WASHINGTON – More than half a century after paratroopers from Easy Company jumped onto the beaches at Normandy on D-Day, fought at the Battle of the Bulge and captured Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest retreat, the bond they formed then still exists.
When one of the former members of Easy Company falls ill today, or finds himself lost in bad luck, the news spreads across the country faster than gossip, and the company rallies to their old buddy’s side.
“We never lost the feeling, it’s just there,” said Pat O’Keefe of Rockville, one of the two members of Easy Company living in Maryland today. “It’s when you’re with special people, it just becomes a way of life.”
That way of life will be portrayed in a TV miniseries, “Band of Brothers,” which begins Sunday.
“When you go into combat, you’re not fighting for your country, but for yourselves and your company,” said Clarence “Clancy” Lyall, an Easy Company veteran who lives in Lexington Park. “You’d rather be shot and killed than leave one of them behind.”
The company’s closeness captured the attention of author Stephen Ambrose, whose book “Band of Brothers,” inspired the miniseries. He wrote that even though the men were scattered around the world, “they knew each other’s wives, children, grandchildren, each other’s problems and successes.”
“It is something that all armies everywhere throughout history strive to create but seldom do, and never better than with Easy,” Ambrose wrote.
For Lyall and O’Keefe, their situation is a natural extension of the trust that had to form in order to survive in a company that suffered heavy casualties. In its three years of existence, the company of about 140 men ultimately recorded more than 200 casualties, as new soldiers like Lyall and O’Keefe were rotated into the unit.
“You depended on one another and trusted one another when we were in the service,” O’Keefe said. “You never knew when the war was going to end, if you were going to die the next day, but we didn’t think about that then. You were just there, with these people, and they were good people.”
Lyall celebrates the good people he fought with by organizing Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day parades and by serving on a Southern Maryland veterans advisory board. He preserves stories of the war through presentations at area high schools, holding back none of the gory details, so that the students learn not to glorify fighting.
“I want to tell them like it is, not this Rambo or John Wayne crap,” he said.
O’Keefe remembers the soldier who lobbed a grenade like a baseball into the back of a man’s head, killing him. For Lyall, seeing survivors of concentration camps remains one of the most depressing points of the war.
“During combat you can get real callous, sit on a corpse and eat your rations,” Lyall said. But that callousness could be shed, and repressed emotions shaken back to life.
“I saw a lot of bodies out in the courtyards. A lot of walking skeletons,” he said of the concentration camps. “They’d come and hug you because they were so glad. And the place stunk so bad because they wouldn’t let them wash.”
One of O’Keefe’s most vivid memories was of the one prisoner whose trust in others was so deeply shattered that he refused all help.
“As soon as we saw him, everyone was throwing their chocolate and cigarettes at him,” O’Keefe said, but the man just turned and ran as fast as his weakened body would let him. “His eyes told me, `I’m out of here, I can’t trust a soul.'”
Both Maryland men said they were concerned that the war stories might be glossed over in the movie by Hollywood glitz. But they said Ambrose’s book and the parts of the miniseries they have seen, seem to have gotten their story right. Right enough, at least, to awaken feelings kept hidden since the war.
“I just broke down,” Lyall said about the miniseries preview he saw with 45 of the 51 surviving Easy Company members. “My wife, she had to hold on to me. I was bawling like a baby.”
Lyall will watch the movie at a St. Mary’s College ceremony hosted by Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, on Sunday, when the first two episodes of the 10- part HBO series will air back-to-back.
O’Keefe said he will be watching at his neighbor’s house. He believes that many veterans will want to find a way to see the series.
“I know there will be a lot of GIs who will want to see it, to reaffirm what they went through themselves,” he said.