Brad Freeman, who passed away Sunday from COVID-19 at Baptist-Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle, spent 94 of his 97 years in Lowndes County, mostly in Caledonia where he worked as mailman for 32 years, raised a family and raised vegetables and cattle on the side.
But it was his three years away from home that would secure his fame. With his passing, there are now no surviving members of World War II’s “Easy Company” of the 101st Airborne Division, Second Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment made famous by the book and mini-series “Band of Brothers.”
Freeman, a private first class and mortar man, had been the last surviving member of Easy Company since the December passing of Col. Edward Shames at age 99, thus closing the book on an historic chapter in the proud history of the 101st Airborne.
The 1992 book by Stephen Ambrose, followed by the 2001 HBO miniseries, followed the amazing journey of Easy Company through the climatic final year of the European theater of World War II — from parachuting into Normandy on June 6, 1944 (D-Day), to helping rescue 125 British paratroopers in Holland during the failed Operation Market Garden offensive in October of that year to helping repulse the German’s last-gasp offensive in Bastogne, France (The Battle of the Bulge) that December to the occupation of Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” retreat in Austria in May 1945 just days before the end of the war in Europe.
Freeman was wounded in the knee and shoulder by shrapnel from an German mortar during the attack on Noville on Jan. 14, 1945, and returned to Easy Company after three months of recovery but did not face combat again. Easy Company was discharged in November 1945 and Freeman returned home to finish his degree at Mississippi State before taking a Civil Service job as a mail carrier in the Caledonia area.
Now in his fifth year as Easy Company commander, Major Zac Shutte had the pleasure of getting to know the few remaining survivors.
“The first thing that comes to mind is what an honor it was to know Mr. Freeman,” Shutte said. “He had a unique sense of service that continued all these years after he took off the uniform. He’s redefined what service means to me. He was a part of a group of brave Americans who raised their hand and decided to serve with no idea where they were going or what they would be asked to do. The book of airborne operations was written by those gentlemen. And Mr. Freeman was never far away from the 101st. He attended our events regularly.”
Freeman’s quiet return to civilian life meant his experiences weren’t widely known.
“I knew Mr. Freeman before the ‘Band of Brothers’ came out,” said Columbus historian Rufus Ward. “I had no earthly idea about any of it until then. Yet, what he did in those campaigns, to me, he is really one of the great heroes of World War II. It’s amazing he survived.”
Freeman didn’t speak much about his wartime experience upon his return to his parents’ Artesia home in late 1945.
“My folks didn’t seem much interested in what we did in the war,” Bradford said in a 2016 Dispatch interview prior to a ceremony where he was awarded The Legion of Honor by the French government, its greatest military honor. “So we didn’t talk about it too much.”
For most of his life, Freeman was content to be famous for being a loving husband to his wife, Willie, who died in 2008, a doting father to his daughters, Becky (Clardy) and Beverly (Bowles), a nice man and a good neighbor.
“He was just my dearest friend and the most gentle, most humble person I have ever known,” said Jo Anne Gunn, a childhood friend who was with Freeman when he passed away. “I didn’t know about what he had done in the war, either, until ‘Band of Brothers,’ and I’ve known him all my life.”
Even after the “Band of Brothers” book and mini-series, Freeman said inquiries about his service were sporadic. That changed in 2008, he said during that 2016 interview, when Valor Magazine arranged for Freeman and other Easy Company members to travel to England for a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
In addition to that ceremony, Freeman returned to Normandy in 2019 as a honored guest for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. In 2020, Columbus Air Force Base held a ceremony at Freeman’s home, presenting him with a new flag. In May 2021, Freeman accepted a framed, autographed photo and note, along with a challenge coin from U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the highest ranking officer in the U.S. military honoring a serviceman of one of the lowest ranks.
His reaction to that honor was much like all the ones that came before — pleased, if not a bit mystified.
“This is a surprise to me,” he told those who had gathered on his front lawn for the ceremony. “I don’t know how to tell you how I appreciate it, but I didn’t do anything that I wasn’t expected to do. I just listened to my officer and did what he said.”
Gunn said Freeman continued to get fan mail until the end.
“I helped him with his mail and every week he would get letters from all across the world, people thanking him for his service and some wanting his autograph,” Gunn said. “He never understood that. He’d say, ‘Why do they want my autograph? I was the low man on the totem pole.’”
Despite all the attention, Freeman remained unaffected by fame, Ward said.
“I remember one time he mentioned that when he was in England, he had tea with Prince Charles,” Ward said. “He was just so casual about it, talking about what a nice guy Prince Charles was and what a nice conversation they had. To him, Prince Charles was just a nice guy, no different than any regular person he might have talked to.”
Gunn noticed that quality, too.
Her favorite story, she said, was one Freeman told her about attending the 2011 funeral services for Major Dick Winters, Freeman’s platoon leader and the lead character in the mini-series produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.
“They had me sitting next to Tom Hanks,” Freeman told Gunn. “His right-hand man was on the other side.”
“You mean Steven Spielberg?” Gunn asked.
“Yeah, I think that was his name,” Freeman answered.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.