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Joining the tough ranks of Easy Company
© St. Petersburg Times,
Holding up the tiny metal box, retired U.S. Army Col. Robert Strayer explains the device, which his men back in Normandy called a "cricket."
"If you hear a noise or something coming, you'd click the cricket," Strayer recalled, as a visitor pressed the box and sent two-toned clicking sounds rattling around his small apartment. "If they clicked it back twice, you knew it was a friend. If not . . ."
Watch the two-hour debut of HBO's ambitious World War II miniseries, Band of Brothers, on Sunday, and you'll see the cricket in action -- used by paratroopers landing in Normandy during D-Day to let fellow soldiers know they were friends, not foes.
Look closer, and you'll also see red-headed actor Phil McKee playing Strayer, then a commander of the U.S. Army's 2nd battalion, which included Easy Company, the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division -- the unit that serves as the focus of HBO's sprawling, $125-million effort.
To viewers at home, Band of Brothers will unfold as a breathtaking effort -- a well-crafted extension of Tom Hanks' and Steven Spielberg's World War II masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan.
But for Strayer, watching the fifth episode in his Seminole home earlier this week, Band of Brothers is a painstakingly accurate retelling of his journey with Easy Company from Utah Beach in France, into Holland, through the Battle of the Bulge, all the way to Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden.
The fifth episode follows the series' lead character, Dick Winters (played by British actor Damian Lewis; more on that later), as he types up a report about a risky mission on a Dutch dike, reliving vivid memories of the incident in the process.
"This is awfully realistic," Strayer said as the videotape played. "But I didn't even know Dick Winters could type . . . let alone where he got the typewriter."
Fired up by their experiences making Private Ryan, Spielberg and Hanks have crafted a visceral, detailed journey -- plunging the viewer into a well-told series of stories about World War II focused on the adventures of Easy Company, based on the book by historian Stephen Ambrose.
"I realize that, you know, a cottage industry seems to have sprung up in (World War II movies) over the last few years . . . and myself and Steven Spielberg are in some ways responsible for it," said Tom Hanks, executive producer of the miniseries with Spielberg. He also co-wrote the first episode and directed the fifth.
"(If) we had in our neighborhoods . . . human beings that had been witness to the Battle of Bull Run or Gettysburg, we would want to hear what they went through," added Hanks, speaking to TV critics at a July press conference. "If you take honest stock of the key story of our lifetimes, you must return (to World War II), where the fate of the world hung in the balance."
In the same way Hanks expanded his vision from the film Apollo 13 into the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, the Oscar-winning actor hatched plans to make Band of Brothers even before work finished on Private Ryan.
With Spielberg, Hanks has assembled the costliest miniseries in TV history -- hyped by a $10-million to $15-million promotional campaign that rivals blockbuster films.
The action concentrates on a central figure, Winters, and would offer some of the most visceral battle scenes since Private Ryan's bruising, 20-minute opening.
As the miniseries unfolds, viewers will see men's legs blown out from under them, feel bullets whizzing by their ears, watch a medic reach into a soldier's stomach wound to grab a gushing artery and much more.
For Hanks, it's all part of making every scene feel as realistic and vivid as possible.
"The distance we go is to try to put it in human terms . . . (so it's) a palpable story," he said. "You yourself might think, "What would I do under those same circumstances?' And, "My gosh, I sort of recognize myself in those men.' "
Like Private Ryan, much of Band of Brothers is shot in sepia tones with splashes of color here and there. A liberal use of handheld cameras provides a grunt's-eye view of the battlefield.
To prepare for the ordeal, actors underwent their own two-week boot camp before the 10-month production began filming -- supervised by retired Marine Capt. Dale Dye, who also plays regiment commander Col. Robert Sink -- with the men required to live as their characters while enduring 5-mile runs, foxhole digs, guard duty, weapons training and physical conditioning.
"Nothing prepared me for being up at 5:30 a.m. with Dale Dye shouting at you as you get to your 80th sit-up," Lewis said. "It was like something out of the movies. I thought I was in Full Metal Jacket."
"In casting, especially in film, they cast for qualities," said Lewis, who spent three months auditioning for the role. "It's that abstract quality they see in people that corresponds to what they see in the character. Accents are secondary . . . (but) getting to the soul of this guy was like climbing Mount Everest."
In Sunday's episodes, viewers see Winters' skill as a tactician and natural leadership abilities win over the men of Easy Company as they train at Camp Toccoa in Georgia. Friends star David Schwimmer, the best known face in an ensemble cast that also includes ex-New Kid on the Block Donnie Walhberg (Mark's brother) and Saturday Night Live's Jimmy Fallon, plays his hated commanding officer, Herbert Sobel.
Schwimmer plays Sobel as a leader tough enough to demand the men complete arduous training exercises even on Thanksgiving Day (Ambrose credits Strayer with that idea in the book), though his own instincts in the field are less than exemplary.
"Sobel was pretty hard-boiled, and the men (recruited) just out of civilian life, they didn't cotton to that," remembered Strayer. "He just didn't have the finesse to get across as a leader to the men."
Strayer had his own reputation for near-fanatical training methods, requiring Easy Company to march more than 100 miles from Camp Toccoa to Atlanta in three days -- an event that made national news at the time, but didn't make HBO's production.
"I know the men at first were cursing me up and down," said Strayer, who still keeps a photocopy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution photo essay on the march taped to a door in his home office. "But when it was done, the men were glad they did it."
Band of Brothers shows how such intense training methods paid off, when Easy Company and the other paratroopers jumping into Normandy on June 6, 1944, wind up strewn across the countryside outside of their planned landing zones.
Viewers won't see much of Strayer in the miniseries -- he's shown arriving at the beginning of an arduous siege in Bastogne, Belgium, in full dress uniform, having flown directly from a friend's wedding in London, and in a few other scenes.
That's just how Strayer -- who describes himself as a guy who wants to "stay in the background" -- likes it.
Indeed, if there's one thing troubling him about all the hoopla and attention that Band of Brothers will bring to his corner of the war, it's that some of his compatriots seem to be chasing the limelight a little too aggressively.
"I got mixed emotions, I guess," said Strayer, whose small home office features his military honors, including a Purple Heart, four Bronze Stars and a Silver Star, in a simple frame.
"I know those (Easy Company) guys real well, and there's three or four of them who are looking forward to this . . . pushing on the fame angle," he added. "But every one of our companies did a great job . . . It just happened that Stephen Ambrose chose to write about Easy Company."
"I won't say you get used to (the killing), but you do become inured to it," said Strayer, who said he never realized how evil Hitler was until he helped liberate a concentration camp at Landsberg, Germany. "I guess when I was involved with it, I was scared. But I was so damn busy, I didn't know I was scared."
Lewis sees the situation a little differently.
"What (the veterans) might say, is "We're not heroes . . . We're ordinary men who did extraordinary things,' " Lewis said. "But having studied it and acted it, I'm here to tell you that people make choices in situations like that. And people (in Easy Company) made heroic choices."
Strayer, 89, a retired insurance executive, moved to St. Petersburg from the Philadelphia area in 1981. He still sees the men of Easy Company at their annual reunion and flew to Normandy courtesy of HBO for a special Band of Brothers screening in June.
"There is an indefinable something that binds you together," Strayer said of the men he fought alongside in Europe. "You feel closer to them than anybody else. Especially civilians who haven't the slightest concept of what it was like."
Lewis hopes Band of Brothers helps bridge that gap, outlining World War II's horrors and highlights in a way that makes the experience both profound and personal.
"It's only natural to have so many retrospectives on the last great war of the century," he said. "The big (question) is: Will Band of Brothers be one too many or just enough? I guess we'll all find out soon enough."
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