” to certify them as paratroopers.
By this point, the men who remained were not just strong physically and mentally, but they were also brought together by close bonds of friendship. So in September 1943, Easy Company relocated to England to make the final preparations for the liberation of Europe.
The company spent the next year continuing their drills, not knowing when they would be dropped behind enemy lines. Finally, after a detailed briefing in June 1944, 139 members of Easy lifted off the runway. These courageous men joined over 13,000 other American paratroopers and spearheaded the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Their transport planes reached the Cherbourg Peninsula of Normandy in the early hours of June 6, 1944. The sky was filled with anti-aircraft fire and many of the planes were hit and destroyed. Others simply missed their drop targets. Nevertheless, the paratroopers were given the go-ahead to jump.
By sunrise, however, Lieutenant Winters was informed that his superior was dead. Therefore, he was now the commander of Easy. At that time, though, Winters was able to assemble only 12 of his own men – but was nevertheless tasked with capturing Brécourt Manor. This 60-man-strong German position held four Howitzer guns, firing on the landing beaches and delaying the Allied advance.
In spite of everything, though, Easy Company was able to secure the position while losing only one soldier using a quite brilliant display of infantry tactics. And, as they would discover only later on, their success here saved the lives of countless soldiers and greatly accelerated the liberation of Normandy.
But this was only the beginning for Company E. In fact, Easy Company remained in the thick of the fighting for a month until the key city of Carentan was captured. They were then sent back to England to recuperate, but only 74 of the 139 men who had made the jump on D-Day remained.
The next step, then, was to fill up with replacements, bringing the company back up to a strength of 154 men. This readied them for their upcoming mission: to jump into the Netherlands on September 17. Their goal? Securing key bridges for a ground assault that would liberate the occupied country.
So for the next few weeks Easy Company fought a number of small but fierce battles, finding themselves surrounded by the enemy on all sides. Then, on October 2, they were redirected to hold a defensive line along the Rhine river. This was known as “The Island.”
This two-mile-long line had previously been held by a much larger British division, but Easy was expected to do the same job with just 130 men. Nevertheless, Easy held the line and even led a successful infantry charge that obliterated two German companies. However, when they were finally recalled back to France on November 25, the company had only 98 men left.
Still, Easy Company’s biggest test was yet to come. That’s because Hitler unleashed the last major German offensive of the war only a few short weeks later. As a result, the Easy men were deployed to hold the small Belgian town of Bastogne. This site was a key crossroads that would prove to be the focal point of the massive Battle of the Bulge.
For the next twelve days, the men of Easy held their ground in bitterly cold trenches outside of the town. They were surrounded, running low on supplies and had no winter clothing. Yet Easy Company managed to hold Bastogne until General Patton’s 3rd Army broke through to relieve them.
And there was still more. Yes, the men of Easy would again be thrown into the crucible of war in 1945. Fortunately, though, their missions – such as the capture of Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” retreat – from here on out were, on the surface, far less dangerous. So, by the end of the war, some 366 men had served in Easy Company, with 49 being killed.
After the war, then, the men made their best attempts to transition into civilian life. Winters, for example, worked for the company of his wartime friend Louis Nixon. And, given everything they went through in WWII, many members of Easy Company remained connected and tried their best to hold regular reunions.
And it was at one of these reunions that historian Stephen Ambrose learned the story of Easy Company and decided to write a book based on their experiences. That book would go on to inspire the 2001 HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, which turned the veterans into inspirational figures.
Sadly, Major Richard Winters passed away in 2011, and today only a few of the men who served in Easy Company still remain. But it’s as important as ever to remember their sacrifices. After all, the story of these, and so many other, servicemen who marched off to war is inspiring not just because of what they accomplished, but also for their amazing character. There’s a reason that they’re known as the Greatest Generation.