September 12, 2009 8:29:00 PM
Jan Swoope - firstname.lastname@example.org
The last living Mississippian of the 101st Airborne''s legendary World War II Band of Brothers enjoys sitting quietly on his front porch in Caledonia, listening to his birds hold court in branches overhead.
Shaded from a high sun, Bradford Freeman watches patiently for occasional deer that might stroll into the field across the rural road. Profuse purple petunias spill over a narrow walkway next to his home of the last 54 years. He thinks about the okra waiting for him in the garden and, later, feeding the chickens. The encompassing peace is broken only sporadically by a passing car.
The scene is light years from the grandeur of Great Britain''s Buckingham Palace, and yet that''s where the 85-year-old Lowndes County veteran found himself two months ago, in a private audience with Prince Charles, signing autographs at an international air show and plaque dedication and ferried about the bustling city of London.
The last time the former private first class was in England''s capitol was in 1944, alongside others in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment''s renowned Easy Company, attached to the 101st''s Screaming Eagles. The paratroopers'' storied achievements inspired films like "The Longest Day" (1962), "A Bridge Too Far" (1977) and the 2001 HBO mini-series produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, "Band of Brothers" (based on Stephen Ambrose''s non-fiction book of the same name.)
"I don''t much like towns," said the Artesia-born Freeman. "But I was glad to see London with the lights. The last time I saw it, there were no lights. Everybody had dark cloth over their windows."
Freeman and three of his Army compatriots -- Don Malarkey, Lynn "Buck" Compton and Ed Tipper (made well-known by the "Band of Brothers" series) -- traveled to England in July courtesy of Valor Studio and Valor magazine, the history publication dedicated to "honoring the sacrifices of America''s veterans." "Mr. Bradford''s" good friend, local attorney Steve Wallace, accompanied him. Wallace also served in the 101st Airborne, in Vietnam.
At Buckingham Palace, the men of Easy Company and Valor editor Andrew Makos visited with the Prince of Wales. Makos asked Freeman to help present a signed military art print depicting the 101st to the crown''s heir.
As a former mortar gunner with the specially-trained unit that daringly parachuted behind enemy lines on D-Day, Freeman isn''t intimidated by much, even a royal encounter.
"We didn''t think too much about it; he was just another paratrooper," he says with a small tongue-in-cheek grin. Prince Charles served in both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. "He was a paratrooper in Vietnam," continued Freeman. "He told us he once jumped out of a balloon!"
This wasn''t the first trip the Caledonian has made with Valor. He, with Wallace, and other E Company vets have made multiple trips to Pennsylvania, where they''ve visited in military hospitals, made speeches and signed patriotic prints depicting the heralded exploits of "the Easy" -- from the Normandy landings to occupying Hitler''s "Eagle''s Nest" mountain retreat near the end of the war.
Treasures in time
Inside the widower''s home, a large clock ticks on the mantle, just under a shadow box filled with medals and ribbons earned by the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne. Framed pictures of Freeman''s family members, smiling from the past, cover the table opposite.
The veteran carefully thumbs through a collection of war-time photos, citations of thanks from England and France, maps and memorabilia he''s kept all these years.
Sepia-toned images, including two of Britain''s Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower visiting E Company, stand out. He slowly extracts a copy of a message Eisenhower distributed to the company before D-Day:
"Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. ... Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely. But this is 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41 ... "
We were here
Freeman points to a spot on a lined map. "This is where we were, up here looking down onto the town." He talks of landmark missions at Bastogne, Belgium, and Holland and France -- Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge.
"Wasn''t none of it pleasant ... wasn''t none of it good," he says, as though reluctant to verbalize too many details of fierce battles. "We had to go by what they taught us: If your buddy got hit and you could help him, help him. If you couldn''t, then you had to move on."
Of living conditions: "We were living pretty rough. We made homemade beds, got our hay from a farmer to make some straw mattresses." Food, winter clothing and even ammo were sometimes scarce.
Freeman was hit by shrapnel on Jan. 15, 1945, and transported to a hospital. He would come home to Mississippi in October of that year, unaware at the time "the Easy" would eventually be recognized as the best-known company of the United States Army during World War II.
In Caledonia, the memories are still pretty fresh for Bradford Freeman, barely dimmed by a 32-year career with the postal service and decades peppered with cattle and crop farming and gardening.
By a chair near the ticking mantle clock, not far from the Screaming Eagles banner made for him when he spoke to high school seniors in Amory recently, a stack of letters waits. The postmarks are from Maine, Ohio, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and all points between. They''re from students and others who revere the Band of Brothers. Many ask for autographs.
Pfc. Freeman, with humble dignity, thumbs through the stack and smiles, saying, "They make me feel like I was something."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.