Wild Bill Guarnere and Babe Heffron: A Remembrance

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Edward “Babe” Heffron and William “Wild Bill” Guarnere in Philadelphia in 2007. Photo by AP.

In the span of 14 weeks, Philly and the world lost two heroes. Edward “Babe” Heffron and William “Wild Bill” Guarnere — World War II paratroopers from Easy Company, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne, who gained unexpected but well-deserved fame from the 2001 Stephen Ambrose book Band of Brothers and the Tom Hanks miniseries it inspired — took their final jumps on December 1st and March 8th, respectively.

As flags fly at half-staff today in Pennsylvania as Bill is laid to rest — a perfect final salute to him and his brothers in arms — it’s hard to fathom that I’ll never again be able to call Bill and hear his exuberant “Yowwwza!” And then “What’s shakin’, kid?” Or hear Babe on the phone go from a sleepy “Hello?” (after prowling Center City all day) to a booming “Oh, my achin’ back! How the hell are ya?”

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Brokeback Marriage

AS SHE HEADED east on the Schuylkill, Dana* couldn’t stop her hands from shaking on the wheel. I can’t afford a setback, she thought. Every step forward had been such a huge undertaking. She flipped on the car radio to calm herself. George Michael’s baritone was crooning: “I gotta have faith, faith, faith … ” Thanks, God, you’re really having fun with me here. Dana hadn’t told a soul where she was going, and navigating the Expressway on a dark Friday night made it feel like a secret mission.

[sidebar]The journey had begun five years earlier, after Dana turned 40. She found herself feeling strangely attracted to a female co-worker at the store she managed. The way they laughed so easily together, the way the woman affectionately touched Dana as she talked, flooded her with strange sensations. What is wrong with me? she thought. Am I crazy? I love my husband. I love my kids. I love my life. What is this? She’d never looked at a woman that way. She’d married a man she was madly in love with — a law-enforcement officer who had brought her breakfast in bed every day of their 15-year marriage. They’d had kids, bought the house of their dreams — a three-bedroom colonial on a peaceful tree-lined street in Yardley — joined a Catholic church, attended PTA meetings, and fallen neatly into the framework of their small community.

Dana never told her husband about her Sapphic attraction. Instead, she quit her job and made an appointment with him for marriage counseling, convinced she was just missing their earlier intimacy and passion. He worked for the city by day; she sometimes logged 70 hours a week working nights to cover private-school tuition for their two boys, who were then eight and 10. After some joint counseling, she suppressed her feelings for her co-worker and went on with her life.

Two years later, Dana met another woman at work whose presence hit her so powerfully that she could no longer deny something was happening. The two talked in the car for hours after long shifts. One day the woman — a lesbian, it turned out – stole a long, sensuous kiss in the bathroom. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak,” Dana says, her blue eyes widening. The electricity consumed her. “We started meeting in broad daylight in parking lots, getting half-naked in the car in the community where we both lived and worked. We were willing to risk everything for those stolen moments.”

The affair infused her with new life. Being with a woman, this woman, felt more right than anything she’d ever experienced. But it was also killing her. For a year, she hid the affair from everyone. Her girlfriend came over often, but it appeared the two were just friends. Finally, wracked with shame and guilt, Dana left her husband and moved in with a friend. A month later, on a cold February day, she sat her husband down and told him the truth: She was in love with a woman.

Veterans’ Day

As Bill Guarnere and Edward “Babe” Heffron walk onto the set in Hatfield, England, where Tom Hanks is directing the miniseries Band of Brothers, production comes to a sudden halt. Hanks, who’d been conducting rehearsals in an authentically reconstructed Dutch village, rushes to greet them. Then, one by one, cameramen, set and costume designers, production crew and finally actors emerge from their posts, until there are easily a hundred people surrounding the two men.

The actors clamor to introduce themselves by their character names, as they are required to do on the set: “I’m Popeye Wynn!” “I’m Ralph Spina!” “I’m Chuck Grant!” They are naming Heffron and Guarnere’s war buddies. For nearly a year, the production team has been methodically recreating the role the pair played in the Second World War — using books, photos, videotaped interviews and consultants. Now here they are, in the flesh.

“I’m Skip Muck!”

“I was there when you got it, kid,” Heffron says. To another actor, he notes, “You’ve got a short career.

“You’re not going to make it.”

A tall, fair-haired fellow offers his name, then adds, “I wasn’t very well-liked in the platoon, was I?”

“No, you’re weren’t,” Heffron replies.

“I’m Babe Heffron,” a young, handsome redhead announces, squelching his Scottish roots to nail the old South Philly accent. It’s a heady moment. Actor Robin Laing shakes the real Babe Heffron’s hand, then unbuttons his shirt to reveal rosary beads and a scapular medal. Heffron, who never removed his beads and scapular in battle, is moved. The exchanges continue back at the veterans’ hotel, where they invite the actors to join them to eat and drink for the week of their visit.

While in England, Heffron and Guarnere were given an open tab and 24-hour limo service by HBO. “They held court every night,” recalls Frank John Hughes, the actor who plays Bill Guarnere. “Everyone in the place would stop what they were doing, and it would become An Evening with Bill and Babe. It would be two a.m. and I had to be on the set by five, but I got no sympathy. Bill would say, ‘How da hell you gonna play me going home this oily? You’re gonna screw it up!’

Heffron and Guarnere, both 78, are quintessential war heroes, though they adamantly refuse the title. “The guys that never came home are the heroes,” says Guarnere, who lost his right leg to shrapnel from a German 88 in the Battle of the Bulge but is still a tornado on crutches. Both he and Heffron, 18 days his junior, were members of Easy Company, an elite unit of paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, whipped in record time from citizen army to cream of the military crop. “Easy” was arguably the bravest, toughest, most physically fit, closest-knit group of soldiers the Army has ever produced. Its men were plucked for every high-risk operation of the war: D-Day in Normandy, Operation Market Garden in Holland, the Battle of the Bulge and the Rhineland Campaign in Belgium, and the capture of Hitler’s Eagles Nest in Berchtesgaden. Easy helped liberate towns in France, Holland and Belgium as well as the Landsberg concentration camp in Germany, regularly incapacitating German troops who outnumbered them.

It’s Easy Company’s adventures that Band of Brothers chronicles, unfurling the story through 24 major characters, including Heffron and Guarnere. The HBO miniseries “event,” starring David Schwimmer, Donnie Wahlberg and SNL‘s Jimmy Fallon, among others, premieres in September. (An early premiere is being shown to war vets this month in Normandy, to commemorate D-Day.) Spielberg and company went to prodigious lengths to ensure the movie’s accuracy, basing it largely on historian Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book Band of Brothers, plus hundreds of hours of filmed interviews with the remaining 50 or so members of Easy Company. The “guys from South Philly,” as Hanks came to call them, were wellsprings of information. “We asked them hundreds of questions,” says Guarnere’s alter ego, Hughes. “Some veterans tell you when you’re getting into territory they’re not comfortable with. For these guys, no question was too small, too emotional, or off-limits.”

“Hey, if they can capture what we were,” says Guarnere, sounding like a perfect hybrid of James Cagney and Curly Howard, “they’re going to have a goddamn good movie.”