Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Charles Speirs was a United States Army Officer who played a significant role in World War II, and whose overall military career spanned decades. Although his name points to a long list of accomplishments, Speirs is most well known for having served in the US 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment as part of the legendary 101st Airborne Division, known as the "Screaming Eagles".
Speir’s fearless leadership and courage in battle made him a force to be reckoned with, and remembered long after his death. Continue reading to learn about Speirs’ life, career, and enduring legacy.
Ronald Speirs was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on April 20th, 1920. His family emigrated to the United States when he was only four years old, where they settled in Boston, Massachusetts. Speirs began his military career in high school, where he underwent military training, and was then commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the infantry of the United States Army. Joining the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Speirs demonstrated a unique aptitude which saw him quickly promoted to platoon leader. He was soon relocated to Camp Toccoa in Georgia.
Training with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment was no easy feat for Speirs. This division required soldiers to push their physical and mental limits; one of their staple conditioning exercises involved running the three miles up and the three miles down the steep slopes of Mt. Currahee.
When the regiment finished training at Camp Toccoa in November of 1942, they were ordered to Fort Benning, Georgia to begin their airborne training. Their next stop was Camp Mackall, North Carolina, where the regiment underwent their final tactical training, including the most advanced tasks such as night jumps.
Finally, Speirs had obtained his silver paratrooper wings, and it was time to go into battle. The 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which later became part of the 101st Airborne Division, was shipped to England in late 1943 and began training for the invasion of France.
Speirs then became part of one of the most famous operations in military history at the D-Day landings in Normandy. On the night of June 5th, 1944, Speirs boarded a C-47 troop carrier aircraft, and in the early morning of June 6th, Speirs and the rest of the 101st Airborne Division were dropped behind enemy lines. This day is when Speirs’ legendary military capabilities truly came to light, as he literally jumped into battle.
As Speirs and a large group of paratroopers approached the village of Le Grand Chemin, they found themselves under enemy fire, now known as the Brecourt Manor Assault. Speirs assembled a small group of reinforcements and led them into the attack.
When they found only one remaining enemy cannon to be secured, Speirs jumped out of the security of the trench and made a perilous dash across open ground. There, he found a grenade left by one of the Germans, and managed to push it into the mud just before it exploded. As a result of his courage, Speirs is credited as single-handedly attacking and securing the fourth 105mm Howitzer artillery.
However, it should also be noted that Speirs was the subject of some controversy during this episode. On the way to the Brecourt Manor Assault, a small group consisting of Speirs and others came across some German prisoners of war and left them dead, the exact details of which are unclear. You can read more about this allegation and other controversies here.
Nevertheless, Speirs continued to gain a positive reputation throughout the rest of World War II. During his regiment's initial attack on the German-occupied town of Foy, Belgium, Speirs was ordered to relieve the previous lieutenant and take over command. During this battle, Speirs made his famous run through Foy. As another platoon was still following the command given by the former lieutenant and didn’t have a radio, they had no idea what Speirs wanted them to do. So, he ran through the town and across German lines, connected with the other soldiers, relayed the order, and then ran back through the occupied town. He successfully led Easy Company (a nickname for the 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment) to victory on their attack of Foy, and was reassigned as commanding officer, where he remained for the rest of the war.
Speirs became the longest commanding officer of Easy Company during the war. Although he could have returned home after the European Campaign, he chose to continue on with Easy Company, but Japan surrendered before he could be transferred to the Pacific Theater.
The next military venture took Speirs to the Korean War, where he participated in the second-largest airborne operation of the Korean War, Operation Courageous. During Operation Tomahawk, the airborne phase of the mission, he made a combat parachutee jump into Munsan-ni as a rifle company commander. Speirs also participated in the Cold War. After taking a Russian language course, he was assigned as a liaison officer to the Red Army in East Germany. Subsequently, he became the US Director of Spandau Prison in Berlin, where prominent Nazis such as Rudolf Hess were confined. Next, as part of the Laotian Civil War, Speirs also served as a member of the US Mission to the Royal Lao Army. Following his wartime career, Speirs began working at the Pentagon in the Planning and Policy Division.
After 22 years spent on active duty, Speirs retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel in 1964. During his time in the army, Speirs obtained an impressive collection of awards and decorations. These include: a Legion of Merit, a Combat Infantry Badge 2nd Award, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and more.
Speirs was married twice during his lifetime. The first was to an English woman, with whom he had his only child, Robert. After the war was over, his wife couldn’t bear to leave England, so the couple divorced. Nevertheless, they remained in contact and Robert made many trips overseas throughout his lifetime to spend time with his father. His second marriage was to a war widow, whom he divorced after 16 years. Finally, in 1987, Speirs married his third and final wife at the age of 67.
Speirs’ legacy was cemented by the book Band of Brothers, written by Stephen E. Ambrose and published in 1992. While conducting interviews as part of a project to preserve oral histories of D-Day, Ambrose became fascinated by the longstanding bonds that had developed between the members of Easy Company. This close-knit group is what inspired Ambrose to write Band of Brothers. While the book does follow the battle, it takes a closer look at the lives of the soldiers within the regiment.
In 2001, the book was adapted into a miniseries by HBO, also called Band of Brothers. Created by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the show offered a look at the tight-knit group and the harrowing battles they took part in. The character based on the real-life Ronald Speirs has a large role in the series, and he quickly became a fan favorite.
Ronald Speirs passed away on April 11th, 2007, at the age of 86. At times embroiled in controversy and at others celebrated, he left a distinctive mark on history with his dedicated military service.