By Jamil Zainaldin
Seventy years ago, dug into the bitter ice and snow of a Belgian forest, a U.S. Army infantry company helped to withstand a massive German onslaught and thereby changed the course of World War II and earned a place in history. Did you realize that the story of Easy Company began at Camp Toccoa, Georgia?
At Camp Toccoa, in 1942, the 150 men of Easy Company, part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), began an excruciatingly arduous training regime to forge them into a strike force whose members could withstand virtually any physical challenge. Much of that training involved literally running up and down Currahee Mountain (elev. 1,735 ft.) both day and night. The HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (based on Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book of the same name) brought international renown to the mountain, located in Stephens County, and to the men who called themselves the Boys of Currahee.
So fit were these men that they were able to complete, in just 75 hours, a record-setting 118-mile jaunt with field gear and weapons that began at Currahee and ended at Atlanta’s Five Points intersection on December 1, 1943. Cheering crowds lined Peachtree Street, while a band provided escort.
They were, of course, exhausted and drained. Yet, in the words of Pvt. Don Malarkey of the mortar squad, who was in great pain as he carried his weapon, “a strange thing happened to me when the band began to play. I straightened up, the pain disappeared, and I finished the march as if we were passing in review at Toccoa.”
The army’s initial plan was to create an elite corps of soldiers who could be dropped from the sky by parachute directly into engagement with the enemy. From Toccoa, Easy Company’s next stop was Fort Benning, in southwest Georgia, for jump training. Part of the 506th PIR of the 101st Airborne Division, they quickly earned a reputation for physical prowess and discipline that exceeded the skills of their instructors.
Having earned their parachute wings after five jumps from a C-47, they were shipped to England for further training. Back in the States, General William C. Lee had told them that they had “no history, but a rendezvous with destiny.” They knew they were being prepared for something important, but they still had no idea what those prophetic words might mean.
Their purpose became clear on June 6, 1944. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s planners assigned the 506th PIR the midnight mission of paving the way for a morning landing on the beaches of Normandy by attacking the German defenses. The massive air-sea-land invasion known as D-Day encountered weather obstacles and seemingly countless snafus, and the airborne warriors were not immune to them.
Their jump behind enemy lines was a brutally hazardous night drop through exploding flack and arcing tracer fire. In the chaos, many of the men were dropped in the wrong zones and became lost. Nonetheless, Easy Company’s commanding officer, Lt. Richard Winters, managed to assemble a 12-man team and proceed with their mission: the destruction of a German battery of four heavy guns that defended Normandy’s beaches. Even as others from the 506th joined the fighting, they were still outnumbered 10 to 1. They disabled the battery.
Their action earned Easy Company’s Lt. Winters a Distinguished Service Cross and promotion. Easy Company’s 506th regiment received a Presidential Unit Citation.
The ultimately successful D-Day, however, was not to be the last decisive battle in which Easy Company would play a key role.
To be continued. . . . Read “The boys of Currahee,” part 2.
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides Jamil Zainaldin with editorial assistance for his SaportaReport columns.