Editor’s note: Easy Company Soldier originally appeared in the fall 2009 issue of The Delta.
By Merritt Onsa
Don Malarkey first learned about paratroopers from an article in the November 1941 issue of Reader’s Digest. It said they were the “…hardest, toughest, and best-dressed soldiers in the Army…” and they got to wear silver wings, designating them as such. He saw photos of their uniforms and knew this was the place for him.
In the summer of 1942, Malarkey received his draft notification. He quit his job at a defense plant in Portland, Oregon, and returned home to Astoria where he ran into a friend who was on leave from Fort Lewis. He told Malarkey that the first thing they asked for was volunteers to join the paratroopers. “Whatever you do, don’t say yes, Malarkey. It’s a death sentence. You’re jumpin’ out of a friggin’ airplane going a couple hundred miles an hour—and right into enemy territory. The odds stink.” But Malarkey’s mind was made up. When he arrived at Fort Lewis with a hundred other new recruits, the paratrooper question came, and he was one of only two in the group who said yes. “I knew where I needed to be,” he says.
Malarkey made it through the intense physical challenges commanded by Easy Company’s Captain Sobel who orchestrated the most demanding training regime in the Army. “We hated him, but he instilled a very strong bond among the men and a spirit of ‘do not quit, no matter what’ that helped us greatly in combat,” recalls Malarkey.
Their first day in combat was D-Day. Eighty-one planes took off from England in the middle of the night, headed for Normandy. Under fire, Easy Company dropped in behind enemy lines, several miles from their scheduled drop zone. Once on the ground, their first battle was the now-famous assault on the German battery at Brecourt Manor, the events of which are depicted in the second episode of the “Band of Brothers” miniseries, called “Day of Days”. This German artillery position, three miles southwest of Utah Beach, was firing onto one of the causeway exits and disrupting the advance of the Allied landing forces. Several other units had stumbled onto this position earlier and been repelled.
Malarkey recounted, “Easy Company had been specially trained to attack fortified positions, so despite having only 12 men assembled we got the call.” They had almost no information, and the orders were brief and pointed,‘There’s fire along that hedgerow there. Take care of it!’ They discovered that the position was comprised of four 105mm Howitzers, two MG42 machine gun emplacements, and an interconnected trench system, all defended by a force of about 60 Germans.
[Malarky and Vance] also examined the way leaders who drive negative emotions cultivate dissonance within the group, sharing that management by intimidation is counter productive.
“When we reached the position, Lieutenant Winters told us to line up along a hedgerow and fire full clips in the direction of the guns for covering fire. Then he gave the order to begin the assault. Lieutenant Compton charged the guns first. He fell into a trench system and immediately found himself face to face with a German soldier. Compton tried to fire, but his rifle jammed and the soldier ran off. Compton then signaled the rest of us, and we all ran to the trenches. I ran straight up the pasture to the first gun, taking the Germans by surprise. We knocked out the first gun rather quickly,” Malarkey explains.
It was then that he spotted a dead German soldier in the field. Malarkey decided to run out and grab the German’s Luger pistol as a souvenir. “At first, the Germans must have thought I was a medic because they didn’t fire at me, but that quickly changed. Winters yelled at me to get back into the trench. The Germans started shooting, and I ran back under heavy fire. The dead German did not have a Luger, but thankfully, I wasn’t hit. Unfortunately, our machine gunner Cleveland Petty was hit, and Lieutenant Winters ordered me to man his machine gun along with Joe Liebgott. Winters was worried that the Germans would work in behind us so he ordered us to guard the rear. Liebgott and I covered that position for several hours until we finally pulled out.”
Don Malarkey was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions in the assault on Brecourt Manor. He was one of 14 Easy Company soldiers to receive medals for their bravery and extraordinary service on D-Day.
By the end of the war, Malarkey’s service had included combat operations in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. He has the distinction of having spent more time on the front lines (170 days) than any other member of Easy Company. He was discharged on November 29, 1945.
In his book, Malarkey talks about his attempts to deal with the severity and pain resulting from all that he witnessed during the War, including the deaths and injury of many close friends. “I stuffed it deep inside, thinking it would somehow just go away. It didn’t. It just builds up, like carrying one more brick on your back, and one more, and more, and more. And finally you say, Enough, I can’t walk another step.” It wasn’t until a few years ago, when Malarkey went to the VA Hospital to speak with someone, that he learned he’d been suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Many of his fraternity brothers were surprised after seeing the “Band of Brothers” series because Malarkey had never spoken to them of his experiences in combat. “When I returned from the war, I was not comfortable talking about what happened unless I was talking with someone who had had a similar experience. I just felt that they would not understand,” he shares. Most of his fraternity brothers who had joined the service had not seen combat.
“But I can say, had it not been for the support of Sigma Nu, and specifically Al Gray, I would not have lasted in school. The discipline and rules did a lot to create a special bond that was very much like what I experienced in the military. It’s something very special and rare,” he shares. Gray was the one who talked Malarkey into enrolling at the University of Oregon in the fall of 1941 and suggested he join Sigma Nu. Although, Malarkey didn’t need convincing to join the Fraternity, since his father, Leo (Oregon) and Uncle Robert (Oregon) had been in the chapter as well as his cousin, Huntington (Oregon). “I had every intention of joining Sigma Nu when I enrolled at the University of Oregon,” he says. In fact, it was the only fraternity he was willing to consider.
Today, regular speaking engagements have given Malarkey the opportunity to talk about his recently published book and communicate a message he hopes will influence future generations. “Not everyone has the chance to make the same type of contribution to the country that we made, nor should they. But it’s my hope that everyone would do something, anything, to benefit the country,” he shares.
“A bully is never a respected leader,” says Malarkey. “Fear and intimidation get results, but never those intended.”
Malarkey presented this message in June at the Fraternity’s undergraduate leadership conference “College of Chapters” in Lexington, Va. More than 350 collegiate members attended the keynote entitled “Frontline Leadership”. Alongside stories of his personal experiences in the War, Malarkey challenged the undergraduates to demonstrate their ability and character by taking on tough assignments and meeting challenges head-on as soon as they are aware of them.
Malarkey and his close friend Vance Day, Esq. also spoke to the group about a leader’s responsibility as the emotional guide for the group. “When leaders drive emotions positively – when there is resonance within the group – they bring out everyone’s best,” Malarkey explained during the session. They also examined the way leaders who drive negative emotions cultivate dissonance within the group, sharing that management by intimidation is counter productive. “A bully is never a respected leader,” says Malarkey. “Fear and intimidation get results, but never those intended.”
It was a fitting message for collegiate leaders attending Sigma Nu’s four-day program as it directly related to the Fraternity’s founding values opposed to hazing. “Our mission is to develop ethical leaders for society, and we are deeply honored that Don would travel across the country to be here to share his inspiring story with today’s collegiate leaders,” said the Fraternity’s Executive Director, Brad Beacham.
Find Malarkey’s book online: Easy Company Soldier: The Legendary Battles of a Sergeant from World War II’s “Band of Brothers” (St. Martin’s Press).