“Band of Brothers” by Stephen E. Ambrose (aka Easy Company 506th)
This first in our series is about the 506th during WWII. There’s a good chance you may have heard of them as HBO did an incredibly well done series, “Band of Brothers”, based on the unit. That series in turn was based on the “Band of Brothers” book by Stephen Ambrose. Both the series and the book are more novel/narrative than text book/documentary and all the better for it. Both are well worth taking the time to read and watch.
We wanted to start off this series addressing an angle on the 506th that the HBO series hints at at different points, but never overtly addresses. There is a modern perception that all caucasians are and have always been one homogenous group. In reality, prior to the First World War America was largely white but very much a country sub-divided along ethnic as well as religious lines. In 1917 one in three Americans were recent immigrants or had a parent that was an immigrant. World War I government pro-war pamphlets were printed in 14 different languages. The U.S. Army Metropolitan Division of New York in 1917 spoke 42 different languages not including English.
Even after WWI and in the period leading up to WWII many Americans continued to identify with their ethnic group far more strongly than common today. Practically speaking everyone was an hyphenated American. Amongst even the hyphenated European-Americans there existed an artificial hierarchy of social desirability where the Irish, Southern Europeans, and Eastern Europeans were deemed less desirable and looked down upon. These discriminatory views were codified in government immigration policies. Easy Company (and much of the service as a whole) was drawn from this ethnically diverse and divided America which included people of Hispanic, Irish, Italian, and German heritage. These men were blue collar workers, college students, and members of affluent families.
As the series plays out a common thread becomes clear, that the brotherhood that made them so effective and resilient depended on their embracing a common mindset and each other regardless of background. This generation of Americans was remarkable in large part because of their willingness to look beyond arbitrary ethnic and economic divisions to fight the war and to fight for their American future. They embodied and demonstrated the Rooseveltian ideal of American as a mindset and not one of race or bloodline.
The 506th Easy Company was strictly a volunteer unit founded to be an elite Airborne Infantry force, at the time an unproven tactic. By default if you made it into the unit and could stick, you were exemplary, regardless of background. At a minimum their differences as individuals had no negative impact on their unit. However, if the performance of the other units we’ll cover in further posts are any indication it is nearly certain that their diversity contributed to their accomplishments. Their diverse language skills, life experiences, and world views leading to more creative and cohesive soldiering. As was noted by the members of Easy Company themselves, the quality of their unit was a combination of arduous training and each member’s ability to consistently rise above their differences in service of a common goal.
We invite you to learn more through the following sources.
Sources: (Mk II does not earn any commission from the following links which are provided here solely for your convenience.)
Before we started this research project in support of Cruxible we considered ourselves well read and informed about WW2. If you are anything like us your ignorance isn’t the result of any fault of your own. It is a byproduct of the economics of entertainment and some racism of the past. These aren’t stories that historically would have appealed to a large enough audience to be profitable from a business perspective. In other cases the stories were suppressed in order to maintain the social status quo at the time and then largely forgotten in the intervening years. This series is not about diminishing the value of the stories you know, but about presenting a more complete picture.
We will do our best to present the facts as we have found them. We don’t expect our conclusions to be controversial based on what we have found in the books we are highlighting but expect some of them to be surprising. The broad outlines of what we are saying are true but for the sake of time we will not be able to footnote/document every detail. We choose books as our primary sources but also are supplementing that information with background information from documentaries done by reputable sources. We purposefully chose works that were published rather than relying on Wikipedia or other quicker online resources because these books and documentaries have been researched, in many cases by professional historians, and unless noted have been verified.
The topics that we will touch upon will make people uneasy but the reason why we chose this medium to do this is because it is gives everyone the privacy to review and reflect upon the information at their own pace. Kindly try to keep the following in mind: a) racism and discrimination is a human condition, we are all susceptible to its appeal b) we as humans have all been responsible for doing terrible things to each other at one time or another just some happen to be more recent and better documented c) this is about reminding ourselves of the past so that we cherish the good and learn from our mistakes and d) this series is not about assigning guilt or fault. We don’t expect to solve the problems plaguing society but we do hope to lower the temperature and make discussion more productive.