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?”
Born 18 days apart, they grew up blocks from one another in South Philly but met for the first time thousands of miles from home as they prepared for battle. They fought side by side all over Northern Europe, and reconnected on their home turf after the war. For the next 68 years, they saw each other or spoke on the phone daily. They were brothers in the truest sense.
As co-author of their memoir, Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends — which we wrote together eight years ago — I had the honor of witnessing their relationship over hundreds of hours of interviews, and I came to love them both. I called them “my boys.”
They were a dynamic duo. Tough and feisty, but also kind and selfless. Either one would give you his last dollar. More than once they gave the shirts off their backs (literally). But if you spotted them together, you knew mischief was imminent. They’d pull off pranks, tell salty jokes and stories, and challenge your manhood (be you male or female) to get you to slam pints with them in a bar. They laughed alike, finished each other’s sentences and adopted each other’s sayings. Sometimes they reminded me of the Bickersons, other times Laurel and Hardy. But they were always colorful.
My dear friend Trisha Zavrel, Babe’s daughter and Bill’s goddaughter, and I chatted about them a few days after Bill passed away, and we found ourselves laughing instead of crying. She’d spent her whole life with “the boys.”
“When they were together, they always spoke as if they were one person,” Trisha said. “If you asked them if they were hungry, one would answer ‘No, we’re not hungry.’ As if he was the spokesperson. I’d say ‘Well, maybe Uncle Bill’s hungry.’ And my dad would reply ‘Nah, we’re not hungry.’ Even better, we’d be in a hotel lobby and I’d say ‘Do you guys need to use the men’s room?’ And Uncle Bill would say ‘No, we don’t need the men’s room.’ I’d say ‘Maybe one of you needs to use the men’s room?’ And my dad would say ‘No, we don’t need the men’s room.’ It was always we.”
When we worked on the book, they’d break up serious subject matter with jokes (I had to go home and ask my husband what “laying pipe” meant; they wouldn’t tell me). When we did separate interviews, I got “Did ya talk to Babe yet?” or “Did ya talk to Bill yet?” They’d call each other and compare notes after we talked, even though they’d have breakfast together at Cousin’s the next morning, like always.
Several years ago, when Babe lay gravely ill in a hospital bed, Bill drove himself over every day to sit by his buddy’s side. “You owe me parking money!” he joked when Babe was back to himself. A few years later, Babe did the same for Bill, taking a bus into town every day. When Babe passed away in December, Bill was there to say goodbye.
“When I found my dad’s wallet after he died,” Trisha said, “there were two pictures. Now you’d think in an older man’s wallet, especially from that generation, there’d be pictures of kids, grandkids, wife, right? No — a picture of my dad and me, and a picture of Uncle Bill. And I thought ‘Well, of course.’”
Bill had been a sergeant in the war — a true leader, beloved by his men. When he returned home, he kept his men together, organizing yearly reunions and sending newsletters to keep everyone in touch. For more than 67 years, he was the first one the men called with news, good or bad. It almost seems as if he waited until the majority of his men were gone, so he could give each his final salute before taking his own. Just like the sergeant he was.
I’m grateful to have known these two incredible men, and for being on the receiving end of lessons in wisdom and lives well lived — the kind that stay with you forever. Not to mention for some hilarious memories. They will be sorely missed.
Read more about Wild Bill and Babe in “Veteran’s Day,” first published in Philadelphia magazine in 2001.
Robyn Post is a local freelance writer and columnist.