A Man



November interview with Darrell "Shifty" Powers

“A Real Man From The Band of Brothers” - Darrell “Shifty” Powers’ - Remembrances

”We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother…” - Quote from William Shakespeare’s King Henry V

There’s a kind of reverence in the above quote that stirs my soul and fiercely inspires me to greater things as a man.

The WWII movie “Band of Brothers” had the same soulful effect on me. Steven Ambrose, who wrote the non-fiction book of the same title, produced the HBO TV series with Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

My wife Patricia and I became such big fans of the program we bought it and watched it over and over again. We loaned the set to her son Brandon Meade to watch, and as it turns out, Brandon lives just one hill over from one of the soldiers in Easy Company - Darrell “Shifty” Powers - who was still alive and well in a holler among the coal fields of Southwest Virginia.

Shifty was willing to meet with us at his home in Clinchcove, Virginia. We all felt like we were going to see a big-time movie star as we turned right at the street sign marked “Shifty Lane.”

I’d seen his face during the interview portions of the “Band of Brothers” movie enough times to recognize him from a distance as he stood on his front lawn awaiting our arrival.

Shifty’s Company E ("Easy Company") of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, U.S. 101st Airborne Division, was unarguably the best company of the 2nd battalion. Throughout the European campaign, Easy Company participated in many of the major battles of the war, including a key task during D-Day eliminating 4 German 105mm cannons aimed at Utah Beach. Also, Easy Company spearheaded the Allied offensive by landing in Normandy; it participated in Operation Market Garden and the Battle of Bastogne; it held the line at the Battle of the Bulge when the 101st Airborne was surrounded and cut off by Germans; and it was the first company to enter Berchesgaden and Hitler's famous "Eagle's Nest."

Shifty joined Easy Company when he was 19 years old. He is now 84.

We sat on his porch and listened to him tell the stories of war from another generation. It was truly an honor for us to be with this man of living history.

“Before the book and the movie came out, I never talked about my experience in the war,” he began. “My father was in WWI and I never did talk to him about it either. I regret it now. The only people I talked about it with were the men from Easy Company who were there every year at the reunions. You know, guys get together and say ‘you remember this or you remember that?’ I worked as a machinist at this shop right along side these guys for twenty years, and I never talked about it.”

After he retired, Shifty said he met one of his coworkers at a store and the man wanted to know “how come you never told me about your war experiences?!”

What a wonderful experience it was for us to share in Shifty’s remembrances!

“We trusted each other with our lives, and we still would!” Shifty said. “You don’t really know … you can’t really understand the depth of a man until you get in combat with him. I knew Easy Company men better than my own family … you just feel so close that you even know what the other man is thinking. Believe me, that can help you stay alive.”

I sat amazed, focused in on this man, wondering how he survived the long horrific battles of World War II. I was determined to discover the secret from his remembrances.

At the end of the fighting, Shifty was one of the fortunate soldiers who won the “lottery” to go home early. (You see this part in the movie.) On his way back, however, he gets in a terrible vehicle accident and ends up spending months in the hospital to recuperate from numerous broken bones and other injuries.

“To survive in battle, we knew we had to depend on each other. It wasn’t like the kind of camaraderie you’d find on a team sport like baseball or basketball … there you’re talking about egos and who thinks they’re better than the other. In combat, our lives literally depended on us knowing and working together.”

Shifty, tell me if there was some kind of guiding principle that held you all together.

“Well … I don’t know how you can advise people about working together … we had good leadership. Captain Herbert Sobel kept us together during training.”

In the movie, actor David Schwimmer played Captain Sobel in such a memorable performance, it made it easy for me to hate his character. Shifty surprised me by saying he “felt sorry” for Sobel when Easy Company was taken away from him.

“He was real, real strict, but he never asked you to do anything he wouldn’t do. We would run 6 miles up that hill and back down. Whatever we did, he did. He was strict as he could be. He kept you in camp on Friday nights, but he would make sure you were entertained so you wouldn’t be out running around getting into trouble. He was a good training officer, but he didn’t know maps.”

Shifty, is it the training that carries you through the terrible chaos of battle and the screams of wounded men … the whistling of bullets by your head?

“Well … the training … yeah, that can help you keep a sense of who you are in difficult times. It’s just like your dad teaching you something … ‘don’t you go out there and do this, or you’ll suffer – you’ll get restricted.’”

Having never served in the military, myself, I wanted to know what prepares a man for war.

“You just do what you were taught … and when you’re in combat, your non-com’s run the wars, officers don’t run the wars. The officers say we’re going to attack this place right here, and then the non-com’s do it. The non-com’s showed us more respect. Now, if you’re standing in formation and an officer comes up and inspects your shoes, haircut, or rifle, and finds something wrong - you should agree with him a hundred percent and take care of it - not shrug it off and say that SOB doesn’t know what he’s talking about it.”

Major Dick Winters was a man Shifty said the men of Easy Company trusted readily.

“He was a hero at what he did – a real good officer and a fine tactician. I remember one of the first times he stood in front of us and asked if anybody wanted to wrestle him. Nobody responded. ‘Any two of you like to wrestle me?’ Nobody. ‘Any three of you like to wrestle me?’ Well, three fools stepped forward, and he beat the shit out of them. Winters was always in top shape. He didn’t drink or smoke. He was what you thought an officer should be, he took responsibility for what had to be done. He’d be friendly with you, but it had to be one on one.”

Here’s a cool remembrance from Shifty.

“There was this incident in Holland where we were going to take this small town, but we didn’t have time to drive the Germans out so we dug in on the outskirts. So here come a jeep with men from HQ and they drove right through our line. Well, the Germans took them prisoner. Later, I could see that there’s an American walking up the road with these two Germans. I grabbed my rifle and I got down and took a bead on one of them Germans. And then I started thinking that if I could see those people, there’d be Germans that could see them too. I didn’t want the American killed, so I put my rifle down. I came within a hair of shooting them Germans. I thought that if we take the town tomorrow, I might find that American alive. If I’d pulled the trigger, three people could have ended up dead.”

Shifty said they captured the town the next day and freed seven American prisoners. He didn’t know if his man was one of them.

“I remember in Holland, Lt. Shames gave Easy Company an assignment for a night maneuver. He said to me, ‘Sergeant, you take your squad, and machine gun, and go out to this place and set up a roadblock. There’s been a report of Germans coming through there. So I got the guys after dark and we got out there where we were supposed to be and set up the machine gun. We set there all night long waiting on Germans, but they didn’t come. It started to get light and we didn’t want to go back to the command post or get on the radio. There was this little house over in a field and we thought we’d spend the day there resting and then head back to the CP at nightfall. So I go into the house to check it out, and I tell the others to wait on the porch. I found six American soldiers sleeping in the basement. I went back out to the porch and told them to come on in – it looked safe. We were all so tired being up all day and all night that we just slept. Nobody talked. We didn’t say anything to the other soldiers and they didn’t say anything to us. Then when it was dark, we loaded up and went back to the CP. Now, days later, we find out those Germans we were looking for had dressed up in American uniforms. Then I remembered that I didn’t ask them in that house what outfit they were with, and they didn’t ask us. We just assumed they were Americans, and it worked out that we didn’t shoot at each other that day.”

Here’s another one he remembers.

“In Bastogne – that was the worst deal of the war - it was miserable, cold, snow was on the ground, wind was blowing and we didn’t have on winter clothes, not a lot of ammunition, and nothing to eat. We didn’t know if we’d get shot first or freeze to death. Germans would shell us every few hours. It was constant shelling. So one morning I’m looking out of my fox hole at the edge of the woods – some 75 yards away. I see some shrubs, but it didn’t look like it ought to. Suspicious, you know. I called the first sergeant and I say, ‘See those shrubs over there? They weren’t there last night. I think the Germans put in a machine gun nest.’ The sergeant said he couldn’t see anything. Finally we saw the bush move and moments later a plane flew over and wiped them out.”

You noticed something your first sergeant didn’t, I exclaimed! Is the answer to survival in battle, a keen sense of awareness?

“I guess you could call it that … maybe keen perception. I was squirrel hunting all my life up in these hollers. Usually if you walk quiet, you can hear squirrels on either side of you. You hunt by sound as much as by sight.”

This was a real education for me.

“I was used to being out in nature and paying attention to things. I could go without water and food all day. I’d noticed things. I guess that helped me in Europe.”

For all you people who make fun of hillbilly’s, there’s no better buddy to have with you in a time of crisis than somebody from the hills. I married a girl from the hills. They’re tough people. They’re good people - these mountain folk. They’re country smart.

“In Holland I was on an advance party and we were walking along and I noticed these two Chestnut trees loaded down with chestnuts. I climbed the tree and started picking them. The other guys thought they were the Buckeyes you can’t eat. I took them to the cook and he said they were good, so we all ate them. After that, if I picked a berry and ate it, they did too.”

Who taught you all that stuff, Shifty?

“My daddy did. He raised me to shoot. He was an excellent shot. My daddy, he did everything he could to help us kids and he never laid a hand on me - not the first paddling. Oh, he would talk stern, and restrict me … but if I wanted a nickel to buy a Coca-Cola, if he had it, I got it.”

Shifty had four siblings: his sister and two brothers who served in the Navy and one brother in the Marines.

Whatever happened to the old fashioned notion of fathers and sons hanging out together?

“Anymore it takes every bit of energy to make a living, to pay the insurance, the house payments. Parents don’t have the time to get involved with the kids … to play ball, or fish with them. My grandson, he’s 26, and works in one of the coal mines. I took him in the woods and I taught him every tree and what it was, and how to identify them. They’re hundreds of different kinds. I taught him to fish, and to hunt.”

Here’s one last remembrance from a man who jumped out of airplanes, who endured danger and hardships – who survived WWII. When I asked him what bothered him the most from the war, he told me this:

“I remember in Bastogne … I was on the front line when F Company came to relieve us. We went back to the rear area to rest up for a couple days. We dug fox holes and covered them over with pine. It snowed during the night and when I got up the next morning, I looked around me and it was like looking at a graveyard with mounds of snow over fox holes. After a few moments a guy near me pops his head out. He says, ‘Shifty? Who was doing all the shooting last night?’ I thought about it and remembered … I had had this dream where I was shooting at this guy in my company with my pistol. So right then and there I eased my pistol out and discovered I had fired two rounds during the night. That worried me to death. To this day I wonder where those two shots went.”

Thank you for opening your heart to us that day, Shifty. We will remember you. We thank you for your service to our country. We thank you for our freedom today.

© 2008 Reid Baer

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The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria Vanderbilt

Reid Baer, an award-winning playwright for “A Lyon’s Tale” is also a newspaper journalist, a poet with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide, and a novelist with his first book released this month entitled Kill The Story. Baer has been a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and currently edits The New Warrior Journal for The ManKind Project www.mkp.org . He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.

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