One American parachute company fighting in Europe has come to be better known than perhaps any other combat unit of World War Two. And, originally, the reputation of the so-called “Easy Company” stemmed from its extraordinary successes on the battlefields against determined Nazi opposition. When the hit TV series Band of Brothers chronicled the soldiers’ exploits, however, the show made their actions practically legendary.
Easy Company’s formal title was E Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. And both the 101st Airborne Division – which has its own hard-earned nickname of “Screaming Eagles” – and Easy Company are especially famed for the part they played in three of World War II’s major actions: D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.
But while the Screaming Eagles division can trace its founding back to 1918, Easy Company only came into being as late as 1942. That year, Easy Company’s regimental formation – the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment – was established at Georgia’s Camp Toccoa.
Furthermore, in Major Dick Winters’ memoir, Beyond Band of Brothers, the soldier gives a succinct description of Easy Company. “[The] company,” he wrote, “included three rifle platoons and a headquarters section. Each platoon contained three 12-man rifle squads and a six-man mortar team squad. Easy also had one machine gun attached to each of its rifle squads and a 60 mm mortar in each mortar team.”
In fact, Easy Company might have been regarded as unusual at the time; its purpose was to take paratroopers on C-47 transport planes that would then drop the men over enemy-held areas. And with the likely physical demands of such missions in mind, the men of Easy Company were put through a demanding fitness program as part of their training.
As such, Lieutenant Herbert Sobel – someone noted as a hard taskmaster – took charge of the training. And although his skill as an instructor ultimately earned him a promotion to captain, he wasn’t popular with his men. Sadly, in 1970 Sobel became one of only a number of people to survive shooting themselves in the temple. Somehow, the bullet’s path missed his brain; it nevertheless tore the nerves attached to his eyes before leaving through the opposite side of his head. As a result, the ex-army captain was left blind, although he lived on until 1987.
Then with Operation Overlord – part of the D-Day invasion of France – the first chance came for E Company to fight the Nazis. The men’s orders were to take and hold a pathway inland from one of the landing beaches, which had been codenamed “Utah.” If their mission was successful, this route would be used by the troops coming ashore later that day.
So, the men departed in their transport planes from RAF Upottery – a base in the English county of Devon. The soldiers then parachuted over Normandy on June 6, 1944. And after a successful landing in France, Easy Company rapidly put a number of heavy German guns out of action. The successful end to this part of their mission meant that the company had played a key role in the invasion.
The men of Easy were now involved in fierce fighting as they advanced on the town of Carentan, Normandy. This area was a key strategic point that would allow troops from Utah Beach to join up with others landing at Omaha Beach. Yet while the Americans took the town, the Germans counterattacked. And although Easy Company pushed the enemy back, this success came at a heavy cost. The company suffered 65 casualties, with 22 killed, and among the fatalities was Easy’s commanding officer.
If you weren’t a soldier at the time, it may be hard to understand what it was like to be a young American fighting the Nazis. But by reading a piece written by Donald Malarkey in 2011 for website The History Reader, you may get something of an idea. That’s because Malarkey was a non-commissioned officer with Easy Company, and he saw over three weeks of combat in France.
“I was weary,” wrote Malarkey of his experience. “After two weeks on the main line of resistance, those of us in Easy Company were a sorry sight for the eyes – and hard on the nose. Our hair was matted, [our] faces [were] unshaven [and our] uniforms [were] grimy and stinking from our sweat.”
And Malarkey didn’t shrink from describing the brutal reality of the Normandy invasion. “After the battle,” the decorated veteran recalled, “Winters came across a German soldier who was terribly wounded and crying for help. He asked me to put the man out of his misery. I obeyed my order.” Richard “Dick” Winters had taken command of Easy Company and had been wounded himself, although not badly.
Meanwhile, Operation Market Garden, the next mission for Easy Company, came in September 1944. Market Garden was a British-led attack on the Netherlands with the aim of capturing several strategic bridges and pushing on into northern Germany. Unfortunately, though, the operation was not a success.
Easy Company’s role in the mission was to provide assistance to the British around the city of Eindhoven – some ten miles north of the German border. After landing, the Americans then fought their way to Eindhoven and were involved in actions in several Dutch towns.
The company eventually ended up in a position just to the north of the Dutch city of Nijmege where, on October 5, 1944, there was an engagement. During the skirmish, members of Easy Company crushed two companies of elite Waffen-SS troops in fierce fighting. In addition, the company was involved in the rescue of some 100 stranded British troops during that period.
Then, in October 1944 Easy Company returned to England after the unsuccessful end to Market Garden. Tragically, the mission had cost them some 40 casualties, including nine dead. But there was to be only a short break from combat for the soldiers. Next up was the desperate fighting of the Battle of the Bulge in the forests of the Ardennes.
The Battle of the Bulge was fought across the borders of Luxembourg, Belgium and France and proved to be effectively Hitler’s last throw of the dice in Europe. The assault was an unsuccessful attempt to push back the advance of the Allied forces on Germany, and Easy’s involvement in the crucial clash started in December 1944.
When the Germans launched their assault, Easy Company was ordered to Bastogne in Belgium; once there, Easy’s mission was to keep hold of a crucially important crossroads. However, German forces surrounded the company, and Easy was therefore forced to defend itself in bitterly cold weather while short of supplies and ammunition.
Then, during an action at the Belgian town of Foy, First Lieutenant Ronald Speirs took command of Easy Company after a weak performance by his predecessor. And the Battle of the Bulge – in which Easy Company incurred 82 casualties with 15 dead – ended in German defeat. After the battle, Easy advanced into Germany, where the men were set to occupation duty as the war closed out. The company was then stood down in November 1945.
Decades after Easy Company disbanded, however, the 2001 TV series Band of Brothers immortalized its members’ heroics. And while Easy Company was by no means the only Allied unit that fought through many hellish battles, thanks to that show and Stephen E. Ambrose’s 1992 book of the same name, later generations will have some idea of what the war was like for the men who fought it.