William “Wild Bill” Guarnere, a member of the famed “Easy Company” of the 101st Airborne Division, died on March 8 at the age of 90. Guarnere, who lost a leg while aiding a fellow wounded soldier at the Battle of the Bulge, was awarded the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts for his military service and remained active in veterans’ organizations for more than six decades.
Bill Guarnere’s interest in the military began at a young age, and by the age of 15 he had enrolled in an annual Citizens’ Military Training Camp. He left school six months shy of graduation to work in a Philadelphia-based locomotive factory—a job that exempted him from military service—but later earned his degree before enlisting in the Army Airborne in August 1942. Assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the newly formed 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Guarnere trained at Georgia’s Camp Toccoa, where the frequent training regimen of a 6-mile round-trip run on nearby Currahee Mountain inspired the regiment’s motto of “Currahee.”
Following graduation from Camp Toccoa, the men of Easy Company joined thousands of other American troops in England in preparation for the anticipated invasion of Europe. Shortly before his first mission, Guarnere learned of the death of his older brother Henry in combat near Monte Cassino—a loss that he later admitted left him eager to avenge his brother’s death and resulted in the fierce fighting style that earned him the nickname “Wild Bill.” Departing from Devon, England, hours before the amphibious assault on Normandy, Guarnere and Easy Company were tasked with blocking escape routes off of Utah Beach. After meeting up with 1st Lt. Richard Winters, who had assumed command of the company following the death of its commanding officer and 16 fellow paratroopers when their plane was shot down by enemy fire, Guarnere and his platoon helped secure a group of four German howitzers at Brecourt Manor.
Guarnere later participated in Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne operation up to that time, during which Easy Company secured a series of bridges in the Netherlands for an anticipated Allied advance into the lowlands of Germany. When the operation failed due to over-extended supply lines and stronger than anticipated German resistance, Easy Company assisted in the emergency evacuation of British forces trapped at Arnhem.
Wounded in October 1944, Guarnere risked being court-martialed when he fled the English hospital he was recuperating in amid fears he would be assigned to a different company upon his return to combat. He was demoted to the rank of private, but later convinced officials to allow him to return to Easy Company, rejoining the group just a week before it was deployed to Belgium. Guarnere’s war ended shortly afterwards, when he lost his right leg after being shot while trying to help friend and wounded company member Joe Toye escape enemy fire in the village of Foy, near Bastogne.
After the war Guarnere returned to Pennsylvania, as did fellow Easy Company member and South Philadelphia native Edward “Babe Heffron. The two would remain close friends until Heffron’s death in 2013. Following the success of Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book “Band of Brothers” and the 2001 miniseries of the same name, Guarnere and Heffron co-authored their own bestselling book, “Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends,” published in 2007 and documenting their experiences during and after the war.
Despite the increased fame and recognition Guarnere received following the release of the books and television series, he remained tightlipped about much of his wartime service, preferring to work behind the scenes. Guarnere became involved in a number of veterans’ groups and organized Easy Company’s reunions until 2003. And in their later years, Guarnere and Heffron were instrumental in garnering support for a monument to the members of Easy Company who had given their lives overseas. Located near Brecourt Manor, France, the monument was erected in 2008.