In a photo taken June 7, 1944, paratroopers of the 506th PIR. stand weary from a day of battle in the town square at St. Marie-du-Mont, France. Easy Company vet Forrest Guth has inscribed and signed the photo.
By WILLIAM F. HOWARD
When HBO launched its multi-part television mini series, Band of Brothers, in 2001, the nation was reeling from the effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks on America. In the HBO series, television viewers found the story of one combat unit’s experience in “the Good War,” both startling and uplifting. The series, like the book by Stephen Ambrose that inspired it, depicted war both in glory and pathos and chronicled the account of common men who served their country as the members of Company E of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) during WWII. The men emerged as uncommon heroes in their service.
Following the airing of the HBO series, the surviving veterans of Company E became instant celebrities. These men, who had endured so much in war and returned home to build families and peaceful lives, suddenly found themselves in the vortex of fame. Major Richard “Dick” Winters, the impressive combat leader who was played by the actor Damian Lewis in the television series, was deluged with requests for autographs, interviews and public appearances. He received hundreds of letters each week requesting original memorabilia or autographs — an outpouring of interest that surprised him and posed a burden to he and his elderly wife as they struggled to keep ahead of the postman. Ultimately, Winters was forced to stop signing autographs and responded to the majority of signature requests with a preprinted letter explaining his plight. He later published a memoir that tried to answer many of the questions that were posed to him by historians, collectors and those interested in his WWII service. Winters’ book, Beyond Band of Brothers: The Memoirs of Major Dick Winters, was published in 2006.
In a new book, We Who Are Alive and Remain, documenting the history of the Band of Brothers, author Marcus Brotherton indicates that of the 366 paratroopers known to have served with Company E during World War II, only 36 veterans were alive as of July 2009.
SO MANY QUESTIONS
Interest in the history of the Band of Brothers has generated much demand for items associated with the famous unit and the paratroopers who served in it. WWII paratrooper memorabilia has always commanded a premium, but the Band of Brothers phenomena sent prices soaring as collectors scrambled to add anything associated with the unit to their collections.
The demand for material and the availability of screen-used props for sale raises interesting questions about both collecting and how value is set within the marketplace. Does a prop uniform used in the HBO series have value as a military collectible? Should the value of such an item exceed the value of an original item that was used during WWII?
Why do the signatures of the Band of Brothers veterans command a value higher than the signatures of other paratroopers who served in the war? Will such items continue to hold strong value after the Easy Company veterans have all left this earth and public memory of the HBO series has faded? What is it that collectors seek in collecting such items? Do collectors aim to preserve history or merely establish a connection between themselves and the veteran now enjoying his 15-minutes of HBO-inspired fame?
An original, and heretofore unpublished photo, of Easy Company paratrooper, Don King. King has captioned the photo “Going for a spin (just kidding) in a lightweight plane” and indicates that the image was taken in June 1945 at the air field near Zell, Austria. Such original photos are very rare and are eagerly sought by collectors.
What is the historical and collecting difference between items signed for collectors by the veterans (such as mass-produced photos) and original items from the period associated with their wartime service? How does economic value reflect such differences? And, finally, why is there a disparity between the items used by Easy Company paratroopers and those used by the men of other units (such as Company F, for example) who endured the same wartime experiences, suffered through the same hard winter at Bastogne, but whose service was not chronicled by Stephen Ambrose or HBO?
FAN MAIL AND PHOTOGRAPHS
Many Band of Brothers veterans have made photographs available to satisfy collector requests for signatures. The photographs, reprinted from original WWII portraits and snapshots, can frequently be found on Internet auction sites for sale. But the mass production of these modern photographs poses an interesting challenge for collectors since the photographs themselves have no intrinsic historical value and are collected primarily for the signatures added to them by the veterans. While original wartime photos are rare and certainly hold both historical and collector value, the modern images signed by Major Winters or the other Easy Company vets, have value because of collector demand. Such demand appears to be fueled by the desire for connection with those men now so familiar because of their depiction in book and movie.
Forrest Guth, the innovative paratrooper who preserved much of the Easy Company story by ignoring army regulations and taking hundreds of battlefield photographs during his service, used to sell a signed copy of one of his most well known images in order to raise funds for a local high school history publication. At one point, he was selling signed copies of the 8x10 photo for $10, but increasing age has suspended such efforts. Those signed photos of Forrest Guth now retail for $50 to $100.
Reproduction Allied Occupation currency signed by the controversial Easy Company Captain Ronald C. Speirs. Author Stephen Ambrose wrote that Speirs was “an officer with a reputation. Slim, fairly tall, dark hair, stern, ruggedly handsome, he cultivated the look of a leader and acted it.”
“Wild Bill” Guarnere, the flamboyant Easy Company paratrooper who lost a leg in the war and who was one of the featured characters depicted in the HBO series, has, for several years, marketed signed photos and memorabilia on his Web site, www.wildbillguarnere.com. Guarnere’s signature on photographs retails in the range $30-$85.
Items associated with the controversial Captain Ronald Speirs are also very collectible and have increased in value since Speirs’ death in 2006. While the reprint photos on the market tend to be of very poor quality, an example authentically signed by Speirs with his distinctive “R.C. Speirs” signature is usually valued at $75 to $100.
By far, the most collectible Band of Brothers signed photos available to collectors are those of Major Richard “Dick” Winters. Before the HBO series, autographs from Major Winters were readily available in almost all forms and Winters would respond personally to letters and sometimes send a laser print copy of a photograph taken at Camp Toccoa to collectors. Winters often signed these, “Hang Tough/Richard “Dick” Winters.” These original signed photos are now in great demand and command a premium price of $125 to $225 depending on condition.
Signed photographs of the remaining Easy Company veterans generally fall into the range of $15 to $35. Even examples signed by Darrell “Shifty” Powers who died in June 2009, are still available within this price range.
Collecting the signed photos of the Band of Brothers heroes can be rewarding, but it is a fair question to ask as to whether such modern reproduction photograph are “militaria” and whether such items have any genuine historical value beyond the temporal public interest sparked by the TV series and book.
MARKET DETERMINES VALUE
Until recently, when many of the Easy Company veterans came to the conclusion that some professional dealers were taking advantage of their largesse in responding to “collector” inquiries for signatures, most of the Band of Brothers vets were willing and cooperative signers. Among the current Company E survivors, Colonel Ed Shames, and medics Ed Pepping and Al Mampre, should be considered the most challenging.
Index cards and commemorative stamped covers featuring the signatures of surviving or recently deceased E Company veterans are widely available and can be obtained in the $10 to $30 price range—the only other exception being Major Winters ($50 to $75).
Letters from E Company vets are not often encountered. In general, letters from most surviving veterans with general content are valued from $35 to $75 with examples from Major Winters commanding a premium of $85 to $125. Letters signed by author Stephen Ambrose can be found in the $50 to $125 range depending on content.
Ralph Spina served as a medic with Company E, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Spina brought back a large collection of memorabilia from WWII. A few items from his collection appeared on the collector’s market in 2006. He signed this photo shortly before his death in December 2007.
Collectors have become very creative in collecting the signatures of Band of Brothers veterans on interesting and unusual items. At a recent reunion, one collector requested the assembled veterans to autograph a high quality reproduction of Major (then Captain) Winters’ WWII helmet. The one-of-a-kind item, signed by eight vets in silver paint pen, is valued at about $450 to $500. Another collector produced a reproduction wooden sign bearing the hand painted name, BASTOGNE in bold black letters, that was signed by several E Company vets.
Such a unique item would likely be valued at about $125. In addition to these items, Easy Company vets multi-signed copies of original WWII LIFE magazines ($50-$125) and both original and reproduction examples of the special invasion currency issued to the paratroopers ($25-$50) as well as reproduction copies of General Eisenhower’s D-Day order ($85-$150).
In 2005, E Company medic Ralph Spina sold an extensive lot of original WWII souvenirs that he brought back from the war. The lot, which was purchased for $650, included a pair of German binoculars captured from enemy officers at Foy in 1945 (an incident mentioned in the Ambrose book) as well as a small officer’s Walther pistol, an SS belt buckle and a German pennant.
HISTORY OR HOLLYWOOD?
For many collectors, assembling a collection of items associated with the brave men of Easy Company is not just a means of displaying respect and appreciation, but a way of securing personal connection to men of war now made famous as both literary characters and as film legends. It is a fair question to consider what it is about these men (other than fame) that separates them from the hundreds of thousands of WWII combat veterans who shared similar experiences. The redeeming and respectful answer to that question, both from the standpoint of history and of collecting is, “not much.”
Such a response is not intended to disparage the impressive record of service of the E Company vets — both of those who survive and of those who are gone — but to suggest that in their fame and renown the real contribution of the Easy Company vets, Stephen Ambrose and the HBO series, is that the celebrated veterans have come to represent those WWII vets who experienced the same horrors of combat and war, but whose stories will never been told.
In this, the men of Easy Company are not necessarily exceptional for their personal accomplishment when compared to them contemporaries, but in the manner in which the documentation of their stories are, in sum and substance, the stories of all of the men who donned a uniform during WWII. The quiet and dignified familiar heroes of Easy Company represent the quiet and dignified unknown heroes of the war, whether paratrooper or infantryman, sailor or Marine. That recognition is what separates Hollywood from history, and is the real value of the public interest in the Band of Brothers.
At a reunion of Band of Brothers veterans convened a few years ago, Easy Company Lieutenant Ed Shames summed it up well when a young collector approached him, praised his heroic service, and asked the old veteran for his autograph. “I’m no hero,” Shames responded to the boy, “the heroes are the men who never made it back.” Until the time when they, too, are called to rest, the men of Easy Company will likely continue to stand as distinguished public reminders of an entire generation who fought and died in World War II.