Stephen E. Ambrose Jr. - Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest

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"They got us surrounded--the poor bastards!" - Stephen E. Ambrose's "Band of Brothers"

May 1, 2009 (Updated May 2, 2009)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The true story of one of World War II's elite airborne infantry units

Cons:None, really.  Maybe more photos?

The Bottom Line: A must-read for WW II buffs, Band of Brothers is the true story of an elite airborne unit that should be appreciated by anyone looking for a top-notch war read.


In 1942, when the protagonists in Stephen E. Ambrose’s World War II account Band of Brothers came together for training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, the airborne was new. It was all-volunteer, and the men that signed up knew that, if they made it through the rigorous schooling, they’d head into combat with the men they’d trained with, rather than merely heading off to join some unit full of randomly-selected, often poorly-trained soldiers. This experience allowed the men to build up a camaraderie and loyalty to each other that makes up the basis for Ambrose’s tale of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division, a story that’s well worth your time.

You may have watched HBO’s miniseries adaptation of Ambrose’s book, either on that cable channel, on DVD, or on re-runs shown periodically on The History Channel. Even so, Band of Brothers is worth a read (or re-read) thanks to Ambrose’s effective use of quotes and recounting from the men that served in the unit that got the “tough assignments,” often performing them under extreme conditions—usually while under-supplied and under-fed. Although full of enough carnage, gore, and killing to satisfy the most bloodthirsty WWII buff, the aptly-titled Band of Brothers is really about the special bond those men had with each other, and their unyielding dedication each felt for their “brothers.” The unit suffered almost 150 percent casualties (“war talk for bleeding,” as former Corporal Walter Gordon put it,) and forty-eight members of the company lost their lives while fighting their way across Europe. Over 100 men were wounded, many of them multiple times. The book follows the company from basic training to jump school to D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge to Hitler’s Eagles Nest hideout in Berchtesgaden, and makes for a fascinating read.

The men of Easy Company drew the tough jobs due to the simple fact that their training was superior to that of other Army units. Easy was pushed harder and further, then pushed some more, by 1st Lt. Herbert Sobel (later Captain, played by David Schwimmer in the miniseries.) Sobel was universally disliked by the men, however to a man, each soldier credited Sobel with creating an elite, cohesive airborne company that was both physically and mentally capable of pulling off the impossible during battle.

Although there are numerous significant characters throughout Band of Brothers, the “main” individual in the book, the one man that was the subject of a universal respect and love all through the company is undoubtedly 1st Lt. Dick Winters (Damian Lewis, and promoted to Major during the war.) Whereas Sobel was widely considered a tyrant, Winters was fair, only yelled when it was absolutely necessary during a battle, and led by example. He is undoubtedly the “star” of a book full of them, and after reading more about him, I honestly think my own (brief) military career might have been longer had I been commanded by men more like him.

It is the men’s loyalty and respect for not only Winters, but each other, that Ambrose hits upon repeatedly throughout the book. The men shared a widespread fear of not only letting their brothers down, but of having to go through combat with other units. Ambrose tells of how several wounded Easy soldiers, while recuperating, learned that if they were away from their unit for more than 90 days, they would be assigned to a random combat company rather than allowed to rejoin the 101’st. These men would go AWOL from the hospital and sneak back to Easy Company rather than face going into battle with unfamiliar troops.

Ambrose’s prose is fairly straightforward and to-the-point throughout (unlike, say the manic, wildly entertaining wartime style of John Sack.) At times, it’s about as funny as a war documentary can be: “All was quiet, no action. Lieutenant Lavenson…went into a field to take a crap. The men could see his white fanny in the early dawn light. A German sniper fired one shot and hit Lavenson in the butt.” Other times, it’s just simply brutal, as in this scene in the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge: “Luz went to check on Muck and Penkala, the men who had offered to share their foxhole with him. The hole had taken a direct hit. Luz started digging frantically. He found some pieces of bodies and a part of a sleeping bag.”

The book is chock full of action—battles, attacks, and patrols are often described in vivid detail using the men’s own recollections, and is rife with tension as the soldiers find themselves sitting in foxholes just waiting for the next mortar attack. Ambrose also effectively captures just how heroic these men were, considering the great strain they were under: “There is no such thing as ‘getting used to combat’…each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure.” According to Ambrose, Easy Company spent so much prolonged time on various frontlines that “statistically, the whole company was in danger of breaking down at any time.” And yet they kept fighting, kept surviving impossible conditions, and kept out-fighting better-equipped German units that also had superior numbers on their sides.

If you’ve only watched the miniseries, you’ll find that reading this offers up a few subtle differences. For instance, the “Why We Fight” episode (where a patrol unexpectedly discovers a concentration camp) made for great television and was a heavy, dramatic moment in the series. In the book, however, Ambrose only gives that occurrence a mere four paragraph’s worth of ink, even though Winter’s account of what he saw that day is as poignant as any passage contained within.

There’s a reason that as of this writing, there are 17 Epinions reviews of Band of Brothers, all with either a four or five-star rating. Simply put, it’s a joy to read. It’s the epitome of what a WWII book should be: it’s got blood, guts, bravery, fear, hunger, cold, and boredom, often within the same few paragraphs. It’s full of dirty, smelly men that would, quite literally, rather die for one another rather than risk letting each other down—men that very quickly learned just how far they were capable of pushing their bodies and their minds. It is well worth the time spent reading.


Recommend this product? Yes

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