December 5, 2013
"Within Easy Company they had made the best friends they had ever had, or would ever have. They were prepared to die for each other; more important, they were prepared to kill for each other." -- Stephen E. Ambrose, "Band of Brothers"
On the training grounds of Camp Toccoa, Ga., they learned the skills necessary to parachute into hostile territory. Under the rallying cry of "Three miles up, three miles down," they fortified their endurance by running up and down the slopes of Currahee Mountain. Guided by the command of Maj. Richard "Dick" Winters, they headed into the mouth of the lion that was World War II, enduring such treacherous missions as Operation Overlord and the Battle of the Bulge. The Nation had made them Soldiers; their experiences in the heat of relentless battle made them a Band of Brothers.
The exploits of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, are among the most recognized and revered in the annals of U.S. Army history. The Soldiers' tales became notably immortalized in the best-selling novel by Stephen E. Ambrose that would become a popular HBO miniseries. Beyond the screen and off the printed pages, however, exist the flesh-and-blood heroes for whom the experiences are more than an entertaining story. Very recently, the Nation bid a fond farewell to two of them.
Corporal Earl "One Lung" McClung passed away Nov. 24, and Pfc. Edward J. "Babe" Heffron died Dec. 1. Both men were 90 years old.
From reservation to battlefield
Marcus Brotherton, best-selling author of "We Who Are Alive and Remain: Untold Stories from the Band of Brothers," conducted several interviews with Earl James McClung. Through his books and in a tribute article on his website, he shares the tale of a valiant Soldier.
Born on the Colville Indian Reservation of Inchelium, Washington, in 1923, McClung was still a young boy when he learned his way around a firearm -- a skill he honed through an avid love of hunting. His abilities would serve him well when he was drafted into the Army in 1943. He was considered one of the best shots in Easy Company.
"Kaprun, Austria -- I thought I had died and gone to heaven there. My job was to hunt and feed the prisoners that the Germans had taken for slave labor who were incarcerated there ... I just camped out. [My outfit] saw me maybe once or twice a week." -- McClung, courtesy of bandofbrothersbooks.blogspot.com
One of two scouts for Easy Company, McClung fought alongside is comrades during Operation Overlord, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge. Beyond his marksmanship, he was known for his quick wit and easy humor -- though those traits were in short supply on the occasion which earned him his nickname.
While sleeping off a night patrol in St. Mere Eglise, a lieutenant came across McClung -- along with fellow Soldiers James Alley and Paul Rogers -- while in search of a machine gunner.
Alley and Rogers hung their firearms near the sleeping scout, thereby making him the volunteer. In honor of his chagrin, Rogers penned a poem which contained the line, "Who hung the gun on One Lung McClung?"
McClung returned to the United States in 1945, reenlisting for another 18 months. It was during this time that he met his wife, Jean. Their union remained steadfast for 76 years, intact to the day of his passing in their hometown of Pueblo West, Colo.
An unassuming hero
Before he set foot on the battlefields of Europe, Edward James "Babe" Heffron was already well-acquainted with the concept of sacrifice. One of five children in an Irish Catholic Family in Philadelphia, Heffron dropped out of school to help provide for his Family during the Great Depression. In a time when work was scarce, he secured a job sandblasting cruisers for the New York Shipbuilding Co. His profession -- along with a medical ailment that caused his hands to cramp -- placed Heffron in a position of exemption from the draft.
Not one to stand by while three brothers and close friends got shipped off to a war that was ravaging the globe, Heffron eschewed his military exemption and enlisted in the Army in 1942. He served in the thick of Easy Company operations, earning a Bronze Star as a machine gunner during the Battle of the Bulge. Enduring such a bloody battle during the holiday season, Heffron had difficulty celebrating Christmas and New Year's after the war. Despite a justified reluctance to enjoy the season, he was careful to keep his misgivings from marring the celebrations of Family and friends. His son-in-law, Ed Zavrel, told Philadelphia reporters that Heffron did not want a big, showy funeral because he did not want to ruin Christmas for everyone.
While Heffron and McClung enjoyed long, productive lives beyond their time with Easy Company, their passing resonates far and wide throughout the Army community -- particularly at Fort Campbell.
Staff Sgt. Dave Reiley, HSB, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 101st Abn. Div., had the opportunity to meet Heffron, along with other surviving members of the Band of Brothers, and said he was "very saddened" by the news of his passing.
"He's a hero to this country and a hero to the 101st," said Reiley. "It's just a sad day when you lose a hero like that. Without people like him, the 101st wouldn't be what it is today."
Recalling the time spent with the group of renowned Veterans, Reiley says he was most amazed by the sense of camaraderie that transcended the generation gap and forged a legitimate bond between Soldiers old and new.
"We all wear Old Abe on our shoulder," he said. "We're all brothers -- we've all been there; we've all done that. When they share their stories, we can compare it to what we went through and share our stories; just like older brothers."
Saying goodbye to members of a group who, according to Reiley, had "not a bad bone in any of their bodies," isn't easy. Keeping their legacies alive for future generations, however, is made possible through organizations such as the 101st Airborne Division Association.
"Without the Association, a lot of the young Soldiers wouldn't hear about the lineage," said Reiley. "Yes, you have old-timers like me who go around telling stories, but when we're gone, we're gone. The Association is always going to be here, and it helps keep the young Soldiers in touch with the old ones and be part of a bigger, broader Family."
A broad Family which rallied to say a final goodbye to two of its patriarchs.
"They will be missed," said Reiley, "but we know their spirits are always with us."