Toccoa, formerly Camp Toombs, was the birthplace of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR). Cut from the Georgian wilderness, the camp was located in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Camp Toombs had been an old Georgia National Guard Camp prior to its conversion to an airborne training center. Toccoa was the name of the closest town and it soon became the name of the first Parachute Infantry Training Center. Dominating the camp was 1,740 foot Mount Currahee, a Cherokee word that means “stands alone.” The 506th PIR to which I was assigned was officially activated on July 20, 1942. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Sink and Major Robert L. Strayer served as the 506th PIR and the 2d Battalion commanders, respectively. They were the first two officers to arrive at Toccoa. Both would be soon promoted and played important roles in the destiny of Easy Company as well as my own military career.
Sink was a 1927 West Point graduate who would command the 506th through the entire war. A no-nonsense officer, he kept a tight reign of his command and insisted that there would never be a breach of discipline. Strayer was a reserve officer who entered active duty in July 1940. He later commanded a company in the 502d PIR before attending the infantry officer school at Fort Benning in May 1942. As a major, he served as Sink’s principal staff officer until he assumed command of 2d Battalion, 506th PIR in September 1942. Major Strayer was promoted to lieutenant colonel in early 1943. His battalion consisted of a Battalion Headquarters Company, Dog, Easy, and Fox Companies. The headquarters company was comprised of a communications platoon, a light machine gun platoon, an 81mm mortar platoon, and the battalion surgeon and his staff.
Following a brief leave, I arrived in Toccoa in mid-August. Disembarking from the Southern Railway train adjacent to the Toccoa Coffin Factory, Lewis Nixon and I were directed to board an army truck for “Camp Toombs.” As soon as we arrived at camp, we were ushered into 506th Regimental Headquarters, where we reported to Colonel Sink. He welcomed us to the airborne and informed us that the 506th was an experimental outfit—the first regiment to train civilian recruits into an elite airborne unit. Sink made it clear that he intended that the 506th PIR was going to be the “best damned unit” in the U.S. Army. I had always prided myself in my ability to judge character, and Colonel Sink was truly inspirational. When I first met Sink, I was in awe. He was sitting behind his desk, smoking a cigarette. He came across as having this West Point “better than thou” attitude, which I had always found disconcerting, but I learned pretty quickly that my first impression was wrong. Colonel Sink was an exceptionally competent officer who issued a personal challenge to every incoming officer—he expected officers to set the example and to lead from the front in everything that we did.
I was assigned to Easy Company, 2d Battalion, 506th PIR. When Easy Company formed in July 1942, it listed 8 officers and 132 enlisted men in its table of organization and equipment. The company included three rifle platoons and a headquarters section. Each platoon contained three twelve-man rifle squads and a six-man mortar team squad. Easy also had one machine gun attached to each of its rifle squads, and a 60mm mortar in each mortar team. First Lieutenant Herbert M. Sobel of Chicago, Illinois, was the first member of E Company and its commanding officer. His executive officer was 2d Lieutenant Clarence Hester. Two officers were assigned to each platoon as a safeguard for anticipated casualties and the continued expansion of the U.S. Army. Most were newly commissioned from OCS or from the ROTC contingents from various universities across the country. In addition to me as second platoon leader, Lewis Nixon, Walter Moore, and S. L. Matheson formed the initial contingent of E Company officers. Lieutenants Matheson and Moore commanded 1st and 3d Platoons, respectively.
As had Colonel Sink, Lieutenant Sobel made it crystal clear that he would tolerate no breach of discipline in Easy Company. Sobel informed the officers that Easy Company would be the first and the best in everything it did. He expected Easy to lead the 506th PIR in every measurable category, including calisthenics, road marching, marksmanship, physical fitness, and field training. Sobel intended that Easy Company would be ready when it entered combat. In the interim, he would train the company to a high degree of physical and mental readiness. In contrast to the regimental commander, Lieutenant Sobel did not impress me as a field soldier, but he was the commander and I was determined to do my part to make my platoon the best in the company.
My first day at Toccoa was a shock. I had been in the army for over a year, but all my experience had been at more established military posts like Camp Croft and Fort Benning. All of a sudden, I felt I was back at basic training. Officers’ quarters consisted of tar-paper huts, two officers to a hut. Our quarters had no doors, no windows, and no electric lights since the camp was still being constructed. The only electric lights were in the latrine. It was pretty rough, but you expected to have it rough if you were going to be a paratrooper. As I sat there that first night, the mosquitoes ate me alive. I learned a valuable lesson that nothing is ever guaranteed. However, you adjust; you get used to the little things and hope for the best.
Few of the original members of Easy Company survived Toccoa. According to statistics compiled by Lieutenant Salve M. Matheson, an Easy Company platoon leader who eventually moved to battalion and regimental staff, it took over 400 officer volunteers to form the 148 survivors who made it through the following thirteen weeks of training. From over 5,300 enlisted volunteers, 1,800 were selected to continue with the 506th when it deployed to Fort Benning for jump school. You could quit anytime you wanted to. All you had to do was walk down the hill to headquarters and say, “I don’t want this.” I made up my mind to stick around because I wanted to be with the best. Fortunately I was in prime physical condition and had no problem with the physical aspect of our training. When I joined Easy Company at Toccoa, I stood 6 feet tall and weighed 177 pounds.
Formed into companies, the training began in earnest as officers and men adjusted to military life. The training program was designed to last thirteen weeks. The majority of the initial weeks consisted in getting the men in good physical condition. Since most of the men had just recently entered military service, they were in terrible shape. Daily calisthenics included chin-ups, sit-ups, deep knee bends, jumping jacks, and running. Surprisingly by the end of the first week, the men began responding to the physical demands for airborne troopers. Those who didn’t adjust were reassigned from the regiment. Colonel Sink demanded that physical conditioning remain intense—pushing each trooper to the point of exhaustion. Everything was done at double time, including a six-mile run up and down Currahee. Daily obstacle courses, calisthenics, endless hours of physical training, nine-mile marches with and without field packs, bayonets, rifles, and machine guns became the norm. And the training never let up. Private Robert T. Smith noted that the training became more rugged with each passing day. He mentioned the obstacle course that included “all kind of contraptions designed to exercise every muscle in your body.”
All enlisted men at Toccoa arrived directly from civilian life for their initial “boot camp” training. Their motivation revolved around additional pay for airborne duty and a desire to be associated with “the best.” The 506th was the first unit to have the authority to do this and to keep only those it wished and to send the rest to other army units. That included officers, noncommissioned officers, and soldiers alike. Those who were unable to meet the rigorous standards of airborne troopers were assigned to “W Company” and rapidly assigned to other commands. W Company was a special unit established for incoming troops as well as outgoing troops who failed physicals or who “washed out” during training. Men reached camp in small groups almost daily, and after a much more thorough physical evaluation than they had at their reception centers, they were assigned to one of the units within the 506th PIR. Troopers slept in tents until the army built enough hutments. Officers were initially quartered in unfinished huts, no lights, mud galore when it rained, and so cool every night so that we needed two blankets.
Periodic runs up and down Currahee required the men be in tiptop condition. Rising above the camp’s parade ground, Currahee was an imposing sight. Three miles up and three miles down, three or four times a week formed an integral part of our physical conditioning. The run was wicked, a real killer. To move a company up Currahee, you led the company at an airborne shuffle, then, as you felt the ranks falling apart due to stress, you cut the pace back to “quick-time” march. After the ranks closed again, and the troops were breathing normally, you went back to the double-time shuffle. The last mile up Currahee was done more at quick time than at double-time. In a free-run competition to the summit of Currahee and back to camp, I can’t remember anyone who could “run” up Currahee. The record for a round trip up and down Currahee was forty-two minutes; my personal best time was forty-four minutes. I was strictly no runner, just did it by plugging along.
On the days Easy Company did not run up Currahee, Lieutenant Sobel ordered us to negotiate the obstacle course. As with most of the physical training, the obstacle course was a timed exercise, with each soldier required to complete the course in three minutes. Some of the men never completed the course in three minutes and they were subsequently dropped from the 506th. The obstacles themselves were numerous and varied, but each required a certain degree of dexterity and strength—all designed to build the muscle strength necessary for manipulating parachutes and facing prolonged combat. Arm strength was enhanced by means of crossing a thirty-foot body of water by way of a horizontal ladder that had to be negotiated hand over hand. One particular obstacle that led to many dismissals from the company was a ten-foot-high log wall that had to be climbed without assistance from other members of the company. One officer attempted to catch his breath and to hide behind the wall until the next company came through. He then joined the next company as they passed through. Needless to say, he did not remain at Toccoa for long. Between individual obstacles were hills that had to be run, ditches that had to be crossed, and trenches that had to be jumped. By the time one finished the course, he was physically exhausted. As the weeks wore on, negotiating the obstacle became routine as the individual endurance of each soldier improved dramatically.
To say training at Toccoa was intense is an understatement. Colonel Sink insisted on extremely high standards. Since all personnel were handpicked and could easily be replaced, Sink was determined to create the most elite and best-trained unit in the U.S. Army. Within a week, each company in the regiment became proficient in close order drill, marching back and forth and practicing the manual of arms with our individual weapons. From my experience at Camp Croft and from OCS, close order drill became a pleasant distraction from the more rigorous training. Physical conditioning under realistic conditions proved more demanding. Ten-mile hikes gave way to twenty-five miles through the Georgia countryside. The first night march we made was eleven miles long. Lieutenant Sobel demanded that these endurance tests be accompanied by water discipline: no soldier being allowed to take a sip of water from his canteen until the march was over. In addition to field marches, Regular Army noncommissioned officers delivered lectures on weapons, tactics, and parachute training. One of the things that took some getting used to was bayonet training. The first time you went through the drill, it made you think. The thought of sticking a bayonet into a man was not something you took lightly. I had done a bit of wrestling before, so the thought of unarmed combat did not unsettle me, but the thought of thrusting a steel bayonet into someone—that took some adjustment.
Toccoa also contained mock thirty-four-foot jump towers from which eager troopers developed the necessary skills of jumping, guiding parachutes, and landing. The only thing missing from an actual jump was the absence of the prop blast when exiting the aircraft. After climbing the tower, each trooper was strapped into a parachute harness that was connected to a fifteen-foot strap, or static line. The strap, in turn, was attached to a pulley that rode a cable about sixty feet long to the ground, at which point the soldier landed hard. It was incumbent on the paratrooper to position his body properly when leaving the mock-up door and to develop the proper form and to concentrate on the basic fundamentals of the jump in order to escape injury when he landed. Another training station included the suspended harness, in which troopers were suspended from a device that resulted in various parts of the male anatomy being crunched and pulled in every direction. In the suspended harness, each of us practiced the five points of performance—check body position and count “one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand;” check your canopy and your initial oscillation; get your back to the wind; prepare to land; and land.
Training remained demanding throughout our stay at Toccoa. Through thirteen weeks of field training, we experienced the summer heat and red dust so characteristic of western Georgia. Training continued day and night, regardless of weather conditions. Some of the men became demoralized at the pace and the intensity of training. Endless field marches, overnight training exercises in the worst imaginable weather, and exposure to the elements sapped the strength of the fainthearted. Nor were weekends free, since Saturday mornings were more often than not devoted to inspections of equipment, rifles, barracks, and clothing. Few survived recently promoted Captain Sobel’s inspections without incurring some deficiencies. Those who failed the inspections—and in Easy Company most troopers failed—had their weekend passes revoked and were subjected to another run up Currahee.
As the training progressed, leaders honed Easy into a well-disciplined unit within an extraordinarily cohesive regiment. Most of the credit belonged to Colonel Sink, Major Strayer, Captain Sobel, and my fellow platoon leaders. Easy Company met every challenge, exceeded every requirement, as both Sink and Sobel demanded that each company meet the exacting standards that they had established. Those troopers who could no longer bear the strain that our commanders subjected Easy Company were rapidly shipped out. The survivors merely endured.
In early fall, the riflemen in the company traveled to South Carolina and bivouacked and slept in pup tents near Clemson University, where they qualified on the university rifle ranges. Machine gunners remained at Toccoa where they slept in their own barracks and ate in their own mess halls. Lieutenant Salve Matheson ran the machine gun ranges and proved himself an incredible instructor. Both groups spent a full week on the ranges. Every soldier was required to become intimately familiar with each of the company’s weapons, ranging from the M-1 Garand rifle to the .45-caliber pistol to the 60mm mortar. Additional training focused on the assembly and disassembly of light machine guns. When inclement weather confined us to the barracks, map and compass reading became the order of the day.
One of the reasons that Easy Company excelled was undoubtedly Captain Sobel. Born in Chicago in 1912, Sobel graduated from Culver Military Academy and became a reserve officer upon his graduation from the University of Illinois. He arrived at the 506th from Fort Riley, Kansas, where he had been serving as a military police officer. Historian Stephen Ambrose describes Sobel as a “petty tyrant who exuded arrogance.” Ambrose wasn’t far from the mark. Placed in a position of absolute power analogous to the captain of a ship, Sobel was a strict disciplinarian who ruled Easy Company with an iron fist. To officers and soldiers alike, Sobel became known as the “Black Swan,” which soon evolved into “Herr Black Swan” due to his tyrannical methods of command. As company commander, he tolerated no breach of discipline or loyalty, either real or imagined.
I have always felt that for the eyes of the enlisted men, a junior company officer should try to be a reflection of his company commander. Easy Company’s junior officers found they simply could not emulate the image of Sobel and live with themselves. Sobel was not just unfair; he was plain mean. As time went by and the pressure shifted from the training of the citizen soldiers to the proving and testing of the leadership in the company, Sobel started to wilt and his disposition grew increasingly impossible. In a bad mood he could go down a line of men during an inspection and find five or six dirty stacking swivels or weapon slings in a row. Then he might switch to finding three or four soldiers with “dirty ears.” A man could not pass inspection if Sobel had a grudge against him, and it seemed that our company commander held many grudges.
Every soldier who served in Easy has his share of Sobel stories, many of which are recounted in Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. Private First Class Burt Christenson recounted his initial meeting with Sobel, which was not unlike my own. Reporting to the commander’s office, Christenson recalled that Sobel said: “Each man in this company will learn the importance of discipline and practice it or he won’t remain in this unit for long. If you don’t complete your assignments or pass inspections, you’ll receive company punishment. If you continue to fail to accomplish what I consider is your duty, you’ll be disqualified from the parachute infantry.” Never an admirer of his company commander, Christenson remembered one incident when Sobel viciously humiliated a soldier whose principal crime was nothing more than it was his turn to be the object of the company commander’s scorn. Once during a routine inspection, Sobel was standing in front of Private First Class (PFC) William Dukeman, a model soldier. Dukeman was a strapping six-foot, one inch, well-built trooper. His uniform was always immaculate. Yet Sobel stood there and continued to scrutinize Dukeman. Then suddenly Sobel thrust his face within inches of Dukeman’s face and in a normal tone asked, “What size shirt do you wear, soldier?”
Dukeman replied, “Size 15, sir!”
With a scowl on his face, Sobel shouted, “G—damn it, I can put two fingers between your neck and your shirt!”
Dukeman merely responded, “Yes, sir,” as Sobel quickly moved to the next man and found similar fault with him.
Yet even Sobel had to chuckle about some of the men’s antics on furlough or on weekend passes. Take Private Wayne “Skinny” Sisk, one of the first soldiers to join Easy Company. To win over the girls in the 1940s, Sisk used his smile, wit, and the glamour of being a paratrooper. On one occasion the military police arrested “Skinny” on a Saturday afternoon for making out with his girlfriend along the railroad tracks. When asked by Sobel to explain his conduct, Sisk replied, “The train was coming, she was coming, and so was I.”
Suffice it to say Herbert Sobel was a complex and volatile officer, difficult to serve over, impossible to serve under. For those of us who served in the company, he treated us with equal disdain, officers and enlisted men alike. His constant raving that “The Japs are going to get you,” and his “Hi-Yo Silver,” led to widespread snickering behind his back. Never comfortable in a tactical environment, our commander could not read a map, was constantly lost, and tended to panic when confronted with an unexpected situation. As a result, Captain Sobel rapidly lost the respect of the men. The men did what he ordered because they wanted those wings. Yet they never respected him. If he could not lead men on a hike or on a military maneuver, how could he lead Easy Company in combat? His inability to lead by example or remain calm in a crisis soon became questions that permeated the entire company.
Despite his personal shortcomings, Sobel drove each member of the company to become an elite soldier capable of taking the war to Hitler’s Germany. In that sense, Herbert Maxwell Sobel “made” Easy Company by producing a combat company that acted with a single-minded purpose. Carwood Lipton, who would later receive a battlefield commission in Europe, noted that Easy Company was very similar to the groups of men in every company in Sink’s 506th save one. Yet there was a difference because Easy coalesced to protect itself against Sobel. In that way, Easy ended up a different way than Sobel intended. Sobel drove us hard and he continued driving us when other companies had already fallen out and gone to the showers. While the other commands within the 506th were getting the hot showers and the early food, we were still out there working, taking an additional lap around the track, and standing at attention to see if anybody was moving. Soon other companies knew of Captain Sobel, including the officers throughout the regiment. No one envied us, but Sobel was producing a magnificent company. Having said that, I would be remiss to disregard the contributions of Easy’s first batch of noncommissioned officers who emerged from the ranks: the Carwood Liptons, Joe Toyes, Bill Guarneres, Floyd Talberts, and others.
In Sobel’s defense he was equally demanding on himself. Charged with converting “civilians” into an effective fighting force in a relatively short time, he permitted himself few luxuries. Shortly after he assumed command of the battalion, Major Strayer remembered one instance when he disciplined the company commanders for not showing up on time for staff meetings. To demonstrate his point, he confined the company commanders to the camp area for an entire weekend. Their wives raised holy hell. Sobel was the only company commanding officer who was always on time and did as he was instructed, therefore he was not penalized. To his credit he also stood up for his men to higher headquarters. Prior to Easy Company’s movement to the port of embarkation, our battalion commander had the authority to leave any officer behind whom he felt was unsuitable for deployment. When Sobel heard Major Strayer was going to drop one of his officers from the manifest, he went to battalion headquarters and made such a spirited defense that Strayer agreed to keep the officer in the unit and actually pulled him to battalion staff in order to keep him away from troops.
What bothered Easy Company’s officers, me included, was not Sobel’s emphasis on strict discipline, but his desire to lead by fear rather than example. Each evening he quizzed us on our field manual assignments, which he gave us daily. In his critiques, Sobel was very domineering. There was no give and take. His tone of voice was high-pitched, rasplike. He shouted rather than spoke in a normal way. It just irritated us to no end. Iron discipline the officers could tolerate, but armed with the ultimate authority to dismiss any man in the company, Sobel exceeded the boundaries of acceptable conduct in dealing with citizen-soldiers. If infractions of discipline were not found during inspections, he manufactured deficiencies to prove a point or to emphasize his authority as company commander. To the individual soldiers, Sobel’s propensity to find fault was pure chickenshit, so-named by former infantryman and noted author Paul Fussell because “it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously.”
At other times, our commander deliberately embarrassed the platoon leaders in front of their men. Not surprisingly, Sobel rapidly emerged as the central target of hate and scorn within Easy Company. One officer summed up our collective appraisal by stating that Sobel was dedicated to doing everything by the book, but he seemed to possess tunnel vision. He could not, or would not, see or anticipate the results of his disciplinary measures on the men. As a result Easy Company gave their loyalty and devotion to their platoon leaders, who in turn took care of their men the best they could and who softened Sobel’s dictatorial behavior. Several troopers, including Richard “Red” Wright, Terrence “Salty” Harris, and Lieutenant Walter Moore, however, sought an escape from Sobel’s wrath and they volunteered for the pathfinders.
Any relationship between company commander and company officers that existed in Easy Company remained strictly professional. Captain Sobel had no friends within the company and few within the regiment. At the end of the day, he went one way, and we officers went the other, hoping not to run into him at the officers’ club. As training progressed through the first half of 1943, Sobel’s tactical ineptitude, coupled with his increasing paranoid behavior as our overseas deployment neared, led to the total loss of any confidence that remained in his leadership. So traumatic was my own relationship with Captain Sobel that sixty years after the war, it’s still painful remembering my initial meeting with him.
Why then was Captain Sobel retained in command by Colonel Sink and Major Strayer? I suspect the answer lies in Easy Company’s performance vis-à-vis the other companies within the regiment. Sobel’s hard hand, for better or worse, resulted in a well-disciplined and physically conditioned airborne company. Senior officers tolerated Sobel’s erratic behavior because he produced the desired results. One indicator of Easy Company’s success within the 506th was reflected in the number of company officers who were pulled up to battalion and regimental headquarters. Senior commanders only assign the most talented officers to headquarters staffs. Colonel Sink and Major Strayer were no exception. Within the first eight months of the company’s existence, Lieutenants Matheson, Lavenson, Nixon, and Hester were all reassigned to 2dBattalion staff. Hester, Matheson, and Nixon remained on Strayer’s staff until Colonel Sink advanced them to regimental staff. For Matheson, the call to regiment occurred before D-Day. Hester was transferred to 3rd Battalion in Holland, while Nixon joined regimental staff during Bastogne. Lavenson was severely wounded outside Carentan. For the remainder of the war, every vacancy in battalion staff was filled by an officer from Easy Company. For that, Sobel deserved a portion of the credit. He was a satisfactory training officer, but he was definitely not a leader of troops. I suspect he did his best, but he was in the wrong job and that was hardly his fault. Having grown up in urban Chicago, he was ill-suited for the outdoor life required for the leader of an elite infantry unit. Nor was he cut out for the field grade officer. Better suited for administrative duties, Sobel stayed in Easy Company until imminent combat conditions dictated his reassignment—but that was all in the future.
Interpersonal relationships and command problems aside, training at Toccoa remained as demanding as ever. After several weeks of intense physical training, Colonel Sink lined up a C-47 Dakota aircraft to qualify his officers before the bulk of the troops arrived for basic infantry training. The airstrip at Camp Toccoa had been constructed by leveling the top of “Dick’s Hill,” a medium-sized hill that the Le Tourneau Earth-Moving Company had lopped off about halfway up and flattened for an airstrip. The landing strip was very short and built to take care of Piper Cubs, not Army C-47s. The length of the runway required that a C-47, in taking off with a load of jumpers, could just barely get airborne by the end of the strip. To reach flying speed, the pilot had to dive the plane parallel to the downward slope of the mountain. That was a real thrill. To land the plane, the pilot could not stop while going in a straight line, so, as he came near the edge of the mountain, he had to turn left or right, as the wing of the plane extended over the edge of the slope. It was much safer to jump from the plane than to land in it.
To determine who would serve as jumpmaster of the first contingent of officers, Sink conducted a “Junior Olympics.” The competition consisted of the best time up and down Currahee, most push-ups, most chin-ups, and the best time through the obstacle course. First Lieutenant Wally Moore was the only man to beat me on that run up Currahee when my legs cramped. I won the overall competition, however, and was rewarded by becoming number one jumper in the first stick to jump at Toccoa. As the aircraft climbed to 1,000 feet, it circled over the drop zone and decelerated to around ninety miles per hour. A Regular Army sergeant instructed us to “stand up and hook up.” Hooking my static line to the anchor cable, I placed my left foot on the edge of the open door. Gazing down to the drop zone, I looked over the cornfields below and placed both hands on the outside edge of the plane. The green light came on and the sergeant yelled, “Go!”
Out I stepped into thin air and the inexorable force of nature took over as gravity carried me downward. It was an exhilarating feeling, but I experienced no sensation of falling. On my initial jump, I almost caught my chute in the high-tension line running through the cornfield that was also our landing field. Having landed safely, I was back up with the other officers until we all made five jumps by evening. We were now airborne qualified and could “blouse our boots,” the traditional mark of an airborne soldier. Colonel Sink ran three or four groups of officers through this system of qualification before the plane had an accident while landing on the field. He determined that this method of qualification was too dangerous, so the remainder of the regiment qualified at Fort Benning. That night the officers congregated at the officers’ club to celebrate our newly acquired status as airborne officers. The liquor flowed freely and I received my share of good-natured ribbing because I was a teetotaler.
Every soldier who endures basic training emerges with stories that evolve with passing years. Both Sink and Strayer developed innovative training programs to bolster our morale and to foster unit cohesion. Before the regiment left Toccoa, Colonel Sink directed that a final physical test be conducted to eliminate unsuitable men from the regiment. Companies were rotated through the testing center, with noncommissioned officers from other battalions judging the individual stations. One of the men, Burt Christianson, remembered that the day before the test, Easy Company was primed and ready, confident that the men were now in the best physical conditioning of their young lives. On the day of the test, we began with the obstacle course. Each soldier received ten points if he successfully negotiated the course in three minutes. For every three seconds under three minutes, he earned an extra point. From the obstacle course, Easy Company marched to the push-up area, where each trooper was required to do thirty push-ups for ten points. For each additional push-up, another point was awarded to the contestant. Many members of the company had placed wagers on Captain Sobel’s inability to do thirty push-ups, but he successfully passed this station. Next up was the standing broad jump, also worth ten points with additional points for additional distance.
Sink’s decathlon continued with the pull-up station, where each trooper had to do six overhand pull-ups to the chin from a hanging position using a horizontal bar. The next event was to run at a ten-foot wall, leap up to catch the top of it, and then pull oneself over for ten points. This was followed by a duck-walk for fifty yards in thirty-five seconds, a feat that was far more difficult than it sounds. The 100-yard dash was next over a field where the green grass was about four inches high. To obtain the required ten points, you had to cover the ground in thirteen seconds, not too hard except by this point each member of the company was near exhaustion. The final event was the one mile run over a half-mile course. When a soldier reached the turnaround point, he shouted his name and received his time. If you completed the mile in six minutes, you received ten points and another ten points if you made the half-mile in three minutes. The men who received the highest scores in Easy Company in the physical competition were Burt Christenson, Gordon Carson, George Rainer, Carwood Lipton, and Robert Van Klinken. Their collective reward included bragging rights in the company and the opportunity to represent the company in the battalion competition the following day.
Much has also been written about the “Hog and Innards Problem” over Thanksgiving. This sounds gross, but it actually wasn’t that bad. The setup for the exercise consisted of stringing barbed wire on top of stakes about eighteen inches high. This ended up being like a net, covering an area approximately twenty feet wide and fifty to sixty feet long. The ground was covered with hog entrails—hearts, livers, intestines, the works. And then, to make sure you kept your head and butt down, two .30-caliber light machine guns were set up to fire live ammunition over the top of the barbed wire. The barrels of the machine guns rested on 2'' x 4'' supports and the legs of the tripods were sandbagged down. For a basic infantry training exercise, this resembled a real combat atmosphere. We had a real incentive to keep our heads and butts down in the hog guts. I thought it was an excellent exercise, and it’s one everyone remembered.
The most grueling exercise Easy Company endured during our time at Toccoa was the field march to Atlanta, a distance of 118 miles, during the period December 1 to December 4, 1942. Some reports say the march was 112 miles, others 115 miles. Who cares? It was a killer! Prior to deploying the regiment to Fort Benning, Colonel Sink had discovered a newspaper article that said the Japanese had conducted a forced march of 100 miles in seventy-two hours down the Malayan Peninsula. Determined to demonstrate that his men could better the Japanese mark, Sink selected 2d Battalion to prove his point while 1st Battalion traveled to Columbus, Georgia, by train and 3d Battalion marched directly to Fort Benning from Atlanta to begin airborne training. Lieutenant Sal Matheson, who had joined battalion staff as adjutant, laid out the course for Major Strayer. The march was conducted during unusually severe weather conditions with full field equipment less rolls. Private First Class Smith remembered that the march started out with the assumption that the battalion had landed in hostile territory and had only its regular war rations and equipment. Approximately 100 miles of the march was made over rough and muddy roads, with temperatures dipping below freezing every day. Of the 586 men who initiated the march, only twelve failed to complete the journey. The elapsed time to complete the entire exercise was seventy-five hours and fifteen minutes according to the battalion’s letter of commendation, with the actual marching time of thirty-three hours and thirty minutes.
Seven miles outside the gates of Camp Toccoa, a cold winter rain turned to snow as the battalion began its trek toward Atlanta. The first day out, we covered forty-four miles, followed by forty miles on the second day. My worst memory was the morning of the third day. It had been raining the entire preceding day so that when we camped late that night, we were in mud to the tops of our boots. When we lay down to sleep, we were in the mud. I took my boots off and put them by my head in the mud. During the night the temperature dropped dramatically and the mud froze, so when I awoke, the sleeping bag was frozen in the mud and I was stiff and sore all over. But the worst part was that my boots were frozen stiff and I could hardly get them on, even with the laces loosened all the way. The lesson I learned that morning, and I’ve never forgotten, was to always get your boots or shoes nice and wide and a little on the long side. Your feet always swell under severe stress.
PFC Robert T. Smith described the field march as “the most miserable experience” he ever had. By the end of the hike, Smith’s knees and ankles were so swollen that he could hardly walk for three days afterward. Another of Easy Company’s men, Gordon Carson, remembered that those four days were the worst four days he had ever spent. Beginning on Tuesday at 7:30 A.M., the company marched in the cold and rain through the mud and rain in the Georgia back hills. We stopped to eat at 12:15 P.M. and resumed the march an hour later, not stopping until we reached the bivouac area at 8:45 P.M. The wind was so high the men couldn’t keep their fires going. Tuesday night, said Carson, “was the most uncomfortable night I ever spent in my life.” Tuesday, Carson was never colder; Wednesday, he was never more tired. I vividly recall seeing Floyd Talbert, one of our best soldiers, slugging along with his machine gun. I can still see the determination on Talbert’s face. Later we developed a personal friendship that transcended rank. Talbert was athletic and dedicated. You knew if your life were on the line, he would come through. Another of my 2d Platoon troopers, DeWitt Lowery not only carried his light machine gun, but also the company’s faithful mascot, “Currahee,” in his backpack. Second Battalion had adopted Currahee shortly after the majority of troopers had arrived at Toccoa. He stayed with Easy Company long enough to see all the qualified paratroopers receive their hard-earned wings on graduation day.
Dog and Fox Companies shared equally in Easy’s hardships. Private First Class Leonard Hicks of Fox Company remembered the freezing rain that drenched everything and everyone the first day out. As his pain increased, he began hallucinating, claiming that at one point he saw two or three Johnny Rebs watching the battalion as they trudged through the Georgian woods. The miserable weather also affected Fox Company’s 1st Sergeant Willie Morris, whose usual enthusiasm was waning as the day progressed. Aided by his buddies, Private Hicks and the remainder of 2d Battalion reached the campus of Oglethorpe University on the evening of the third day.
After “cursing everything the Lord created,” the battalion finally reached Atlanta after an overnight halt at the Oglethorpe campus. It was reported that Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Wolverton, the commanding officer of 3d Battalion and who would later be killed on D-Day, finished his hike in his stocking feet. By now our march was the subject of every newspaper and radio broadcast. Lieutenant Wally Moore’s 3d Platoon of Easy Company crossed the finish line with every man crossing the line unaided, so he led the company parade down Peachtree Street to Five Points in the center of Atlanta. The other platoons objected that Moore had violated the “rules of engagement” by having his men remove the barrels of their machine guns for the hike, but 3d Platoon captured photographic honors anyway. The mayor of Atlanta and other dignitaries greeted us and presented the battalion with a key to the city. Following ceremonies at Five Points, we then marched to the train station, only too eager to board the train for the ride to Columbus.
As I look back on the officers and men who served in Easy Company during the war, my thoughts always return to the corps of soldiers who survived Toccoa. To this day I keep a list of the Toccoa men by my desk and I look at it every day. Every trooper who joined Easy Company after Toccoa was a replacement. Many of them made fine soldiers, but they were replacements. Toccoa men are special, and they are always the guys I remember first.