The Unvarnished Truth About Captain Herbert Sobel
He was a hated man.
He was an admired man.
Anyone I’ve ever talked to who served under Captain Herbert Sobel—the one-time commander of Easy Company, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne—has an opinion about him.
Some of the veterans from this elite group (the WWII paratroopers commonly known as the Band of Brothers) describe Sobel as an inflexible tyrant of a drill sergeant. They say he was a man who drew hard lines over petty issues. He was a poor map reader and an all-around lousy leader. He was so incompetent he was going to get others killed in battle, thus he needed to be removed from his position of leadership, which he was.
Yet other describe Sobel as a strategist. They say he became an integral part in shaping the company into the best it could be. Sobel’s role as a drill sergeant was not to win any popularity contests, but to harden young men into combat soldiers. Men lived because Sobel chiseled them into top warriors.
Sobel died in 1987 at age 75 after shooting himself in the head, and none of his family members attended his funeral, but even these parts of his life have not quite been portrayed accurately in times past.
Several years back I had the opportunity to interview Michael Sobel, Captain’s Sobel’s middle son.
What follows are some facts about Sobel’s life, not in-depth information about his service in the war—that’s been written about extensively in a variety of books—but about the man he was before and after.
How will Captain Herbert Sobel go down in history?
The question still remains.
Herbert Sobel was born on January 26, 1912, and grew up in Chicago where he attended the strong-disciplined Culver Military Academy. He did well on the high school swim team and graduated from the University of Illinois. He was six feet tall, a slender build, and bore a striking resemblance to David Schwimmer, who portrayed him in the HBO miniseries.
After WWII, Sobel married. He was nine years older than his wife, an American who first worked as a nurse in a hospital in Italy during the war. Later she worked at Hines VA Hospital in Chicago. They met there when Sobel visited a fellow soldier who had been wounded. Sobel and his wife had three boys in their family and a daughter who died several days after birth.
Sobel’s wife was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, an attractive woman. Her family were dirt farmers from South Dakota, German immigrants. She was Catholic, but Sobel was Jewish, which created tension. Sobel’s parents were business people from Chicago, part of the old aristocracy, and that side of the family never really accepted Sobel’s wife, as Jewish families then weren’t generally open to their sons marrying Catholic non-Jews, Michael said.
Sobel’s children were raised Catholic and attended Mass on a regular basis with their mother. Sobel attended Mass sporadically and also went to Synagogue occasionally. There was never much discussion of faith and religion in the home.
As a child, on several occasions, Michael asked his father about the war but never received any information from him. Sobel could be very private when he chose. Mrs. Sobel told her son later that Sobel had never talked to her about the war either. He stayed in the reserves for many years, eventually retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Sobel leaned conservative in his politics and was a staunch Republican. He never missed a day of work. Even when it wasn’t popular to drive an economy car he owned a little four-cylinder Metropolitan that he drove to the Chicago L station to ride the train to work.
Sobel worked as a credit manager for a wholesaler, A.C. McClurg & Co. in downtown Chicago, then for the Mathias Klein Company, which made tools for the telephone industry. His positions were mid-level. Every day he wore a suit and a clean, starched white-collared shirt. Michael didn’t recall a single day when his father was sick or stayed home from work.
Mrs. Sobel worked too. Every morning Sobel got up early and made breakfast for his wife. If it was the dead of winter he pulled his wife’s car up to the front of the house, cleared off the snow, and turned on the heater for her.
Every evening after work Sobel had a cocktail with his wife, and they chatted about the events of the day. Michael remembers going to family gatherings where his father was always well-liked and lively.
“He was a great dad in many ways,” Michael said. “He was very loving and attentive. He doted on my mother and was very much in love with her. I never heard him use profanity or witnessed him losing his temper. He never raised a hand to us kids when we didn’t deserve it—and there were plenty of times we did deserve it and didn’t get it.”
The Sobels lived in the same house where Sobel had grown up as a kid. It was a large red-brick house with a slate roof, the biggest house on the block, and all the neighborhood kids hung out at the Sobel’s house. On Sunday mornings Sobel made pancakes, and there was always a place set for any of the neighborhood kids who straggled by.
Sobel spent a lot of time with his sons playing sports, especially baseball. He always addressed his boys by the nicknames he had given them: Michael was Inky. His older brother was Footsie; his younger brother, Skookie.
When the boys were young, if they had behaved during the day, then they were given the honor of doing twenty minutes of calisthenics with their father before bed—pushups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks. If they boys had been goofing off then he wouldn’t allow them to exercise.
Michael recalls: “Dad was always in great physical shape and could bang out pushups no problem. It’s odd that the HBO series showed him struggling with pushups. As kids we did 50 to 75 pushups per night, and Dad did them right with us. It was a game, fun for us. I’m pushing age 60 today and I can still hit tennis balls at a highly competitive level thanks to the strength and disciplines Dad developed in us as kids.”
Sobel was conservative in his savings and set aside money for all three of his sons to go to college. The family did not consider themselves wealthy, but Sobel made it known that second only to family, an education was imperative.
Michael came of college age during the height of the Vietnam War era. The relationship between him and his father became strained during those years. The younger brother was a diabetic so he was exempt from the draft. The other brother got a low draft number and enlisted in the Coast Guard. Michael grew his hair down to his shoulders and went to Berkeley.
Michael remembers. “I was quite at odds with my father politically, and I know that hurt him a lot. I was arrested for protesting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I know those years stressed our relationship quite a bit.”
When asked about his father’s attempted suicide, Michael said the story was difficult to talk about, and that it required some explanation.
After the Kent State Massacre in 1970, Michael was attending college at Southern Illinois University. As a result of the killings, there were student riots going on all over America. Michael had been involved in some political groups that were unpopular at the time and had decided to lay low for a while. It took the police three days to track down his whereabouts before being able to deliver a message that Sobel had attempted suicide, and that Michael needed to call home.
Michael recalled the evening he got home to the family house. He and his mother sat at the kitchen table trying to make sense of what had happened. She was inconsolable.
Sobel had shot himself in the head with a small caliber pistol, but had lived. The bullet entered from the left temple and passed behind his eyes out the other side of his head, severing the optic nerves and leaving him blind. Michael found this rather odd, as his father was right handed.
Because of Michael’s political beliefs, he had been out of touch with his father for some years so he was unaware of what was happening in his father’s personal life preceding the suicide attempt.
“I don’t know why he chose to do what he did,” Michael said. “I asked my mom if she knew, although I didn’t want to probe too much. It’s true he could be overly private, even controlling at times. To this day she is not certain why he did what he did. She postulated that he thought he had cancer, and was unwilling to get tested for the disease. He was not divorced from my mother yet, as some people suggest—that happened later.”
After the suicide attempt, Sobel was moved to a VA assisted living in Waukegan, Illinois, where he lived out his remaining years. He was fully ambulatory but in and out of being lucid, sometimes in a semi-vegetative state, according to Michael. He had friends in the VA ward though the living conditions at the VA were poor.
Michael confirmed that none of Sobel’s immediate family were in attendance when he died in 1987. Yet that part of the story requires explanation as well.
To Michael’s knowledge, a memorial service was not held. “Our contact with him had waned over the years,” Michael said, “and when he passed we were unaware of the event. His sister attended to the details. It was days, perhaps even a week, after he died that his sister phoned my mom to let her know.”
The death certificate listed malnutrition as the cause. He was cremated. Sobel had spent the last seventeen years of his life in the VA assisted living.
Michael said, “I recognize this might sound a bit strange, but my father’s death seemed anticlimactic to me. The passage of time had served to distance him from his family. I was living on Maui at the time. My mother and father were divorced by then. She remarried in 1995 at age 75. She married a wonderful man and enjoyed eight fantastic years with Bert before he died. I find it remarkable and heartwarming that she chose to find love again after the heartache she had been through. To this day I admire her inner strength and unwavering support for her sons.”
Michael added, “I think my father and I reconciled our differences partially before he died and partially after. One of the last times I saw him in the hospital I gave him a gold coin, a small memento of a trip to Guatemala I had been on, and some money for his personal needs. I think he received it well. I believe now, even in death, my father is closer to me than ever. I respect his strength and guidance. I’m thankful for the father I had.”
Michael said he bears no animosity toward HBO for portraying his father as they did, although he was stunned and upset at the portrayal when he first saw the series.
In 2002, Michael ended up as an impromptu guest speaker at the Easy Company reunion in Arizona. One of the men’s sons hugged him through tears and said, “My father told me that if I ever had the honor of meeting you to let you know that it was because of your father that I’m alive today.”
“That was pretty much the sentiment of the men I met that day,” Michael said. “I receive calls from men who served with my father and who praise him to this day.”
Question: What can you learn most from the life of Captain Sobel?
Enjoy Marcus’ new novel, FEAST FOR THIEVES.