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Band Of Brothers: The Island

Easy Moves to the Rear

Converted for the Web from "Band Of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest" by Stephen E. Ambrose

On October 28, the 101st Division's area of responsibility was enlarged. The 506th shifted to the east on the river bank, just opposite Arnhem. Easy was in the line in the vicinity of the village of Driel, which put the company in the easternmost tip of the Allied advance toward Germany. It was replacing a British unit.

As the company moved into its new positions, Sergeant Lipton and battalion X.O. Winters talked with the British commander. He said they could see Germans moving around and digging in along the railroad track to the east. (Easy was still on the right flank of the 506th, at Driel; that put it at the point where the line bent at an acute angle, meaning one platoon faced north, another east, with the third in reserve.)

"Well, when you see them, why don't you fire on them?" Winters asked.

"Because when we fire on them, they just fire back."

Winters and Lipton looked at each other in disbelief. Easy always tried to keep the German heads down and on the defensive whenever it occupied the front line.

It did so at Driel and kept up active patrolling. The artillery continued to pound away. The Germans still had the advantage of holding the high ground north of the river, so movement by day was impossible. The platoons in the front line lived in foxholes. The rain was all but constant. No one ever got really dry. No shaves, no showers, no relaxation. A miserable existence.

To the rear, at the CPs and further back, conditions improved somewhat. Artillery was a problem, of course, but there was hot food and other compensations. The men listened to "Arnhem Annie," a German propaganda broadcaster, over the radio. Between American songs, she invited them to cross the river, surrender, and live in comfort until the war was over. The supply people were able to bring copies of Yank and Stars and Stripes to the men. The 101st's daily news sheet, The Kangaroo Khronicle, resumed publishing. The Germans dropped some leaflets, Why Fight for the Jews? The 506th P.O.W. Interrogation Team broadcast over a loudspeaker surrender invitations to the Germans.

The only effect of the propaganda, by both sides, was to bring a good laugh.

Winters was bored. Being X.O. "was a let down, a tremendous let down. The most fun I had in the army, the most satisfying thing I did was company commander. Being a junior officer was a tough job, taking it from both sides, from the men and from Captain Sobel. But as company commander, I was running my own little show. I was out front, making a lot of personal decisions on the spot that were important to the welfare of my company, getting a job done."

But as battalion X.O., "I was an administrator, not making any command decisions or such, just recommendations to the battalion commander, to the battalion S-2."

I suggested that some people would feel a sense of relief at the change.

"I didn't," Winters replied.

1st Lt. Harry Welsh's 2d platoon had the sector of the line facing east. His CP was in a barn some 50 meters west of the railroad tracks, where the Germans had their outposts. His platoon strength was down to two dozen men; even if he kept half of them on alert, that meant twelve men to cover a front of 1,500 meters. With a more than 200-meter gap between outposts, it was relatively easy for German patrols to penetrate the line after dark. They did so regularly, not with the purpose of mounting an attack -- like the Allies, they had accepted the static situation and their lines were thinly held, too -- but to make certain the Americans were not building up.

After his experiences on October 5, Winters was worried about the porous situation at the front. When he heard a member of the rescue mission of October 22-23 describe the penetration of German lines without being spotted as "fantastic," he snorted: "The Germans did the same thing to us. They got two companies across and we never fired a shot at them until they got up on the dike. So what's the big deal?"

Winters was also frustrated in his new job. He craved action and fretted over the German penetrations. On the afternoon of October 31, he called Heyliger on the telephone to suggest that that night the two of them make their own inspection of the outposts. Heyliger agreed. At 2100 hours that evening, Winters arrived at Easy's CP. Heyliger telephoned Welsh to let him know that he and Winters were on their way out to see him.

"As Moose and I proceeded down the path leading to Welsh's CP," Winters related, "we were walking shoulder to shoulder, as the path was only about six feet wide, slightly raised. There was a drop of about three feet into a drainage ditch on each side."

Out of the darkness came an order, "Halt!"

Heyliger was a calm, easygoing man, a C.O. who did not get excited unnecessarily. So when Winters felt him take an extra hard deep breath, he tensed. Winters figured Heyliger had forgotten the password.

Heyliger started to say "Moose," but before he got the word half out, blam, blam, blam -- an M-1 spat three bullets out from a distance of 10 yards.

Heyliger dropped to the road with a moan. Winters dived into the ditch on the left side of the road. He feared they had run into a German patrol because the M-1 fire had been so rapid it could have been a German machine pistol. Then he heard footsteps running away.

Winters crawled back onto the path, grabbed Heyliger, and pulled him to the side. He had been hit in the right shoulder, a fairly clean wound, and in the left leg, a bad one -- his calf looked like it had been blown away. Winters set to bandaging the leg.

A few minutes later Winters heard footsteps running his way. As he moved to grab his rifle, he heard Welsh calling in a low voice, "Moose? Dick?"

Welsh and two of his men helped bandage Heyliger. They gave him morphine shots and carried him back to the battalion CP. By then he had lost so much blood, and had had so many shots of morphine, he had a waxlike pallor that made Winters doubt he was going to make it.

He made it. Within a week he was back in a hospital in England. While there he was promoted to captain and given the British Military Cross for the rescue patrol. But for Heyliger, the war was over.

The soldier who shot Heyliger had been tense, frightened, unsure of himself. The incident broke him up. He was a veteran, not a recruit. Winters decided not to punish him. Soon thereafter he was eased out of the company.

On November 7, Heyliger wrote Winters from his hospital bed. "Dear Dick: Here I am laying flat on my back taking it easy. I want to thank you for taking care of me that night I got hit. It sure is a stupid way to get knocked off.

"I arrived here naked as a jay bird. Didn't have a thing. I know you have my wings and pistol, but I am sweating out the clothes in my bed roll and the rolls of film in my musette bag....

"Jesus, Dick, they put casts right over my wounds and it smells as if a cat shit in my bed. I can't get away from that stink. "Well, this is short, but my right arm is very weak. Remember me to all."

Heyliger's replacement as C.O. of Easy was 1st Lt. Norman S. Dike, Jr. He came over from Division HQ. Tall, slim, good looking, he was well educated and talked in a military tone of voice. He made a good impression.

Being X.O. put Winters into daily contact with Nixon, by now battalion S-3. They hardly could have been more different. Winters grew up in a middle-class home; Nixon's father was fabulously wealthy. Winters had not gotten out of Pennsylvania in his teenage years; Nixon had lived in various parts of Europe. Winters was a graduate of a small college; Nixon came from Yale. Winters never drank; Nixon was an alcoholic. But they were the closest of friends, because what they had in common was a dedication to the job at hand, and a remarkable ability to do that job. Every member of Easy interviewed for this book said Winters was the best combat commander he ever saw, while Nixon was the most brilliant staff officer he knew in the war.

"Nixon was a hard man to get out of the sack in the morning," according to Winters. One day in November, Winters wanted to get an early start. Nixon, as usual, could not be talked into getting up. Winters went to his bed, grabbed his feet while he was still in his sleeping bag, and threw them over his shoulder.

"Are you going to get up?"

"Go away, leave me alone."

Winters noticed that the water pitcher was half-full. Still holding Nixon's feet on his shoulder, he grabbed the pitcher and started pouring the contents on Nixon's face. Nixon opened his eyes. He was horrified. "No! No!" he begged. Too late, the contents were on their way. Only then did Winters realize that Nixon had not gone outside to piss away the liquor he had drunk, but used the water pitcher instead.

Nixon yelled and swore, then started laughing. The two officers decided to go into Nijmegen to investigate the rumor that hot showers were available for officers there.

* * *

The campaign dragged on. Increasing cold added to the misery of the daily rains. Finally, in late November, Canadian units began to replace the 101st. Easy's turn came on the night of November 24-25, when it pulled out of the line. In the morning, the men boarded trucks for the trip back to France for rest, refitting, receiving replacements, and a shower, which the enlisted men had not had in sixty-nine days.

Easy had jumped on September 17 with 154 officers and men. It came out of Holland with 98 officers and men. Lieutenants Brewer, Compton, Heyliger, and Charles Hudson had been wounded, along with forty-five enlisted men. The Easy men killed in action were William Dukeman, Jr., James Campbell, Vernon Menze, William Miller, James Miller, Robert Van Klinken. The company had taken sixty-five casualties in Normandy, so its total at the end of November was 120 (some of these men had been wounded in both campaigns), of whom not one was a prisoner of war.

As the trucks rolled back down Hell's Highway, the Dutch lined the roads to cheer their liberators. "September 17," they shouted, as the convoy moved through Nijmegen, Uden, Veghel, Eindhoven.

The men of Easy did not feel like conquering heroes. Sergeant Lipton summed it up: "Arnhem Annie said over the radio, 'You can listen to our music, but you can't walk in our streets.' She was right. We didn't get into Arnhem."

Band of Brothers author Stephen Ambrose

Copyright © 1992 by Stephen E. Ambrose. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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