Most members of the military will be familiar with the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which follows the story of the men of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division in WWII. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks after their 1998 success, Saving Private Ryan, the miniseries has been praised for its drama and storytelling.Using leftover props and costumes from Saving Private Ryan, and with the consulting help of surviving Easy Company veterans, Hanks and Spielberg strove to bring the stories of Easy Company to life. However, Band of Brothers did take some artistic license for the sake of storytelling and presented some glaring historical inaccuracies as a result.
A serious WWII history buff could point out dozens of small mistakes in Band of Brothers like the inaccuracies of a German Jagdpanther at Bloody Gulch, the wearing of the 101st Screaming Eagle patch during the Battle of the Bulge, or the anachronistic headset worn by a C-47 pilot taking off from England. However, this article will focus on 6 inaccuracies that actually changed important historical details or rewrote a person’s story.
A German Gebirgsjäger officer with his Edelweiss badge displayed on his headgear. (Photo posted by user SprogCollector via wehrmacht-awards.com)
Edelweiss – Part Three Carentan
During this episode, Private Albert Blithe is sent forward of Easy Company to re-establish contact with Fox Company during a night movement. Moving quietly through the darkness, he rounds a tree and is startled by a German soldier behind an MG42 machine gun. Lt. Dick Winters emerges from the darkness, further startling Blithe, and informs him that the German is dead. Lt. Lewis Nixon joins them and identifies the German as a Fallschirmjäger, a paratrooper. He further identifies a flower on the German’s uniform as Edelweiss, saying that it only grows high up in the Alps and is meant to be the mark of a true soldier.
Gebirgsjäger, German and Austrian mountain troops, wore Edelweiss badges, not flowers, on their uniforms as a symbol of pride in their mountaineering and soldiering skills. As such, it is highly unlikely that a paratrooper would adopt a symbol that held so much importance to mountain soldiers. It can be likened to U.S. paratroops taking great pride in their distinct bloused jump boots. Later in the 20th century, many a nose was broken at Fort Benning by paratroopers who caught a non-paratrooper wearing bloused jump boots.
Shooting POWs – Part Two Day of Days
This episode serves as the catalyst for the many rumors about Ronald Speirs shooting German POWs on D-Day. In it, Don Malarkey jogs away from a group of prisoners being watched over by Lt. Speirs and another Dog Company paratrooper when he hears automatic gunfire from behind him—the implication being that Speirs executed the prisoners. In later episodes, the rumors evolve from Speirs shooting a few prisoners, to shooting eight, shooting twenty, and even shooting a drunk sergeant for refusing to go out on patrol.
In a video interview, former Dog Company trooper Private Art Dimarzio recalled capturing three Germans on D-Day with Speirs and a sergeant. “The LT called us together in a bunch and he said, ‘…you take one,’ they were all laying in a ditch, ‘I’ll take this one, and sarge you take that one.’ And we paired off and we shot the three of them.” DiMarzio also noted that, a few hours later, they came upon another group of Germans, all of whom Speirs shot. This account is entirely plausible given the orders issued to the paratroopers by General Maxwell Taylor, commander of the 101st Airborne Division.
“Take no prisoners,” Malarkey recalls General Taylor telling them. “If you were to take prisoners, they’d handicap our ability to perform our mission.”
Hitler’s suicide – Part Nine Why We Fight
The episode opens stating that it is April 11, 1945 in Thalem, Germany. A string quartet of German civilians plays Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor. Around them, other civilians clear up the rubble of their battered city under the supervision of U.S. soldiers while Easy Company soldiers look down from a damaged apartment building. The rest of the episode flashes back to Easy Company’s initial invasion of Germany before returning to the Thalem apartment where Captain Nixon informs the men that Hitler is dead.
Assuming the men have not been sitting in the same apartment listening to the same string quartet for nineteen days, this scene is anachronistic as Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. It is unclear why this error was made or why it persisted from the HBO television release to the home video release, since a simple edit to the opening statement could make it April 30, 1945. This is an extreme oversight for such a big budget production.
Lt. Dike – Part Seven The Breaking Point
Part Seven focuses primarily on Easy Company First Sergeant Carwood Lipton as he works to maintain the unit’s morale and combat effectiveness during the Battle of the Bulge. However, his efforts are hindered by their new commander, Lt. Norman Dike. Dike is rarely seen around the men, leaving them to go on walks or make phone calls at Battalion HQ. His behavior earns him the nickname “Foxhole Norman”. During the attack on Foy, Dike becomes paralyzed by fear and panics under pressure, sending a single platoon exposed on a doomed flanking mission. His poor leadership results in the deaths of many Easy Company men before he is relieved by Lt. Speirs and is eventually killed during the attack.
Firsthand accounts show that Dike was not a well-liked officer during his command of Easy Company, but he was by no means the cowardly and ineffective officer that was portrayed on screen. During the attack on Foy, Easy Company trooper Clancy Lyall saw Dike get shot in his right shoulder. Omitted from the on-screen depiction, this wound inhibited Dike’s decision-making and caused him to panic. Furthermore, Dike won two Bronze Star Medals for valor earlier in the war; one in Holland for organizing a hasty defense against, “superior and repeated attacks”, and another at Bastogne where, “…he personally removed from an exposed position, in full enemy view, three wounded members of his company, while under intense small arms fire.”
Finally, Dike was not killed at Foy. He survived his wound and became the aide to General Taylor. Dike remained in the Army for the remainder of the war, served in Korea, and eventually attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserves. He also went back to Yale and earned his law degree. He worked as a U.S. Commissioner in Japan, practiced law in New York City and Washington D.C., and was even employed by the CIA for a time. He died in Rolle, Switzerland on June 23, 1989.
Master Sergeant Albert Blithe and his wife Kay. (Photo from findagrave.com)
Private Blithe — Part Three Canretan
Episode three begins with Private Albert Blithe just after D-Day when he rejoins Easy Company after the confusion of the drop. Following the fight to take Carentan, he is struck with a case of hysterical blindness. After recovering, Blithe returns to Easy Company. Following his encounter with the dead German, Blithe admits to Lt. Speirs that he didn’t try to find his unit on D-Day; instead, he hid in a ditch out of fear. Speirs tells him that he’s already dead and that he must accept that in order to function as a soldier should, “without mercy, without compassion, without remorse.”
Blithe follows Speirs’ advice and fights ferociously during the German counterattack at Bloody Gulch. After the battle, Blithe finds a dead German that he shot and removes the Edelweiss on the German’s uniform. Blithe takes the Edelweiss for himself and places it on his uniform, completing his character arc. A few days later, he volunteers to investigate a farmhouse during a patrol where he is shot in the neck by a German sniper. The episode ends saying that Blithe died from his wounds in 1948.
Blithe’s depiction is mostly true. He was stricken with hysterical blindness and he was shot by a sniper whilst investigating a farmhouse. However, Blithe was shot in his collarbone. He recovered from his wounds and was sent back to the states. He remained in the Army and fought with the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team in Korea. After his second war, Blithe was assigned to the Military Assistance Advisory Group in Taiwan. In December 1967, while on active duty in Germany, Blithe attended a ceremony in Bastogne commemorating the Battle of the Bulge. Upon his return to Germany, Blithe felt nauseous and was taken to the ER at Wiesbaden Hospital. He was diagnosed with a perforated ulcer and died in the ICU on December 17 after surgery. Blithe had attained the rank of Master Sergeant and was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
The other men of Easy Company never found out what happened to Blithe after he was wounded at the farmhouse. They assumed he succumbed to his wounds and the producers of the show did no further research. Having spent more than 20 years in the Army over the course of three wars, Blithe deserves more credit than he is given in Band of Brothers.
Winters displays the surrendered sidearm of the German Major. (Photo from We Stand Alone Together, Credit to HBO)
The surrender — Part Ten Points
The last episode of the miniseries follows Major Dick Winters and Easy Company during the last few months of the war. After the official German surrender, Winters meets with a German Colonel who offers Winters his Luger pistol as his formal surrender. Out of respect for a fellow soldier, Winters allows the Colonel to keep his sidearm. The German is surprised by Winters’ gesture and gives him a crisp salute in return.
In reality, the surrendering German was a Major like Winters. The sidearm that he offered as his formal surrender was a Walther PP (a long-barreled version of James Bond’s famous Walther PPK), which Winters accepted and kept until his death in 2011. In an interview for HBO, Winters showed the pistol and recounted the German’s surrender:
I was assigned this Major and when he walked in, he presented me this pistol and offered his personal surrender, which naturally I accepted gratefully. So that would be the end of the war for his men and this is basically the end of the war for my men. And the significance is that, it wasn’t until later when he had given me this pistol and I got a chance to look at it carefully that I realized, this pistol had never been fired. There was no blood on it. That’s the way all wars should end: with an agreement with no blood on it. And I assure you this pistol has never, never been fired since I’ve had it and it will not be fired.
Winters’ powerful and insightful words about the surrender make the scene in Band of Brothers feel like a missed opportunity. The real-life exchange between the two Majors and the impression that the symbolic pistol left would have been more impactful than the surrender shown on screen.
After the series premiere, Winters told Hanks that he wished the production had been more authentic, hoping for an “80 percent solution.”
Hanks responded, “Look, Major, this is Hollywood. At the end of the day, we will be hailed as geniuses if we get this 12 percent right. We are going to shoot for 17 percent.”
Band of Brothers is a well-made and fitting tribute to (most of) the men who fought in Easy Company during WWII. As with most Hollywood productions, the history was adapted for dramatic effect and series structure. Certain stories and experiences were modified or folded into other characters for the sake of storytelling, but the show as a whole is still one of the best portrayals of WWII to date. In the case of the aforementioned stories and experiences however, their true history deserves to be told, learned, and remembered.