|By Chris Langlois (Chrisdfw) on Wednesday, August 15, 2001 - 09:56 pm:|
'Closer than friends, closer than brothers' - Upcoming HBO miniseries stirs memories of WWII peril, camaraderie for local veterans
By ANN HESTER
Dallas Morning News
There are so many things they saw that they wish had never happened - friends killed in battle, bodies mangled by shrapnel and concentration camp survivors on the brink of starvation.
But members of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of the Army in World War II, say they want people to remember.
Their experiences are the basis of Band of Brothers, a 10-part HBO miniseries executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The first part of the $120 million program, HBO's most expensive ever, airs Sept. 9. Band of Brothers is based on a nonfiction book of the same name by Stephen E. Ambrose.
"I think it's good that they're bringing back a lot of World War II history," says J.B. Stokes, an Easy Company veteran from Reno, Texas. "I think the younger generation needs to know more about it. They don't stop to think about what happened."
The company took part in high-risk operations: parachuting into France on D-Day, fighting in Holland, leading the counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge and capturing Hitler's Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden, Germany. In spite of bitter cold and lack of winter clothing, they helped the 101st Airborne hold Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge while it was outnumbered and surrounded. Mr. Ambrose writes, "The result of these shared experiences was a closeness unknown to all outsiders. Comrades are closer than friends, closer than brothers."
HBO flew about 30 veterans to Paris in June, and they went to Normandy for a showing of part of the series. Last month, three veterans attended the Texas premiere of Band of Brothers in Dallas. Here, they share their memories and what they think of the portrayal of Easy Company in the miniseries.
Ralph Spina: 'I don't know how I remember'
Ralph Spina, who lives in Fort Worth, was a combat medic who transferred into Easy Company shortly after it jumped on D-Day. He remembers how loudly wounded men would call out for a medic.
"You just had to get the bleeding stopped," says Mr. Spina, who had traveled across the country to work at state fairs before he enlisted in 1943. "You'd put some sulfa over the wound, and if he was really hurting, give him a shot of morphine. That's all we could do."
Combat medics were armed. He says he didn't wear the red cross that other medics did in battle because it was too much like a target. Mr. Spina watched as another medic got shot through the red cross on his helmet while carrying a wounded man across a field.
Artillery barrages caused many casualties and blew branches into thousands of pieces. The bits of wood flew through the air so fast, Mr. Spina says, they were like small arrows when they hit men.
Through it all, there were small groups of men within the company who became really close, he says. He was closest to his childhood friend Bill Guarnere and Edward "Babe" Heffron, whom he met during the war.
"We're from the same neighborhood in south Philadelphia," he says. "In that neighborhood, they're real close people, and they kind of stick together."
Mr. Guarnere's leg was shredded by shrapnel at Bastogne and was amputated. Mr. Spina had a head wound from shrapnel. The men say they were never as cold as they were during that time in Bastogne. It snowed and the temperatures were below freezing. Mr. Spina knocks on a piece of wood to demonstrate what most of the soldier's feet were like there.
One day at Bastogne, Mr. Spina ran out of medical supplies and went to an aid station with Mr. Heffron. It started to get dark as they walked back across a field. Suddenly, Mr. Heffron fell into a hole and someone called out, "Hinkle, ist das du?" (German for, "Hinkle, is that you?").
"The Babe says, 'Hinkle, your ass! Let's get the hell out of here!'" Mr. Spina says.
Mr. Heffron jumped out of the German foxhole, and he and Mr. Spina both ran. The incident became the basis of some post-war teasing.
"Every once in a while, I'll tell the Babe, 'Hey, Babe, you ever see Hinkle lately?'" Mr. Spina says.
The Battle of the Bulge was the last German offensive in the west during World War II. Near the end of the war, the company headed south, toward Berchtesgaden.
It came upon a concentration camp near Landsberg, Germany. The survivors were emaciated, some so weak that they couldn't get out of the filthy wooden bunks that lined the walls. The soldiers gave the survivors their rations and watched as they sucked on the food - bits of ham, pieces of biscuit.
"They couldn't put their teeth down to it," he says. "They were too weak. It was just pitiful."
After the war, he continued consulting for state fairs. He and his wife, Agnes, have a daughter and two grandchildren. He says what he saw of Band of Brothers was accurate. "There wasn't enough cussing, but that's how it happens. They did a great job from what I've seen."
There is a poster hanging in his house with the names of Easy Company men killed in action printed on it. He runs his finger down the list, looking for a name.
"Kenneth J. Webb," he says, pointing to a name. "He's the last guy I took care of. I don't know how I remember that name, but I do."
Denver "Bull" Randleman: 'We forgot about walking'
Denver Randleman, who lives in Texarkana, Ark., worked in a foundry in Michigan before he volunteered to be a paratrooper. He knew he would probably be drafted anyway, and he wanted to serve with other volunteers.
Training was hard physically and included obstacle courses, runs up a mountain - anything to build up the soldiers' arms and legs.
"We forgot about walking and ran all the time," he says.
Eventually, he was known as Sgt. "Bull" Randleman. He's not sure how he picked up the nickname, but he suspects it might be because he yelled so loud to get people up and out of the barracks.
After the war, he went to trade school and worked his way up to service manager for a Caterpillar equipment dealer. He and his wife, Vera, have two children.
He is one of the soldiers portrayed in the miniseries. He says he likes the actor who plays him, Michael Cudlitz, and that Mr. Cudlitz looks a lot like he did during the war.
"We could be kin," he says.
The Band of Brothers battle scenes, and even the rattle of the C- 47 plane that the paratroopers jumped out of, are realistic, he says.
"There's not a bunch of Hollywood hoopla in what I've seen of it," he says. "It's more like trying to tell a story of exactly how military life is, instead of dressing it up."
Before the war, he was an avid hunter. When he came home, he sold his rifles and shotguns. It was the result of a promise he made when he was sitting in his foxhole in the bitter cold in Bastogne.
"I promised myself and the Lord, if I got home, you'd never see me out in the rain and cold trying to find something to shoot," he says. "I came home and sold them all. I haven't fired a gun since."
J.B. Stokes: 'We didn't want no part of that'
J.B. Stokes' story of the war is also a love story. He and his future wife, Ola Mae, had one blind date before he had to go overseas. They stayed in touch through the war.
He was raised in Bridgeport, Texas, and worked for an ice plant before the war, selling and delivering ice off the back of a pickup. When he was 20, he was drafted and went to basic training in California. About a week from the end of basic, a sergeant asked him and eight other men in the barracks if they wanted to sign up to be paratroopers.
"We run him out of there," Mr. Stokes says. "We didn't want no part of that. After he left, we all nine got to calling each other chicken and signed that list."
Only four of the nine made it through the rigorous training. He made it through and jumped with Easy Company on D-Day. He remembers the anti-aircraft fire with red, blue and green tracers that showed its path.
"It was dark, and I looked up to see if my chute was open," he says. "You could see where tracer bullets were burning holes through the chute. A lot of guys never did know they hit the ground. They were killed hanging in the air."
He and Ola Mae had been writing to each other, and she had sent him a picture of herself. He kept the photo of the girl with the long brown hair in his wallet.
"I jumped with him at Normandy," Ola Mae says.
After the Holland campaign, Easy Company went to a camp outside the village of Mourmelon-le-Grand, France. The men went to breakfast one morning and heard a rumor that they were going to head out.
"We couldn't believe it," Mr. Stokes says. "We weren't ready. The trucks came up the street with weapons, and they just pitched them off as they came along. Whatever we caught, that's what we took with us to Bastogne."
He spent one night at a medical aid station in Bastogne, trying to thaw out his nearly frozen feet. But the rest of the time, he and the other men in the company slept in foxholes. He says he was lucky to live through the war.
"I went overseas with the 101st and didn't miss a day of combat with them," he says. "I got scraped with machine gun bullets, three different scrapes all at one time."
He says he spent 50 years trying to forget the war, but lately he's been trying to remember a little more. He says the parts of Band of Brothers he saw were true-to-life.
"The theme of the show is accurate," he says. "A band of brothers pretty well describes it. You get pretty close to the guys you're with every day, and you know you're going to depend on them."
After the war, he came back to Texas. When he drove up the driveway of the house where Ola Mae's parents lived, she ran out to greet him. "He held out his arms and there I was," she says.
They have four children, six grandchildren and seven great- grandchildren. Mr. Stokes worked in several city water departments before retiring. When it's cold outside and the Stokeses are warm in their house, sometimes he thinks about the past.
"I nearly always say, 'It's a better bed than I had in Bastogne,'" he says.
Ola Mae nods. "He never forgets."
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