10/15/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
When Band of Brothers—HBO's nine-week miniseries about the real-life experiences of Easy Company, an Army paratrooper unit in World War II--premiered on Sept. 9, critics praised its realistic depiction of combat. Two days later the terrorist attacks gave dramatic new resonance to a series about heroism, teamwork and the cost of war. "At Pearl Harbor they killed soldiers," says Easy Company veteran Bill Guarnere. "But here they killed civilians. It made me fightin' mad. If I was 18, I'd be right down on the front lines again." Nearly sixty years ago Guarnere, 78, and his buddies fought on D-Day and in the Battle of the Bulge and other pivotal campaigns. On the following pages five of the vets (with the actors who portray them) reflect on their experiences. In World War II, says Easy's ex-CO Richard Winters, 83, "you protected the soldier on your left, the soldier on your right.... You realize the power of leadership and how people depend on you."
Maj. Richard Winters (played by Damian Lewis)
"I would follow you into hell," a sergeant, wounded in France, wrote from his hospital bed in 1945 to Winters, Easy Company's frontline commander for much of the war. "With you I knew everything was absolutely under control." Most tightly under wraps were Winters's feelings toward the troops he commanded. "To be a good officer, you must stay aloof. It's a matter of life and death for the men you're giving orders to," says Winters, 83, who was 26 and an Officers' Training School graduate when he earned the Distinguished Service Cross for leading a 12-man assault against 50 Germans at Normandy on D-Day (June 6, 1944), killing 15 and capturing 12.
"I'm much more outgoing than he is," says Lewis, 30, the British actor who plays him. "But I didn't say a funny thing to my friends for the nine months we were filming. Dick was spare with words, and that's how I was." He can still recite Winters's diary entry the day after his D-Day assault: "I just want to find a quiet farm someplace and live in peace." After the war Winters did just that. In 1951 he and his wife, Ethel (with whom he has a son and a daughter), bought a farm outside Indianapolis, Pa., near their Hershey home, and ran a successful animal food products business. Today, Ethel, 79, stands on a rise of the 108-acre property, spreads her arms wide and tells a visitor, "I just wanted you to see what Dick was fighting for."
Sgt. Lynn Compton (played by Neal McDonough)
"We didn't see the war from Eisenhower's view," says "Buck" Compton, 79. "From my perspective it was ditches beside the road and apple orchards." And bucolic villages like Nuenen in Holland, where, on Sept. 19, 1944, Compton fell wounded by enemy shrapnel. "He said, 'Leave me here and let the Germans take care of it,' " says fellow vet Don Malarkey, 80. "We weren't going to do that. We pulled the door off a barn and put Buck on it to move him." Compton recovered in a hospital in Oxford, England, before returning to action three months later. "I got all the way through it without any significant damage and went on and had a hell of a nice life," he says. That included a 20-year career in the Los Angeles district attorney's office. In 1969 he helped prosecute Robert Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan. A year later he was named a California appellate court justice, retiring from the bench in 1986. Wife Donna, with whom he raised daughters Syndee, 46, and Tracy, 44, died in her sleep in 1994 of a heart arrhythmia. Still, Compton looks back to "guys 20, 22 years old who died, never got married, had kids. And you have a tinge of guilt: Why me? Why was I so damn lucky?"
Sgt. Bill Guarnere (played by Frank John Hughes)
"Bill was an absolutely fearless soldier," says Hughes, 33, of the retired construction worker. Just before D-Day, Guarnere, 78, the youngest of 10 children in a South Philadelphia family, learned that his brother Henry, 23, an Army corporal, had been killed in action in Cassino, Italy. "I was so mad about that," recalls Guarnere. "I swore that when I got to Normandy, there wouldn't be a German left alive. I was like a wild man." Indeed, dropped behind enemy lines in Normandy on D-Day, "Wild Bill" helped wipe out a gun emplacement manned by about 50 German defenders that had been firing on American troops wading ashore at Utah Beach. He was awarded the Silver Star for bravery. The war ended for Guarnere in Bastogne, Belgium, in January 1945 when, rushing to the aid of a wounded buddy, his right leg was blown off below the knee by a German mortar. The remaining part of the leg later became gangrenous and had to be amputated midthigh. Though hospitalized stateside for 11 months, "I wasn't disappointed," he says. "I'd made it out alive. That's more than a lot of others got." Back home Guarnere wed girlfriend Frances Peca in 1945 and raised two sons, the older of whom, Gene, now 55, he encouraged to enlist as an Army Airborne paratrooper in Vietnam. In the new war on terrorism, "I wish there was something I could do," says Guarnere, a widower since Frances's death in 1997, "but I'm too old. It's up to the young people now. The stakes are higher this time. This time we're fighting to stay alive."
Pvt. Ed "Babe" Heffron (played by Robin Laing)
"The first time I met Babe," recalls Laing, a Scot, of Heffron, a retired U.S. Customs clerk from Philadelphia, "he says, 'Lemme hear your accent.' I did it for him. He says, 'Oh, that's terrible, kid. Keep practicing.' " Heffron, 78, has kept his spirits up despite having been hospitalized since July with pneumonia. He was released on Sept. 29. Among his visitors (in addition to the 25-year-old Laing) were wife Dolores, 79, their daughter, and Heffron's best friend from Easy Company, Bill Guarnere (see page 67). Though they grew up in adjoining neighborhoods, they didn't meet until July 1944, when Heffron joined the unit in England as an early replacement. "I knew he was from South Philly by the way he walked," says Guarnere. "People from South Philly have a swagger, like cowboys." They bonded instantly. Back home after the war, Guarnere was best man at the Heffrons' wedding in 1954, and the two men have remained inseparable companions. "I visited him every day in the hospital," says Guarnere. "He can't get up and walk. His legs are too weak. But he's a tough old Irishman, so he won't stop trying. I didn't give up when I lost my leg. He won't give up now."
2nd Lt. Garwood Lipton (played by Donnie Wahlberg)
"I look on World War II as the seminal event of the 20th century," says Lipton, 81. Yet back then, he says, "we did not think of ourselves as saviors of humanity or even saviors of our country. We looked on ourselves as capable—I might say accomplished—soldiers who could do a difficult job." Not without cost. Lipton has a collection of medals (three Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars) and enough metal in his body (four mortar shell fragments in his right leg and wrist) to occasionally set off metal detectors in airports. "But I never thought I would be killed," he says. "We were actually a pretty cheerful bunch." Lipton carried that optimism into civilian life, along with the discipline that he says came from leading men into battle. "My Army experience changed me profoundly," he says. "When I went in, I was a loner. But in the Army I learned how to organize people and get things done." Lipton did just that when he returned from the war, taking a job with glass manufacturer Owens-Illinois, where he rose to the rank of director of international development during a 35-year career. Meanwhile, he and wife JoAnne (who died in 1975) raised three sons. "Our mates died a week apart," says second wife Marie, 75, with whom Lipton, retired since 1983, shares a three-bedroom house in Southern Pines, N.C. In the aftermath of the events of Sept. 11, he says, "I feel a sense of patriotism among the people I talk with and some feeling of resolve to see this thing through. [In World War II] we knew exactly what we were against. It was black-and-white. Here it's slippery."
Michael A. Lipton
Ellen Mazo in Hershey, Bob Meadows in Philadelphia, Don Sider in Southern Pines, Bryan Alexander in London and Cathy Nolan and Peter Mikelbank in Normandy