Who are a Band of Brothers and what is Camp Toccoa all about?
While many groups lay claim to the phrase ‘Band of Brothers’ for a myriad of reasons, in this context, it is not a rock band or a basketball team or a cricket team. It is a comfortable reference made by men who rally together for a singular purpose and work toward that common goal. The ‘Band of Brothers’ franchise from the HBO mini-series has certainly gained fame and is recognized for putting Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment in front of many people’s consciousness.
As you watch the opening scenes of the mini-series, you’ll hear some emotional testimonies from survivors of Easy Company’s World War II experience talking about their heros. The men who fought alongside them and left it all on the battlefield – never to return home again. You’ll see some sweeping video of Camp Toccoa and Currahee. The name is derived from the Cherokee word gurahiyi meaning “Stands Alone”. Currahee would become the living motto of Easy Company soldiers because when a paratrooper jumps out of their plane, free falls to earth amidst the flak and tracer rounds fired into the air to kill them, survives that and finally lands on terrafirma, they feel very alone. Hitting the ground and scrambling to get out of their parachute harness, their first thoughts are to protect themselves against enemy gound troops searching for the Americans. They stand alone at that moment, looking for their fellow jumpers to join up with, find their rally point, and carry out their assigned mission. Many of them miss their drop zones and have to figure out in the darkness with chaos surrounding them, where they are and how to find their rally point all on unfamiliar terrain in a foreign country they’ve only just entered. No passports here. No local guides pointing the way. These soldiers live or die by their prayers, their wits, quick thinking and their training where they have now lost the element of surprise and must re-gain the advantage, control their circumstances and get on with their mission.
Training for such a risky task began at Camp Toccoa, in the northeastern part of Georgia. Formerly named Camp Toombs, it was built by the Georgia National Guard and the Works Project Administration (WPA) and dedicated on December 14, 1940. The US Army took over the camp in 1942, following the surprise Empire of Japan bombing attack on our own Pearl Harbor.
The facility was initially named Camp Toombs after Confederate Civil War General Robert Toombs. In 1942 Colonel Robert Sink, commander of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, one of the first units to train there, thought that it would prompt superstitions to have young men arrive at the town of Toccoa, travel Route 13 past the Toccoa Casket Company and learn to jump at Camp “Tombs“, so he persuaded the Department of the Army to change the name to Camp Toccoa. The famous “Band of Brothers” of Easy Company, was assigned to the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Gordon Lippman followed them by one year, as a member of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment and that’s how they are forever linked together. Paratroopers who got their training at the same Camp Toccoa and fought in some of the same battles during World War II (WWII).
Years after WWII, Currahee had become a venue for the Annual Currahee Challenge, a three and a six mile race on the mountain that occurs in the fall of every year. In memory of Colonel Bob from the Five-O-Sinks (506th Parahute Infantry Regiment) the Colonel Robert F. Sink Memorial Trail follows Currahee Mountain Road from the site of the former camp to the summit of Currahee Mountain.
From Battling Buzzards: The Odyssey of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regimental Combat Team 1943-1945, by Gerald Astor, the US Army was “convinced that the assault upon Nazi-held Europe would yield swiftly to elite troops, so the Army created parachute regimental combat teams” – and trained them at Camp Toccoa.
Volunteers, willing to hurl themselves from airplanes and hit the ground fighting, came from all over the country to take part in this training. They wanted to jump out of planes, fight with the best, be the cream of the crop. “We learned how to be soldiers at Toccoa.” “You didn’t want to be afraid.” “What you would worry about most was your chute. Did you pack it right?” “After 5 jumps from a plane, you got your wings pinned on.” Quotes offered by the original Band of Brothers in the HBO mini-series.
One of my favorite quotes used in my book, Honor Through Sacrifice: The Story of One of America’s Greatest Military Leaders, is by Sir Winston Churchill. “Things are not always right because they are hard, but if they are right one must not mind if they are also hard.” Joining the Allied fight against Nazi fascism was the right thing to do. Defending freedom-loving people also was the right thing to do. While true, Camp Toccoa was hard.
Training at Toccoa was very physical, the men ran 3 miles up and ran 3 miles down Currahee every day. Currahee Mountain rises abruptly about 800 vertical feet above the local topography and is the highest peak in Stephens County. Many times they ran this path throughout the day and at night. They ran up and down this mountain in shorts. They ran up and down this mountain in Army fatigues. They ran up and down in full combat gear in the rain, the snow and the mud, wearing combat boots and carrying their M-1 rifles. If anyone fell out or wasn’t keeping up with the others, carrying that 9 1/2 pound rifle over your head while running in front of and being chased by your platoon would give one great incentive to get their act together quickly. Sometimes, a small group of soldiers would run the mountain at night just because it was there. These guys were committed to their mission, to be the best of the best!
Initially, Camp Toccoa used the Toccoa municipal airport for parachute jump training, but following a transport accident, it was abandoned for having too short a runway for safe C-39 and C-47 operations.
While all further jump training out of aircraft occurred at Fort Benning, Georgia, Toccoa did have a 30-foot high jump tower where the recruits learned how to jump while strapped into a parachute harness and hit the ground without breaking ankles or legs. More on that jump tower in a future article.
Camp Toccoa also lacked a rifle range, so trainees would march 30 miles to Clemson Agricultural College, a military school in South Carolina, to practice on the college’s shooting range.
Comedian Bob Hope visited Camp Toccoa and entertained the troops there. It was here that Gordon Lippman got his first glimpse of Mr. Hope in person. Later in Gordon’s career, he would work with Bob Hope to bring his famous Bob Hope USO Christmas Show to the troops under his command. But in 1943, Hope told the troops in his characteristic curled-lip style, “You guys are so rugged, you look like Wheaties with legs.” A testimony to all the running and marching they completed.
Each trooper was required to also qualify as “expert” with his assigned individual weapon, “sharpshooter” with another and “marksman” with all crew-served weapons in his platoon. During 1942 and 1943, all men volunteering for parachute duty at induction stations throughout the United States were sent to Camp Toccoa.
If you like what you’re reading, stay tuned for more! In the month of April, I’ll tell you stories about troop ships enduring Nazi U-boat and Luftwaffe attacks, Gordon’s first days in combat, visiting the Vatican, and how did Axis Sally know what the 517th Regimental Combat Team was doing and where they were?