Saturday, March 22, 2014

The "Wild Bill" Yonder

Legacies of William Guarnere and his "Band of Brothers"

With less than six months of life left in him, "Wild Bill" Guarnere still sought to reach out to history buffs who craved to hear his story and shake his hand.  Here he can be seen with WWII reenactor Andrew Collins at Eisenhower National Historic Site in September 2013.
Like so many others, I was saddened to hear of the passing of Sergeant "Will Bill" Guarnere, a well-known figure of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment who was hurled into the pantheon of military fame thanks to the book and miniseries Band of Brothers.  Having met Guarnere on a number of occasions at various commemorations, one could not but be impressed with the man.  His former commander, the late Major Dick Winters, complimentary recognized the man as a genuine killer whose blood lust could hardly be quenched.  Losing a leg outside the Belgium town of Foy determined not Guarnere's downfall but his personal strength that defined his lifestyle.  In his later years, he conveyed the story of he and his comrades with wit, truthfulness, and a Philly tough guy charisma that was bar none.  In reflecting upon his colorful life, I could account for his deeds and adventures with a typical obituary filled with historical narrative.  However, I decided to wait several days after his passing to ponder his possible place in the historical memory of the Second World War.  The wait yielded surprising results.

In examining historical film in the classroom, I often encourage students to consider how movies shape our perceptions of who and what is important to our national story.  Popular films tend to skew our views in this regard.  While all members of the "Band of Brothers" deserve our admiration, the famous and dramatic nature of their saga tends to overshadow the exploits of other units and individuals involved in the Allied effort.  Nobody is to blame for this pattern.  It is merely the nature of the Hollywood beast.  That said, a seeming majority of surviving Easy Company men actively celebrated their exploits with the public via books, documentaries, and an increased number of interviews.  Dick Winters, Bill Guarnere, "Babe" Heffron, Don Malarkey, and Buck Compton penned wildly successful memoirs as spinoffs of their newly found fame.  Winters and others such as "Shifty" Powers and Forrest Guth additionally allowed for "authorized biographies" to relay their exploits.  Forewords and promotional blurbs by WWII buff and miniseries producer Tom Hanks certainly helped.  The vets endorsed and traveled on sanctioned "Band of Brothers" international tours.  Guarnere and Heffron signed thousands of books and pieces of WWII memorabilia at airshows and reenactments.  They made history lively and personal.  They rightfully reveled in their fame.  And who can blame them?  No veteran wants to be forgotten.

An end result is an excellent chronicling of an individual unit that participated in some of the most momentous events of the 20th century.  It's story is a compelling one that has inspired untold citizens to read up or even join the military in the wake of 9/11.  (The first episode of HBO's Band of Brothers aired two day prior to the terror attacks.  In the ensuing weeks, its airings served as a patriotic, unifying force--drawing indirect and unintended parallels between the sacrifices of past and present.)  Its pop-cultural status transfixed itself in our historical memory of the Second World War.  However, could this historical and cinematic selectivity come at a cost to the broader story of that conflict?

As is the case with films such as Gettysburg, The Patriot, and Flags of Our Fathers, historical events interpreted through film offer prioritized perceptions of importance.  Naturally, this focal point is a necessary device for the narrative form.  Yet the power of historical omission--especially in movies--plays a crucial role in determining the history that we do and do not know.  As discussed in a previous post, such complexities of remembrance and historical ownership are forces not to be easily dismissed.  The true stories of Civil War general Joshua Chamberlain and Dick Winters are bound to be more resonant to an average American than the tales of Colonel David Ireland or Walter Ehlers.  Even though the actions of the latter gentlemen are respectively similar in nature and time to the deeds of the former officers, their stories are relatively unknown because they lacked Hollywood depictions.

"Band of Brothers" veterans never seemed to miss an opportunity to interact with the public or relate their story.  On June 6, 2011, "Wild Bill" appeared with "Babe" Heffron and actors from Band of Brothers at a Lancaster Barnstormers baseball game in tribute to their recently fallen leader, Dick Winters.  They received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the packed stadium.  (Courtesy of Tim Gray and the WWII Foundation.)
Arising from the Band of Brothers mythos, Bill Guarnere became the central figure and storyteller of the 506th PIR--especially after the passing of Dick Winters in 2011.  Few people ever possess such capacity or historical power in their lifetimes.  Most of us will not live lives worth being written of let alone having the ability to author our own historical legacies to eager audiences and readers.  These men respectfully and generously offered us their stories.  We listened intently and gratefully.  In the due course of this commemorative process, the men of Easy Company (likely unknowingly) cemented their place within the most celebrated sanctums of the American military tradition.

The processes of historical memory and ritual are ones that emerge frequently in my classroom discussions.  In talking about how Civil War veterans (often inaccurately) remembered their war, I pressed my students to consider that the same could be true of World War II veterans today.  One student inquired upon the possibility that famous WWII vets could add or reconfigure elements of their experiences to conform to the stories of comrades or feed the public's historical appetite.  These are dilemmas that we as historians must not discount when examining the historical record.  Human memory, after all, is fallible and constantly altering.

Frank John Hughes as Bill.
Sadly enough, Sergeant Guarnere passed away a mere two days after our engaging discourse on the role of veterans in history-shaping.  At the same time, the news coverage of his passing too illustrates the evocative power of his story within the Band of Brothers legend.  Within two days of his death, over 14,000 news articles about him appeared on Google News.  Reports of his demise were actually "Trending" on Facebook--being shared by thousands of users who were collectively (and digitally) mourning.  The posthumous Facebook page created by his family can only suggest their own perseverance to build upon his existing reputation.  If it were not for an immensely popular book and miniseries, we can speculate that there would not be as much attention on this individual, regardless of his heroics.  Some 1,000 veterans of that war pass everyday, and very few of them are honored by such an outpouring of public grief.  Simultaneously, one can estimate that tears for Guarnere are actually tears for his entire generation, who are all to quickly leaving us.  Through book and film, "Wild Bill" became one of the emblematic figures of the GI in WWII.  

Just this morning, the History Department on my campus participated in an open house for incoming freshman in the Fall 2014 semester.  We were pleased that several of them approached our booth declaring their interest in our major.  "Very good!  What is your main area of interest?" I inquired.  "World War II" was the reply from most of them.  I have little doubt that "Will Bill" and his men played a least a small role in generating that level of captivation.  I suspect their historical endowment of interest will be paying off for a long time to come.  And that is far from a negative repercussion.  History constantly presents opportunities in unique and unforeseen ways.

A majority of contemporary WWII reenactors seemingly choose paratrooper impressions, undoubtedly due to the overwhelming influence of Band of Brothers on World War II History.  It's what the people want to see.

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