The title of the book and series comes from the St Crispin’s Day Speech in William Shakespeare‘s play Henry V, delivered by King Henry before the Battle of Agincourt.
“From this day to the ending of the World,…we in it shall be remembered…we band of brothers.”
David Kenyon Webster was a very well-educated, privileged child of a well-off Republican family from Bronxville, NY, who was the author of Parachute Infantry, a memoir written not long after the war, but rejected by the publishers, He had a number of articles published in the Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s. This book was first published in 1994, decades after his death in 1961.
For people who are unaware of the Village of Bronxville, it is small community, one square mile wide, is part of the town of Eastchester, NY and its population in 1940 was 6,888 and today it is 6,656. It is a very wealthy community with the average household income of over $340,000 in 2020. The demographics today are 87.5% white, 1% African –American and 7% Asian. The rest are mostly Hispanic or Latino. Today it is moderately liberal, but in 1940 it was 100% white and the registration was probably close to 100% Republican. In 1940, it was most probably 100% white and 100% Christian. In the election of 1940, FDR defeated Willkie in the State of NY by: 51.5 to 48%. In Westchester County, Willkie won with 62.3% and in Bronxville, I am sure Willkie was the overwhelming winner. That was the nature of Webster’s hometown in 1940.
In fact, there was a time in the post war years where Bronxville was known as a restricted community and no Jews or Blacks lived there. It was the home of the rich and famous, whose business and social interests were in NYC. Joseph P. Kennedy moved there with his family in 1927, which included his 2nd son Jack, who become the 33rd President of the United States. It was there that most of the children were raised until the onset of WWII.
After the war, Webster wrote a long account of his time with Easy Company, but his book, Parachute Infantry, was never published until decades after his untimely death in 1961. The essence of this story is about his time with the 506th Regiment along with many of his deeply interesting and revealing letters he sent home to his family.
Webster attended Harvard University and was an English Literature major. He volunteered for the Airborne Paratroopers and was trained in Taccoa, GA with the rest of the Easy Company, the 506th Regiment, of the 2nd Battalion, of the legendary 101st Airborne Division. Easy Company and their exploits were the subject of Band of Brothers, which Stephen Ambrose wrote about.in his well- received book. Eight years later, in 2000, it was made into a very popular and honored, 10-part production by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, which was presented on HBO. Webster was the only Harvard man in the 101st who was an English literature major. In fact, he may have been the only Harvard man in that unit. After training in Taccoa, Georgia, he arrived in England in 1944, and continued his and the 101st Division’s preparation for the D-Day invasion. On June 6th 1944, with the 101st Airborne Division, he jumped at midnight with his company and the 101st Airborne, hours before the planned invasion and miles behind the beaches onto the Normandy Peninsular.
There, amongst the chaos of the nighttime jump, the scattered men finally coalesced into fighting units and inflicted considerable damage on the confused Nazi forces, which were billeted miles from the beachheads. As for Webster, he landed off-course, nearly alone, and almost drowned in the flooded fields behind Utah Beach. He was wounded a few days later in a firefight and was evacuated back to England. It was not a serious wound, but he never discusses why his rehabilitation took so long.
This action was covered extensively in the HBO production and Webster’s departure for England was noted. A few months later, he rejoined the 506th in England and he parachuted into the Netherlands as part of Operation Market-Garden. During Market-Garden, the company advanced towards the last bridge over the River Nederrijn (the lower Rhine River) near Arnhem that would lead into Germany. While participating in an attack in the no-man’s land, called “the Island” (also referred to as “The Crossroads”), he was wounded in the leg by machine gun fire. He was evacuated to a hospital and spent the next several months recuperating in England. The last bridge was never taken, the attack to circumvent the Siegfried Line and go straight into the heart of Germany was a colossal failure, with immense Allied casualties.
In, Parachute Infantry, along his very detailed letters, he relates an accurate and personal memoir of his experience in combat. He never refers to his training in Taccoa, GA or England. He never discusses his time recovering from his two non-life threatening battle wounds, but he describes intimately how the war affects him, his buddies and the immediate action, deprivation, fear, and losses of the men around him.
What is most interesting is that Ambrose’s book is mostly a fictional re-creation of the real events involving Easy Company from Normandy, to the taking of the Carentan on the Cotentin Peninsular, to their deployment back to England, their parachuting into Holland as part of the massive British-planned Market-Garden Operation, their trial at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, the attacks on Foy and Haguenau, the liberation of concentration camps, and eventually their reaching Hitler’s mountain top home, the Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden, where all the top Nazis had homes.
Band of Brothers, which was written in 1992, featured a number of the accounts of the still-alive veterans of Easy Company. Of course, it included many others; including Colonel Robert Sink their regimental commander, their early Company Commander, Captain Herbert Sobel, who was the much disliked Jewish martinet, who trained them at Taccoa, Captain Ronald Speirs, who was a very tough and heroic officer, and Captain Lewis Nixon, a Yale College graduate and a very well-off, son of a rich family, who was a very close compatriot of Captain Richard Winters. Captain Winters was the featured individual in the series and the commander in charge of Easy Company until Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge. He is eventually promoted to Major and elevated to command the 2nd Battalion. There are a number of others that are widely mentioned, like Private Joe Liegott, all the non-commissioned officers (Sergeants) as well as Webster, Lipton, Malarkey, Powers, Toye, Muck, Hoobler, Guarnere, and Compton.
What fascinated me most was that where I could compare the detail regarding events involving Webster and his company, his accounts differed wildly from the HBO productions. The main differences were, of course, the disaster at Market-Garden, the famous problem of “a bridge too far” and the ensuing disaster at Arnhem. But, of course, Webster had a very small role and a limited knowledge of what transpired. When it came to the long vigil and the raid on the town of Haguenau, France, along with the taking of the ruined Eagle’s Nest (Hitler’s home and mountain retreat,) above the town of Berchtesgaden, there hardly were any similarities. In fact, there seemed to be very little connection between their billet in Austria after the German surrender and the events portrayed in the HBO production.
As the war in Europe started to reach its last phase, there was the presidential election in November of 1944, approximately six months before Hitler’s death and the surrender of Nazi Germany. Webster wanted to vote and he walked over two miles to cast his ballot. He wrote, “That made me happy. I had to walk almost two miles to cast my ballot. But I would have walked ten, if necessary, because it was my first vote – I was 22 in June – and I had always wanted to cast it for Roosevelt, the greatest President we had ever had and the only one who ever gave the working man a break.”
Webster went on, “Roosevelt had faced and overcame the two greatest crisis America had suffered: the worst depression in history and the world’s biggest war. He was a politician, as crafty and conniving as any, for politics is a cesspool of lying lawyers, but his work was greater than the man, and the country was better for it. The rich Republicans hated Roosevelt for helping the working man for encouraging the labor unions to wringing a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work out of employers who had never heard of such a thing before and for putting fair-employment practice that had been considered outrageously Socialistic. Roosevelt helped the unemployed when Herbert Hoover, the last Republican, an engineer who never quite understood humanity, had said, “Let every man help is brother,’ when he knew perfectly well that that the rich weren’t about to help the poor, never had and never would. I (Webster) had grown up with Republicans and gone to school and college with them and was sickened by their selfishness and their cold avarice and lofty contempt for the common people. I had sworn to vote for the Democrats, who for all their rotten political faults, were more concerned with the welfare of the country as a whole.”
Meanwhile, it seems that decades after the end of WWII, the reputation of Easy Company intrigued the historian Stephen Ambrose, and he decided to interview all of the surviving members of the unit he could find. He found the survivors, interviewed many of them, listened to their accounts of what happened, compared their different perspectives on these specific events, along with their personal experiences. With this information, he recreated the “company’s” actions, taking into account their casualties, their reflections, and the results. But, of course, this information was culled from accounts that were over forty years later. Obviously, no one could accurately remember conversations and individual actions, reflective of the fog of war, the confusion in the field, and the ongoing fears that all of the men harbored. The men interviewed for Ambrose’s book and those who were featured on the HBO series eight or so years later, were giving their perspectives on their experiences, but few day to day details. Few men in the field know what is going on, except to their direct right or left or what was up in front of them. Interestingly, much of that information came from Webster’s unpublished book and letters.
Wherein, Webster’s book was written almost right after the war, as he was a gifted and trained writer, who was very much attuned to detail. Of course, it wasn’t detailed history, but a memoir of personal experience. He never volunteered for anything, he kept his head down, was very critical of his officers, and he painted strong and vivid pictures of the men who he fought with. Not only were there many casualties amongst the original men from Toccoa, but his contact with many of the key figures in Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers,” and the ensuing HBO production, was incredibly slight, in fact he never spent any time with any of the principle characters. Captain Winters, a larger than life and heroic figure, in the book and the production was barely mentioned until one-third of the book. Without seeing the HBO production, no one would have thought twice about the featured officers; Captains, Winters, Speirs or Nixon. They really had nothing to do with Webster’s life in the field or what he saw and experienced. His relationship was with the men he ate with, shared a trench or fox hole, or fought with. In fact, Webster was so sick of his company commander, a Lt. Thomas Peacock that he fantasized about shooting him. He got to hate most of the officers and the “Mickey Mouse” details after the fighting ended, He, and all the others, would turn to any alcohol they could find, and most were bored stiff. Almost of the soldiers were counting up their “points” which would lead to their discharge. One needed at least “85” points, which counted length of service, overseas deployment, combat duty and parenthood. Meanwhile, after the German surrendered and weeks turned into months, morale declined markedly. There was drunkenness, violence, killings, auto accidents and illegal fraternization. Many men were very fearful and depressed about being transferred to the Pacific and the talked about invasion of Japan.
Eventually, Webster who had only “81” points regarding his time in the service, his Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, etc, was finally discharged after Japan surrendered. Before he departed, he went to Company Headquarters to see and thank Captain Speirs, a man who had a very fierce reputation about his actions in the field.
Webster said, “I want to thank you Captain.” Speirs frowned, “For what?” Webster said, “For giving me a break…!” Speirs answered.” Well, hell Webster, I tried to make a soldier out of you!” Webster grinned and said. It couldn’t be done sir!” They shook hands and said goodbye and wished each other luck. He saluted Captain Speirs for the last time.
At the end Webster reflected, “I felt a temporary rush of nostalgia for the outfit and the life that it led. It was my outfit, the 506th, the only outfit I had ever been in. I had cursed it steadily for three years, had avoided duty whenever possible, had prayed for light wounds every day, in combat, and yet now that I was finally leaving, I was almost sorry to say goodbye. Nothing I had had ever done before could compare with the feeling of belonging that I had had with the 506th. A job was a job, usually at somebody else’s price, and school and college were prolonged adolescence. Only an adolescent could get excited about anything as juvenile and exclusive as a fraternity. The paratroopers were life itself, on the edge of life and death along with the thrill of jumping from an airplane. It was the wild excitement as I went out the door of the plane and fell a hundred feet before my chute opened.” Of course, Webster, along with many other “high-point” soldiers was now going home. As he reflected, “Now that the war was over and all the purpose had been lost, the 506th was just another training camp now, and I hated training as much as guard duty.”
Webster was pretty worldly for his years and throughout his memoir he reflected some interesting perspectives. He hated Britain and the weather, thought the people were quaint, but dull and he disliked the class system. As for the Dutch, he loved Holland and the people. When it came to Germany, he despised them for starting the war and the chaos and destruction it had brought. He really wanted to kill and German that came his way, He had a burning hatred that was made even worse when he was part of a squad that came across a concentration camp. But, after being billeted in Austria and Germany at the war’s conclusion, he began to respect the Germans for their ability to work hard, be very clean and educated, and their willingness to re-build their destroyed towns and cities. He wrote, “In, Germany, everyone goes out and works, unlike the French, who do not seem inclined to lift a finger to help themselves. As for the Germans, “They fill up the trenches the soldiers have dug in their fields. They are cleaner, more progressive and more ambitious than either the English or the French.” He loved Dutch more, because they were a lot more peaceful than the Germans. As for the French, he despised them. He thought of them as lazy, ungrateful and unwilling to extend themselves for the Americans who liberated their country. Webster hated the army, he hated its “chicken-shit” ways, its bumbling bureaucracy, the privileges for the officers, and their contempt for the enlisted man. I am sure that many others thought as Webster did. Many of the men who returned from WWII took decades to speak of their time overseas. Many just wanted to forget.
The featured Players:
Colonel Robert Sink (1905-1965), Commander of the 506th Regiment, the 101st Airborne, ret. Lt. Gen.
Major Richard Winters (1918-2011) Commander of Easy Company, recalled for the Korean War
Captain Lewis Nixon (1918-1995) worked for his family business
Captain Ronald Speirs (1920-2007) retired as a Lt. Colonel
Lt. Thomas Peacock (1920-1948) died in an automobile accident
Private David Kenyon Webster (1922-1961) killed in a boating incident off Catalina
And the men of Easy Company who lived, fought and died with the other heroes of WWII.