Veterans’ Day

The World War II adventures of two South Philly vets are being told in the Spielberg/Hanks miniseries Band of Brothers. But don't call them heroes: "The guys that never came home are the heroes."

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.”