Edward James 'Babe' Heffron dies; was one of the 'Band of Brothers'
Two U.S. soldiers, dug into the snow and dirt east of Bastogne, Belgium, man .30-caliber light machine guns as they keep an eye out for German troops.
PHILADELPHIA — Babe Heffron never wanted the limelight. But he got it anyway.
People would show up at his door in South Philadelphia just to meet a genuine war hero.
"He was always gracious," said his son-in-law, Edward Zavrel. "Especially with kids. He would tell them about America."
Babe was a member of the legendary World War II "Band of Brothers," the Army paratroopers extolled in the 1992 Stephen Ambrose book Band of Brothers, and in an HBO miniseries of the same name, in which Babe was played by Scottish actor Robin Laing.
He also was the co-author of the 2007 book Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends: Two WWII Paratroopers From the Original Band of Brothers Tell Their Story, written with Army comrade William J. "Wild Bill" Guarnere - also a South Philadelphian - and journalist Robyn Post.
Edward James "Babe" Heffron died Sunday. He was 90.
"He was a very private person," said his son-in-law. "He liked to keep things quiet."
He especially did not want to upset his beloved daughter, Patricia Zavrel, and managed to avoid telling her about his war experiences before the book came out.
"She would say, 'Dad fought in the war,' " and that's all she knew before the book," said Ed Zavrel, Patricia's husband.
If he'd had his way, that's all she would have known about the war.
"Babe was always concerned about other people," Ed said. "He didn't want a big funeral because he didn't want to ruin people's Christmas.
"He was proud of his service, but he felt that he just did what he had to do. If he talked about the war, he would tell humorous stories, about making jokes and singing."
Babe, who stood 5 feet 4½ inches, was a private in Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, from 1942 to 1945.
Easy Company - the "Band of Brothers" - fought in several major battles in the European Theater, beginning with the Normandy invasion. Easy Company also participated in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands - made famous by the book A Bridge Too Far, which was also made into an epic film, and the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium. Both were desperate and critical engagements.
At the Bulge, he was a machine gunner and awarded the Bronze Star for valor.
His unit helped liberate the Kaufering concentration camp in Landsberg, Germany, a Dachau subcamp where the Nazis murdered 14,500 Jews. The unit also seized Hitler's Eagle Nest, the luxurious lodge at Berchtesgaden in the Austrian Alps presented to Hitler on his 50th birthday by his subordinates.
For years after the war, Babe had problems celebrating Christmas and New Year's. Christmas reminded him of the desperate Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, the bloodiest battle of the European Theater; New Year's Day reminded him of the death of his best friend, John T. "Johnny" Julian, killed on that day in 1945 at Bastogne.
After the war, Babe worked for the Publicker Industries whiskey distillery in Philadelphia for 20 years, then on the Delaware River waterfront as a cargo checker for 27 years.
"He retired at the age of 70, but he didn't want to," Ed Zavrel said. "If he had his way, he would still be working. He didn't like to sit around. He would walk uptown to buy a newspaper and visit the stores. It didn't matter what the weather was. He'd go out in rain or snow.
"On a bad day, Patricia would call him and say, 'Don't go out!' He'd call her later and tell her he had gone out anyway."
Babe kept in almost daily touch with Guarnere, his friend and co-author. Guarnere was Babe's platoon sergeant, and he lost his right leg at the Battle of the Bulge. "He'd call Bill to remind him to take his medicine," Ed said.
"He was old school," Ed said. "If there was an old school, he was the principal."
Although Babe enjoyed looking up old Army comrades and hanging out with them, he never took part in veterans activities. He was never in a parade.
Edward Heffron grew up in hardscrabble times in Philly. He was born in South Philly the third of the five children of Joseph Heffron, a prison guard, and Anne Heffron. He attended Sacred Heart Parochial School and South Philadelphia High School, where he played football.
During the Great Depression, he dropped out of high school to help his family. He worked for the New York Shipbuilding Co. in Camden, sandblasting cruisers that would be converted to light-aircraft carriers.
Because of the job, he was exempt from the draft, and, with a physical condition that caused his hands to cramp up, he could have avoided military service. But he didn't want to. Three brothers and some friends were going into the Army, and he wanted to go, too. He enlisted on Nov. 7, 1942.
Babe is referred to frequently in the Ambrose book, and appears as himself at the end of Episode 10 in the miniseries produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, speaking about Easy Company. He also had a cameo in the fourth episode, sitting at a table in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, waving a small flag.
Babe said he was pleased with the way Robin Laing portrayed him.
City Councilman James Kenney said Babe Heffron affected the lives of many people who crossed his path, including Kenney.
"I've known him for a long time and he was a terrific person, certainly a hero," Kenney told NBC10. "He was very wise and he kept all of his senses till the very end. I mean his brain was as sharp and witty as a 30-year-old. He was one of the funniest, wittiest guys I've ever known."
Besides his daughter, Babe is survived by his wife, the former Delores Moffitt.