kyle cassidy (kylecassidy) wrote,
kyle cassidy

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Goodbye Wild Bill: April 28, 1923 – March 8, 2014

We knew that it was very hard to kill Wild Bill Guarnere of Easy Company, 506th 101st Airborne, but we also knew that something eventually would. I got a call last night from our friend Barbara who was a neighbor, friend, & caretaker to Bill, that he had finally passed away.

He'd survived so long and so much it seemed that nothing could kill him.

Wild Bill in his South Philly home, 2011. Click to see this image larger.

The German army tried, again and again, and failed, again and again. They shot at him when he parachuted into Normandy, they tried again at Market Garden. He was a fighter, he got away every time, giving better than he got. His commanding officer, Major Dick Winters called him a "natural killer" -- which seems strange to the people who knew him as a jovial and friendly old man. But the war was different. While patrolling the banks of the Rhine river on a stolen motorcycle a sniper shot Bill in the leg and was sent back to England. By covering his cast with shoe polish he escaped from the hospital to return to his unit, like Lassie, he was devoted, and nothing would keep him away and let someone his friends face bullets alone. Eventually they got his leg with an artillery shell at the Battle of the Bulge. He received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and a chest full of other medals. He went home, quietly, to Philadelphia where he didn’t talk about the war, except with his friend Babe Heffron, who’d also served in Easy company, and at reunions.

Bill on his birthday in 2012 with our nephew Oakes

Eventually, Stephen Ambrose talked to Bill and the other surviving soldiers of Easy Company and wrote the book Band of Brothers about them, which got made into a TV series and it made Bill a star. Bill was very happy being a star. He loved talking to people, he loved telling stories. He told me stories when I met him and he was the inspiration for my book War Paint: Tattoo Culture and the Armed Forces, and was on the cover of that book. When I'd asked him about his tattoo I realized that no one had before, and he talked for hours about them.

Bill on his sofa in 2007. Click to see larger.

He was funny man, a witty man, always making jokes. He was always happy to see me and I was always happy that he had Barbara and her husband Ryan to offer the help he always pretended he didn't want.

When War Paint came out I brought him a copy and he didn't seem to care so much that he was on the cover, but he paged through the whole book and talked to the pictures. "Oh!" he'd say, "a Marine! Hello tough guy!" I never saw him sad, and really not even nostalgic. He was proud of the past and liked to talk about it, even for someone who did so much, he lived in the now. He lived to be talking to you, right now.

When Babe died in December, Barbara didn't think Bill would live much longer. They'd been pillars for one another, they talked every day, they wrote a book about their friendship. With Babe gone, Bill could let go; and he did.

Bill on his sofa in 2007. Click to see larger.

Showing Bill the first proof of War Paint

I'm sorry he's gone. For me it was always the most tangible indicator of whether or not there were World War II veterans in the world. "They're not gone," I'd think, "Bill's still here." But they're going so quickly and their stories are going with them. I'm very glad that I had an opportunity to talk to some of these people and to write down some tiny bit of what they'd done and preserve an infinitesimal bit of who they were.

Goodbye Wild Bill.

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