Today is the anniversary of the D-Day landings.
On June 6, 1944, after successfully parachuting into Normandy, Dick Winters led an attack on a German artillery position at Brecourt Manor and he and his men disabled 4 German heavy guns that were threatening Allied forces coming from Utah Beach. Winters was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his service at Brecourt Manor.
Lancester Online quotes museum curator Erick Dorr: “Winters personifies the World War II combat leader. In my opinion those men literally saved the world. We need to honor that. We need to remember that.” We cannot agree more with Mr. Dorr. And, to remember D-Day and to honor all D-day heroes, we bring Band of Brothers Episode 2: Day of Days to life today on the blog.
As I already told you in an earlier Memorial Day post, there is no way I can comprehend the mind set of a soldier on a boat approaching the shores of Normandy or on an airplane about to make a jump into Normandy. What do these guys think? What thoughts go through their minds? Home? Family? Death? Or do they just try to get it all out of their minds and focus on getting the job done? How can one pull it off knowing his own death may arrive the moment he lands?
Major Dick Winters addresses my question in the opening minutes of Day of Days.
“Standing in the door, I could see the lights on the drop zone, and I had to assume that was our drop zone way in the ahead of us and so that we had the red light. I had everybody standing up, ready to jump, so when the plane started to get hit, and suddenly the pilot gives me the green light, I’m out the door, immediately… How do you prepare yourself, mentally? Each man must do that himself. Each man must prepare himself mentally to make that jump.”
In Band of Brothers, Episode 2, Day of Days we find Dick Winters and other men from Easy Company in a C-47 air craft over France. Here is a map showing where 101st Airborne Division which Easy Company is a part of is headed along with a very informative animated story of the D-Day landings here.
Each man seems to be preparing himself mentally to make his jump into Normandy. Some look more nervous than others. A few are smoking. In deep thoughts. Thinking home? Some may be praying. Silently. They are about to jump into darkness amidst ground fire. If they make it to the ground, alive and well, then they need to orient themselves in a place they have never been before. Whatever direction they go, there will be enemy. But they just need to put all of this out of their minds and get the job done.
Some are lucky enough to make the jump. Others are not. We see the aircraft that carries Lt. Meehan, the commanding officer of Easy Company, being shot down by German anti-aircraft fire killing everyone on board. We see how the engine explodes and men scream in pain as they burn alive. The unbearable human cost of war is real.
When the pilot of the aircraft that carries Winters & Co, who have no idea what happened to Lt Meehan’s plane, gives red light, Winters gets his men ready for the jump. As the plane gets hit, men get restless and want to jump as soon as possible even though they have not been given green light yet. And when a shell suddenly kills his co-pilot, the pilot panics and turns on the green light before he should. Winters is the first one out the door.
Here is a clip of the air drop for you just to take a minute and comprehend how these guys pull it off. Note that this is just the beginning. The entire episode takes place within 24 hours of the jump. It’s simply mind blowing!
Winters successfully parachutes into Normandy noticing a plane wreckage burning beneath him. Once he is on the ground, he realizes he’s missing his weapons as well as his leg bag, in fact, all except for his knife. He meets one PFC John D. Hall, a radio man from Able Company. Winters knows him from the basketball team he coached at Camp Toccoa. Hall is also missing his weapons as well as his radio and batteries. The two walk together as they try to find their respective units. They need to locate landmarks to get their bearings: buildings, farm houses, bridges, roads. Hall is wondering if the rest of them are as lost as they are.
Winters’ response is one of my favorite lines of the entire series:
They are where they are supposed to be to get the job done.
Winters and Hall meet Sgt. Lipton of Easy Company along with two men from 82nd airborne. Given that 101st and 82nd were supposed to land at different places, they can be anywhere at the moment. Winters gets a map from Lipton, a raincoat from the 82nd boys and unzips his pants to take his compass out –the confused look on the 82nd boys are priceless — to orient himself. It turns out they are 7 kilometers away from Sainte-Mere-Eglise, their objective, and 4 hours away from when they need to accomplish their mission: to clear the obstacles around Causeway 2: a pre-selected route for the Allied forces to use once they land at Utah Beach.
On their way, they meet a few other men from Easy Company: PFC Donald G. Malarkey, Sgt. William J “Bill” Guarnere, PFC Robert E. “Popeye” Wynn and Cpl. Joseph D. “Joe” Toye.
When they hear Germans approaching, Winters orders them to wait for his command. Yet, Guarnere disobeys — he gets news that his brother was killed in Cassino, Italy in Episode 1: Currahee — and shoots. And he is pissed later when Winters tells him, next time, he needs to wait for his command. Guarnere does not even listen when Toye tells him Winters just wanted them to wait for his command:
Joe, he don’t even drink.
There are rumors among the men Winters is a Quaker.
They arrive on a farm ruined by bombs. Animals caught in the crossfire. Germans on the ground. Two paratroopers hanging from trees. All dead. They take supplies and ammo from dead soldiers. Malarkey says he gets first dips from Germans because he promised a Luger to his kid brother. As they hear explosions, they know the beach invasions have begun. They need to move fast.
On their arrival to the battalion, they pass a group of German POWs. Malarkey randomly teases one of them: “Where you from son?” The answer is… “Eugene, Oregon.” What? Sort of unbelievable. This guy, who was born and raised in the US, fights for Germany. “Volksdeutsche. My family answered the call. All true Aryans should return to the Fatherland. I joined in 1941.”
Well, I had never heard of this story before. It turns out, during the early years of the war, some Americans with German origin return to Germany to enlist and fight in the German army.
Now war makes them wear different uniforms but these two boys from Oregon could easily have been friends in another life. Fascinating. As Malarkey takes his leave, 1st Lt. Speirs of Dog Company comes with a pack of cigarettes for the POWs. We do not see anything but Malarkey looking horrified upon hearing the machine gun being fired from where Speirs stands. This is certainly one of the most controversial scenes in the whole series. And this kind of very realistic storytelling, I believe, makes Band of Brothers one of the best, if not the best, WWII series ever made.
Winters finds out from 2nd Lt. Lynn D. “Buck” Compton 90% of the men are still unaccounted for and no one has seen Lt. Meehan or anyone from his plane. Meehan being missing puts Winters in line to be the next commanding officer of Easy Company. Thus, Winters meets Major Strayer who explains to him that a German battery is stationed between the battalion and Causeway 2 with heavy guns ready to fire on the forces landing at Utah. Major Strayer asks if Easy Company can handle this.
What follows is Brecourt Manor Assault that is often referred to as a classic example of small unit tactics — main elements being speed and surprise — as well as exemplary leadership (read “Dick Winters”) in overcoming a larger enemy force. The assault is still demonstrated at the US Military Academy at West Point today. In fact, troops landing at Utah Beach have a relatively easy time, thanks in part to the success of this assault.
Winters leads an assault to disable 4 German heavy guns — M115 Howitzers and not 88s as expected — that threaten forces coming along Causeway 2. Once they disable them, the team comes under heavy machine gun fire from Brecourt Manor and withdraws. They lose one man: A mine explodes under Hall’s feet while he is running down the trenches to go bring back more TNT. A map Winters finds in one gun position turns out to be an invaluable piece of intelligence: it has every German gun placed in Normandy on it. Winters shares the map with 2nd Battalion intelligence officer and his close friend 1st Lt. Lewis Nixon. Nixon passes the information on to the division.
Here is a 1-minute summary of Brecourt Manor Assault:
By nightfall, 2nd battalion secures Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and elements of the 4th division begin to move men and material inland. Most of the 101st Airborne including Easy Company are still scattered all over Normandy and the success of the invasion is not certain. They had an hour to rest and eat before moving south to secure the town of Coup-de-Ville.
Malarkey is cooking for Guarnere, Compton, Toye and Lipton in the back of a truck. Winters shows up. Toye offers him a drink:
Guarnere: “The Lieutenant don’t drink.”
Winters: “It’s been a day of firsts.”
He takes, well, more than a sip.
Winters: “Don’t you think Guarnere?”
He tells the guys to carry on… And turns to Guarnere as he leaves:
Oh, Sergeant… I’m not a quaker.
Nixon tells Winters he must never have a dog as he is having difficulty opening his canned food. Winters talks about losing John Hall.
Winters: “He was a good man.”
Nixon: “Man? Not even old enough to buy a beer.”
Winters does not need to open the can anymore. He does not feel hungry. First loss in combat hits him.
Bombers are flying over and bombing the town of Carentan.
Winters writes into his diary: “That night, I took time to thank God for seeing me through that day of days and prayed I would make it through D plus 1. And if, somehow, I managed to get home again, I promised God and myself that I would find a quiet piece of land someplace and spend the rest of my life in peace.”
And this is exactly what he does after the war.
Band of Brothers never gets old and thousands of families and friends enjoy a Band of Brothers marathon every year. And I cannot think of a better day that D-Day to start yet another marathon and pay tribute to all those heroes that did it so the future generations, we, have peace in the world.