Stepping Out From the Ranks

Easy Company at Camp Mackall, 1943, photo courtesy Jake Powers
by Marcus Brotherton, originally published in the Washington Post

Sergeant Joe Toye was no general.

He was brought up in the Pennsylvania coal region during the Depression, the youngest of nine kids. His father died when Joe was thirteen, and Joe needed to drop out of seventh grade to earn money for the family. With limited educational and financial resources, Joe would never be going to West Point. He would never lead fifteen-thousand men in a division of the army, or three-thousand men in a regiment, or seven-hundred men in a battalion, or even one-hundred-and-forty men in a company. Leadership at the highest ranks would never be in Joe's cards.

But Sergeant Joe Toye was still a leader.

Other soldiers from the now legendary Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, described Joe Toye as "the toughest of the tough." That's quite a compliment considering the elite group he was in, the World War II paratroopers nicknamed the Band of Brothers. They were originally portrayed in historian Stephen Ambrose's book, then in Tom Hanks' and Stephen Spielberg's HBO miniseries by the same name. The Band of Brothers were front-line soldiers in a blood-filled international conflict. They volunteered to jump out of planes, rifles in their hands. When they hit the ground, they were surrounded by the enemy and ready to fight.

Joe Toye became a squad leader in charge of eleven men. Whenever the company commander needed a volunteer for a patrol, Joe Toye was first on his list. Volunteering for these missions bordered on suicidal, but Joe never hesitated.

Once, Easy Company was pinned down in ditches outside of Neunan, Holland. Their British tank support was being annihilated. The company commander needed to find out what he was up against, so he glanced around, spotted Joe Toye, and said, "I need a live prisoner." In the dark, Joe crept through no-man's land into enemy territory and hauled back a German from the 107th Panzer Brigade, a knife against his throat. Not only did Joe's actions fulfill the specific mission of the patrol, they emboldened and inspired the men in the squad he led. Those who are alive today, more than sixty-five years later, continue to talk admiringly about Joe's actions.

Leadership within the Band of Brothers came from a lot of different levels and showed in different ways. It didn't emerge only from the officers, and it wasn't exhibited only in issuing orders. That's part of the secret of the Band of Brothers' success. Their example is ours to learn from today. We fall into a trap if we consign leadership only to the man at the top. At its core, true leadership means exercising a positive influence on others. It's about doing the right thing no matter the cost. The person leading others does not need to be a manager, a supervisor, or formally in charge.

Consider Sergeant Warren "Skip" Muck, an easy-going kid from Tonawanda, New York. Skip found joy in simple activities as a young boy--like moving from point A to point B. When he moved, he skipped, which is how he got a nickname that stuck into his adult years. Skip was as tough as he was easygoing. He fought neighborhood bullies, played football in high school, and swam across the fast-flowing Niagara River as part of a fraternity initiation.

When Skip became a soldier, others described him as the "heart and soul" of Easy Company. During training exercises at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, the men made a record setting one-hundred-and twenty-mile march. By nightfall on the march's second day, another soldier's legs were so sore and swollen he could only crawl on all fours to the mess tent to get dinner. Skip saw him, grabbed the man's mess kit, went and filled it with food for him, then came back and ate by his side. The man still remembers Skip saying, "No friend of mine crawls anywhere."

Skip Muck was killed in the Battle of the Bulge when an enemy mortar landed directly on the foxhole he shared with another man. Yet his legacy continues today. Actor Richard Speight, who portrayed Skip in the HBO series, described Skip's leadership this way: "There seems to be something so simple about Skip, something so honest. He serves as a constant reminder that those who think not of themselves but rather of the people and the world around them are the ones who truly make a difference."

While Joe Toy modeled courage, and Skip Muck friendship, Private Patrick O'Keefe led in altruism. Once, the men were hungry and went looking for something to eat. Patrick reached into his pocket and pulled out all he had--thirty-five cents. It would have secured a meal, but he spotted a church and put his last money into the collection box for the poor. The men kept going and eventually found food somewhere. Patrick said he wasn't seeking a miracle; what mattered most to him was giving all he had.

The soldiers of Easy Company were everyday men, yet they reached way beyond themselves and lived extraordinary lives. Their multi-faceted examples of leadership ignite us to make deliberate decisions for right actions.

The liberty that the Band of Brothers fought for was not a freedom to do whatever we want whenever we want, but rather a freedom from tyranny, a freedom of self-determination, a freedom to make something of our lives.

The Band of Brothers invite us to be leaders in our commitments, to provide security for our families, to be noble in our careers and communities, and to be engaged on a global front. Their legacy prompts us to influence people positively no matter what our rank is.

Sid Phillips: Getting Tough With Yourself

by Marcus Brotherton, from Men Who Lead Well

One harmful mindset that can keep a man from fulfilling his calling and potential is self-coddling. This is when he convinces himself he deserves a break, and runs to something that ultimately harms himself.
Actor Ashton Holmes (l) portrayed a young Sid Phillips (r) in The Pacific. Photo courtesy Valor Studios

The WWII Marines of K/3/5 had been fighting on Guadalcanal for weeks. C-rations had run out, and the men ate twice daily portions of coconuts and wormy rice they’d confiscated from the Japanese.


PFC Sid Phillips (featured in HBO’s The Pacific) grew increasingly concerned for his hometown friend, W.O. Brown, racked with severe dysentery. Everything W.O. tried to eat ran straight through him. There was no medicine. No cots to lie on. The sick were simply stretched out on the ground. W.O. grew so emaciated he was too weak even to sit up. Flies covered him as he lay in his own diarrhea.


“It was bad,” Phillips reported in an interview with me. “I didn’t think W.O. was going to survive.”


Each day, Phillips carried W.O. to the ocean and helped him get clean. I asked Phillips if he remembered any specific conversations he had with W.O. during these times of carrying him. Here, I was expecting a poignant story. I pictured this young battle-hardened Marine carrying his nearly-dead buddy to the water. “Keep holding on,” Phillips would whisper. “Have courage. Just think of mom and apple pie.” Something like that.


But Phillips just chuckled. “Oh yeah, I remember. I told W.O. to stop being such a faker and take a salt tablet.”


The response threw me. I asked Phillips (who eventually became a medical doctor) what his strategy was.


“Well, it didn’t help a man to overly commiserate with him,” Phillips said. “If you did, it just depressed him. But if you kidded him, it made him smile. The ribbing was all good natured. He’d fire back some wisecrack at you, and soon he’d get to fighting again.”


How does this apply to leadership today?


Phillips respected W.O. Brown as someone who had the capacity to get up and go on. So let’s believe the same about ourselves.


Anytime a man is in a downed place—i.e. he’s annoyed, angry, tired, hurt, lonely, stressed, or frustrated—he is tempted to become overly sympathetic with himself. He gets that insidious, creepy, pampering mindset that tells him he deserves a break—just this once.


I’m not talking about kicking back on the couch with a bag of Doritos. Not that kind of a break.


I’m talking about blowing it: the lie that it’s okay to run to a favorite vice. We’ve all got them. We run to whatever ultimately harms us, because we’ve convinced ourselves it helps. It’s the worst form of coddling.


What’s the solution?


Get tough with yourself. Knock it off, ya faker. Take a salt tablet, and get back to the battle. Sure, frustrations exist. But you don’t need that bottle. You don’t need that porn. You don’t need to give in to that moment of rage on the freeway. You’ve only convinced yourself you do.


By the way, the strategy works. W.O. Brown survived the dysentery—and the war.


T.I. Miller's Perspective for a Bad Day at Work

by Marcus Brotherton, from Men Who Lead Well


I was interviewing T.I. Miller the other day, a 92-year-old WWII veteran who fought in Guadalcanal and New Britain, and one of his stories helped put things into perspective for me when it comes to the tendency to complain about work.


I mean, most days I really love my job. But it’s fairly easy for me—or for anyone else for that matter—to gripe about how hard we have it these days.


I don’t doubt that genuinely difficult experiences exist at people’s work—including mine. But what I’ve noticed over the years is that grousing about any job is a familiar conversation topic around any workplace water cooler.


Perhaps too familiar.


Mr. Miller came home from the war, married his childhood sweetheart, and found the only job a young man without education could get in 1945 in West Virginia—mining coal.


One of his first positions was “cleaning belt,” a dusty, heavy job done each day for hours in the belly of underground darkness.


As a sidelight, back when the troops were in the murk of the Pacific, they had encountered rats, mosquitoes, and stagnant swamps. Many men came down with malaria. Mr. Miller took his regular dose of quinine and somehow avoided the misery of an outbreak until he came back to the states.


Strange thing about malaria—you never really get over it. It camps out in a body’s spleen, Mr. Miller pointed out, and you battle it the rest of your life.


In the first ten years after the war, Mr. Miller suffered some 42 bouts of malaria—a disease that exhibited itself in fever, chills, and aches so bad you thought your body was going to rattle apart, he said. The disease can strike without warning, anytime, anywhere.


One day Mr. Miller was down in the coalmine cleaning belt when he felt a malarial fever coming on. He mind swirled in delirium, and the resulting hallucinations reflected the horror he’d faced during the war.


He recorded the experience in his 2001 self-published book titled War and Work:


One day as I shoveled, the old chill began to shake me, and the sweat stood out on my forehead. The black coal dust mingled with the salty taste, and I wiped my face with a dirty glove.


I glanced over at the moving belt and blinked my eyes. I shook my head to clear it, and looked again. A dead Japanese soldier rode by on the belt.


I grabbed a timber, shook myself, and began to count silently. One, two, three, four, five, six. I was here. I was there.


There went some more bodies on the belt. Again I blinked, shook myself, and began repeating, “I am here. I am here.”


Mr. Miller knew he needed to get to the surface—fast. Another miner sensed he was in trouble and helped him get up to sun. In the daylight, the apparitions disappeared, and Mr. Miller spent the next 20 days in the VA hospital recovering from his fever. 


Thinking about that story helps me put my work into perspective.


I might have had a bad day today. But at least I’m not down in the darkness of a coal mine fighting off malarial attacks while having hallucinations of dead Japanese soldiers.


A thought like that goes a long way toward me being grateful.


How T.I. Miller Healed

by Marcus Brotherton, from Men Who Lead Well


I want to tell another story about T.I. Miller, a 92-year-old WWII vet I interviewed recently who fought on Guadalcanal and New Britain.

When it came to war, Mr. Miller had seen it all. Charging banzai attacks. Severed heads. Bloody arms, legs, and torsos. The works.


After he came home, a man doesn’t forget these things instantly, he said.


I asked him what helped. This was his answer:


What helped? My wife and family were a big help, especially my wife, Recie. At the same time, it’s something you gotta just do yourself. The secret, I found out, is just to stay busy. There were no government programs to help back then. No therapists to see. Nothing like that.


I was born and raised out in the country. So after I came back from the war, I built me and Recie a house out there close to where I’d grown up. I got out there and roamed around in the mountains. That’s what helped.


One time they closed the mines down for three months. Someone said, “Where you gonna go look for a job.” I said, “I ain’t. I’m gonna spend the summer out in the sunshine.”


And I did. I took a two pound double bladed axe, walked a half mile up above where I lived. We had a field there, and I cut down big trees and cut them into fence posts. All I had was that axe. I made my own mallet and split those trees myself.


I got me a half acre of ground, plowed it up, and had a field. That same summer I grew potatoes, corn, and beans. The whole summer I spent growing things I wanted to. I’d be out in the woods at daylight. I just worked like that and built myself back up.


Notice three key actions in Mr. Miller’s plan to heal. I’m no therapist, but I’d consider these important components to helping anybody out of a hard spot.


1.      He busied himself with straightforward, non-emotional work.

The war had taxed Mr. Miller’s ability to cope. During those years of horror, he had experienced too many events larger than himself. Splitting wood helped him connect with a simpler world.


2.      He got active, outside.

Fresh air, sunshine, nature, and physical exercise helped him regain a sense of security and peacefulness. Notice he didn’t turn to alcohol, drugs, or any such trappings that only result in harm.


3.      He could see what he accomplished each day.

Plenty of beneficial activities have non-identifiable benchmarks, but it’s much harder for a man doing this kind of work to feel good about what he’s done. By splitting wood and growing a garden, Mr. Miller could see clear progress on a regular basis. At the end of each day he could point to a pile of fence posts and say, “There it is. I did that.”


If you know a returning veteran, or anyone for that matter struggling with a dark place, please consider passing this article along.


The advice doesn’t come from me. It comes from someone who was there, survived, healed, and went on to thrive with the rest of his life.


Men We Can Learn From: Ron Speirs

By Marcus Brotherton, originally published on Art of Manliness

Lt. Ronald Speirs was a pit-bull of a soldier, distinctively tough, exceptional and intimidating. He was the last commander of the legendary Easy Co, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne (the Band of Brothers), and led the company longer than well-known Lt. Dick Winters.

Speirs’ men would follow him anywhere. Yet he was a controversial leader. Brutal and death-defying stories abound about Speirs:

·        He shot one of his own sergeants between the eyes for getting drunk.

·        He handed out cigarettes nonchalantly to twenty German prisoners then mowed them down with his submachine gun.

·        He sprinted cross-town through a hail of enemy fire at Foy. Astoundingly, after Speirs got his message through to another company on the other side, he sprinted back.

Speirs’ nicknames included “Bloody” and “Killer,” but is the reputation valid? And if so—or if not—what can we learn from a man like Speirs?

            His stepson Marv Bethea considers Speirs’ strongest trait not to be bloodthirstiness, but conscientiousness. “He was a man who followed orders absolutely,” Bethea said. “No matter what needed to be done.”

            For instance, no eye witnesses have ever stepped forward to confirm the rumor of Speirs shooting prisoners on D-Day, but Bethea doesn’t doubt its plausibility. “The soldiers parachuted into the middle of extreme hostile territory,” Bethea said. “If they caught enemies, their unofficial orders were to take no prisoners. You can’t bring prisoners with you in that kind of battle. Do you turn them loose so they turn and kill you? Undoubtedly Speirs thought, ‘Somebody’s got to do this awful deed, and I’m in charge.’”

Regarding Speirs killing his own sergeant, a letter Winters wrote to historian Stephen Ambrose in 1993 clarifies the situation. Winters noted how the drunken sergeant twice ignored a command given by Speirs to halt an advance toward St. Come du Mont. The incident took place under heavy fighting when the soldiers were extremely exhausted. Winters wrote, “[By shooting the man,] Speirs probably saved the lives of the rest of the squad. The reason goes far beyond shooting [the sergeant] because he was drunk.”

            Throughout the war, Speirs was seen doing his duty, no matter the cost. In Normandy, he was wounded in the face and knee by a German potato masher hand grenade, evacuated to a hospital, then rejoined his unit in England prior to the Holland jump.

            While on reconnaissance in Holland, Speirs paddled across the Neder Rhine alone at night. The enemy opened fire and he dove into the water after taking a German bullet in his butt. He surfaced and swam to shore where he was found bleeding and exhausted. In spite of his wound he brought back vital information and later received the Silver Star for his actions.

With Easy Company wrongly positioned and staying put as sitting ducks behind a haystack during the attack on Foy, Speirs was ordered to relieve Lt. Norman Dike, who had bungled the operation. Speirs, then the commander of D Company, sprinted to Dike and blurted out, “I’m taking over.” With Speirs now in charge, Easy Company surged into Foy and took the town.

            In contrast to his nearly super-human deeds of toughness, Speirs had a softer side. Prior to the Normandy invasion, Speirs met an English widow. They married and had a son together. The woman’s husband had been reported dead, but he was actually in a POW camp and showed up alive at the end of the war. The woman returned to her first husband. In spite of the difficult situation, Speirs managed. He wrote to Winters in the early 1990s:


My son Robert, born in England during the war, is now an infantry major with the Royal Green Jackets Regiment. His English mother died some years ago. Last summer I visited Robert at his 200-year-old house in England. His three beautiful children are my pride and joy.


            Speirs made the military his career. During the Korean War he commanded a rifle company. He became the U.S. Governor of Spandau Prison in Berlin, which housed key Nazi war criminals. His final assignment was at the Pentagon. He retired in 1964 as a lieutenant colonel.

            His last years were spent quietly with family in California. He doted on his grandchildren, taking them to the park. He developed Alzheimer’s-like symptoms and slowly faded, dying in 2007.

How should Speirs be remembered? At the end of WWII he wrote one of his men, Forrest Guth, who had gone home early and was desperately missing the camaraderie of his outfit. The four-page letter is dated June 11, 1945, and full of chatty news, not exactly the kind of letter a bloodthirsty killer would write.

            The men stayed in contact over the years. Guth wrote to Speirs a final time on June 11, 2006, exactly 61 years after Speirs’ first letter. Guth referred to the original and wrote: “Your letter helped me endure the loneliness of not being with my old friends.”

Bethea put it into perspective. The name “Ron Speirs” will always be associated with deeds done during WWII, he said. This letter indicates to me how much he cared for each of his men individually. That is much.