Obituary: Jack E. Foley / Brookline native, one of the 'Band of Brothers'

Aug. 18, 1922 - Sept. 14, 2009


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Jack E. Foley was a student at South Hills High School in 1939 when Hitler's Blitzkrieg swept across Poland and plunged Europe into war.

It was his responsibility to provide daily updates to his class on the German advances.

Five years later he found himself fighting the remnants of that German army in the Battle of the Bulge as a member of Easy Company, the U.S. Army paratroop unit made famous by Stephen Ambrose's book "Band of Brothers" and the HBO series based on the book.

A platoon leader featured in both the book and the series, Mr. Foley endured the frozen siege of Bastogne, captured Hitler's Eagle's Nest mountain retreat and saw first-hand the atrocities of the Nazi regime at Dachau, where the discovery of barrels of human hair and teeth would haunt him for the rest of his life.

"He said anyone who would doubt that there had been a Holocaust should see something like that," said his widow, Mary Louise, 84, of Penn Hills. "That's not something he could ever forget."

Mr. Foley, a retired Alcoa advertising executive, died of complications from Type 1 diabetes Monday at Seneca Place, a senior citizens complex where he had been living since March. He was 87 and had lived most of his adult life in the Crescent Hills section of Penn Hills, where he and his wife raised their five children.

Mr. Foley was proud of his World War II exploits, which earned him a chest-full of medals, including the Purple Heart for a bullet wound to the heel in Belgium.

But like most combat veterans, he shared only the stories about camaraderie and tended to avoid the mayhem and death. Until "Band of Brothers," even his own family had never heard the details of his experience. Normally upbeat, he often grew depressed at Christmastime because of the memories of December 1944 in Bastogne, when German panzers encircled and pounded U.S. forces holed up in frozen foxholes.

"There were a few incidents that he talked about," said his wife, "but he didn't want to dwell on them."

In "Band of Brothers," Mr. Ambrose recounts several harrowing episodes involving Mr. Foley. In Foy, a village near Bastogne that saw heavy fighting, his unit surrounded a house where they'd seen three German officers run inside. Mr. Foley kicked in the door and ordered them to come out. When they didn't, he threw in a grenade. They emerged, bleeding and shaken. As Mr. Foley began questioning them, two of them reached into their coats for guns while the third yelled, "Dummkopf!" One of Mr. Foley's men cut the Germans down with a submachine gun.

"We had no prisoners," Mr. Foley told Mr. Ambrose, "but we had the concealed pistols."

Mr. Foley grew up in Brookline with two brothers, the sons of a stay-at-home mother and a PPG salesman. After graduating from high school in 1940, he spent the next three years at the University of Pittsburgh, working toward a degree in political science and economics. But by 1943, he and a group of Army ROTC buddies decided they could wait no longer to get into the war and enlisted.

By November of that year, he was a lieutenant in the Coast Artillery Corps, guarding part of Puget Sound in Washington. He was later transferred to Texas and decided to become a paratrooper.

"I didn't want to go (to Europe) as a green second lieutenant. I wanted to do something special," he told the Post-Gazette in 2001, when he was honored at the Penn Hills Municipal Building. "The paratroopers were daring, unique. They were tough. They wore boots. That was where I wanted to be."

He completed paratrooper training in 1944 and shipped off to Holland as a replacement to Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. After skirmishes in Holland, his unit moved into France, where Mr. Foley fell ill and was taken in by a French family. He never forgot their kindness.

"For all the people saying they hate the French, you don't know the French (people)," he told the Post-Gazette in 2004.

Mr. Foley, who was later wounded at Foy and at Haguenau near the German border, is featured briefly in the final four episodes of "Band of Brothers," played by British actor Jamie Bamber. His character is perhaps most visible in "The Breaking Point," where he and Sgt. John Martin lead soldiers around Foy after Lt. Norman Dyke freezes in terror behind a haystack.

Mr. Foley said at the time that he enjoyed the book and the miniseries, despite a few inaccuracies, including the beard that his character sported after Bastogne was relieved by Gen. George Patton. Gen. Patton had given the order that every man shave.

He said the series also overemphasized Easy Company's role in liberating a concentration camp. Mr. Foley's unit did enter the camp at Dachau, where he saw those barrels of hair, teeth and spectacles, but Easy Company was not the first to be there.

Mr. Foley, like many veterans, always favored the amusing war stories. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ordered unit commanders to hold a short memorial service on April 14. Mr. Foley, who never much cared for Roosevelt, gathered his platoon and pulled a St. Joseph missal from his pack. According to "Band of Brothers," he read it to his troops and later said he was "the only man who ever buried Franklin D. as a Catholic."

Mr. Foley told the Post-Gazette that he was gratified that "Band of Brothers" sparked renewed interest in World War II. But he always felt that all of America's wars, and the soldiers who fought them, should be remembered.

After the war, Mr. Foley worked in advertising or writing in-house newsletters for the Aluminum Cooking Utensil Co. in New Kensington, the Cutco Co. in Olean, N.Y., the Alcoa Wrap Co. in New Kensington and Alcoa in Pittsburgh before retiring in 1982.

At Alcoa, he took part in a memorable ad campaign in the early 1970s in which the company trumpeted the "improbable" uses of its aluminum, including the first aluminum tennis racket and an aluminum bat that Mr. Foley presented to Roberto Clemente at Three Rivers Stadium.

Away from work, Mr. Foley enjoyed the theater, travel, tennis and basketball. He particularly loved Pitt basketball; in the 1940s he had served as manager for the team.

But World War II history was his favorite topic, and he regularly attended Easy Company reunions.

"You get there and everyone is just like they used to be -- a bunch of kids," he said in 2001. "You go back automatically to the feelings you had years ago. That never ends."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Foley is survived by his children: John, of Export; Karen, of Minneapolis; David, of New York City; Barbara, of Los Angeles; and Nancy, of Brighton Heights.

Visitation is from 3 to 8 p.m. today at William F. Gross Funeral Home in Penn Hills.

A funeral mass will be celebrated at noon Friday at St. Bartholomew Church, Penn Hills.


Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


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