Band of Brothers – Remembering Our Legacy on Memorial Day
In the summer of 2001, huge posters for Band of Brothers, the Hanks/Spielberg mini- series set to run on HBO in the fall began appearing everywhere.
The damn posters made me cry: “A nation depended upon them, but they depended upon each other.”
As I read up on it, and shared it with Poppa, he’d scoff, “Yeah, 101st got all the glory kiddo, but 82nd won more medals. We used to wonder who did THEIR public relations.”
The first episode aired Sept 16, 2001; five days after 9/11.
The significance of the Invasion 55 years ago in Normandy was lost on a nation focused on the devastation in downtown Manhattan. I sat in my home with a few friends, watching the first episode. The full weight of what Poppa had experienced stunned me.
In the coming attractions they showed the invasion planes hovering over a gray sky, a dark night, lit up by gunfire. I had never truly given the invasion much thought, but I guess in my imagination, the planes just snuck up on the Nazis, surprised them, and with great valor overtook the enemy. I was way off.
I phoned Poppa after the first show. It was midnight in New York.
“Hold on,” he said. Seinfeld was going off and he wanted to hear the tag of the show. Jerry said his parting words and Poppa laughed. “Okay, what’s on your little mind?” he asked, but before I could speak, he said. “Hey, you’re up late. Oh, no, not really, I’m up late.” He laughed again. “Okay, what do you want?”
“Poppa,” I shouted, “they’re shooting at the planes –” He listened to me explain what I had seen on the television and paused.
“Oh, yes,” his voice was somber. “And the bullets were real.”
Frequently, when Poppa told a war story, it was as though it was something that happened only in his imagination, in a place far away; it never registered with me that he’d really experienced any of this. His telling always brought with it the voice that read childhood stories to me which delighted my imagination.
I couldn’t fathom my father shooting anyone, let alone killing them.
I knew somewhere in the recesses of my mind that Poppa had once held a Tommy gun and killed Nazis, but there was a vagueness to it. Even the picture of him holding a Tommy gun in the hardcover version of the Gerald Astor book, “The Voices of Dday,” (shown here) doesn’t seem like my dad.(Although, interestingly, the caption is incorrect in the book! It’s Poppa holding the gun, not Lt. Homer Jones as Astor claimed. And, it was Poppa’s camera that snapped the of a Nazi flag draped over a cow in a field.)
I couldn’t imagine this affable friendly guy seeing friends blown to bits before his eyes. I hadn’t known what a man ruined by his past was supposed to look like. He functioned, so he was fine in my estimation.
I taped the first five episodes of Band of Brothers and brought them along when I visited for Thanksgiving 2001. While we watched them, Poppa sat like a stone, yet somewhere in his mind reliving all of it. He was amazed at how accurate it was. In the beginning of episode, the actual GI’s spoke, and Poppa would point at the set upon hearing them — “God, that’s how I’ve felt all these years,” he’d say.
Before I left, I ordered HBO for him so we could follow it together. He balked at paying ten dollars more a month for the premium service, but as usual I won out. Poppa phoned me after every show, animated and chatty. He’d go on about the episode I would see in a few hours, and recount everything as if I’d already seen it. He’d say every week, “You know, if you watch this whole series, you’ll know exactly what I did.
The 101st and the 82nd were side by side –” I’d smile. As usual with Poppa, once he was engaged, he was fully involved and forgot that he’d resisted something in the first place. He spoke about the show, not just to me, but also to others, as if he’d wanted to watch it all along and it was he who had to drag me along. I found it charming, and enjoyed that he was able to look at what he’d been a part of with pride.
Poppa phoned me very unsettled after one of the last installments of Band of Brothers, an episode in which Easy Company opened up a concentration camp and found Nazi horrors first hand. He was particularly agitated this evening and I spoke to him for well over an hour in order to calm him down.
“You know,” he began, his breathing labored, “they (Nazis) were scared of us. Here we were, the Americans coming to get them from a land far away…” his voice trailed for a moment, waiting for the next thought. “You had to hate to survive, I mean really hate the enemy. And I hated them more than they hated me. For most of the guys, we were there to liberate Europe, and when it got bad up in the Bulge, a few grumbled about how we were getting slaughtered for a few lousy Jews, but they were all silenced when we opened up our first camp.”
“There we a lot of concentration camps within Germany, you know.” The anger in his voice was a controlled rage, something I hadn’t heard in Poppa for a long time. “They don’t tell people that, but what they showed there in the show was true. The Germans in the town pretended that they didn’t know what was going on under their nose.” He paused to take a labored breath. “They knew, Tori. God damn it, they knew. How could they not know! A torture camp a mile from your home? How could you not smell the burning flesh?!”
His disgust hung in the air.
“By the time we reached this one camp, the guards had abandoned it, but they locked the gates and the Jews inside were left to die. Aw, Christ… these men were skeletons. The cruelty! I hated those Krauts!” He was caught up in his rage, and then an instant later his voice softened. “
“Oh, God, those poor people. They had been tortured and beaten, and experimented upon. They kept crying and clapping their hands together, and saying in poor English “American!!”
Many of our guys wept. We had to line them up while we searched the camp. Those bastards left booby traps! What a mess…
I was with the radio, and this one little guy comes up to me, I spoke a tiny bit of German, enough for me to know that he was trying to tell me something important. I called over one of our guys who spoke German, and he said that according to the prisoner there were a few Nazi guards hiding among the Jews.
“The guards had threatened their captives and told them that they had weapons hidden under their costumes and if anyone spoke, they’d open fire.” Poppa stopped, waiting for me to take in the sneakiness of the Nazis.
“What happened?” I asked.
“This brave little guy pointed out each of the guards, and my God, looking at them you could tell. They were well fed and quite healthy. It never bothered me to kill those guys…”
“What? What happened?”
“Those were our orders.”
“Wait, Poppa, back up. How did that happen? How could you be so sure?”
“We had a thousand people cheering when we pulled them out of the group that’s how we knew. We lined them up and Manny Hernandez, a great guy said, ‘What’s command say, Hartman?’ I radioed in and they asked me — ‘Do the prisoners confirm that these were their guards?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. And a few moments later the order came back. They were to be executed by firing squad. So we lined them up and shot them.”
“In front of the all those people? What did they do?”
“They cheered and cried. It was really over, and they never had to be tortured by those animals again. To me, that wasn’t cold blood. That was justice. The other time, I couldn’t pull the trigger.”
“What other time?”
“It’s late –” he pleaded.
“No. Tell me.”
“All right, and then I’m going to sleep.”
“Oh, like you’re going to sleep after all this.”
“Yeah, you’re right, but I just don’t want to keep reliving it.”
“All right, a few days after the invasion, we captured two high ranking Nazi officers, and they were under my guard. I told them in German to walk toward the jeep; we had to take them to headquarters. I had them under gunpoint, but the one guy gave this smug look. I can’t explain it, but when you see the Nazi officers in those old movies that’s what I mean, he looked at me like — ‘You’re a nothing, and I’m a brave officer.’
One of my buddies told me to shoot him, and I held the gun up but I couldn’t. That would have been murder; it would have crossed a line that I wasn’t willing to cross. So I took my gun and smacked him across the face with it. He went down, and the other officer cowed and ran to the jeep. My buddy pushed the other guy along. I heard that they were accidentally shot later. But it wasn’t me, so I didn’t care.”
“Yeah, hey Tori, what do you think war is? We had no way to take prisoners. Our orders were unwritten, and unspoken, but more than one commander said, that he didn’t have any plan for Nazi prisoners. That told us very clearly. Kill any Nazi because a spared Nazi kills later. Listen, I gotta get off the phone.”
“Because I’m tired, that’s why.”
“Well I want to talk.”
“Okay, so talk.”
“Do you have any regrets?” I asked.
“A few.” His tone denoted a place that was off limits.
“Not now. I’m going to bed.”
“This call is costing a fortune, you know.”
“It’s only money Poppa.”
I pictured him, sitting in his Sears easy chair, wearing his favorite pajamas covered by his ratty old sweater that I’d given him years ago in his chilly New York apartment.
I spoke softly. “Tell me your regrets.”
“I have many,” he sighed. “But the one I’ll tell you now to get you off my back is this; I am a Jew, and there was a lot of anti-Semitism in the army. Alot. And, I wish I’d spoken up against it a few times. I kept my mouth shut and stayed out of scrapes, but there were a few I wish I’d fought. You pick your battles in life, and there were times I should have stood up that I didn’t. You’re good at that kid. Real good, and I’m proud of you… don’t know where you got it from — probably your mother — certainly not me.”
“Poppa, maybe you kept yourself away from trouble because you had one enemy and that was the Nazis…”
“No, you don’t understand and that’s okay. Remember, the Jews say — ‘never forget’ about the Holocaust or we will repeat it. That’s all.”
I didn’t understand when we hung up the phone that night what I do now. He meant that hate had to be defeated at all cost, everywhere it’s found. It breeds rampant like all fear creating prejudice.
Untypical of his generation, Poppa’s friends were every race, creed and sexual orientation. If you crossed his path he was kind to you. Band of Brothers helped him understand and identify many of the feelings he’d locked inside his entire life. It helped me have a personal connection to the horrors of war that Poppa had alluded to, and to feel a deep connection to the heritage I had no idea I had. Less than two months after the final episode of Band of Brothers aired on HBO, Poppa would be dead.
What part of history does your family claim? Are there films or books that have helped you identify something powerful about yourself or a family member?
Set aside some time to learn more about a powerful event, that has affected someone in your family. Put yourself in their shoes; how would you have handled the choices they made?
What part of history do you claim? Sometimes, our strongest asset has come from something we know nothing about. My friends often tell me I’m courageous. Until I really learned about Poppa’s war years, I never knew where it came from.
Is there a relative whose actions you are proud of? Do they know?
Set aside the things that represents to you an important part of history that your family was a part of. If you still can, ask a relative to fill in the blanks.
In assembling things of historical value, we can begin to understand the sacred from our past.
Is there something that makes you feel proud? What is it? Will it die with you or will it be recorded for future generations?
Was there a television show that ignited you or a family member because you related to some aspect of it? Discuss it. What is revealed is healed.
On Memorial Day we remember and offer our appreciation to those who sacrificed for us all.