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Jake meets a hero
Earl McClung (left), one of the "Band of Brothers," signs books for Brenda Johnson and her son Jake, 11, of Hay Springs at the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Ashland Saturday. Jake said he is a big fan of the miniseries. (WILLIAM LAUER / Lincoln Journal Star)

ASHLAND -- The Band of Brothers never recorded a song, but they got a rock star reception Saturday at the Strategic Air and Space Museum.

Six former paratroopers whose World War II combat was immortalized by the 2001 HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers" were greeted by cheers and a five-minute ovation as they took the stage. Organizers presold 950 tickets at $25 each for the museum fundraiser, and more fans showed up at the door Saturday morning.

Once inside, they stood in long lines holding books, photos and boxed DVD sets, hoping to get autographs. But the main event took place about 10:15 a.m. as the real men of Easy Company gathered onstage to answer questions about their service with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

One audience member asked the veterans to share their fondest memories of serving with their brothers in arms. Babe Heffron of South Philadelphia, Pa., told about liberating the Dutch town of Eindhoven from Nazi occupation.

"You saw the faces of those Dutch people and you knew why you were there," he said. "You knew instantly why you were there."

The other veterans participating in the event were Ed Mauser of Omaha, Lynn "Buck" Compton of Mount Vernon, Wash.; Earl McClung of Pueblo, Colo.; Ed Tipper of Lakewood, Colo.; and Don Malarkey of Salem, Ore.

For fans of the miniseries and the 1992 Stephen Ambrose book of the same title, Compton and Malarkey were the most recognizable names.

During the question and answer session, Malarkey told about the grueling physical training he and the others went through at Camp Toccoa, Ga. Forced marches and 3 1/2 mile runs to the peak of Currahee Mountain were routine.

If a man ever failed to complete a Currahee run, he was given a second chance at midnight. If he blew it again, he was out.

"Toccoa was the master test," Malarkey said. "When you went through Toccoa, you went through the hardest the Army had to offer."

Compton's life is remarkable even without his service in Easy Company.

Born in California, he was a child actor who appeared in films with Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Rooney. At UCLA, he was a football and baseball teammate of Jackie Robinson. And after the war, he became a lawyer and joined the L.A. County District Attorney's office, where he prosecuted Sirhan Sirhan for the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy.

On Saturday, he told the audience he is troubled by the growing view that World War II was a righteous effort, but those wars America has waged since were not. Any government or movement that threatens individual freedom and liberty in the name of "collectivism" has to be opposed, he said.

"We have been fighting the same enemy from World War II to the present day," he said.

Saturday's event was organized by the museum's interim director, Evonne Williams, and her husband, Bill. The Williamses are well known in veterans' circles for joining the Nebraska VFW to organize the Heartland Honor Flights.

The Band of Brothers generated a buzz and excitement at a museum that's been struggling financially. In November, the museum laid off six of its 18 full-time staff.

To maximize the fundraiser, none of the veterans charged an appearance fee, said Bill Williams. And by working with the Veterans Airlift Command, he was able to obtain donated private flights for the out-of-state veterans.

Not only did the event honor the men of Easy Company, it hopefully exposed the museum to people who've never visited the museum, halfway between Lincoln and Omaha, said David Scott, chairman of the museum's board of directors.

The Band of Brothers drew a crowd from a distance. Brenda Johnson of Hay Springs, 420 miles west of Lincoln, brought her 11-year-old son, Jake, to the event after he begged her to attend. The boy is a big fan of the miniseries, she said.

"Their serving and sacrificing in the war," Jake said, explaining why the story appeals to him. "What they had to go through."

Tibor Moldovan, 31, of Lincoln, also stood in line to get his "Band of Brothers" book signed. An immigrant from Bosnia who was a refugee from the 1990s war, Moldovan said his country resisted the Nazis.

"Who knows how much longer we could have held out without these very people," he said, referring to the World War II veterans he came to meet.

The veterans reunited Friday night during a dinner at the museum attended by about 220 people. The veterans climbed into the museum's restored C-47, the same type of aircraft that dropped them into Normandy on D-Day.

But the highlight of the banquet was when Sam Fried of Omaha, an Auschwitz survivor, presented each veteran with plaques from the Heartland Holocaust Educational Fund. Some 65 years ago, the men of Easy Company helped liberate one of the satellite prisons of Dachau.

The veterans are in their 80s and 90s now, and there are only about two dozen from Easy Company still alive. Knowing that made Saturday's event even more special for both the audience and the guests of honor.

Back when he was flying over Europe at night, anti-aircraft shells exploding around him, Babe Heffron said he thought to himself, "What in the hell am I doing up here?"

Later, when he and a few of his Army buddies were on the ground, debating the value of freedom, a Dutch man overheard them and said something Heffron has never forgotten.

"The word freedom doesn't mean much," he said. "When you lose your freedom, it means everything."

Reach Joe Duggan at 473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

 

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