How do you transform people from civilian volunteers into excellent soldiers? E/”Easy” Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (P.I.R.), 101st Airborne Division, United States Army, provides a case study.
The company consisted of three rifle platoons and a headquarters unit. Each platoon consisted of three rifle squads and a mortar section. Each rifle squad consisted of twelve infantrymen; each mortar team of six men. Each rifle squad had one machine gun; each mortar team had one 60-mm mortar. In sum, nine rifle squads and three mortar sections, 135 men with semi-automatic rifles, carbines, and sub-machine guns, nine light machine guns, three mortars. That was a lot of firepower. They would need it.
The idea behind paratroopers was to drop them behind enemy lines before an attack so that they could seize key points of communication. This would disrupt enemy communications and hold open the door for advancing ground forces. In one of the most dramatic and bloody fights of the war, German paratroopers had stormed Crete from the air. Now the British and Americans hoped to do the same on the grand scale. The paratroopers would be out on the end of a limb until the ground forces arrived. Skills and toughness would be essential to success—and to survival.
A crude camp near Toccoa, Georgia, in the Piedmont region and close to the South Carolina line, served as the initial training site. The soldiers were all very young when they began training. Most of the officers ranged in age between 22 and 25. Most of the enlisted men ranged in age between 18 and 23. They were young and impressionable. They had grown up during the Depression, when nobody gave you anything for free.
Lieutenant, later Captain Herbert Sobel (1912-1987), commanded the company during its training. Sobel drove his men ruthlessly to achieve the highest standing in physical fitness and military training. Long marches, lectures on military subjects, calisthenics, weapons training, numerous inspections with minute infractions punished by cancellation of week-end passes, and frequent timed runs up the neighboring Mount Currahee—“three miles up, three miles down”—did the job. The regiment’s commander judged Sobel’s company to be the finest in the regiment. Then came parachute training and test jumps. Five jumps in one day and “anyone who hesitates in the door will be immediately removed from the paratroopers.” Then came “war games” in North Carolina as companies were forged into battalions, battalions into regiments, and regiments into divisions. As more and more men failed to make the cut, the survivors could regard themselves as a special group of men who had shared many hardships. Of this, comradeship began to be born.
In early 1944 the regiment shipped out for Britain. Here the training became even more intense, but also more focused on combat operations. Stresses and strains developed. Whatever Captain Sobel’s achievements as a trainer, his unsympathetic character left him estranged from his men. He initiated court-martial proceedings against his own Executive Officer, Lieutenant Richard Winters, in what might be taken to be a case of petty abuse. Worse, he showed signs of being a poor tactical leader when all minds had turned to the coming jump into German-held territory. Easy Company’s sergeants offered to resign their ratings and requested transfer to another unit rather than serve with Sobel in combat. Sobel soon found himself transferred to other duties with the regimental headquarters. Lieutenant Thomas Meehan took command of Easy Company. Now began the anxious waiting for the invasion of Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” in Summer 1944. On 5 June 1944 the order came. The men began to pile into their planes.