Touring with a Band of Brothers
Ted Moon's Journal
Entry 1 - The Longest Day
Welcome to the first entry of my email log of my trip tracing the path of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, the "Screaming Eagles", who were featured in both the HBO series Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan.
Like all good email marketers, I am making sure you opted into this email and you can always email me back once you have combat fatigue and you would like to unsubscribe. Meanwhile, I hope to amuse you and inform you of this trip I am taking.
Right now, I am in a hotel in Newbury, England after having completed maybe one of the longest days ever. I hate these English keyboards, some of the keys are in the wrong place and i am making a lot of typos. anyway, Newbury is a very small town southwest of London and near Aldbourne where we were at today. Aldbourne is where Easy trained after arriving in England in 9/1943 and stayed until they jumped into Normandy on D-Day.
We are joined by two Easy and one other 101st vet. Earl "One Lung" McClung and Paul "Buck" Rogers are Easy men from the original company and we have a surprise extra in Jack Agnew. More on each. All three are the nicest men you'll find. They are all in their early to mid eighties and for the most part, still have a lot of the fire that they had in their youths when they helped save the world from Nazism. As you'll see from our activities the last 72 hours or so it seems, they are still full of energy. Earl is from Washington state and joined prior to his high school graduation and Paul was his squad leader as a sergeant. Paul is from Overland Park, Kansas. They were both interviewed in Band of Brothers as part of the interviews with veterans before each episode of the miniseries.
Jack is the real character - he was a demolitions expert and later a Pathfinder, one of those elite of the elite who jumped prior to even the paratrooper jumps to blow anything up, set up beacon-sending Eureka radars, and secure the DZ or drop zone. If you have ever seen history books of US paratroopers wearing Native American face paint prior to D-Day, that was his unit. Also, if you have seen "The Dirty Dozen" with Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson, the movie was largely based on his unit - there's a new book out that even proves that. While Paul and Earl are soft-spoken with some good natured ribbing on each other and other Easy members, Jack has all the stories and he seems like he was a real trouble maker. In Band of Brothers, there's a scene in which Easy has to crawl through mud and pig intestines under live fire (in training) to get used to battle situations. Jack set up that obstacle course and people have been wanting to get back at him ever since. He responds to Paul and Earl saying that "you still smell like hogs!"
Back to the trip - as expected, I'm easily the youngest person here who came alone (without father or grandfather). Also, the group is nearly all men, mostly in their 40s and 50s. Friday night in Atlanta, at the reception, I met up with three guys at my table and while I'm getting to know the others in the group, these three guys are still the main group I hang with. There's Tim, an army officer who is moving to DC next month, Neil, a retired United pilot, and Tony, from NYC who keeps a written diary and just keeps writing and writing on his note pad. I call him "Webster" for David Kenyon Webster who was Easy's Harvard grad who later published a great collection of his wartime diary. all are at least 10 years older than me.
Saturday early, we headed out to BFG (Georgia, not Eygpt) to find Camp Toccoa, the original training ground of the 506th PIR. it is rural, poor, depressing, and people are friendly but talk like a such stereotypes I had a hard time keeping a straight face. I mean, > how can one, when our local tour guide pronouces "thee-A-ter" and "hee-uge" for a place to watch a movie and a word for describing large, respectively. The town itself looks exactly like the one in My Cousin Vinny, complete with lots of mud and hand painted signs. Oh, and by the way, for breakfast back in Atlanta, I had grits for the first time. They weren't instant grits since no self-respecting Southern would make instant grits. they were awful! :( After touring the train station and camp grounds (now gone), we got into little buses (the kind that Joe Pesci was hauled off to jail in My Cousin Vinny) to climb Mount Currahee, which is a 1700 foot mountain that 506th candidates ran up at least 3 times a week - 3 miles up, 3 miles down. Unlike the movie, Currahee is steep - more like 45 degrees than the 20 or so like shown in the movie. I had aspirations of walking it up but the bus was preferred. There is no big boulder like in the movie at the top but what looks like a cell phone tower. But Nextel still doesn't get a signal there, even on top of Currahee. It was foggy for most of the day, but it cleared up once we got down and it looks very imposing from the base.
From there, we went to the airport for our 8 hour jump across the pond. Other than the guy who sat next to me who was so amused every time he learned a new Serbian word on his self help book he HAD to tell me, it was a nice flight. The old cat is going over there to teach English. Delta did make an announcement that 3 vets from the 101st were on the flight and the entire plane gave them an ovation. One guy, a fan of the movie but not on the tour, couldn't believe his good fortune and got autographs and pictures with each one and kept buying Earl beer. Earl told me later he had "about a gallon" of beer, 3 before dinner was even served.
Straight from the airport at Gatewick to Aldbourne where Easy and the 506th trained for almost a year. We went to Colonel Sink's HQ where Jack was stationed out of (also David Schwimmer's character gets fired as Easy's commander from the very room we looked out of). The house is also acknowledged as being haunted and the large portaits of its former tenants/occupants make it something out of the haunted episode of the Flintstones or Scooby Doo. I kept expecting the eyes from the portraits to be moving and observing us. it may have been the creepiest place this side of The Landon School.
From there, we went to the various quarters that the GIs were billeted during their stay. Officers like then Lt. Dick Winters (later Easy's commander and hero) and his pal Lt. Harry Welsh lived in a small room with the Barnes family (which they let us enter as it is still there intact). The size of the room made a Manhattan studio look like the MCI Center. They were lucky - the enlisted men bunked in stables originally built for horses, about 20 to a room. no wonder they were so anxious to fight - they were probably driving each other crazy.
The village of Aldbourne (pop. 2000, up from 1200 in 1944) was so happy to see us, people lining up in the streets. I was getting ready to sign autographs myself as captain of the Michigan alumni championship flag football team. They had a re-enactment unit perform a close order drill and asked Paul, Earl, and Jack to inspect them. They were all local Brits from surrounding villages and they had the uniforms and equipment down to the very last detail - except the accents of course. But then again, most of the actors in Band of Brothers and extras from Saving Private Ryan were Brits as well so it is par for the course. One guy was an extra in SPR, as a wounded 82nd Airborne trooper in the scene when Tom Hanks' guys are going through dog tags.
We also went to the church in the village where Lt. Winters went to be alone and make decisions. The view from the top of the graveyard behind the church remains exactly like it was in 1944. No Starbucks, no Subway, no Wendy's - it is something to behold. We did spend some time in the p.m. to have a couple of "bitters", yes, even me, and hang out with the> locals. Bob, and his girlfriend Helen (a British woman's name if there ever was one) love "America" and "your American football." Tony and I bought them a round and blew our entire 1.5 hours talking to them.
Finally, we checked in, after two-three full days, for our first shower and of course, I'm going on three hours of bad airplane sleep. tomorrow, we go to Eisenhower's HQ where he gave the decision to "Go!" and then the D-Day museum in Portsmouth. Then, like the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions did the night before D-Day, we board vintage c-47s and head to Normandy. We have been issued our "crickets", little toy devices used by the troopers to identify themselves in the pitch black darkness my making a click-clack sound. it will be a noisy plane tomorrow and I can just anticipate my godson's parents begging me not to give one to Benny anytime soon. hope all is well, Ted ps - remember, no college lacrosse news!
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