Homage to a humble hero, a son of South Philly

Edlow
Trisha Zavrel, daughter of Babe Heffron, with the statue of her “Band of Brothers” dad. (MEREDITH EDLOW/FOR THE DAILY NEWS)

A GLIMPSE into the humility and intelligence of Babe Heffron can be found at the end of the final episode of the riveting HBO series "Band of Brothers."

The 10-part epic tale, first broadcast in 2001, followed the U.S. Army's elite 101st Airborne Division from grueling training to jumping into Normandy to victory over the Nazis in World War II.

Several members of Company E of 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Heffron's group, were asked to reflect on their status as heroes.

Not so fast, said Heffron, with an unmistakable South Philly accent.

"The real men," he said, "the real heroes are the fellas that are still buried over there and those that came home to be buried."

Last night at 2nd and Reed streets, in the Pennsport section of South Philadelphia, a statue was dedicated in honor of Edward "Babe" Heffron, who died in 2013.

It is a remarkable bit of work by southwest Philly native and St. James High graduate Terry Jones. Heffron is portrayed as a 19-year-old with his right foot resting on the steps that might as well have been in front of his house around the corner at 214 Wilder St. Railing and all.

"I wanted it to have a little cockiness, a little flair," said Heffron's daughter Trisha Zavrel, whose likeness Jones relied on heavily to sculpt features of her dad.

State Rep. Bill Keller worked on the Philadelphia docks with Heffron and occasionally would ask him about his time in the service. Heffron, a 5-4 1/2 firecracker, told Keller that Stephen Ambrose had finally finished the book Band of Brothers in 1992.

"Now you don't have to ask me anymore," Babe cracked.

"He was a special, special guy," said Ray Felice, a South Philadelphian who had known Heffron before the United States entered World War II in 1941. Felice was one of the first to view the statue and shed his walker long enough to give it a dignified salute.

Former Councilman and current Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney called the Heffron statue one of his most important and emotional endeavors.

"I just want young people from the neighborhood and from outside the neighborhood to understand how much impact you can have as a 19- or 20-year-old," Kenney said. "It's not all hopeless. Think of the fear and hopelessness and danger of World War II, and these guys jumped out of planes and into enemy territory. It's awesome."

Perhaps the most unique feature built by Jones is a bronze heart that contains the ashes of Heffron and his wife Dolores, who died in May. This was Trisha's idea.

On each side of the statue are plaques detailing his personal and military lives, including his participation in Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge, liberating the Kaufering concentration camp and capturing Hitler's Eagle's Nest. The time when a German general was ticked off at having to surrender to Pvt. Babe Heffron from South Philly was excluded.

"He's going to be iconic down here," predicted Jones, the sculptor. "It's going to be like touching the Rosetta Stone."

The statue is located in a little area at bustling Herron Playground. In the background yesterday, children played while adults wept at the memorial.

And the statue was dedicated on the 71st anniversary of Operation Market Garden, when the Allies sent an airborne armada in a bold attempt to liberate Holland.

Robin Laing portrayed Heffron in the HBO series, and although it was 14 years ago, he keeps in contact with the Heffron family.

"I think it's a fitting tribute to him, as well as all the other sons of Philly that went to war," said Laing, who was in Scotland but pledged to visit one day. "I'm sure he'd be outraged! He was extremely humble about his soldiering days and hated any hoopla. But if it makes people pause, remember and reflect, or younger kids curious about that era and what transpired, then I think he'd be happy with that."

On Twitter: @EdBarkowitz