Bill Guarnere, one of the last surviving members of the famed “Band of Brothers,” passed away yesterday. He was one month shy of his 91st birthday. Guarnere did not want to be a hero, but he did not have much choice in the matter because he just happened to be assigned to Easy Company, of the 506 Regiment of the 101 Airborne Division. The 101st also just happened to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time, where they engaged in some of the most bitter skirmishes of the war, and wherever the 101 went, Easy Company always led the way.
That is how they remembered it, years later. Not as one big battle after another, but as an endless series of small skirmishes fought by small groups of men trying to kill each other. Ask someone who was there. At that time, in that place, no one spoke about wanting to be a hero, because the older men all said that trying to be a hero would just get you dead. No, they did not talk about wanting to be heroes. They talked about getting the job done and going home again.
On the day that Bill Guarnere boarded the C47 that was going to take him to Normandy, he was informed that his brother, Henry, had been killed in Italy. When he parachuted into France on the evening before the Normandy landing, he hit the ground full of blood lust. His ferocity in battle, along with his absolute lack of fear, earned him numerous decorations and the nickname he would carry for the rest of his life, “Wild Bill.”
With a reputation as one of the best soldiers in the 101st, Guarnere had a strange habit of showing up wherever the action was, lending a hand, and then disappearing again, humping back to his own unit, often before anyone noticed that he was gone. Guarnere was one of the most steadfast members of Easy Company, until a German cannon round took his right leg off during the Battle of the Bulge while attempting to help his friend, Joe Toye, who had also lost a leg to another German round just moments before Guarnere was hit.
He would rather have forgotten about the war, doing odd jobs around Philadelphia, but Stephen Ambrose made that impossible when he published the best-selling book Band of Brothers, which then became the highly regarded HBO series of the same name, and in which Guarnere figures prominently as one of the key members of that company.
Guarnere and his near neighbor, fellow Easy Company member Edward “Babe” Heffron, were coincidentally very close both during their war service, and throughout their lives. In 2007, he and Heffron wrote Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends describing their wartime experiences from their own unique perspectives. William “Wild Bill” Guarnere died yesterday in Philadelphia from a ruptured aneurism. His friend, Babe Heffron, died on December 1.
Men like Bill Guarnere and Babe Heffron are passing away every day. Real American heroes are dying off. Never put off saying “Thank you” to them because, sooner or later, none of them will be here anymore, and the world will be a little dimmer for their passing. They came when they were needed, did their jobs, and came home again, some of them leaving generations to come in their debt.
By Alan M. Milner