I once had the opportunity to meet William “Wild Bill” Guarnere a couple of years ago, as I acquired a ticket to the memorial service for his former Commanding Officer, Major Richard Winters, when the good Major passed in January 2011. I acquired the ticket through the former director of the US Army Heritage and Education Center, Colonel Mark Viney. At the last minute, I had a personal family matter come up that I had to attend too, and so I passed the ticket on to my father, a big fan of Major Winters’ leadership skills, fighting abilities, and moral compass. I think my dad, a former Navy signalman, enjoyed hanging out with a bunch of old Army paratroopers, and he wanted to pay his respects to Winters.
As expected, my father regaled me with tales of the memorial service, including meeting and shaking hands with Tom Hanks, one of the most beloved and acclaimed actors in the world, and also the producer of the ‘Band of Brothers’ HBO miniseries with Steven Spielberg. He then handed me an item with an autograph that immediately stood out to me. It was the memorial program with a photo of Major Winters on the front. On the back of the program, I was immediately excited to see the signature “Wild Bill” Guarnere. William “Wild Bill” Guarnare gained a fierce reputation for being a fast-talking, Philly-tough hellion. He was also a well-respected non-commissioned officer and hero, earning a Silver Star for losing a leg while rescuing his good friend Joe Toye, badly wounded and having also lost a leg during an artillery attack in Bastogne. I couldn’t stop looking at the signature on the program. Hell, even Guarnere’s handwriting looked tough! But having an autograph from Wild Bill still means more to me than having it signed by Hanks himself. And fortunately my dad sensed that; he shook Hanks’ hand and moved right on over to talk to Guarnere, who he said was still sharp and still had that Philly swagger. He shook Wild Bill’s hand also, but then persisted in getting an autograph, as well as giving the old paratrooper a hearty “Thank you” as well. He sensed that despite all the attention he has received since ‘Band of Brothers’ came out, Guarnere was still a really humble, down-to-earth man.
Wild Bill passed away this past Saturday at the age of 90. From South Philly, the tough-talkin’ Guarnere earned his nickname for his ferocity in battle, and special hatred for the Germans, after losing his older brother Henry near Monte Cassino during the war. He tried to kill as many as he could and during the 101st Airborne’s drop into Normandy during the D-Day invasion, and could “not wait” to get out of the plane to get after them.
I’m only sorry that I never got to meet Wild Bill to shake his hand and thank him myself. But that program was long ago framed, and has a special place of honor in my Man Cave at home.
So thank you for all you did Mr. Guarnere. Thanks for putting your life on the line when you were just a kid and helping America and the world take its freedom back. Thanks for all you did for our veterans and for new generations of Americans that maybe did not understand the war, or became interested in it because of guys like you and Major Winters.
Rest easy Wild Bill. “Currahee!”