John McGrath, a reluctant World War II hero whose derring-do became well known after his depiction in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” died on Tuesday. He was 92.
For decades, McGrath’s local claim to fame was his service to the Elmwood Park Fire Department in New Jersey, which he joined in 1952. He was chief in 1970 and 1971, when the borough was called East Paterson. After retiring as a truck driver, he worked as the borough’s part-time fire code official.
True to the Greatest Generation, the humorously gruff McGrath, who was known as Jack, seldom spoke about what he did in the war.
Stephen E. Ambrose blew his cover.
The historian and biographer immortalized the soldiers of Easy Company, the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, in his 1992 book “Band of Brothers.” McGrath belonged to the legendary company, whose successes stretched from D-Day to the capture of Hitler’s Bavarian outpost. The Carlstadt-born soldier had his moment on page 100, where Ambrose describes how McGrath blew up a German tank with a bazooka shot — “the critical moment,” Ambrose writes, in the Allied forces’ taking of Carentan, France, during the invasion of Normandy.
“Band of Brothers” became a critically acclaimed miniseries in 2001, and McGrath’s exploits were officially out in the open.
“I had no idea of his war record until the miniseries — he never said anything,” said Richard Mola, a longtime friend and Elmwood Park’s mayor since 1972.
Reticence was in McGrath’s character, his son Jim said.
“The only time we heard war stories were at barbecues,” he said. “He didn’t see himself as a hero. He didn’t volunteer; he was drafted. And the reason he became a paratrooper was he could make more money to send home to his mother.”
The miniseries’ popularity forced McGrath, not an active participant in veterans’ organizations, to talk publicly about the war. Mola saw that as a good thing. His friend got the publicity, he said, “but it wasn’t like he was out there bragging.”
Interviewed by The Record during the miniseries’ run, McGrath said he learned he was in the Ambrose book when his brother-in-law gave him a copy and told him to look at page 100. He offered a theory why he was mentioned in the book just once while other Easy Company soldiers got greater play:
“You see, the way this thing came about, Stephen Ambrose goes to the reunions, and I never made it to one,” he said. “I was trying to raise a family and trying to give them something a little more than I had … so instead of spending $1,000 to go to New Orleans to listen to a lot of malarkey, I sent the kids to college.”
McGrath’s wife, Irene, said Wednesday that her husband had no time for military reunions because he was too busy with the Fire Department.
“He just loved that Fire Department,” she said.
The affection was mutual. Robert Daubenberger, captain of the department’s Company 2, called McGrath a department “icon.”
“You knew where you stood with Jack,” he said. “He told you how he felt, and he pulled no punches.”
McGrath retired as fire code official at age 90. He had no injuries during his six-decade Fire Department career and no injuries as an Army paratrooper. Mola said his friend, a recipient of the Silver Star and Bronze Star with clusters, joked that his good fortune during the war cost him the Purple Heart.
Asked whether his father was proudest of his war record or Fire Department record, Jim McGrath said neither.
“He was a husband and father first,” he said. “All the rest came after that.”
McGrath is survived by his wife of 64 years; sons John of Basking Ridge and Jim of Seaside Park; four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
An upside of the “Band of Brothers” publicity was that Mr. McGrath could tell the irresistible story of how he took Hitler’s car for a spin.
Triumphantly swooping into the Fuhrer’s lair, McGrath and his comrades came upon a shiny black Mercedes-Benz.
“We took over a billet of the SS, and, being nosy, we opened a door and said, ‘Ooh, what have we got here?’” McGrath recalled. “I drove it through the town. We managed to steal gas and everything else. We had fun with it.”
Then they pumped a bullet into the window.