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Easy Company vet honored in Penn Hills

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Jack E. Foley needed to finish just one more semester of political science and economics classes in 1943 when he turned his back on the University of Pittsburgh and reported for active duty with the Army.

Foley, then a skinny, 21-year-old kid from Brookline, and 36 of his buddies from Pitt's Army ROTC program could wait no longer to get into the war that raged around the globe. After a year of manning defensive posts and undergoing more training, he made another decision a week after D-Day that would put him into some of the war's fiercest fighting and earn him a place in Easy Company,' one of the Army's most celebrated units.

Brookline native Jack Foley, 79, of Penn Hills, who served in Easy Company, a celebrated World War II Army paratroop unit, was honored with a plaque yesterday in the Penn Hills Municipal Building. Foley's unit is the subject of the HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers," based on the Stephen Ambrose novel. The plaque is adorned with enlargements of U.S. Postal Service stamps honoring veterans and the June 6, 1944, Normandy invasion. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

"I didn't want to go [to Europe] as a green second lieutenant. I wanted to do something special," he said. "The paratroopers were daring, unique. They were tough. They wore boots. That was where I wanted to be."

More than a half-century later, Foley, 79, is a still-trim grandfather who lives in Penn Hills and has retired from a career in advertising and promotion. In recent weeks, he and other members of Easy Company have been lauded by millions who've read about their staggering casualties, bravery and camaraderie in historian Stephen Ambrose's book "Band of Brothers" or watched the 10-part HBO cable channel's miniseries based on it.

Yesterday, Foley was honored again during a ceremony in Penn Hills at which U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale, presented him with a plaque containing enlargements of U.S. Postal Service stamps -- one commemorating U.S. service veterans and the other marking the June 6, 1944, Normandy invasion.

"[Sunday], we celebrated Veterans Day," said Doyle. "Here today, we celebrate one veteran and his sacrifices. We are here to say thank you to a hero."

The state House of Representatives plans another ceremony today to honor other Easy Company members from Pennsylvania.

Foley, who graduated in 1940 from South Hills High School, completed paratrooper training in 1944 at Fort Benning, Ga. Shipped to Holland, he was assigned as a replacement to Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

Foley led a platoon as Easy Company fought to liberate Holland, held out through bitter cold and vicious shelling outside Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and captured Hitler's Eagle's Nest retreat before the war ended. He was shot in the wrist in the Alsatian town of Haguenau near the German border.

The HBO miniseries concluded Sunday with "We Stand Alone Together," a documentary featuring interviews with many of Easy's surviving members. Foley is not in that documentary, but he is briefly featured in the final four episodes of "Band of Brothers," played by British actor Jamie Bamber.

Foley's part wasn't bigger, he said, because "rightfully so" the series' producers chose to focus on Easy Company's original members who forged lifelong friendships while training together in Toccoa, Ga. His character is perhaps most visible in "The Breaking Point" episode, where he and Sgt. John Martin lead soldiers around the town of Foy after indecisive Lt. Norman Dyke freezes in terror behind a haystack.

Foley said he enjoyed Ambrose's book and, overall, approved of the portrayals of his friends in the miniseries. He spotted a few small inaccuracies, however, including one involving his own character in Bastogne.

"Within 24 hours of [Gen. George] Patton's breakthrough, the order came through that everybody had to be clean-shaven," he said. "There were a lot of helmets put to the heat to melt snow [for shaving water] that day. That fellow shouldn't have had a beard anymore."

The series also overemphasized Easy Company's role in liberating a Nazi concentration camp by showing its soldiers stumbling on the squalid camp's dead and dying Jewish inmates, Foley said. Easy's men were in the camp at Dachau, Germany, but were not first to enter it. Foley said he believed the series' producers tailored Easy's role to show the enormity of Nazi atrocities.

Foley said he's gratified that programming such as "Band of Brothers" has sparked interest in World War II, but he said he hopes that historical interest and the recent surge in patriotism following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are not just passing fads.

"It's amazing how a lot of people are now learning about World War II," Foley said. "But they should learn about the Pacific war, about Guadalcanal, about the GI Bill, about all of our wars. It was bad in Korea. It was the same in every war.

"People should know about that and remember that. I hope [patriotism] stays, I hope it lingers," he said.

Foley shrugged off questions about horrors that were nearly beyond comprehension, about seeing his friends killed and maimed, about being hungry and frostbitten in foxholes outside Bastogne during the last winter of the war.

But he laughed as he recalled a story that he shared with Ambrose and that was mentioned in the book.

After the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, Allied troop commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered all U.S. unit commanders to gather their soldiers and say a few words to honor the dead president. Foley fished a St. Joseph missal from his gear, assembled his platoon and read aloud from the book of liturgy and prayer.

"It occurred to me later that I may have been the only person ever to bury [Episcopalian] Franklin Roosevelt as a Catholic," he said.

After the war, Foley finished his studies at Pitt, then worked in advertising or writing in-house newsletters for the Aluminum Cooking Utensil Co. in New Kensington, the Cutco Co. in Olean, N.Y., the Alcoa Wrap Co. in New Kensington and Alcoa in Pittsburgh before retiring in 1982. He and his wife, Mary Louise, have five children and three grandchildren.

Foley said he has returned to Europe since the war -- most recently in June with other Easy Company veterans on an HBO-sponsored tour -- and has attended many of the unit's annual reunions. He calls William "Wild Bill" Guarnere of Philadelphia -- a prominent character in the miniseries -- as being "the glue who holds us together" by organizing those reunions and keeping in touch with Easy's men.

"The reunions are fantastic," he said. "You get there and everyone is just like they used to be -- a bunch of kids. You go back automatically to the feelings you had years ago. That never ends."



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