It's Memorial Day weekend here in the United States -- a special time of the year when we all take a moment to honor the memories of all those brave men and women who died in the service of our country. Our friends at the History Channel, for their part, generally choose to acknowledge this solemn day by basically running the incredible HBO miniseries Band of Brothers non-stop for like seventy-two hours straight, which, quite honestly, is something pretty much all of us should be able to get behind.
So I guess let me start by saying that American paratroopers are seriously fucking badass. I mean, there really aren't a whole lot of people out there willing to jump out of a fast-moving airplane several hundred feet above the ground under ideal conditions, let alone attempt it in the middle of the pitch-black goddamned night wearing sixty pounds of battle gear while crazy Germans are trying to ram a bunch of anti-aircraft flak cannons up your ass. While you’d think it would be basically impossible to get anybody to actually volunteer for this line of duty, the paratroopers don't seem to give a shit. These guys just go out there and do their job, and they don't really give a crap about trivial garbage like blindly leaping into unfamiliar territory teeming with hidden enemy soldiers or constantly being surrounded by people trying to kill them.
Now, among this aforementioned brotherhood of hard-drinking, hard-fighting badasses, few men have been more respected or feared than Captain Ronald Speirs of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. This tough-as-fuck Scottish-born Bostonian crotch-stomped his way across Europe in World War II, generally just kicking asses, ruining German lives, and making a name for himself as a completely fucking insane asskicker who didn't show fear, didn't back down, and didn't hesitate to pop a cap in the face of anyone who pissed him off for any reason.
Speirs was a Lieutenant in Company D of the 506th when he combat dropped into France in 1944 and immediately went to work softening up Nazi positions for the D-Day assault on the beaches of Normandy. He probably best effected this when he and Captain Dick Winters led a dozen men on the Brecourt Manor Assault – single-handedly attacking the four German 105mm artillery guns that were shelling the American positions on Utah Beach. During the battle, it was Spiers and his boys that captured the fourth artillery piece in an appropriately badass manner - by charging across a couple hundred feet of open ground (running full-speed towards a gargantuan gun barrel roughly the width of a pimped-out Volkswagen), leaping muzzle-first into the German entrenchments, and taking down a couple squads of elite Nazi paratroopers by bodyslamming them onto some TNT. To this day, the Brecourt Manor Assault is studied at West Point as one of the best examples of small-unit tactics and large-testicled badassitude ever demonstrated. In fact, I'm pretty sure the after-action report is required reading in Asskicking 101.
That's just how Speirs operated – the dude was completely fearless, aggressive, and didn't give a shit about trivial things like bullets flying around his head or artillery shells blowing up in his face. He was going to kick serious asses, and nothing was going to deter him from his mission to grab a couple SS troopers and crack their helmets together so hard that their heads exploded. And by the same token, Speirs inspired the sort of fear that you generally don't hear about any more these days. Countless rumors circulated about this guy being an insane, cold-blooded asskicker – some claimed that he once lined up twenty to thirty German prisoners of war, gave them cigarettes, and then gunned down all but on of them. Another rumor circulated that he shot one of his own Sergeants in the head for being drunk and/or repeatedly disobeying direct orders on the battlefield. Speirs, for his part, did nothing to dissuade these rumors. He, like a real badass, didn't need to talk about his about how fucking hardcore he was, and the fact that he never confirmed or denied any of these rumors only made everybody under his command fear him that much more. Sure, maybe earning a reputation as a man who will just whip out his sidearm and shoot you in the balls for the most trivial of offenses might not be the most ethical way to keep your men in line, but you really can't dispute its effectiveness. Nobody wants to argue with the meanest, toughest son-of-a-bitch in the whole regiment.
Speirs also won the Silver Star during the Arnhem Campaign for going on a borderline-insane one-man “lone wolf” reconnaissance mission deep into enemy territory. When he was ordered to scout enemy positions on the far side of the Neder Rijn River near Rendijk, Holland, Spiers (in the true balls-out fashion we’ve all come to expect from the man) just waited until the middle of the night, jumped in the water, swam across the river, and started sneaking around the enemy camp like a ninja with a Tommy gun. He scouted out positions of enemy machine gun nests, mortar teams, and artillery positions, stole an inflatable raft, and then burned rubber out of there while the German gunners took potshots at him. He got capped by an MG-42 while hauling ass across the river, but this apparently only served to make him more angry and bitter. Speirs made it back to Allied lines intact, and his intel was vital to the combat operations of his unit.
What Ron Speirs is best known for, however, is the utterly fucking badass way he handled the assault on the Belgian town of Foy during the infamous Battle of the Bulge. After somehow surviving a brutal siege of Bastogne in the dead of winter, where the 101st Airborne was completely surrounded and getting pounded day and night by the most elite SS Panzer Regiments the Germans had to offer, the men of Company E of the 506th Parachute Infantry launched a counter-attack on Foy. Well their commanding officer, Lieutenant Norman Dike, was basically a worthless moron who couldn't lead his way out of a quart-sized Ziploc freezer bag if you gave him a welding torch and a machete. Dike split up the assault team into two forces, and promptly went about getting both sides of his divided force utterly ass-reamed by German tanks and artillery. After a couple minutes of watching his best buddies get torn apart by the Nazis, Major Dick Winters had enough of that bullshit. He grabbed the first officer he saw, who just so happened to be Ronald Speirs, and told him to go deal with the situation.
Speirs didn't even fucking blink.
The young, battle-hardened officer just grabbed his submachine gun and started sprinting across the field toward Foy, determined to bail out the pinned-down Americans and shove his foot up some Nazi asses. He ran over to Lieutenant Dike, who at this point was basically so shell-shocked and brain-dead that he probably couldn't remember how to tie his bootlaces, and told him he was taking over as company commander. Dike, utterly awed by being in the presence of such an unflinching hardass who obviously meant business, simply nodded.
Spiers ran over, gave out orders for a mortar team to take out a German sniper position, regrouped the soldiers, and provided Easy Company with some much-needed tactical direction. The assault continued, morale was bolstered, and the Americans stopped getting their fucking asses handed to them on a silver platter.
Then there was this whole issue of the assault force being stupidly divided into two teams, neither one really coordinating properly with the other. Speirs had a plan there, too, and it's got to be one of the most awesome/badass/crazy battlefield plans ever devised – Ron Speirs just grabbed his rifle and fucking ran directly through the German positions to reach the Americans on the other side. No shit, he fucking blew past Nazi artillery crews, riflemen, and Tiger tanks like he was out for a run around Boston Common on a quiet Sunday morning.
At this point basically every German firearm in the town of Foy was trying to bust a chunk of lead into Lieutenant Speirs' brain, but he didn't give a crap. He ran through the streets, bullets and explosions going off all around him, and reached the Americans on the other side. Then, once he gave them his updated orders, he fucking ran BACK THROUGH THE GODDAMNED TOWN to his original position. How nuts do you have to be?!
The plan worked; Speirs emerged unharmed, and the 101st captured Foy. Not only is this completely awesome, but it also makes for the greatest scene in the entire Band of Brothers miniseries. I just love the look on the faces of those 88 crewmen when Speirs blows by them like a camouflaged lightning bolt.
Speirs made Captain after the battle, and was placed in command of Company E. He led Easy Company through the rest of the war, oversaw the capture of Hitler's Eagle's Nest, and beat the shit out of some punk soldier who flipped out and shot one of his own men ("When you talk to an officer, you say 'sir'.") After the fall of the Third Reich, He still hadn't had his fill of ass-kicking, so he decided to stay in Europe despite the fact that he had more than enough "points" to go home. Hell, he didn't even limit his face-wrecking to the Nazis – after World War II, he commanded a rifle company in the Korean War, fought in Laos, served as an intelligence officer working against the Soviets in the Cold War, and was the US ambassador of Spandau Prison in Berlin, where he personally ensured that ex-Nazi prisoners-of-war didn't escape (they didn't). He passed away in April 2007, one of the toughest motherfuckers to ever wear the uniform and a man that nobody – even the most hardcore US Army Paratroopers – wanted to cross.
Ambrose, Stephen. Band of Brothers. Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Winters, Richard D. Beyond Band of Brothers. Berkley, 2006.