I have always been an avid student of history, especially within my then-profession of the military. In early 2006 I had just returned from my first deployment to Afghanistan, my second combat deployment at the time, when I was afforded the rare opportunity to meet one of the great legends of World War II, then-84 year old William “Wild Bill” Guarnere. He had achieved considerable fame with the release of the HBO series Band of Brothers in 2001. I quickly discovered, however, that the man in real life was more amazing than even his namesake from the series.
Guarnere, from South Philadelphia, was one of many in his generation that volunteered for service following America’s entry into the Second World War. Not being satisfied merely with serving, however, he chose to join what was then a never-before cutting edge concept: airborne infantry, i.e., jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, behind enemy lines. He was assigned to Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, which saw its first combat action by parachuting in behind enemy lines in Normandy in June 1944. Easy Company saw action at the forefront of the Allied move across Europe, including Operation Overlord, Operation Market Garden and perhaps the most well-known, the Battle of the Bulge.
Bill Guarnere had shown how tenacious and fearless he was almost immediately upon landing in northern France. “I was a wild man” in action in Normandy, he said in a 2006 interview.
When I initially went into combat, I learned my brother had been killed in Italy. You didn’t want to be a German around me. The first day in combat, every German I saw, I killed him. I don’t know how I made it through that day.
He was not, however, blind with hatred. He remained a disciplined and focused member of Easy Company. His fellow paratroopers would need his fearless, tenacious and disciplined focus only hours after daybreak on June 6, 1944.
Just under six hundred officers and men had jumped into Normandy. By daybreak on June 6, owing to missed drop zones and enemy attacks, barely eighty of them found their way to the rally point. Their mission had been to disrupt the German defenders and prevent them from effectively attacking the Allied troops landing on the beaches. One of the first tactical objectives identified for the 506th was an artillery battery firing on U.S. soldiers on Utah beach. Guarnere’s Easy Company was ordered to take the battery out. There were only two officers and nine enlisted men from Easy who were available for the attack.
A quick reconnaissance revealed that there were four 105mm howitzers firing on the beach from concealed positions near a large French estate called Brecourt Manor. Lt. Dick Winters was leading the “company” because the unit’s commander couldn’t be found (they later discovered that he had been killed when his plane was shot down). “How many Krauts are we lookin’ at?” Guarnere asked of Winters. “Don’t know, Bill. Why?” came the terse answer. “No reason,” came the sarcastic response. It turned out there were more than fifty Germans defending the guns.
Winters split the small group of men into two teams and decided to attack the guns from two directions, with one laying down a base of machine gun support and the other to assault the Germans through the trench that had been dug to connect the howitzer crews. Guarnere was assigned to the most dangerous task. His team, led by Winters, had to physically assault into the trenches and come face-to-face with the more numerous German defenders.
The book Biggest Brother, which detailed Winter’s actions during his time with the 506th, recorded this attack and recounted that after taking the first two guns, the Easy Company commander and his team “had made one concentrated push each time, moving rapidly through the trench with the always-aggressive Guarnere leading the way. . . . Anger burned inside him, and he eagerly took to his role (leading the assault).” Guarnere, the account continued, “sprayed the emplacement with his Tommy gun, killing several of the crew.”
For his bravery on that day, Winters put Wild Bill Guarnere in for a Distinguished Service Cross (which was later downgraded and approved for a Silver Star). He continued to demonstrate the same level of courage and aggressiveness leading his men throughout many subsequent battles. His service in World War II came to an end in the famous Battle of the Bulge near Bastogne.
A German artillery strike had severely wounded his close friend, Joe Toye. During a pause in the shelling, Guarnere ignored protocol—which called for troopers to stay undercover until they were sure the barrage was complete—because he couldn’t leave his friend to die. As he got to Toye, however, the shelling resumed and a round exploded nearby, ripping his leg off.
Guarnere lived in obscurity in the years after the war, doing the best he could with a missing leg to work and raise a family. When he died in 2014, he was survived by his two sons, nine grandchildren, and fourteen great-grandchildren. By all accounts Bill was a devoted husband, father and grandfather. Based on my visit in 2006, I believe it.
He struck me as a kind and gentle soul. It was hard to imagine him as the vicious, fearless killing machine depicted in the Band of Brothers. According to his family and friends, prior to the premier of the Band of Brothers, he had never boasted in his remarkable accomplishments in World War II, merely noting that he had fought and lost his leg. During my visit it was, to be honest, just a little frustrating because getting him to tell me about his personal experience was difficult. He spent most of the time telling me about the amazing things his friends had done.
To his dying days he remained focused on helping others, shunning personal acclaim and being a good family man. From a 2006 interview, Guarnere admitted that though he had seen the toughest combat and been decorated as an American hero, he did not venerate war.
“There is no glory in war . . . it is simply hell,” he explained:
I can’t explain it. You have to be there to experience it. It is like trying to explain freedom to kids who don’t know about it. You don’t know what freedom is until you lose it. When you look at the war, you survived it.
Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.
Image: Troops in an LCVP landing craft approaching Omaha Beach. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy