Camp Toccoa Legends: “Easy Company”

So we’ve all either seen or heard about the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, right? It tells the incredible story of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Division, and how they helped change the course of World War II by participating in D-Day, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge. The series, which ended up winning six Emmy awards, a Golden Globe award, an American Film Institute award, and a Peabody Award, was a huge success when it was aired in 2001. There were several well known names involved with it, including executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, and it starred Scott Grimes, Damian Lewis, Ron Livingstone, and Donnie Wahlberg. That being said, what may come as a surprise to some, (including myself), is that 506th Parachute Division was based out of our very own Camp Toccoa. Despite seeing the show several times, I had never made the connection that the military base they talked about in the first episode is the same base that is just a short drive away from TFC until I came up here to go to school last year. Being someone with an interest in history, I found this to be very cool because we are so close to the place that trained some of the bravest men to fight in WWII.

The 506th Regiment was originally founded at Camp Toccoa in 1942, eventually becoming part of the 101st Airborne Division on June 10th of that same year. They soon took on the nickname of “Currahees,” because of Currahee Mountain that is located inside the camp. Currahee also became the Regiments motto, as in the Cherokee language, it means ‘Stand Alone,” as the 506th was often times dropped behind enemy lines. Soon after the Regiment completed their training at the camp, they participated in a 118 mile march from the camp to Atlanta in order to beat the world record for marching that had been recently set by a Japanese unit. The march took over three days to finish, and only 12 soldiers out of the 556 in the unit failed to complete it. From Atlanta, the unit participated in Operation Chicago during D-Day, and although told they would only be in action for three days, ended up fighting for thirty-three before making it back to their allies in England. During that time, 231 out of 200 for killed in action, 183 went missing or become prisoners of war, and 569 men were wounded. The next big battle the unit fought in was Operation Market Garden. In this assault, members of the 506th were dropped into the outskirts of the German line in order to capture five different bridges to provide a way to transport troops and supplies deeper into German territory. They captured all but one bridge, which was blown up by the German defenders in order to slow down the Allied advance. The last and perhaps biggest battle that the unit was involved in was The Battle of the Bulge. The men of the 101st division were ordered to occupy the Belgian city of Bastogne, and were soon surrounded by German forces while being short on supplies. In order to stall the Germans so that adequate defenses could be set up and more supplies brought in, the first battalion of the 506th took the fight to the Germans. In the ensuing battles, the unit managed to singlehandedly destroy 30 enemy tanks and inflict somewhere between 500-1000 enemy casualties, while taking only 200 casualties themselves. Despite buying themselves and the rest of the Allied army time, the 506th stayed on the front line and led the offensive assault in the towns of Foy and Noville, liberating those two towns and helping bring the battle to an end. The unit did not participate in any large battles after that, and was just beginning to train for the war in the Pacific when peace was announced in August of 1945.

The feats of “Easy Company” have become legendary since the end of the war, as they were one of the most influential units in helping to win several decisive battles throughout it. They were also the inspiration of one of the greatest war movies of all time, as Saving Private Ryan was loosely based on the story of the Niland brothers. Matt Damon’s character of Private James Ryan was based on Frederick Niland, who fought in the 501st and lost two of his three brothers to the war. Niland [the soldier standing on the left in the picture above] was among those who parachuted in behind enemy lines in Normandy, and following the battle was shipped to England when he learned that two of his brothers were dead (the third was presumed KIA but was actually a POW who was eventually liberated towards the end of the war. Saving Private Ryan was also a huge success, winning a multitude of awards including five Oscars. It was also directed by Steven Spielberg, and starred several big names including Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, and the before mentioned Matt Damon.

The heroics of the 506th company is something I have come to increasingly respect as I have found out more about them, and I think it is awesome that the place that trained so many brave men is right here in Toccoa. Camp Toccoa, which now offers summer camps for kids entering Kindergarten and going up through 12th grade, still do a lot to honor the soldiers that trained there. They have monuments and memorials erected all across the grounds to celebrate those who fought for our country, and they hold several services throughout the year, including reunions for those who did their training there. The camp also has a museum that is dedicated to the history of all the Regiments that were originated from Toccoa, including those who fought in World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, and the War on Terror. If you haven’t had a chance to visit the camp yet, I would encourage you to do so, as it is full of history that very much influenced the course of the World. I know that walking on the same three mile long path that the men of the 506th trained on daily was very awe-inspiring, as I was following the footsteps of men who bravely fought and died for our country.

There are 1,429 Currahees listed as being Killed in Action, and the Medal of Honor award has been granted to 22 “Screaming Eagles,” with eight of them being members of the 506th Infantry Regiment.

“We have only died in vain if you believe so;
You must decide the wisdom of our choice
By the world that you shall build upon our headstones
And the everlasting truths which have your voice.”

Currahee Scrapbook, 1945