In this surprisingly good knockoff of Stephen Ambrose’s classic Band of Brothers (1992), two members of the legendary E Company give their version of events.
Interviewing Guarnere and Heffron for a magazine article coinciding with the 2001 HBO miniseries, the author realized she had the material for her first book. It reads like oral history, with each man chatting alternately for a few pages, but Post provides the firm editorial hand this approach requires. High-school dropouts from impoverished families in Depression-era Philadelphia, both men quit draft-exempt jobs to enlist in the Army’s elite 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Guarnere, who signed up in 1942, delivers a lively account of the brutal, almost sadistic training. A quick learner with a talent for leadership, he was promoted to sergeant before the unit sailed to England in May 1944 to parachute into France the night before the Normandy invasion. Heffron joined his unit as it recuperated in England after the June 6 landing. The men quickly became friends, parachuting into Holland in September for an exhausting three months of fighting in the abortive Operation Market Garden. Their subsequent rest was cut short by December’s Battle of the Bulge, and they participated in the legendary relief of Bastogne, where Guarnere was injured and lost a leg. Heffron continued fighting across Germany until the surrender. Each of them delivers a relentlessly gripping account highlighting heroism, sacrifice and terrible suffering without concealing a good deal of bad behavior. (Looting was universal, and paratroopers often killed prisoners.) Both men returned to Philadelphia after the war and revived their friendship, which still endures. A coda recounts the burst of fame they experienced following the 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan (based on a one-paragraph reference in Ambrose’s book) and then the HBO series.
Veteran readers will be visiting familiar ground, but it’s an irresistible story.