William Guarnere’s army buddies feared the worst.
A German shell tore off his right leg and riddled his body with shrapnel.
“Wild Bill,” minus his leg, lived another 70 years. He died in his native Philadelphia on March 8, 2014, at 90 years. Flags around the area flew at half-staff in his honor.
Guarnere was one of the tough-as-jump-boot-leather World War II paratroopers made famous by the Band of Brothers TV miniseries. Actor Frank John Hughes played him.
Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg were the executive producers of the 2001 HBO mini-series that won a half- dozen Emmys, including for Outstanding Miniseries. The 10-episode series was based on the 1992 book of the same name written by historian Stephen Ambrose.
Guarnere lost his leg, and nearly his life, in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle the Army ever fought.
He was trying to help his buddy, Joe Toye. Another exploding shell shredded Toye’s right leg. Both GIs were staff sergeants in the storied 101st Airborne Division.
“The Germans had us zeroed in,” Guarnere recalled in Brothers in Battle: Best of Friends, a bestselling 2007 memoir he authored with fellow paratrooper Edward “Babe” Heffron, also a Philadelphian, and journalist Robyn Post.
“It was horrendous, there’s no way to describe it.”
Battle of the Bulge
The date was Jan. 3, 1945, 18 days after the Germans launched a massive surprise attack against the Americans along an 80-mile front in the snowy Ardennes Forest of Belgium, France and Luxembourg. Before it ended in Nazi defeat, the battle spread, pitting 610,000 GIs and 55,000 Britons against 300,000 enemy soldiers, including 100,000 reserves.
Bastogne, Belgium, was the key to victory for both sides. So the army rushed the elite 12,000-man 101st Airborne to help defend the town.
The “Screaming Eagles” had all arrived by the morning of Dec. 20. The Germans surrounded Bastogne the next day.
At first, the weather was a German ally. Heavy fog and thick clouds kept British and American warplanes grounded, thus negating the Allies’ overwhelming air superiority.
On Dec. 23, the skies cleared. Dozens of lumbering transport planes parachuted in supplies to Bastogne’s beleaguered defenders. Swarms of US and fighter bombers bombed and strafed German troop concentrations, trucks, tanks, artillery, ammunition dumps and supply depots.
On Dec. 26, the US Fourth Armored Division broke into Bastogne, relieving the city and breaking the German siege.
Two days later, Hitler called off the attack. But he ordered his troops to stand and fight where they were despite their heavy losses.
The Germans caught Guarnere’s outfit, E Company, Second Battalion of the division’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, in a heavy artillery barrage on Jan. 3. The paratroopers were in the snow shrouded Bois Jacques, woods just north of Bastogne.
“Shells were hitting all over the place and everybody was running to get into a foxhole, anybody’s foxhole,” Guarnere remembered. “Guys were getting hit, screaming, hollering for medics all over the woods and there were very few medics around.”
Toye was running here and there, urging everybody to take cover, when Guarnere heard him yell, “I’m hit, I’m hit!” He spotted his buddy lying in the snow, 6 to 8 feet away, “his leg…blown to bits, hanging off his body, all mangled.”
Toye was bleeding all over his body from other shrapnel wounds. Guarnere feared he was dead.
Even so, he ran to his pal “to try to get him to safety.” No sooner did Guarnere reach Toye than an exploding German shell severed his right leg. He fell next to Toye.
“Me and Joe lay there freezing in the snow, shivering, bleeding, both of us were full of shrapnel,” he wrote, adding that Toye had been wounded four times before.
Heffron, a private first class, saw Toye and Guarnere fall. “Their legs were hanging off them,” he remembered. “I can’t describe it. They were in bad shape. But they were calm.”
Medic Gene “Doc” Rowe arrived and administered first aid to Guarnere and Toye. “Without him, we wouldn’t be alive,” Guarnere wrote. “Rowe was the best medic we ever had.”
The two men were placed on stretchers, presumably to be hand carried to an aid station. Just then, a Jeep approached. One of the paratroopers flagged it down and told the driver to take Toye and Guarnere to the rear, Heffron wrote.
The driver protested that he had a load of mortar shells that were needed at the front. The “Screaming Eagles” were unmoved.
One of them pointed his weapon at the driver and ordered him to transport their buddies to the rear instead. Meekly, he complied.
The Bulge was the last battle for Guarnere and Toye, who was from Hughestown, Pennsylvania. Heffron and Guarnere were from south Philadelphia. They met during the war and were close friends until Heffron died in December 2013, at 90 years.
Wounded but alive
Surgeons amputated Toye’s leg below the knee in England. Afterward, Guarnere said he and Toye convalesced for about a year at Haddon Hall Hospital in Atlantic City, N.J.
“When he got back to the States, they amputated above the knee,” Guarnere added. “Poor Joe had scars and holes all over his body. Tough as nails, Joe. He never complained.”
Toye was 76 years old when he died in 1995.
When Guarnere’s family came to see him in the hospital, they knew his right leg had been injured, but were unaware it was gone.
“They were absolutely stunned when they saw me. They were crying, they couldn’t believe it.”
At least he was alive. Henry Guarnere, “Wild Bill’s” big brother, had been killed in action fighting the Germans in Italy.
Guarnere said he underwent additional operations and more rehabilitation at the hospital but soon was able to get around on crutches and in a wheelchair. Eventually, he got a prosthesis.
Guarnere walked on a prosthesis until 1967 but it was causing him so much pain that doctors had him stop wearing it.
“It made things a little harder because it takes away the use of your arms, they become your legs in a way,” he wrote.
Life after wartime
Guarnere ended up mainly working in construction, mostly behind a desk. But the veteran paratrooper said he was still able to shinny up scaffolding and do brick and concrete work.
“When I got older, I got smarter — let guys do it for you!”
His buddy Toye was a coal miner and foundry and mill worker before the war. His disability prevented him from returning to those jobs and he wound up working as a drill bit grinder for a mining company.
The day he and Guarnere lost their legs is featured in “The Breaking Point” episode of Band of Brothers. Kirk Acevedo played Toye.
In addition, Toye’s life story was included in A Company of Heroes: Personal Memories about the Real Band of Brothers and the Legacy They Left Us, a book written by Marcus Brotherton and published in 2010.
Guarnere, Toye and Heffron were highly decorated soldiers. Guarnere won a Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
After he retired, Guarnere worked behind the scenes to make sure that his Army buddies got the recognition they deserved, according to Jake Powers, who runs a Band of Brothers tour company in Massachusetts.
“He did more things behind the scenes than (for) himself,” Powers told the Associated Press in a story about “Wild Bill’s” death.
The AP also quoted William Guarnere Jr., on the friendship between his dad and Heffron.
“Now they’re together again,” he said.