Anchorage Daily News
June 5, 2001
Sandi Gerjevic, Anchorage Daily News
Invading planes flew too low and too fast over drop zones in Normandy 57 years ago. Aboard a formation of C-47s, 139 paratroopers of "Easy" Company waited for the jumpmaster's red light, the signal to "stand up and hook up." Each man carried $10 in French francs and an escape kit containing a silk map of France, a tiny brass compass and a hacksaw. It was about 1 a.m. June 6, 1944. D-Day.
Rod Bain, a retired Anchorage schoolteacher, was one of those paratroopers. He remembers the mood that morning, how his buddies around him smoked, talked quietly and probably prayed. As the men anticipated their fate, one paratrooper, Pvt. Wayne Sisk of West Virginia, called out: "Does anybody here want to buy a good watch?"
The wisecrack, recorded by historian Stephen Ambrose in his book Band of Brothers, brought a round of laughter. Moments like that are what make Ambrose's account a highly readable history of the U.S. Army's E Company, 506th regiment, 101st Airborne. Much of the tale, which includes Bain, is told in the words of the men themselves. Ambrose began interviewing the men of Easy at a New Orleans reunion in the fall of 1988. Given the scope of World War II and the millions of lives it affected, some, like Bain, wondered why the author would zero in on the experiences of one company of soldiers. Yet unfolding the story of a few against an epic backdrop is a technique that worked well for Ambrose and captured the attention of film producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.
After the success of the film Saving Private Ryan, Hanks and Spielberg evidently had more to say about the sacrifices and character of those who fought World War II. They adapted Ambrose's book into a 10-part television miniseries to debut Sept. 9 on HBO.
Easy's story is also largely the story of the war in Europe. The company played
a part not only in the D-Day invasion, where it captured a German battery firing
on Utah Beach, but also, as Ambrose writes, "led the way into Carentan
(France), fought in Holland, held the perimeter at Bastogne, led the counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge, fought in the Rhineland campaign and took Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden."
Last week in Anchorage, Bain and his wife, Donelle, waited for a limousine to pull up in front of their home in Anchor Park, courtesy of Hanks and Spielberg. The couple were on their way to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, then to Paris and on by train to the coastal town of Carentan, near Utah Beach. Bain and many of the 30 remaining Easy Company veterans and family members will attend a premiere screening of the first two episodes of Band of Brothers. Hanks and Ambrose are expected to be there.
Some of the vets are making a first return to these battlegrounds of D-Day. It's a chance to tread over that ground one more time, to feel what they felt, to test their memories against the events of nearly six decades before.
Bain was just 22 years old when he jumped into Normandy.
"It was a great adventure," he said. "I mean a really great adventure."
WHO'S THAT GIRL?
Bain is not a character in the HBO series, but his good friend Don Malarkey of Salem, Ore., is. In an interview by telephone, Malarkey enjoyed telling the story of how he met Bain his first day with E Company at Camp Toccoa, Ga., in 1942. As he set up his cot in the barracks, Malarkey noticed a picture of a girl on a soldier's shelf. The photographer's stamp placed the photo in Astoria, Ore., Malarkey's hometown. He figured he knew every girl in Astoria, but he'd never seen this one.
"Who's that girl?" he asked the soldiers returning to the barracks that day. Bain, from across the Columbia River in Ilwaco, Wash., spoke up, saying she was his sister. The two chatted. From then on, they were friends.
"I suddenly felt I'd never even left home," Malarkey said.
Bain and Malarkey went through the war together. In fact, they were on the same plane bound for Normandy that early morning in 1944. Two nights before the invasion, they and their company dined on steak, green peas, mashed potatoes, white bread, ice cream and coffee -- a luxurious meal in wartime England. The men joked about being led to slaughter.
"We figured: Oh my God, we're in trouble," Bain said.
When they climbed aboard the C-47s, each man wore 100 to 150 pounds of gear, which included a pocketknife, a three-day supply of K-rations, ammunition, cigarettes, a .45 pistol, a bayonet, a gas mask, a smoke grenade and a Mae West life jacket, not to mention a helmet.
Their password, Ambrose wrote, was "Thunder" and the response "Flash." The soldiers each carried a toy metal clicker. One click was a challenge, two an answer in the darkness. The men were told to fight with knives until daylight and take no prisoners.
Bain and Malarkey should have been together on the ground in Normandy, but the formation that carried Easy into battle took heavy fire -- "ack-ack" hitting the planes like someone shaking rocks in a box, Ambrose wrote. The C-47s were supposed to fly 90 mph over the drop zone but were probably traveling about 150 mph when lights signaled the jump. Malarkey estimates he went into the air at 275 feet above the ground, less than the length of a football field. He and the other men were eager to escape the anti-aircraft fire. Blue, green and red tracers lit the night air like fireworks.
"We couldn't wait to get out of that plane," Bain said.
The speed of the drop and the fact that a pathfinder plane had gone down in the surf meant the men were sprinkled into the darkness like acorns over miles of hedgerows and farm fields. Malarkey landed badly in an elm tree. Bain hit the ground about three miles from the village of Ste.-Mere-Eglise. They didn't meet up until later that day.
E Company's D-Day mission was to help secure four unimproved roads and causeways coming up from Utah Beach. The roads, defended by Germans, would be used by amphibious forces.
On the ground, Bain struggled out of his chute. There was enough light to make out a fellow paratrooper. The two started down a road and knocked on a Frenchman's door. They got no information, so they headed toward the beaches. After a time, they came upon 20 to 30 paratroopers at a crossroads, where more than 200 Germans had surrendered. Bain said he helped check the enemy for weapons and eventually headed again for Utah Beach. By the time Bain arrived at the beach, the area was secure.
Eventually, Bain made it back to his company. He had escaped D-Day in one piece, without firing a single shot. Meanwhile, Malarkey was one of 12 men out of the company to capture a German battery of four 105 mm cannons pouring fire onto Utah Beach. For his actions, Malarkey earned a Bronze Star.
"It would be a gross exaggeration to say that Easy Company saved the day at Utah Beach," Ambrose wrote, "but reasonable to say that it made an important contribution to the success of the invasion."
Malarkey and Bain spoke highly of their commanding officer, Richard Winters, a Quaker who didn't smoke, drink or curse. Winters is the star character in HBO's version of Band of Brothers. Malarkey characterized him as dependable, reliable and brave. Winters never got close to the men, Bain said, but he had their respect.
While Malarkey praised Ambrose's account of E Company's journey through the war as "very realistic," he called the HBO series, which he viewed at a special screening in Los Angeles, "a Hollywood-type thing."
ELUSIVE SOCKEYE SALMON
After the battles of D-Day, the men of Easy settled down for rations and rest outside the village of Ste.-Marie-du-Mont, abandoned by the Germans. That night, one of the men, Harry Welsh, walked among the sleeping soldiers and later wrote that "they had looked at and smelled death all around them all day but never even dreamed of applying the term to themselves. They hadn't come here to fear. They hadn't come to die. They had come to win."
To Ambrose, the men of E Company were "citizen soldiers." He wrote: "They were farmers and coal miners, mountain men and sons of the Deep South. Some were desperately poor, others from the middle class."
Like many, Bain was a college boy who traded a notebook for a helmet. He was barely a man when he shipped out from his hometown and family, was housed in barracks, issued a uniform and challenged to endure the rigors of physical training. Boot camp in Georgia marked the first time he'd traveled outside the Pacific Northwest.
"It was a shock," he said of that time.
Yet, the war shaped lives and afforded remarkable opportunities. Bain spoke of skiing, hunting and other rich experiences in Austria in the last days of the war. Malarkey confirmed his amazing luck of meeting and chatting with both Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who asked him, "How do you like England?"
At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bain had been a business major at the University of Washington. He finished out the year before joining the Army, signing on as a paratrooper for the $50-a-month bonus pay and for the excitement.
Of E Company, Ambrose wrote: "Each man in his own way had gone through a realization that doing his best was a better way of getting through the Army than hanging around with the sad excuses for soldiers they met in the recruiting depots or basic training. They wanted to make their Army time positive, a learning and maturing and challenging experience."
After the war, Malarkey graduated from the University of Washington and spent most of his career in real estate. Bain married and had four children. He came to Alaska in 1951 and worked as a school principal in villages and as a grade-school teacher in Anchorage. He is included in Ambrose's chapter on postwar careers, retired and "chasing the elusive sockeye salmon."
At his home recently, Bain, 79, pulled a German Luger from its case, a souvenir of the war. He could think of one other memento: a wooden figurine painted like a monk, fingered from an Austrian home. The youthful prank still bothers him enough to make him think of returning it.
He characterized his war years as a time of fear, physical hardship and personal loss yet a chance to be part of something greater than himself. Before the war ended, E Company lost 48 men. More than 100 were wounded.
The men of E Company had an unusual camaraderie, which began during rigorous training in Georgia. Bain and Malarkey still correspond and occasionally meet at reunions, as they will in France this week. They look forward to seeing their commanding officer, Winters.
Malarkey summed up Easy's bond in a quote included in the Ambrose book: "There is not a day that has passed since that I do not thank Adolf Hitler for allowing me to be associated with the most talented and inspiring group of men that I have ever known."
Daily News reporter Sandi Gerjevic can be reached at email@example.com.