Mort Ranney wrote: “In thinking back on the days of Easy Company, I’m treasuring my remark to a grandson who asked, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ ‘No’ I answered, ‘but I served in a company of heroes.'”
In 1992, Stephen E. Ambrose made the men of E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne known. Nearly a decade later, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg made them legends. The story of Easy Company is one much larger than life, one that could fill volumes upon volumes of books, and yet Ambrose manages to size it down to one, not so weighty tome.
Before Band of Brothers we had Rendezvous with Destiny written by Leonard Rapport and Arthur Norwood, Jr. This is the complete history of the 101st Airborne Divison, often times out of print, and more military termed than heart of the story. It was after Ambrose penned Pegasus Bridge – about a group of British Airborne troops that undertook a mission so vital, that the success of D-Day depended up on it – that Major Dick Winters suggested he tell the story of Easy Company. Ambrose noted a number of inaccuracies or bickering among the men involved about facts in Pegasus Bridge and thus, with Band of Brothers, decided to get the remaining members of the Company to contribute. Being involved in the writing process, this is an accurate account of some of the bravest men of WWII.
I first became aware of Band of Brothers through the HBO mini-series, produced by Tom Hanks and Steve Spielberg. The story of these men was so engaging, moving and character driven that it became my favorite war piece of all time. It’s immaculate accuracy for war time events is far beyond even Saving Private Ryan which is is widely know for it’s infamous D-Day scene. I purchased the book a number of years ago, but put it aside until now.
More in honor of the recent anniversary of D-Day, I started reading, gaining further insight into the events of the mini-series. Ambrose drives home that these were “Citizen Soldiers;” average men, with average jobs brought together by a terrible act. It took two years of training to prepare them for the night of June 6, 1944 and Ambrose does a great job of going through their rigorous training at multiple Camps in the U.S. and England. The book then follows the men through Normandy, Holland, Bastogne, Germany, and Austria.
The narrative is often mixed with quotes from the men of Easy Company which may be annoying at first, but it’s nice to get the perspective from men who were actually there. The narrators most called upon are Major Dick Winters himself, and David Webster, a private who attended Harvard and wrote his own book about his experiences. At times it seems that Ambrose relies a little too much on Webster’s account, but it doesn’t hinder too much.
Ambrose’s greatest triumph with Band of Brothers is his ability to tie in military terminology, with personal accounts and the heart of the story of Easy Company. These were men who went through some tough times, and tough is too light a word do begin describing it. In particular, the sections devoted to their time in the woods of Foy and Bastogne, it’s those events that forged the brotherhood between these men. The way it’s played out in the mini-series owes a lot to the way it’s presented in the book.
My only gripe comes toward the end of it when a work camp is discovered in Germany. One man stated, after the discovery of the camp, “this is why we fight!” Sadly, in the book, this event is only given about three or four paragraphs. Granted, reliving those events in particular are painful, but it deserved a paragraph at least.
Despite Ambrose’s blunders as an author/historian, this is his crowning achievement. It puts behind all of the problems of his most inaccurate books and pairs great military non-fiction with a stunning narrative. Whether you’ve seen the series or read the book, you’ve experienced one of the great stories of WWII.