Known as a "devil in jump boots" and a "petty tyrant," Herbert Sobel was one of the strictest U.S. Army officers during World War II.
To historian Stephen E. Ambrose, who wrote the book Band of Brothers, U.S. Army officer Herbert Sobel was “a petty tyrant put into a position in which he had absolute power.” To Major Richard Winters, who served under Sobel, he was “just plain mean.” But while this portrayal of Sobel has been dominant for years, his loved ones tell a different story.
Sobel, they say, was perhaps not the most effective field officer, but he was an exceptionally talented administrator and training officer of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment’s Easy Company during World War II. According to them, his efforts were the foundation of the Easy Company’s later success in battle and their eventual renown as war heroes.
So which version is the truth? It may be impossible to say. But the full story of Sobel as told below reveals a much more fascinating and nuanced figure than the one that’s often shown in popular culture.
Herbert Sobel’s Early Life And Military Career
Herbert Maxwell Sobel was born on January 26, 1912, in Chicago, Illinois. His military education started almost immediately. As a young boy, he attended Culver Military Academy in Indiana. Years later, Sobel would attend the University of Illinois, from which he graduated in 1933.
After university, he entered the Army’s Reserve Officer Corps. In March 1941, months ahead of the United States’ entry into World War II, Sobel joined the Military Police Corps and was stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas.
After volunteering to join the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, at Camp Toccoa, Sobel would become “the first member of E Company and its commanding officer.”
He was then given the monumental task of transforming civilian volunteers into an elite, battle-ready unit of airborne soldiers.
How A “Devil In Jump Boots” Built The Easy Company During World War II
From the beginning, Herbert Sobel took his job very seriously. And he quickly gained a reputation as one of the strictest officers in the entire U.S. Army. One of his soldiers even described him as “the devil in jump boots.”
As 506th member Richard Winters put it, under Sobel, “Easy Company would be the first and the best in everything it did. He expected Easy to lead the 506th [Parachute Infantry Regiment] in every measurable category” and “intended that Easy Company would be ready when it entered combat.”
Sobel wanted Easy Company to train harder than other companies. He famously forced them to run up a three-mile logging road that wound around nearby Currahee Mountain. Although Sobel himself wasn’t particularly athletic, his men credited him for his persistence.
“He did what we did,” wrote paratrooper Donald Malarkey years later. “He’d get to the top of that mountain — frankly, not easy for him, but he’d never quit — with a stopwatch in his hand. ‘This might be good enough for the rest of the 506th, but it’s sure as hell not good enough for Easy Company!'”
Malarkey added, “In a strange way, it kind of filled you with pride. You got the idea he was hardening us for tougher times to come.”
Sobel often admonished his soldiers for “infractions” like getting lint on their chevrons, carrying a rusty bayonet, or even having a name that he didn’t like. And he also subjected his men to humiliating punishments, like forcing them to dig a six-foot-by-six-foot hole in the ground — and then fill it back in.
Despite the harshness of Sobel’s training and his seemingly malicious behavior, his men freely admitted that he was the finest training officer they could have hoped for. “One of the reasons that Easy Company excelled was undoubtedly Captain Sobel,” recalled Winters. But his reign didn’t last.
Why Herbert Sobel Was Removed From Command Of The Band Of Brothers
As the day of the 506th’s departure for Europe neared, Sobel’s deficiencies came into sharper focus. As it turned out, he struggled to read maps, and he responded poorly to sudden changes in battlefield conditions.
Perhaps most notably, he lacked the charisma and closeness with his men that was needed to lead them successfully into enemy territory.
Winters said, “Lieutenant Sobel did not impress me as a field soldier, but he was the commander and I was determined to do my part to make my platoon the best in the company.” But just as the men of Easy Company were maturing into seasoned soldiers, Sobel was reaching his limits.
Tensions finally boiled over when the Easy Company’s non-commissioned officers (NCOs) surrendered their stripes and refused to serve under their commanding officer. They argued that Sobel’s ineptitude would place their men’s lives at excessive risk on the battlefield.
The NCOs were punished for their actions, but Sobel was soon removed from leadership and reassigned to a training school in England. First Lieutenant Thomas Meehan took command of Easy Company.
But even though many soldiers hated Sobel by this point — and he was forced to reckon with the humiliation of being removed from command — Sobel was credited with the Easy Company’s success in conflicts like the Battle of the Bulge and their occupation of Hitler’s infamous Eagle’s Nest.
The Later Life And Legacy Of Herbert Sobel
The civilian Herbert Sobel was a very different man from the one known to Easy Company. After the war, Sobel returned to Chicago, married, and raised three sons. He doted on his wife, making her breakfast every day and a cocktail at night and warming her car for her every winter morning.
To his sons, he was stern but supportive. He set aside all of his savings from his work as an accountant to fund their education, which he believed was the second most important thing after raising a family.
But as the years went on, Herbert Sobel began to have a difficult relationship with his second son, Michael Sobel. During the politically turbulent 1960s, the younger Sobel became active in left-wing circles in Berkeley, California. This soon caused a rift to form between him and his conservative father.
In the meantime, Sobel continued to serve in the United States Army Reserve, eventually reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. However, despite his earlier devotion to his family, he became estranged from them over time. Sobel and his wife divorced, and he eventually lost touch with his sons.
In 1970, Herbert Sobel attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head with a small-caliber pistol. He ultimately survived the gunshot but ended up severing his optic nerves, rendering him permanently blind.
For the last 17 years of his life, Sobel lived in a dilapidated, poorly maintained Veterans Affairs nursing home in Waukegan, Illinois. He died of malnutrition at the age of 75 in 1987. No funeral services were held for him.
But in the years since his death, and particularly since the release of Stephen E. Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers and the Emmy-winning HBO series that was based on it, Sobel’s most faithful defender has been a man who once never could have imagined himself standing up for the despised commander of the Easy Company — his son Michael.
Michael Sobel maintained that his father was far from incompetent or petulant. Instead, he retained command of Easy Company during its formation and training because he realized that giving the men someone to hate was precisely the best way to forge them into an ironclad company.
“I believe,” he said, “that the men understand what my father’s function was and how he operated.”
Indeed, many of the soldiers who had once hated serving under Herbert Sobel later paid tribute to him. Malarkey even wrote, “When the war ended, I wondered if he wasn’t a big reason some of us were still alive.”
Now that you know the complicated story behind Herbert Sobel, take a look at Lewis Nixon, another famous U.S. Army officer who served in the Easy Company. Then, check out 66 iconic photos of World War II.