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.”

Edward Heffron, left, and William “Wild Bill” Guarnere in a 2007 file photo. Matt Rourke/AP

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.”

“YOU’LL HAVE TO ASK BABE,” Bill Guarnere says when I first request an interview. “Whatever he does, I’ll do.” When the same 10 words come from Heffron, we agree to set up a conference call.

“Yowwwwwsa!” Guarnere yells when he hears his buddy’s voice.

“Yoooooooo!” echoes Babe. They sound as fired-up as young recruits. (“That’s how they greet each other every day,” sighs Heffron’s daughter, Trisha Zavrel, who is also Guarnere’s goddaughter.)

Guarnere agrees to drive his beige Ford Contour to retrieve his buddy for an interview. Heffron doesn’t drive, which is only one reason he has remained in his slightly run-down South Philly neighborhood. “I can walk to the corner store every morning, get my coffee and my paper,” he explains. “I know what buses I’m taking to go wherever I need to go. My friends are here. Why would I go anywhere else?” Guarnere, a tall, thin man with snow-white hair, kind eyes and olive skin, still lives in the same home west of Broad Street that he and his late wife, Frannie, bought in 1947. His street is quiet and narrow, with tidy brick rowhomes lining both sides and a SuperFresh on one corner. Guarnere has never thought of leaving, either. “I’ve got everything I need,” he says. Guarnere’s home is a humble war shrine. An American flag sticker on his front door greets visitors. Since the 101st Airborne was also known as the “Screaming Eagles,” the two rooms that make up the narrow downstairs are filled with eagles — eagle emblems, eagle ashtrays, a ceramic eagle head leering at visitors from atop the microwave, two brown needlework throw rugs, courtesy of Frannie, dotting the gold carpet in the living room. “You want to see eagles, honey?” Guarnere asks. “Go upstairs. My wife used to say, you love the Eagles so much, go sleep with them.”

A three-foot-wide alcove between the two downstairs rooms harbors Guarnere’s 16 war decorations —including his coveted jump-wings pin — as well as a plaque from the citizens of Holland. It reads,

You fought and bought us freedom in Eindhoven on September 18, 1944. Thanks, For ever. Your Dutch Friends.

Photos fill the rest of the space — black-and-whites from the war days, a shot of Guarnere’s parents, his wedding photo, color pictures of him with his Easy buddies, nieces and nephews. On the wall to the left of the alcove is a new addition: an 8×10 group photo of the Band of Brothers actors.

band of brothers

Photograph by David James courtesy HBO.

“You see this, kid?” asks Guarnere, holding up a steno pad with pages of incoming phone calls he has recorded. “Logged almost a thousand calls in six months.” They’re mostly from war buddies; Guarnere, the point man of Easy Company, arranges the yearly reunions.

Babe, a stocky, gentle Irishman with fine white hair and ruddy cheeks, settles into a brown Archie Bunker recliner that has become his chair at Guarnere’s house. Guarnere sits down on a couch, swings his left leg up to sit Indian-style, sets his crutches aside, then pats the seat next to him. “Sit down, honey,” he says sweetly. I bring fat manila envelopes stuffed with 60-year-old letters and photos from the alcove.

Guarnere lights up a Pall Mall and eyes a photo of himself in uniform standing sandwiched between his parents on their Chadwick Street steps. “I was a handsome devil,” he says. In his Italian Catholic family, enlisting in the service was simply what one did. At 18, he left his job making army tanks at Baldwin Locomotive and joined the most prestigious division of the Army, the Airborne. In July 1942, Easy Company was formed at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, and Guarnere was among the 140 men who made the final cut. Within a year, he was promoted to staff sergeant, with 48 soldiers under him. The photos from Camp Toccoa are surprising. Our big, bad GIs — the “elite” unit of the parachute infantry — look like gawky teenagers, with flat, bare chests and tiny shorts. Ambrose wrote that they should have been “throwing baseballs, not grenades.”

In 1942, Heffron was sandblasting naval ships in Camden, a job that exempted him from the draft. But in the summer of ’42, he enlisted in the Airborne and trained at Fort Benning with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He joined Easy in England after the company returned from Normandy and before it jumped into Holland. He’d missed out on Camp Toccoa and the bonding, but the core group accepted him as one of its own. Few replacements shared that privilege. “The company commander sent me over to see Bill, because he knew we were both from South Philly,” says Heffron. “Bill said to me, ‘I’ll tell you what, kid, you’re a machine gunner.'”

“How did I make a machine gunner of that guy?” Guarnere jokes. “He looked like a midget! The gun was bigger than he was. These are 30-caliber sons-of-bitches, 29 pounds of steel.”

Two days before D-Day on Normandy — Easy’s first combat mission — Guarnere was sitting on the toilet and happened to pluck a letter out of his jacket pocket that was addressed to his friend, Sergeant Martin. He’d mistakenly grabbed Martin’s jacket, but he decided to read the letter anyway. It was from Martin’s wife. It said, “Don’t tell Bill Guarnere, but his brother was killed in Cassino, Italy.”

“I felt like the floor fell out from under me,” says Guarnere, who was one of seven sons. “I became crazed.” The trained warrior, preparing to lead four dozen men into battle, now had a personal vendetta against Hitler’s army. “I went into Normandy with one goal: to leave no German soldier alive,” he says. In his first enemy encounter, he shot everyone he encountered with his pistol. “Easy as squashing a bug,” he recalls. “No remorse. But that’s war. The war is no joke. The war is a son of a bitch.”

His fury contributed to the destruction of a German battery of guns looking down on Utah Beach (where the Americans were landing) and a unit of 50 enemy soldiers. “He was a wild man,” Heffron says, pointing to his best friend. “When the platoon would hunker down in foxholes, he would stand straight up. He’d run at bullets and yell, ‘Come on, come on, they couldn’t hit the side of a barn, let’s go!'”

“I’m lucky to be alive,” says Guarnere. He takes a puff of his cigarette and taps it against a red, white and blue-striped ashtray with an eagle on it. “The man upstairs must have had his finger on me.” After we leaf through more photos, he says, “Tell her about Campbell, Babe.”

Heffron takes a sip from his glass of Bailey’s Irish Cream and looks at Guarnere. “It took me a long time to be able to tell this,” he begins, then pauses. “October 6, 1944, in Holland. We were securing a defensive position on the dike, replacing B Company. They told us everything had been pretty quiet. Joe Toye hollers, ‘Hey, Heffron, bring your machine gun.’ I started over, and Jim Campbell, the assistant squad leader, says to me, ‘You stay here with the gun, Heffron. I’ll go with Toye.’ So I stayed. They made a turn in front of a house, and all of a sudden a shell blasted and hit Campbell. Killed him instantly.” Heffron stops. He can’t understand why at the last minute, the other guy said, “I’ll go.” He takes a deep breath. “He took that shell for me,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “He saved my life. I never, never forget it. I live it, I eat it, I dream it.”

Not long after, Heffron sidestepped a much different disaster in Düsseldorf, when he defied orders to throw a grenade into a bunker. “It was standard operating procedure,” he explains. “You threw the grenade, then kicked open the door. I heard voices inside, so I told the soldiers I was with that we’d better look first. They wanted to throw the grenade. I kicked the door open and saw a young woman, maybe 20 years old, with two terrified little children clinging to her, and an older couple. They were cowering. When I think of what could have happened, it still haunts me. I have dreams that I did throw the grenade.”

Guarnere hands me some photos of the people in the Dutch towns they liberated (Son, Eindhoven, Nuenen)— people who paraded in the streets, hugging the Americans, kissing them, showering them with food and wine. Easy Company spent 70 grueling days fighting in Holland after Normandy. “The Dutch loved us,” says Heffron.

“We keep in touch with many of them, and we visit every year when they have a parade honoring the American soldiers.” The Dutch are also obsessed with retracing the soldiers’ steps and locating events mentioned in Stephen Ambrose’s book. Guarnere holds up a snapshot of a beautiful green pasture interrupted only by a narrow street that slopes down to a water-filled ditch. A note on the back reads: Is this the dike where Dukeman was killed (p. 149)? “It’s their history, too,” he says. “They research. They know more than we do.”

A photo of an anonymous woman steers Heffron’s memory to Germany, but he hesitates to revisit what he saw there. He and medic Ralph Spina were walking to a rendezvous point when they happened upon an abandoned train. As they inspected it, they were overpowered by a sickening stench. Spina slid a car door open. The car was piled from top to bottom with dead Jews. Before they could slam the door shut, they puked their guts up. “In Landsberg, we found one of the concentration camps,” Heffron says. “The Germans knew we were coming and set fire to it and left. There were charred, dead bodies all over. The odor was sickening. There were about a hundred survivors, and they were emaciated and starving; they could hardly stand. We fed them and cleaned them up. They would try to hug us, and they were too weak to lift their arms.” He looks down at the eagle rug. “You hear people say the Holocaust didn’t happen, or that it wasn’t bad.” He dabs the corners of his eyes. “Well, it did happen. I was there, and I saw it.” The two men are proud that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. displays the 101st Division’s flag at its entrance, alternately with those of other liberators.

A yellowed, official-looking postcard lies atop the heap of letters. From Washington, D.C., dated February 3, 1945, it is addressed to Guarnere’s late mother, Augusta: I am pleased to inform you, it reads, that on 25 January 1945 your son S/Sgt William J. Guarnere 13113070 was making normal improvement. Diagnosis: Fracture of the left leg, condition not serious. Not serious? A month earlier, Guarnere’s leg had been amputated at the upper thigh. His parents had no idea until he returned to the States in March and they visited him at a veterans’ hospital in Atlantic City. “They were absolutely stunned. But that was the Army, kid,” says Guarnere.

“I was hit two-and-a-half weeks into Bastogne, in the Battle of the Bulge,” he continues. “Bastogne was a nightmare, because we weren’t prepared for the frigid temperatures and the snow. We had no winter clothes. Very little firepower. You couldn’t sleep 10 minutes and you were shivering. The Germans surrounded us, were blowing away the woods acre by acre. They were shooting German 88s that would hit the trees, and shrapnel would spray everywhere. We were like sitting ducks, exhausted; we had no reserves.”

Guarnere popped out of his foxhole when his friend Joe Toye was hit and yelling for help. It happened that the medic truck had taken a wrong turn and been captured by the Germans. “Joe was bleeding all over, and his leg was mangled, almost hanging off his body,” Guarnere recalls. “It was his fifth time hit. He said, ‘Jesus, what the hell do I have to do to die?'” That’s when another 88 burst over their heads, and shrapnel exploded into Guarnere’s right leg, shredding it from ankle to thigh. The two men lay calmly, in a bed of red snow, as comrades raced to their aid. Someone stopped a Jeep going past with ammo, threw the two men on board, and begged the driver to turn around and get them to the medical quarters. “Sad Sack cried for three days over you, Bill,” says Heffron.

Bastogne is now their code word for hell. “Oh my God, it’s Bastogne all over again,” Guarnere once told me on the phone as he watched snow falling furiously outside his window. “One thing I thank God for — I’m not in a foxhole, and no one’s trying to kill me.”

WHEN THE BOMBING OF HIROSHIMA (which Heffron and Guarnere aggressively defend) ended the war, the two vets had to adjust to civilian life. “War is the worst thing a man has to overcome,” says Heffron. “It’s like the devil presides in you. You wake up every morning and it’s still there. But you do what you have to do.” He found work as a checker in a local whiskey distillery plant, and later spent 27 years as a cargo checker on the waterfront before retiring in 1993. Guarnere enrolled in the Spring Garden Institute for engineering before dropping out and taking up construction. He married Frannie in 1945. Not long after that, Babe looked Bill up and found him playing craps outside on 17th Street. “That’s what we did in those days, honey,” Guarnere says. “Life was outside on the street.” (He adds: “Broads didn’t play craps.”)

The two men felt lucky to have found one another. “Comrades are closer than friends, closer than brothers,” Ambrose writes in Band of Brothers. “Their trust in and their knowledge of each other is total, and will never be repeated with any civilian, not even a wife, lover or child.”

You try and explain it,” Heffron says. “My own daughter asks me, ‘Dad, what are you going to do if something happens to Uncle Bill?’ She doesn’t say Uncle Jack or Uncle Jimmy, my blood brothers, who I’m close to. She says ‘Uncle Bill.'” He and Guarnere have made a pact that if anything happens to one of them, the other will go out and get “stinking drunk.”

They have seen each other through 57 years. When they’re not together, Guarnere is usually organizing Easy Company affairs, while Heffron is in Center City, doing some off-track betting — a hobby he acquired as a kid, to help his parents put food on the table. They regularly catch breakfast together at the local Cousins, or meet downtown for a brew. They’re so in tune that Guarnere has unwittingly adopted his best friend’s Irish dialect: “Where’s me coat and me hat?” Their laughs are identical. They also travel together, at least twice a year. The ritual — a top priority whose cost calls for scaling back on everything that’s not an absolute necessity — is a trek overseas, to walk the soil they once fought on. They visit their Dutch friends in Eindhoven (the local government and citizens there have been honoring American soldiers with an annual parade since 1954), many of whom were young children when the paratroopers liberated them, and whom they now consider family. Then they pay their respects to buddies killed in action by visiting their graves in Holland and Belgium. And for five years now, a dozen or so of the Dutch friends have been jetting to the U.S. for a few nights of dinners and drinks and catching up with Babe and Bill.

These days, though, Band of Brothers has their undivided attention. When Ambrose’s book came out in 1992 — Heffron combed it and found a few mistakes — it barely raised an eyebrow outside of the military community. Then, in July 1999, a year after the savagely realistic Saving Private Ryan hit area screens, Tom Hanks’s production company, PlayTone, contacted Easy Company survivors and dispatched crews to record their stories. “They’d ask trick questions to make sure our memories were intact,” Guarnere says. In June 2000, Spielberg and Hanks showed up at the Easy Company reunion in New Orleans to meet the veterans. Production on Band of Brothers was already three months under way. “Tom Hanks asked me if I wanted his autograph,” Guarnere says wryly. “I said only if it’s on a big fat check. I told him, ‘You should be asking for my autograph!'”

By that time, the actors portraying Guarnere and Heffron had been calling their namesakes regularly. When Frank John Hughes told Guarnere that he’d been practicing digging foxholes in his backyard, Guarnere said, “Kid, I was a staff sergeant. We didn’t dig foxholes. You have other people to do dat for ya, so don’t do dat anymore.” It was practical advice. Hughes says being Guarnere for a year changed him forever: “I have this model to live up to now. I judge what I do by how Bill would do it.”

British TV actor Robin Laing spent hours on the phone with Heffron, digging for details. “He said, ‘Ask me anything,’ and he told me everything,” says Laing. “Babe was a great soldier, and putting on the rosary beads and scapular every morning gave me a sense I was doing something very important. I found strategic moments to let them show in the movie, just so Babe would see them.”

ON A WARM SUMMER AFTERNOON in Hatfield, 20 miles north of London, co-producer Ivan Schwarz leads the two South Philly veterans into an editing room to watch some footage. In one scene, a sky full of C-47 planes disgorges thousands of Airborne paratroopers into the night sky above Normandy. Guarnere gets a second glimpse of a night he’ll never forget — his first jump, first real jump, with people trying to kill him and the anticipation of war flooding his veins and his heart pounding like nothing he’d ever known. “That scene made me want to relive that jump in the worst way,” he later says. “Those dirty sons of beetles.” He and Heffron keep watching as the camera zooms in on one of the planes, with fellow Easy Company men Meehan, Evans and Murray still on board. Suddenly, the plane is hit. It wavers for a moment, then plunges to the earth, crashing in a fiery ball. Guarnere and Heffron look at one another, and their eyes fill. They both knew it had happened, but Guarnere — who was there — didn’t actually see the plane go down.

“That was rough,” Heffron later recalls. “Tom Hanks came over; we didn’t even know he was there. He said, ‘We just wanted to get your reaction.'”

Guarnere has two handwritten notes from Hanks in his pile of letters. One, dated December 20, 2000, is on personal pale gray stationery, with Hanks’s name in small gray block letters at the top. In it, he thanks the guys for all of their help. “The film will be, I think, almost as extraordinary as its subjects,” he writes. He ends with: “Be prepared for the life of a celebrity.”

In Normandy this month, Babe and Bill will watch the first showing of the mini-series, surrounded by the surviving members of Easy Company and all of the actors who played them. They’ll be sitting on the shores of Utah Beach, in the same place and on the same date they jumped into combat 57 years ago. In a span of a few hours, they’ll relive the most intense three years of their lives. But it’s not about them, they insist, like the good soldiers they were — that they are. “It’s all in the name of duty,” says Guarnere, for the guys who never came home.

Edward Heffron died in December 2013; William Guarnere died in March 2014. Both men were 90.

Robyn Post is the coauthor of Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends, William Guarnere and Edward Heffron’s memoir of their time with Easy Company and beyond.