"Every June we think of D-Day, every September we think of Holland, every December we think of Bastogne." - Babe Heffron.
The Early Years
On May 16th 1923, in South Philadelphia, a boy named Edward, was born to Joseph, who was a prison guard, and his wife Anne. The family were compromised of a further three brothers and one sister. The family were Irish catholic and attended Mass together every Sunday, with the children being taught at Sacret Heart Catholic School. Edward went onto South Philadelphia High School, but with the Great Depression casting a shadow over the world, there was a need for Edward to drop out of school to start earning for the family
Edward went to work at New York Shipbuilding in Camden, New Jersey. He and his friend Anthony Cianfrani were aiming to get into the Airborrne together. Even though he had an intermittent medical condition when he was a teenager, (there has been speculation this was Dupuytrens Contracture, although never confirmed), this did not stop him from anything in life, least of all doing his duty. He had the option of not enlisting due to his work being of great assistance to the war effort, but this was never going to stand in his way. Edward Heffron enlisted in his hometown on 7 November, 1942.
Training & Replacement
For two years, Edward “Babe” Heffron worked hard and went through the rigorous Airborne training. He became good friends with two other troopers, John T. Julian and J.D. Henderson. They were sent to join the 101st Airborne Division in July 1944 as replacements. Replacements were not easily accepted. Toccoa men had been through hell together. They had trained, jumped, fought and mourned losses together, as a unit. However replacement or not, that didn’t matter to Joe Toye and Chuck Grant. Replacements were part of the brotherhood.
He was assigned to the 506th Parachute infantry Regiment as a Machine Gunner. He met many new friends when he joined the regiment and while the friendships all stood the test of time, one in particular became exceptionally strong. Veteran trooper “Wild Bill” Guarnere another Philadelphian, became Babe`s right hand man. They were both known for having the same walk, the ‘South Philly shuffle.’
Campaigns, fighting and everything in between
Heffron was one of the many who participated in the Airborne invasion of the Netherlands, known as Operation Market Garden. While attacking the town of Nuenen, Heffron and his fellow paratroopers, took severe casualties. They were forced to withdraw to a defensive position, finally taking a leave at Mourmelon in France.
Bastogne – The Battle of the Bulge
December 18th was the day that Heffron and the rest of the 506th were dispatched to the Ardennes forest to relieve the 28th Infantry Division. The campaign objective was to defend the town of Bastogne from the German offensive. This became known as ‘The Battle of the Bulge.’ Sheltering from the cold weather was paramount and sharing his foxhole, was medic Eugene Roe.
"When someone takes a shell for you, it’s hard to forget about it." - Babe Heffron.
During the fighting, Heffron good friend John Julian was injured by a machine gun. The machine gun that was firing on John’s position, meant that it took some time to be able to recover John Julian’s body. Despite all Heffron`s efforts to save his friend, the injury was fatal and John passed away. Naturally, Heffron was deeply affected.
After the Battle of the Bulge, Edward Heffron continued to serve his country. He was promoted to Sergeant and served all the way through to Germany. During his time in Austria , it’s reported that Heffron and a friend once stole an ambulance. Little did they realise that a Doctor was in the back of it delivering a baby! They abandoned the ambulance, leaving the Dr to his work.
Heffron took a German General prisoner. The General, Theodor Toldsorff was going to surrender but wished to surrender to an officer. That officer was 2nd Lieutenant C.Carwood Lipton. Easy Company departed the Eagles Nest on the way to Saalfelden. Babe had looted a gold sword with an engraved swastika on it, encrusted also with precious stones. Other members of Easy, looted different things. During the war, he received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. But medals and a gold sword took second place now to the next manoeuvre he had to make. By early May 1945, the war was over. He was going home.
After the war
After the war, Babe came back to his family. He found a job for himself. He worked for Publicker Industries in a whiskey distillery plant. The company moved to Linfield in 1966, but Babe did not. He then worked on the Philadelphia waterfront, clerking cargo, until he retired in 1993. But there was one unique thing about both of the jobs he had. Both of them were with Bill Guarnere.
Babe and Bill`s friendship continued. They attended the Easy Company reunions together. They went to Europe together. Many photos can be sourced of them standing in the woods near their old foxholes as they recall the Battle of the Bulge. They worked on each other houses. It has been said that Bill copied Babes mannerisms and phrases, much to his annoyance. One of the precious memories that they shared together was the attending of a Holocaust Memorial Dinner. At this event, they were able to meet the survivors of Kaufering concentration camp that Babe helped liberate.
Bill was best man at Babes wedding as he became the husband of Dolores Kessler. Dolores already had three children from a previous marriage, Dolly, Harry and Bobby. Two years after they married, Patricia was born. Trisha had a very special godfather nicknamed ‘Uncle Bill’. Bill and Babes lives were continually intertwined.
Band of Brothers
Babe was one of many that were interviewed for the TV miniseries, Band of Brothers. He can also be spotted in a cameo role in Episode 4. He played an old Dutch man in Eindhoven waving a flag.
While Babe and the rest of Easy Company had all of their memories from their World War 2 campaigns, Band of Brothers brought their story, their memories and their history, and put it in front of a new generation. That new generation was able to see these men, what they accomplished and understand, to a degree, what they went through.
Writing a memoir
Babe and Bill also wrote their memoir “Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends: Two WWII Paratroopers from the Original Band of Brothers Tell Their Story”, which outlined their combat experience. The book was a national bestseller. The storytelling from these two amazing gentleman was, despite its subject matter of death and war, an easy read. It was as if you were sitting with them having a conversation.
Stories and anecdotes
When Band of Brothers was published and the series began production, Babe Heffron and Bill Guarnere were flown out to meet the actors that would be portraying them. Up to this point, all the contact had been via phone conversations. When Babe met Robin Laing, a Scottish actor who had been tasked to play him, there were some concerns expressed from Babe over whether the South Philly accent would be good enough. When Babe and Robin talked, those worries about the Philly accent vanished. Robin had not only nailed the accent but he had gone one better. He made sure that he had rosary beads and scapular, just as Babe did in the war. This gesture meant a great deal. Not only did this show that Robin realised and embraced the magnitude of the role he had, but it also showed Babe that it wasn’t just about the war. It was about all those little idiosyncrasies that made up who he was.
Needless to say, when Bill and Babe hit the town (with an open tab from HBO!), it was always going to be fun. The actors came back to their hotel for drinks and were able to hear more stories while spending time with these two paratroopers. Unfortunately for the actors, they were no match for Bill and Babe who drank them under the table! Bill and Babe gathered the respect of everyone that they associated with. Babe was an incredibly generous man, as was Bill, and they gave away all mementoes that they had with them.
One night Babe went out with three shirts on, adamant that he wouldn’t be caught out, saying “I know they ain’t gonna get me this time….” That very same night ended up with Bill and Babe, generous to a fault with their own belongings, sitting there in their underwear. They gave it all away. Babe, during his visit, also gave away a priceless memento. The scapular, the very one he had worn himself and carried through the war, now lies firmly with Robin Laing.
A memory from Robin Laing
In the book ‘Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends,’ Robin Laing said… “Bill and Babe came to visit while we were filming, and the excitement on set that day was palpable- Babe and Bill were coming! By the time I arrived there was a huge semicircle of people listening to them chat with Tom Hanks. I introduced myself to Babe and he did likewise before looking me up and down.
Then he asked how I was getting on with the accent. “Fine,” I replied. “Let me hear it,” he said, and so I took a deep breath and did my best Philly accent. “No, your Philly accent,” Babe said. He must have seen the disappointment on my face because he didn’t let it hang in the air too long before breaking into a laugh and giving me a slap on the back. “I’m only messing wicha, you did fine.” That moment has to rank among the proudest in my life.”
A Memory from Chris Langlois
Babe touched the lives of so many. I spoke with Chris Langlois, grandson of medic Eugene ‘Doc’ Roe who shared this story. “We were at a WWII Foundation event, a panel discussion. Afterwards, the attendees could get the autographs of the actors and vets. Babe was swarmed and he was getting agitated and overwhelmed by it all. I got the crowds under control and orderly. He had a 4×6 card with a WWII photo of him. At the end, he handed me one that he had signed with the inscription, “Chris, you’re a very fine man. It was a high compliment. Babe was the kind of guy who, if he didn’t like ya, he’d just ignore ya. So the unsolicited card and his words meant a great deal to me…and they still do.”
When I spoke with Trisha, Babes daughter, memories came flooding out. Trisha said “my dad and I were pals and loved spending time together. He was an animal lover and taught me compassion for all living things.” She also told me that he took on a responsibility after the release of HBOs Band of Brothers. Trish explained “my dad made it his ‘job’ after Band came out to go around schools and speak to the kids so they would know about the war. His biggest topic of concern was the holocaust.” Trisha and Babe were very close, with a beautiful relationship.
In December 2013, the world became a lesser place, as it mourned the loss of Edward Heffron. He passed away at the age of 90, at Kennedy Hospital in Stratford, New Jersey. To this day, his daughter Trisha Zavrel continues to share her fathers incredible legacy.
While the Easy Company soldiers may not be with us, the legacy continues with families meeting for regular reunions. Memories and stories are shared, along with the reminders of what incredible humans the 506th were.
"The reunions have always been more fun than serious. When you’re with the guys, you’re eighteen years old again.” - Babe Heffron.
Babe – thank you for your service. May you rest easy with 506E, and remain eternally 18, at your last reunion.