I think every boy growing up in the US in the 50's and 60's was a big fan of World War II. For most of us, our fathers and uncles fought in that war and it was always described as a noble event, the so-called "moral war."
Of course all that changed in the late 60's when the Vietnam war took away our taste for killing and dying. But for those years of my boyhood I loved to "play war," shooting invisible Nazis and Japs, falling and rolling on the ground and then getting back up to do it all again. If you saw the movie Born on the 4th of July, you'll understand.
As I have gotten older, and patriotism has come back in vogue, I admit that I am still a bit of a WWII nut. I have my own private collection of WWII movies and even gave a donation to the WWII Memorial in Washington a few years back. I think the whole experience made me feel closer to my father who died before the memorial was built. He would have loved it.
So when the movie Saving Private Ryan (SPR) was made I jumped at the opportunity to purchase it immediately when it came out on DVD. I've watched this movie over a dozen times and still find there are parts I can't look at or cringe when I view them. It gives me a visceral reaction.
Perhaps because the movie was a big hit and because interest in WWII was clearly increasing at that time, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, the talents behind SPR, produced and directed a 705 minute TV miniseries on HBO called Band of Brothers. This incredible re-enactment of the lives of a few handfuls of young GIs during WWII has brought me to tears many, many time as I've watched episode after episode over and over again.
When you first watch it, you can be easily confused because the cast of characters are monumental. There are so many names, some you meet only once, and others who stay with you the entire story. Then the producers slowly introduce us to some of the actual vets - now all old men - who tell the back story. And it is then that you really realize, really understand, what war is all about.
As you start to link the young actors to the old gentlemen, you see and feel the experience of World War II and the men of Easy Company. In some magical way, the casting directors found young actors who often looked like the real men. Eventually you find yourself simply astonished how any of these guys made it through those hellish experiences.
And yet the evidence is right there...they were still alive and talking about.
Talking about it is perhaps not an accurate description, for it was clear that for each of these great and noble men, the experiences of battle had left painful, lasting scars. It was in the remembrance of their fallen comrades that they talked; each man played down the role they had taken in the war.
Each time I watch the film I am so impressed that these were all just everyday, average guys. Most of them volunteered to be in the service and chose paratroopers because it paid a few more bucks per month.
At the very end of the film, the narrator tells about what happens to many of the members of Easy Company in the years that followed the War. Some died in accidents, others from poor choices, and others would go on to live on long full, relatively uneventful lives - not as war heroes - but as everyday Americans. Just like my Dad and uncles.
Well last night on the evening news there was a short and sweet tribute to one of those men from Easy Company. Shifty Powers who was known as a marksman and and all-around nice guy passed from us last month to join his band of brothers in the great beyond. It brought a tear to my eye again and a feeling of loss that is usually associated with the death of a close friend or family member. I think after watching Band of Brothers an innumerable amount of times, each of these men have become, in some ways, like family members and close friends.
I salute you Shifty and all of the others who went before you and who are waiting their time to join you.
In closing, perhaps Maj. Dick Winters, Shifty's CO said it best:
During the interview segment of the miniseries Band of Brothers, Winters quoted a passage from a letter he received from Sergeant Mike Ranney, "'I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?' Grandpa said 'No… but I served in a company of heroes…'"Here are some background links on Shifty and Band of Brothers
Shifty Powers of ‘Band of Brothers’ fame dies
Band Of Brothers Hero, Darrell ‘Shifty’ Powers Dies
War Hero E-mail Goes Worldwide -- But Who Really Wrote It?
Wikipedia on Darrell "Shifty" Powers
D-Day Normandy site - in his own words (Note: you may have to use the search to find this link)
Band of Brothers - IMDB and about Shifty's character played by Peter Youngblood Hills