Last month, Eva of Coffee, Classics, & Craziness and Hamlette of Hamlette’s Soliloquy announced they’d host a “blogathon” in honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. They encouraged the blogging world to write about the Normandy landings, and if we liked, we could review books, movies, and TV shows on the subject. These articles would then be featured on their sites between June 6-8 (so be sure to check out the growing lists of articles!). They also pointed out, wisely, that since there are only a handful of movies and shows specifically about D-Day, they’d broadened the blogathon’s scope to include the entire European Theater.
I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on for the blogathon, though: Band of Brothers‘ second episode, “Day of Days.”
For those who may not be as familiar with World War II history, on Tuesday, June 6, 1944, Allied forces finally invaded the Nazi-held continent of Europe. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history, involving the armed forces of 8 nations, 156,000 troops, and more than 10,000 casualties. D-Day, as it was known, was a tide-turning moment in the war, even though the Allies didn’t manage to achieve all their goals on the first day of the invasion.
Band of Brothers, based on the book of the same name by Stephen Ambrose, tells the story of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. It’s not for the faint of heart: the violence is realistic, and the language is rough. But it’s a valuable piece of art, in my opinion, thanks to its incredible faithfulness to the historical events and the people involved.
The men of Easy Company were paratroopers: before dawn on June 6, they were dropped from planes behind the enemy lines in Normandy, France. Their mission? To distract the German army from the nearby beaches where the Allied ships planned to disgorge thousands of troopers once the sun was up, and secure bridges and towns ahead of time. As if the assignment wasn’t perilous enough, cloud cover and enemy fire forced most paratroopers–not just Easy Company–to jump out of their planes outside of their intended “drop zones.” Needless to say, there were plenty of lost Americans wandering around the French countryside.
“Day of Days” begins with the paratrooper drop: a flurry of parachutes, explosive anti-aircraft fire, crashing planes, and a close focus on 26-year-old Lieutenant Dick Winters of Easy Company. He lands in a field alone, unarmed except for a knife: in the frenzy of jumping out of the plane, the bag carrying his gun and ammunition was torn right off of him. Pretty soon, however, more paratroopers start falling out of the sky, including a very frightened, jittery young man by the name of John Hall.
Winters is a soft-spoken young man who doesn’t really get flustered unless his good name is on the line. By this point in the show, he’s already established himself as a capable and respected leader. As young Hall nervously chatters about how much trouble he’ll be in with his platoon commander, you can see the wheels turning in Winters’ head. He’s the adult in this situation, and he knows it. He’s assessing Hall’s mental state, and he realizes that he needs to encourage this younger “brother” of his. He quietly tells Hall that he needs his help, teases him gently, and defiantly focuses on the bright side.
“We’re lost!” Hall bemoans.
“We’re not lost,” Winters says kindly. “We’re in Normandy.”
As the scattered paratroopers begin finding each other and banding together, Winters becomes their center of gravity whether they like it or not. The brash Sergeant Guarnere mocks him behind his back; Hall follows him like a lost puppy; Buck Compton (who Captain America fans will recognize as Dum-Dum Doogan) compels him to recognize his own leadership. As they approach the German stronghold at Brécourt Manor, however, Easy Company once again becomes a cohesive unit–and no one questions Winters’ authority ever again.
The Germans had installed four long-range cannons at Brécourt Manor, not far from Utah Beach. From there, they could relentlessly pummel the troops and vehicles pouring onto the Normandy coast. Easy Company was given the task of taking out those cannons. In a breathless scene that takes up a good twelve minutes of “Day of Days,” twelve men–twelve men!–throw grenades, fool the Germans, surprise themselves with their own reckless courage, and destroy every single one of those guns…and they only lose one man.
That man, sadly, is Hall, the anxious young paratrooper Winters found in the field before daybreak–and Winters is the one who finds him. Even amid the turmoil and the urgency of his mission, Winters stops just long enough for us to see the deep sorrow passing over his face. Then he gets up, and carries out his mission.
But at the very end of “Day of Days,” once Brécourt is secured and the men of Easy Company rest in anticipation of D-Day Plus One, Winters describes Hall and his death to his best friend, Nixon.
“I never knew him,” Nixon says.
“Yeah, you did,” Winters argues. “Radio Op, 506th basketball team, Able Company. He was a good man.” Then he pauses and adds, grimly, ” ‘Man.’ Not even old enough to buy a beer.”
And this is one of the things that makes Band of Brothers so poignant, and one of the things we must never forget: the men who fought on D-Day, whether they survived or not, were so very young. It’s horrifically easy to reduce them to numbers on a Wikipedia page, but each one had his own story–his own name, his own family, his own interests and dreams–and each one dropped out of those planes or plunged across those beaches because he believed in something bigger than himself.
Today, remember the men of Easy Company. Remember the other paratroopers who tumbled into Normandy before the sun. Remember the men who stumbled out of the Higgins boats, into the waters of the English Channel and onto the beaches of Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword, and Juno. Remember the families who woke up that morning to the news that their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons had “embark[ed] upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.” Remember the people of Europe who knew that their long-awaited liberation had finally begun.
And remember: this is the 75th anniversary of the Day of Days. There are very few left alive who lived to tell the tale.
If you know one of these men…thank him. We owe him–and his band of brothers–more than we can ever know.