"Dear Sir or Madam: Soon your son will drop from the sky to engage and defeat the enemy. He will have the best of weapons, and equipment, and have had months of hard, strenuous training to prepare him for success on the battlefield.
“Your frequent letters of love and encouragement will arm him with a fighting heart. With that, he cannot fail, but will win glory for himself, make you proud of him, and his country ever grateful for his service in its hour of need.
“Herbert M. Sobel, Capt., Commanding.”
Captain Herbert Sobel’s story is one of tragedy. Not the tragedy of bereavement, losing a child, or anything like that. It is a more subtle tragedy. It is the tragedy of having no-one like you.
“Sobel had no friends. Officers would avoid him in the officers’ club. None went on a pass with him, none sought out his company. No one...knew anything about his previous life and no one cared.”
Stephen E. Ambrose
Sobel was a hated man and this perpetuated a lifetime of misery for him. He wasn’t a fundamentally bad person – the problem was simply the circumstance in which his character was placed.
Origins and character:
Herbert Sobel was Jewish and originated from urban Chicago. He was tall and slim-built. His long face with receded chin contained a large hooked nose and slit-like eyes, and it sat under a full head of black hair. Sobel was a clothing salesman before spending nine years in the military, serving with the National Guard, Military Police, and earning a commission at the Officers Candidate School, before he was called from the reserves to active duty in 1940, the year before Pearl Harbour. He became a member of the 101st Airborne Division upon its creation in 1942 and was the initial member of E Company (Easy Company), 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), the company made famous by the HBO and BBC miniseries “Band of Brothers”, based on Stephen E. Ambrose’s book of the same name.
If you have seen the first episode of the Band of Brothers miniseries, then you will surely remember David Schwimmer’s outstanding performance as Captain Sobel. Anyone expecting to see Ross from Friends playing at soldiers in his usual semi-slapstick approach would have been surprised at Schwimmer’s performance. He captured the essence of Sobel and anyone watching that first Band of Brothers episode will be able to see just why Sobel was so hated. Schwimmer is the highlight of that episode, and one of the highlights of the whole series.
As commanding officer (CO) of Easy Company, Sobel elicited the universal hatred of all those under his command – all except his First Sergeant. This hatred became so bad that it would lead to his men planning to kill him when they went into combat, and ultimately, it lead to mutiny.
Role as commander of E Company, 506th PIR:
It was Sobel’s responsibility to train the recruits placed under his command. He would be training paratroops and since paratroops are elite soldiers, training would have to be far tougher than for the regular soldier. The main aspect of paratroop training, apart from actually learning to jump out of aeroplanes without getting killed, was intensive physical conditioning. According to Stephen Ambrose, Sobel was “ungainly, uncoordinated, in no way an athlete.” Leading his men in physical training was no mean feat, particularly since all those under his command were “in better physical condition”, and Sobel found exercises tougher than everyone else.
But there was a determination to the man. He would always be at the head of the company as they made their regular six or seven mile runs up Mount Currahee just outside Camp Toccoa, Georgia. Yet his inferior physical condition and ungainliness was a focus of his men’s contempt. Ambrose says; “With his big flat feet, he ran like a duck in distress”. The E Company men rejoiced when the time came for them to pass a physical test that required them to make 30 push-ups, as they knew Sobel could barely do 20 as he always stopped at that point when leading callisthenics. If he failed, he would be gone. Sobel’s turn to take the test arrived and he received a large audience quietly and excitedly observing from a distance. He reached 20 and was struggling, at 25 he was bright red and his arms were shaking. But somehow he reached the required 30.
Many men failed to make the high physical standard and were booted out, condemned to a life in the regular infantry. They could quit anytime they wanted. But Sobel was not among these men. He rose to the challenge of being an airborne officer even though he could have easily got a cushy staff job. Sobel was most definitely not a quitter. Yet even this determination could not earn the respect of his men.
Style of leadership:
Perhaps it was Sobel’s arrogance that turned the men against him? Maybe the fact he would always shout rather than speak? His annoying, high-pitched, grating voice. His constant shouting of “The Japs are gonna get ya!” and “Hi-ho Silver!” when leading runs. These are certainly things that wouldn’t have helped him to be liked. But a bigger problem was the way he became seen as a petty tyrant.
Sobel was extremely harsh on his men. He would revoke weekend passes for the tiniest infractions, such as “dirty ears”. After a day’s hard physical training, a favourite punishment for someone who had displeased him would be making them dig a 6 x 6 x 6 foot hole. When they had finished, he would simply order “fill it up”. Sobel was particularly harsh on the issue of contraband. Once after he had hurt his feet in a parachute jump, Sobel and First Sergeant Evans returned to barracks ahead of the men and began a most uncompromising search for anything that Sobel considered contraband. They went through everything and upon their return, the men found everything that they thought they owned piled on top of their bunks – personal letters from girlfriends, toothbrushes, underwear – everything. Almost everyone had something confiscated. Unauthorised ammunition, non-regulation clothing, pornography, cans of fruit stolen from the kitchen, expensive shirts were all confiscated, never to be returned. One soldier even had confiscated the 200 condoms he had collected. Heaven knows what he was going to use them for. Well, ok – but 200!?!
The men thought this was a gross invasion of their personal property. That is one way of looking at it, but I think in many ways, Sobel was totally justified in his actions here. These men were still in training. They weren’t paratroopers yet, and as such they were not really entitled to have any personal property. What were men doing with unauthorised ammunition anyway? Non-regulation clothing should definitely have been taken away – you could be shot as a spy for not wearing a uniform in combat. Soldiers have been shot for less. Pornography – maybe Sobel wanted his men to let out their frustrations elsewhere, but still, if it’s a banned item, then it’s a banned item. Stealing cans of fruit was a practice that could surely not be tolerated. A man who steals food from his comrades in the field could cause them to go hungry. 200 prophylactic kits is, let’s face it, just plain excessive in a place where access to women was limited to say the least.
Still, Sobel’s men inevitably hated him still more for this invasion of privacy.
Sobel’s treatment of his men was not just for his own personal sadistic gratification. There was a point to his cruelty – he was in many respects, being cruel to be kind. Punishing a trooper for the tiniest bit of rust on his rifle might make him think twice about letting it get rust on it again. A rusty rifle is a useless rifle, and a useless rifle may get its owner killed. His 6 x 6 x 6 foot hole digging punishment gets a soldier used to digging a good deep foxhole that may one day save his life when under shellfire. The gruelling physical conditioning would make all the men become good combat soldiers.
Such harsh treatment is still used by Special Forces instructors today. It yields great results. Mollycoddling does not make a soldier. Sobel was doing this sort of training over 60 years ago in his effort to make his company the best company in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, maybe even the whole 101st Airborne Division. He must have been doing a good job as E Company’s third platoon was the only one to have all its men make every step of the second battalion of the 506th PIR’s 118 mile march from Toccoa, to Atlanta, Georgia, without aid. The march took only 75 hours – of which only 33.5 hours were spent actually marching.
Sobel would go to any lengths to ensure his men became soldiers. The importance of a soldier keeping hold of his rifle at all times is obvious – “Your rifle is your right arm! It should be in your possession at every moment,” he would say. To teach his men a lesson, Sobel snuck into the men’s bivouac area while they were sleeping on a night exercise. He and Sergeant Evans managed to steal almost fifty rifles from their sleeping owners. This exercise was designed to prove an important point in a very graphic way. Unfortunately, after the men were called together in the morning and Sobel was telling them how lousy they were, F Company’s CO and forty-five of F Co.’s men came over, angry. Sobel had accidentally wandered into F Co.’s bivouac area and stolen their rifles by mistake! Sobel’s plan had blown up in his face, much to the amusement of his men, no doubt.
But then again, perhaps his men didn’t find this so funny. Sobel, despite his unquestionable determination, was an utterly incompetent combat leader.
Sobel displayed a distinct lack of judgement and competence in field problems. It was for this reason that the men loathed him. They could endure his “chicken-shit” ways, but they would not tolerate being under the command of a man whose performance in combat simulations was so moronic that he was surely going to lead them to their deaths. Firstly, Sobel could not read maps. This is a poor show for the CO of a company. If the CO doesn’t know where he is, how can he know how his position relates to the grander scheme of things? How can he know where his allies are? Or, more importantly, how can he know where the enemy is? In field exercises, Sobel would continually be quietly asking his Executive Officer where he was, and his poor XO would have to try and tell him without embarrassing him. He needn’t have tried to be so subtle since everybody knew full well what was happening.
Sobel’s whole style of command in the field was wrong. He would make snap decisions without consultation or thinking them through. Ok, many great commanders have taken this approach to leadership, but, the thing is, they were always right. Sobel was very often wrong in his decisions. First Lieutenant Richard D. Winters describes an example of Sobel’s inept and often jumpy leadership in Stephen Ambrose’s "Band of Brothers". The company was in a defensive position in the woods around their training camp at Toccoa, Georgia. All that they had to do was stay hidden, stay quiet, and let the “enemy” wander into the killing zone. Winters describes;
“No problem, just an easy job. Just spread the men out, get them in position, 'everyone be quiet.' We’re waiting, waiting, waiting. Suddenly a breeze starts to pick up into the woods, and the leaves start to rustle, and Sobel jumps up. 'Here they come! Here they come!' God Almighty! If we were in combat, the whole damn company would be wiped out. And I thought, 'I can’t go into combat with this man! He’s got no damn sense at all!'”
Winters’ feelings here were very typical of E Company. In fact, such feelings were universal. Everyone felt that Sobel would get them all killed in combat
. This led many men to talk, not jokingly, about killing him once they were on the battlefield
. The man who did it would probably have been heralded as a hero by his comrades.
Tricks played on Sobel:
Until they parachuted into Normandy in the early hours of the 6th June, 1944 – D-Day – every man in E Co.’s war was not with the Germans, but with Sobel. They therefore took great pleasure in making life difficult for him. In November 1942, Sobel made Private Ed Tipper his runner. Tipper comments that; “With my help, Sobel was able to mislay his maps, compass, and other items when he most needed them.” Tipper wasn’t the only one providing Sobel with such “assistance”. The men were hoping that by making him more disorientated and lost than normal, they would cause him to “screw up so badly that he’d be replaced”.
Another trick played on Sobel was in a cross-country march in England in late 1943 by Private George Luz, who could imitate voices. Sobel was leading the way, but progress was being slowed by the large number of barbed wire fences. Luz, out of sight, shouted out, imitating the voice of Major Oliver Horton, Sobel’s CO. The conversation went roughly as follows:
Luz: Captain Sobel, what’s the holdup?
Sobel: The barbed wire.
Luz: Cut those fences!
Sobel: Yes, sir!
The next day, a group of Wiltshire farmers
complained to the regimental CO, Lieutenant Colonel Strayer
, that their fences had been cut and their cows
were loose all over the countryside. Sobel “caught hell”, but there was nothing he could do about it. It turned out that Major Horton was actually on leave in London
This was by no means the worst prank played on Sobel. There were more life threatening ones. For instance, at the live firing ranges, Sobel experienced some “accidental” near misses. However, the worst was played on a field exercise where some men were designated simulated casualties so that the medics could practice their bandages, improvised splints and casts. Sobel was one of those chosen. Stephen Ambrose describes what happened next:
“The medics put him under a real anaesthetic, pulled down his pants, made a real incision simulating an appendectomy. They sewed up the incision and bound it up with bandages and surgical tape, then disappeared.”
Sobel was quite rightly furious, but no-one could seem to identify the guilty parties so an investigation didn’t get off the ground. I find this “trick” a terrible thing to do to someone. It might seem like a funny story, but you must remember that this actually happened and a man was violated in this way. It is things like this that reinforce my sympathy for Sobel.
Conflict with Lieutenant Winters:
I do agree with the men of E Company in their sentiment that Sobel was not the right person to lead them, or anyone, in combat. Sobel desperately wanted to lead E Co., but try as he might, he just couldn’t do it. He simply didn’t have the natural inborn ability.
A man who did was Lieutenant Winters, and Sobel knew it. While each man’s personal war was with Sobel, Sobel’s war was with Winters. Winters was a natural-born leader, a fantastic soldier, and totally respected and admired by the men. Winters was essentially everything Sobel wanted to be without even trying. So, Sobel tried to undermine him at every opportunity. Sobel’s pettiness regarding Winters is an aspect of his character that I cannot defend. Winters was getting more and more sick of it and the final straw came when Sobel trapped Winters into failing to inspect the latrines.
Sobel had ordered Winters to inspect the latrines at 10:00. In the meantime, Winters was told by Colonel Strayer to censor the men’s mail. This he did, and at 10:00 on the dot, he entered the latrines to find Sobel and a Private Melo. The private was just finishing cleaning the latrines and was wet, dirty, and needed a shave. A little later Winters received the following message:
Company E, 506th PIR, 30 Oct. ’43
Subject: Punishment under 104th A[rticle of] W[ar]
To: 1st Lt. R. D. Winters
1. You will indicate by indorsement [sic] below whether you desire punishment under 104th AW or trial by Courts Martial for failure to inspect the latrine at 0945 this date as instructed by me.
Herbert M. Sobel, Capt., Commanding.
Winters was annoyed and puzzled. He told Sobel that he had asked him to inspect the latrines at 1000. Sobel told him that he had changed this time to 0945 and had telephone
d and sent a runner. This was an outrageous lie. There was no runner and Winters didn’t even have a phone
. This was the final straw for Winters (it took some time in coming as Winters is not a confrontational man), and he wrote on the bottom of Sobel’s message:
Subject: Punishment under 104 A.W. or Trial by Courts Martial.
To: Capt. H. M. Sobel
1. I request trial by Courts Martial for failure to inspect the latrine at 0945 at this date.
Lt. R. D. Winters, XO, Co. E
This surprised Sobel. Winters’ response really highlights how petty
Sobel was being here. Sobel didn’t want this to go to courts-martial
and suggested to Winters in correspondence that he should just take a punishment of the revocation of his weekend pass (which Winters never used anyway as he spent weekends on the base) and the courts-martial wouldn’t happen. But Winters wouldn’t budge. It didn’t seem if Sobel could get pettier, but he could. Winters got another message:
Company E, 506th PIR, 12 Nov. ’43
Subject: Failure to Instruct Latrine Orderly
To: 1st Lt. R. D. Winters
1. You will reply by indorsement [sic] hereon for your reason for failure to instruct Pvt. J. Melo in his duties as latrine orderly.
2. You will further reply why he was permitted to be on duty at 1030 Oct. 30 in need of a shave.
Herbert M. Sobel, Capt., Commanding.
Winters was indignant and his reason given in writing for each of the above infractions was “no excuse”.
The situation was spiralling out of hand. Colonel Strayer decided that the best thing to do was simply transfer Winters out of E Company. He made Winters, the natural leader and fine soldier, battalion mess officer. Winters was utterly insulted as this was the job given to the guy who couldn’t do anything else.
The whole Winters affair was Sobel’s big mistake. The events finally unleashed the wrath of the Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs – i.e., sergeants and corporals), the glue that held the company together. The NCOs had such a respect for Winters and wanted him to lead them into the all-to-inevitable combat instead of Sobel. Their subsequent actions were extraordinary and very dangerous. They decided to mutiny.
The punishment for mutiny could be being lined up against a wall and shot. Winters was strangely moved by this devotion towards him, but he talked the NCOs out of turning in their stripes. This incident, despite it being averted, was still too much for Colonel Robert F. Sink, commander of the 506th regiment. He called all the NCOs together and let them know just how angry he was. One NCO was transferred, another demoted to private, but aside from that, the men got off lightly. Sink did come up with a solution to the problem of Sobel that would make everyone happy. Everyone, except Sobel that is. A new parachute training school had just been set up in the English village of Chilton Foliat to train specialist personnel such as chaplains, doctors, communications men, and artillery spotters. Sink decided that Sobel would be the perfect man to run it. Sink brought in 1st Lieutenant Thomas Meehan from B Co. to replace Sobel, and brought Winters back from his highly important work running the mess hall. The men were overjoyed to see Sobel go. Sobel was totally gutted at losing the company he had worked so hard for.
After E Company:
There followed a strange irony when the men of E Company finally went into combat on D-Day. The plane Lt. Meehan was on was shot down, killing all sixteen troopers on board. This was the plane that Sobel would have been on. As Sergeant William “Wild Bill” Guarnere comments; “In reality we saved Captain Sobel's life”. Still, I suppose this would have been little comfort to Sobel.
Sobel ran his training school and later was in charge of ferrying supplies to and from the front for the 101st Airbourne. It was really a humiliating come down for him. His contact with E Company didn’t end with his transfer – he occasionally ran into them in his supply ferrying duties. His final meeting with Winters must have upset him greatly. Winters was now a Major, Sobel still a Captain. Moreover, Winters was a distinguished soldier who had won the Distinguished Service Cross in Normandy (he only missed out on the Congressional Medal of Honor as someone in the division had already won it and there was an unofficial limitation to one awarded per division in the D-Day campaign). This just rubbed salt into Sobel’s wounds. Their meeting took place as they were walking in opposite directions down a street in Mourmelon. Sobel deliberately ignored Major Winters. Winters called out; “Captain Sobel, we salute the rank, not the man.” Sobel could do nothing but say “yes sir” and salute. It was a brilliant put-down, but Sobel was embarrassed, upset, bitter, and angry.
This would be the state in which he would spend the rest of his life.
Sobel was probably the only member of E Co. who never experienced any physical wounds during the war (they had 350% casualties!), but as Ambrose says, he experienced “deep mental ones”.
After the war, Sobel went back to living in his native Chicago, earning a living as an accountant. He got married and had two sons. This should have made him happy again, but it was not to be. He ended up getting a divorce, and to add insult to injury, he became estranged from his children. His former XO from E Co. happened to be in Chicago on business one day in the early 60s and arranged to have lunch with Sobel. He found Sobel a bitter man. Bitter towards E Co., understandably, but more significantly, and more sadly, bitter towards life. In the 80s Sergeant Guarnere, who plays an important role in the 101st Airborne Association, tried to find Sobel to see if he wanted to be involved in the association. Guarnere has said; “must give him [Sobel] his credit, he trained us harder than ever while there [in England], and this training paid off in combat”. This sort of sentiment was displayed by almost everyone in E Co. after the war. They realised that it was Sobel who had made them into soldiers able to survive the war in the face of great adversity. Unfortunately, they still hated him – it was indeed a deep hatred. Guarnere tracked down Sobel’s sister, who informed him of his bad mental condition. She said he directed his anger at E Company.
Not long after this, Sobel shot himself.
He botched it – he couldn’t even do that one final thing properly. His misery continued until September 1988 when he died.
His ex-wife didn’t come to his funeral.
Nor did his sons.
Nor did any member of E Company.
I want to say – Captain Sobel – rest in peace. It is a very sad thing that his wartime experiences led to such a life of misery. He did not deserve it. He tried as hard as he could to make it as an Airborne officer, but try as he might, he just could not do it. He should be respected for his effort. Anyone who tries that hard deserves respect. It was his failings that caused his jealousy of Winters. But should we condemn the man for getting jealous of someone who was better than he was? I don’t think so. Who hasn’t ever been jealous of someone who has what you want most?
Captain Herbert Sobel should not be remembered as a petty tyrant. He should be remembered as a man who tried his best, and that in itself deserves respect.
Stephen E. Ambrose, “Band of Brothers”