William 'Wild Bill' Guarnere dies; was member of WWII 'Band of Brothers'
PHILADELPHIA — William Guarnere didn't have to go to war.
At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, he was building tanks at the old Baldwin Locomotive Works, a job considered crucial to the war effort and good for an exemption from military service.
But Bill didn't take it. He enlisted in the Army paratroops on Aug. 31, 1942, and the rest is legend.
"Wild Bill" Guarnere, the nickname he earned as a fearless combat soldier against the Germans, was a member of the legendary "Band of Brothers" — Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division — celebrated in books and an HBO miniseries in 2001.
Guarnere, the South Philadelphia kid who earned the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts among other decorations in World War II combat, who lost a leg at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in 1944 and returned home to live a productive life unimpaired by his injury, died Saturday. He was 90 and lived in South Philly.
"He didn't think he was handicapped," said a granddaughter, Deborah Rafferty. "He could run faster than me."
Bill had a special grudge against the Germans. His older brother, Henry, had been killed in combat at Monte Casino in Italy, and he wanted revenge.
He made his first combat jump on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of Normandy. Easy Company landed behind enemy lines right into a firefight raging in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
"I couldn't wait to get off the plane," he said in an Inquirer interview in 2010. "I killed every German I could. That's why they called me 'Wild Bill.' "
His unit was assigned to secure the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont to block Germans retreating from Utah Beach, one of the five beaches in the Normandy invasion.
When his unit encountered a detachment of German soldiers, Lt. Richard Winters told his men to wait for his command to fire. But Bill couldn't wait. He opened fire with his submachine gun and wiped out most of the German patrol.
Later that day, Winters' unit attacked a group of four large howitzers at Brecourt Manor. Bill was a platoon sergeant when his force of only a dozen men attacked an enemy unit of about 50.
Bill was wounded in mid-October 1944 when he was shot in the right leg by a sniper while riding a motorcycle that he had liberated from a farmer near the Rhine River. He fell off the bike, broke his right tibia and suffered shrapnel in his back.
He was sent to a hospital in England. While recovering, he feared he would be assigned to another outfit, and he managed to flee the hospital. He was caught, court-martialed, busted to a private and sent back to the hospital.
He warned authorities that he would just go AWOL again to get back to his outfit. The hospital officials finally relented and sent him to the Netherlands where he rejoined Easy Company.
Bill was in time to participate in the ferocious Battle of the Bulge after the German army had made a breakthrough in the bitter winter of December 1944.
He lost his right leg in a German artillery barrage while helping a comrade who also had lost a leg.
Bill Guarnere's war was over.
He received the Silver Star medal for the action at Brecourt Manor on D-Day, and later received two Bronze Stars for valor and two Purple Heart medals for his wounds.
Over the ensuing years, the Band of Brothers slowly whittled as its members aged. Bill's fellow South Philadelphian, Edward "Babe" Heffron, died in December at age 90.
And Easy Company's revered lieutenant, Richard Winters, of Hershey, Pa., who retired from the Army as a major, died in 2011 at age 92.
Wild Bill and Babe Heffron teamed up to write a book of their own, Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends: Two WWII Paratroopers from the Original Band of Brothers Tell Their Story, in 2007.
Guarnere was played by actor Frank John Hughes in the TV miniseries, based on the Stephen Ambrose book of the same title.
Bill was born in Philadelphia, the youngest of the 10 children of Joseph and Augusta Guarnere. While working nights at Baldwin, he graduated from South Philadelphia High School in 1941.
"He was sweet, funny and ornery," said granddaughter Deborah Rafferty. "He could do anything."
After the war, Bill worked for Publicker Industries and U.S. Gypsum, among other jobs.
He was also active in veterans organizations and spoke to schoolchildren about the war.
Bill suffered a heart attack about six years ago, but recovered. He died of an abdominal aneurysm.
He is survived by his wife of 68 years, the former Frances Peca; two sons, Eugene and William Guarnere Jr.; nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Services: Funeral Mass 10 a.m. Friday at St. Edmond's Church, 21st Street and Snyder Avenue. Friends my call at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Ruffenach Funeral Home, 2101 S. 21st St., and 8:30 a.m. Friday at the funeral home. Burial will be private.