The Band of Brothers — Real Soldiers, Not ‘Combat-Happy Joes’ — Passes Into History
Meineke Car Care Centers has been all over television lately with a series of commercials in which a dark-haired actor with a short mustache speaking English in a cartoon German accent goes through a bunch of short comic skits that seem designed to link Meineke with high-quality German engineering.
I can’t speak to the quality of Meineke, which was actually founded in Texas. The ad, however, catches my eye, because I’m pretty sure that back when I was growing up in the late 1950s, no ad agency pitching any product would have considered casting a dark-haired actor with a short mustache and an exaggerated German accent as an endearing jokester.
Something about the last prominent German with a short mustache not having been very funny.
As it happened, the current Meineke spot surfaced right around the time when newspapers reported the death of Bradford Freeman, a 97-year-old Mississippi man who was the last survivor of the World War II paratroop unit called Easy Company.
He joined the Army in 1942, dropping out of Mississippi State University soon after he turned 18. He was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division’s mortar squad and shipped overseas in early 1944.
On D-Day he and the company parachuted behind Utah Beach into German-held France. He participated in a similar mission in the Netherlands and fought in the bitter Battle of the Bulge, where he was wounded in January 1945. He returned to Easy Company in April, in time to help occupy Adolf Hitler’s abandoned mountain retreat and later Austria before Easy Company was discharged in November 1945.
He came home, graduated from Mississippi State, married his sweetheart, had a couple of daughters and worked as a letter carrier for 32 years.
He came to be better known than most World War II GIs because Easy Company’s story was chronicled in the Stephen Ambrose book and the 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.
Band of Brothers, which focused on the bonds that formed in the crucible of war’s horror, remains one of he most revered television dramas ever.
Freeman was seen in the show, but his character didn’t speak, which he later said reflected his real-life experience. Like many war veterans, probably most, he didn’t see himself as a hero and he let others talk about it.
“I didn’t do anything I wasn’t expected to do,” he told a gathering that honored him in May 2021. “I just listened to my officer and did what he said.”
That could be the description for almost every job on the planet, except most of those other jobs don’t feature heavily armed adversaries whose goal is to kill you.
Easy Company started its D-Day invasion with 130 men. When the first wave of fighting ended, 47% of the unit had been killed or wounded.
There’s a reason why Steven Spielberg, who produced the Band of Brothers miniseries with Tom Hanks, said that “every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie.”
Wars, by definition, are about killing people you don’t know who happen to be wearing a different uniform. It might be the most insane of the many irrational behaviors in which humans engage.
I should stress here that I’m not dismissing or denigrating what Bradford Freeman and several million other Bradford Freemans have done since 1775. I understand that without them, this would be a different world in which I might well not be sitting here comfortably typing.
It’s not insane that they did those jobs. It’s insane that they had to.
Which brings me to the something else that immediately crossed my mind when I read Bradford Freeman’s obituary: Even though I was born three years after the real World War II unit was disbanded, I felt very familiar with Easy Company 40 years before Band of Brothers.
How? Comic books. The social media of the day for young teen and pre-teen boys.
I grew up in a world that was largely run by World War II veterans. At the top level, all presidents and most elected officials had served in the war. Down on the streets of my hometown, WWII vets were the cops, scoutmasters, shop owners and guys next door. If you took a test for a job or a promotion, checking the box that said “veteran” gave you extra credit or pushed you forward on the list — a perc no one resented.
What was absent, though, was conversation about the war. Like Bradford Freeman, most veterans I later met didn’t talk much about it. I figured it was a combination of not wanting to relive something awful and knowing that those who weren’t there wouldn’t really understand. The band of brothers thing.
So a significant part of my perception about World War II, when I was turning teen, came from a source that not only discussed war, but framed it in story form and illustrated it. Comic books.
I only learned years later that in the early 1950s, EC had published a pair of comics, Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, that cast a wary, unsentimental eye on the whole business of war. Artist Harvey Kurtzman, in particular, saw the books as a vehicle to deglamorize war, which he saw as “the ugliest disease men were cursed with.”
By the time I came along, war comics had largely reverted to their traditional perspective, portraying American soldiers as gallant heroes who always bravely did the right thing.
The war comic favored by me and my best friend Charles was Our Army At War, which starting in mid-1959 featured Sgt. Rock and the Combat-Happy Joes of Easy Company.
Even at the age of 10 I wasn’t sure that anyone was happy about combat, since there were so many possibilities for a bad ending, but Charles and I both devoured the stories.
It isn’t hard to imagine their general thrust. Sgt. Rock and the Combat-Happy Joes found creative ways to thwart the evil Germans, who often were robotically efficient, but in the end would make some miscalculation that would open the door to decisive retaliation by Bulldozer, Four Eyes, Little Sure Shot, Ice Cream Soldier, Wild Man and the rest of Easy Company, all of whom, yes, had nicknames.
Master Sgt. Franklin John Rock, always referred to simply as Rock, was exactly what his name implied: solid, smart, loyal. While most of the time he focused on combat, he occasionally let a human side peek through, during which he made it clear he hated war and knew sometimes it was necessary. It helped that World War II was by general consensus “the good war.”
The Combat-Happy Joes had distinct personalities, and their conversation when they weren’t battling the Germans was often pointed and witty. They also weren’t always as happy about combat as their name suggested.
Still, if they weren’t poster boys for warfare, they made military service seem like an enterprise that brought out humanity’s best qualities, like the selfless pursuit of a vital shared goal.
Our Army At War, which would eventually be renamed Sgt. Rock, was considered a safe comic book, acceptable reading for impressionable young minds.
While it didn’t make me want to enlist when I grew up, I’ve wondered if the hundreds of thousands of other young boys who were also reading Our Army At War had subconsciously absorbed the reassuring undertones of Easy Company when, just a few years later, they started shipping out to Vietnam.
I don’t think most enlistees and draftees thought Vietnam would be like World War II in the comics, any more than they expected the near-nobility soldiers achieved in most war movies. I’m not sure what if anything they expected, because I’m not sure anything can prepare you for war. So in that vacuum, especially if you really are 10 or 12 years old, maybe you get Sgt. Rock and the Combat-Happy Joes of Easy Company.
Looking back all those decades, Our Army At War probably did support Spielberg’s suggestion that all honest war stories are anti-war stories. I just don’t remember it playing that way to Charles and me, who loved the way our good guys always outsmarted and outfought their bad guys.
That was us. We were the best.
And we would never, ever have thought there was anything funny about a character with a short black mustache speaking in a German accent.