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.