Band of Brothers

By

ambrose-band-of-brothers.jpgStephen E. Ambrose, 1992

Sources estimate that World War II veterans are dying at the rate of about 1,000 per day. Valiant attempts have been made to capture something of that war and the people who fought it, and it seems that the good attempts- the really good ones- involve Stephen Ambrose one way or another.

My grandfather, George F. Aspinwall, or Pop Pop, was a glider pilot in WWII. To have heard him describe it, for most guys the choice to fly gliders was as simple as the pay raise that came with it. But they had all heard that the life expectancy of a glider pilot in combat was 17 seconds (as compared to the 19 minutes fighter pilots were given or the luxurious 1 hour and 46 minutes the bombers had.)

The gliders of WWII were a fascinating idea- designed to silently fly into tight places delivering men, guns and even jeeps. But they were also sitting ducks, constructed mainly of canvas and pipe or wood. They were built to be “one mission crafts” and Pop Pop said every landing was essentially a crash landing.

glider1.jpg

My grandfather participated in Operation Market Garden, an allied mission to secure a series of bridges in German occupied Holland. It was one of the few missions the allies undertook that failed. Before he died, I asked him to tell me about his experiences, which he did.

I was 30, and it was the first time I had even thought to ask about it. And the reason I wanted to know now was because I had read and then watched the HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers” by Stephen E. Ambrose.

What strikes me about the men who fought in that war is that they themselves were reticent to be known as heroes, yet considered the men they served alongside to be just that.

And they remember well what they experienced there. To hear Pop Pop talk about anti-aircraft fire coming up through the canvas between his legs as he flew over enemy lines was like hearing him talk about something that happened only last week. Which brings me back to Stephen Ambrose.

Band of Brothers has little, if anything, to do with gliders. But it is the story of men from the same generation fighting in the same war. It is the epic account of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army- a company that took 150% casualties during their tenure in the European theater. Ambrose leads us through their beginnings in basic training (July 1942), through D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, all the way to the taking of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in May of 1945.

What Ambrose give us with his accounting of World War II is a gift–a very thoughtful and irreplaceable one. What he gives is oral tradition, the stories and descriptions of that war in the words of those who died in it or lived through it. He generously saturates his writing with the actual words of the people he’s interviewed or the letters he’s examined or the journals he’s pored over–from both sides of the trenches.

It seems men of that generation didn’t like to talk about themselves as much as my generation does. So if I wanted to know Pop Pop’s stories, I’d have to ask. Ambrose lit a fire under me to do just that, and just in time. I feel indebted to him for this precious gift of knowing some of Pop Pop’s stories. And I wanted to know Pop Pop’s stories because Ambrose had already told me so many others in Band of Brothers.

That’s what his World War II books do. In them, Ambrose gathers and arranges the words of a generation that is passing away quickly so that he might tell their story and in so doing help teach us a bit of our own.

(The HBO mini-series by the same name is excellent as well. You can also pick up other Ambrose World War II titles like The Wild Blue, D-Day, Pegasus Bridge and Citizen Soldiers.)

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003).

Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


5 Comments

  1. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    You might also want to check out a special series that the History Channel did called “The Color of War” (also called “WWII in Color” sometimes). It’s made entirely of recently declassified color footage from the war that the government for 45 years or so considered ‘too realistic’ for public release. It’s not all that graphic but it is rare to see color images of the War. It is very well done and much of the voice-over is done with actual letters and journals. It’s been a long time since I watched it but it moved me to tears, horror, and wonder many times over.

  2. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    The latest Ken Burns documentary, The War, is airing on PBS right now. I’ve been recording it and have enjoyed the first 90 minutes or so. He was on Conan O’Brien this week and had some things to say that echo some of what you wrote, Russ. Here it is, should you have a spare eight minutes or so.

  3. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Thanks for a great review, Russ. I enjoyed it, especially in the way you personalized it with Pop Pop, the glider pilot. God bless your grandfather for his contribution to maintaining our liberty.

    Along similar lines, I strongly recommend Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, a book that takes a macro approach to interviewing WWII participants. I was just in a Barnes and Nobles tonight and noticed that it is available in paperback.

    Andy, thanks for the Conan clip. I’ve seen isolated bits and pieces of this and look forward to watching it from beginning to end one day. This portion of the Conan interview grabbed me:

    Ken Burns:

    … the world we now enjoy, the luxuries we now enjoy, they provided for us. When they were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old, a time when most of us have the luxury of inattention and narcissistic self-involvement, they were saving the world. And that’s a great story.

  4. Jim A

    Great quote Curt. And thanks for the review Russ! I’ve been waiting to see this posted a while! (it seems my RSS reader picked up at least a portion of this back in October but perhaps it wasn’t complete).

    If anyone has only seen the amazing HBO 10 part series, they should do themselves a favor and pick up the book. They are both amazing works of art. You also mentioned “The Wild Blue” which covered the B-24 bombers – if that doesn’t change or enhance your opinion of George McGovern then little else will.

    Also, though not in the war genre, Ambrose did another incredible job telling the story of Lewis and Clark in “Undaunted Courage”.

    Keep this up fellas, this is great stuff and I personally look forward to the rabbit room each morning. (Hey AP, how about putting some rabbitroom shirts in the store? 🙂
    JimA

  5. Peter B

    Wow, thanks for this; I know I’m late to the party, but since I didn’t even know there was a book — the TV series was fantastic — I’m grateful for the news.

    I certainly regret never asking my grandfather about his time in the war, or the attack that destroyed his carrier and took so many of his shipmates. Anyone out there: if you have a relative or a friend whom you can ask, don’t wait; you will wish you hadn’t.

    Also, The War is a great piece of work and well worth watching. Thank you, Ken, Ambrose, Tom, Steven, etc. for assembling these views of history for those of us who have never known the pain of hard-won liberty.

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