Thursday, October 17, 2002

One of the “Band of Brothers”

Published in the Current

Walking into Lester Hashey’s home, it’s clear he is a veteran proud of his service. The former paratrooper has a small parachuting figure hanging
high in a living room window. A poster with the names of the 51 men of his outfit who were killed in action hangs in the corner, a litany of small-print names impossible to ignore.

And upstairs, his beloved pool table is covered in piles of photos from the war and unit reunions since. On the walls are mementos, including his Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, unit patches and his paratrooper’s wings.

But not until the time comes to leave the Scarborough home of this energetic 77-year-old does his role in history become clear. To the right of the front door hangs a 16-by-20-inch print of a drawing of a church in the Dutch town of Eindhoven, a town liberated by Hashey and his fellow soldiers in 1944.

Though the church was destroyed, a modern Dutch artist drew it in honor of the liberation.

Printed at the bottom of the display are five simple words: “Thank you for our freedom.”

Hashey has had a lot of recognition, especially in the last 10 years or so, as a former member of Easy Company, Second Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

He and 37 others are the only surviving members of a group that has become famous in the Emmy-winning HBO special “Band of Brothers,” inspired by the Stephen Ambrose book of the same name.

Hashey remembers the day the group liberated the town, having parachuted in the night before, as part of Operation Market Garden, to secure the town. The soldiers were, he said, “looking for German snipers” while being greeted by thousands of people in the streets, who lifted the Americans on their shoulders to celebrate their freedom.

That day, Hashey signed a school notebook belonging to a 16-year-old Dutch girl named Lise. “Everybody wanted your autograph,” he said.

Many years later, at the 2000 dedication of the D-Day Museum in New Orleans, he saw Lise again, and she was carrying her notebook.

“She came all the way from Holland to thank me for her freedom,” Hashey said.

A boy’s dream
When Hashey was 15, he went to see a double-feature at a Portland movie theater, and saw a short newsreel about an elite group of infantry, whose soldiers were trained paratroopers as well as excellent skiers.

Right then, he decided that was what he wanted to do. Two years later, in 1942, he dropped out of Portland High School to become a shipbuilder in the Liberty shipyards in South Portland. Soon after, he was drafted into the Army.

He volunteered for airborne duty and was part of the 93rd class of paratroopers. “It was tough,” he said, but rewarding, “to be a paratrooper at a time when nobody had ever been up in a plane.” Paratroopers never had it easy. If they went up in a plane, it was for a jump. “It wasn’t until 1950 – the Berlin airlift – that I ever landed in a plane,” Hashey said.

He joined Easy Company after half the unit’s members were killed during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. They jumped into Holland on Sept. 17 of that year, as part of Operation Market Garden, designed to open a route from Eindhoven north to Arnhem. Expecting to be on the ground for a week, they ended up there for nearly three months.

The original intent of the mission was to take a bridge and hold it until the tanks arrived. Resistance was tough, and on a planned rest away from the front, Hashey and his fellow soldiers found themselves in the middle of one of the key battles of the war.

“We weren’t sure what country we were in,” Hashey said. They had little ammunition, having left the front lines. But they soon found out both where they were and what kind of firepower they would need: The Germans broke through Allied lines on both sides of the town of Bastogne, Belgium, surrounding Hashey and his comrades.

The men formed a circle, with the artillery in the center, and fought off repeated German attacks for 10 days before they were able to reconnect with Allied forces.

Hashey remembers how close the battles were. Had the Germans attacked from more than one point simultaneously, he said, the artillery would have been too weak to repel the attacks, and “they would have had us all for prisoners of war.”

After the soldiers broke the siege, they went immediately on the offensive, fighting their way up the road to the town of Foy, where Hashey was wounded in action and evacuated for treatment.

He returned to Belgium in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of D-Day and went on a short drive to Foy. He saw the ridge he once climbed, but because they were all foot soldiers, “there’s no evidence that we were ever there,” he said.

The welcome he got, though, was evidence enough. In addition to the medal from the Queen of the Netherlands, there was an amazing parade. “Three hundred thousand people came to watch us walk through a town,” Hashey said, beaming.

The road to stardom
Such attention wasn’t what he expected. After the war, he became a swimming instructor and sports director, working at military bases all over Europe and in Asia. He even taught West Point cadets and Special Forces troops how to swim and fight in the water.

When he retired from the service in 1963, he got a job with the American Red Cross, teaching swimming around the country. He retired recently from his job as director of water safety and first aid in Portland, but still teaches CPR a couple of days a week, which he has done since CPR was developed in 1971.

For his dedication, he was made a commodore in the Commodore Longfellow Society, named after the founder of the American Red Cross swimming and lifeguarding program, in what he said was one of the proudest moments of his life. Next week he will present the first Lester A. Hashey Award for Teaching Excellence to a Portland-area Red Cross teacher.

Hashey never thought his experience on the ground in Europe in 1944 would end up as a big story. But World War II historian Stephen Ambrose changed that. Ambrose, who died at age 66 earlier this week, “was a great guy,” Hashey said.

Ambrose spent hours and hours interviewing each of the men in Hashey’s unit in a hotel room during the reunion, and wrote a book, “Band of Brothers.” Actor and director Tom Hanks took the book and made a docudrama miniseries for HBO about the men of Easy Company, including Hashey.

The story has attracted attention from all over the world. The unit just had a reunion, which was attended by over 300 people, more than triple the largest reunion attendance before. He and his buddies sat at a long table and in two and a half hours, Hashey estimates, signed over 1,000 copies of Ambrose’s book.

Hashey is clearly proud of his accomplishments and said that being a paratrooper is one of the things he is most proud of, along with being a commodore. He met a goal he had when he was young, and it gave him the confidence to “do anything” with his life, despite difficult beginnings.

“Back in the Depression days things were tough. When I quit school, nobody told me that was a stupid thing to do,” Hashey said.

Even that has now been remedied. A couple of weeks ago, Portland High School granted him a diploma, under a program that allows veterans who dropped out to be awarded diplomas now.

What he did instead of high school may make for better storytelling, though. Looking at a photo from the war, he remembers every detail. He and a buddy were spending the night in the top of a windmill near the Rhine River and could smell someone cooking beef nearby. He convinced his friend to come downstairs with him to get some food.

Just when they reached the bottom of the stairs, two shells hit the windmill. When they returned to their sleeping site, Hashey’s sleeping bag had large holes in it, and his pack was destroyed. “My toothpaste was blown up,” Hashey said.

That 1944 photo reminds him that every moment is lucky. “I almost got killed in this windmill,” he said. “If we had been one minute later. . . ”