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South Philly’s ‘Band of Brothers’ soldiers are forever young in new memorial site

“In history, we talk about General Patton, General Eisenhower, Alexander the Great. In reality, war is won or lost by the regular men.”

Life-size statues memorialize two South Philadelphia "Band of Brothers" soldiers  - William "Wild Bill" Guarnere, left, and Edward "Babe" Heffron, right, at the edge of Herron Playground.
Life-size statues memorialize two South Philadelphia "Band of Brothers" soldiers - William "Wild Bill" Guarnere, left, and Edward "Babe" Heffron, right, at the edge of Herron Playground.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

The bronze statues of William “Wild Bill” Guarnere and Edward “Babe” Heffron, outside Herron Park on 2nd and Reed Streets, show the pair as they looked before they left the old neighborhood to fight in Europe during World War II.

Wearing Army uniforms, they’re barely out of their teens, full-faced and confident, unaware that their future acts of bravery — dramatized in HBO’s 2001 miniseries “Band of Brothers” — would shape the world for decades to come.

How could they have known? After all, they were just two guys from South Philly.

That’s one reason Mayor Jim Kenney led a six-year effort to create the Pennsport memorial to Heffron and Guarnere. Heffron’s statue has stood since 2015. Guarnere’s was unveiled during a November ceremony.

“These two young men stood together with their fellow service members and faced the most evil forces in the world,” said Kenney, who was a councilman when the project began. “I hope that young people who see this memorial are inspired. Whether they choose to pursue a career in the military or take on public service closer to home, young people have the potential and power to change the world.”

After the war, Heffron and Guarnere came home, got jobs, built families. They stayed close, talking every day — but not telling war stories. They died within four months of each other, each at age 90.

“They were like Mutt and Jeff, Heckle and Jeckle, Lenny and Squiggy,” said Wild Bill’s son, Gene Guarnere, 72, of Broomall. “They were a team.”

Members of both families said they initially balked at the idea of a monument. Bill and Babe wouldn’t want all that fuss, they said. Guarnere could imagine his father saying, “Are you people nuts?”

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But Heffron’s daughter, Trisha Zavrel, said she warmed to the idea of her father and his best friend inspiring others.

“He was so proud of the old neighborhood,” said Zavrel, 57, of Marlton. “Maybe some kid will look at him and go, ‘Look at what this kid from 2nd Street did. Maybe I can do something pretty cool, too.’”

‘Best of Friends’

Heffron and Guarnere were born in South Philadelphia in spring 1923, but they met in Europe in 1944 when Heffron joined Guarnere in Easy Company, the esteemed paratrooper unit of the 101st Airborne Division. Their 2007 book with journalist Robyn Post, “Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends,” details their experiences during Holland’s Operation Market Garden and Belgium’s Battle of the Bulge. Guarnere also took part in the D-Day invasion. Heffron was there for the capture of Eagle’s Nest, German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler’s mountaintop chalet.

But even their children were unaware of their heroic acts until the 1992 publication of the book “Band of Brothers,” by Stephen Ambrose, that inspired the TV miniseries of the same name. Guarnere said he knew his father had lost a leg in combat, but the one time he’d asked for details — on the eve of his own stint as an Army paratrooper during the Vietnam War — the response he got was, “The war’s over, kid. Forget it.”

Wild Bill didn’t tell his son he earned his nickname with his boldness in battle, a seeming fearlessness that intensified after his elder brother was killed while fighting in Italy. He didn’t describe how he’d lost his right leg as a result of the injuries he suffered while helping a wounded soldier during the Battle of the Bulge. Nor did he reveal that he’d broken the same leg two months earlier when he’d been shot by a sniper in Holland — and that he then used black shoe polish to disguise his cast so he could rejoin his company.

“He was a humble man,” Guarnere said. “Him and Babe, they didn’t care about fame. They didn’t care about money.”

Maintaining a low profile became impossible after the miniseries debuted to popular and critical acclaim. Wild Bill’s phone number and address were listed in the White Pages, making it easy for strangers to find his home.

“You’d call him,” Guarnere said, “and he’d say, ‘I got two broads from Kansas here. I can’t talk to you now.’”

The 'regular men’

Heffron died in December 2013; Guarnere in March 2014. The idea of honoring the pair bubbled up soon after. City officials imagined a memorial showing both as young men. That wasn’t how Guarnere family wanted Wild Bill remembered.

“None of us knew him with two legs,” Gene Guarnere said. “That’s what he gave to the war.”

So while the Guarnere family didn’t oppose the project, they began working privately with sculptor Chad Fisher to create their own memorial of the Wild Bill they knew. The eight-foot bronze statue — installed in Delaware County Veterans Memorial Park in Newtown Square in 2015 — shows Guarnere as an older man, in a well-worn and creased uniform, standing tall on one leg while holding two canes.

The city, too, moved forward, unveiling the statue of a young Heffron by artist Terry Jones the same year. Last month, Guarnere’s statue, also by Jones, was installed and now completes the memorial. (The work cost about $27,000, a city spokeswoman said.)

While the sculptures are life-size, they represent two men whose actions made them giants, said Municipal Court President Judge Patrick Dugan, a retired Army paratrooper who serves on the executive board of the Philadelphia chapter of the 82nd Airborne Association, who also spoke at the November ceremony.

“In history, we talk about General Patton, General Eisenhower, Alexander the Great,” Dugan said. “In reality, war is won or lost by the regular men.”