Darrell C. "Shifty" Powers was born on March 13, 1923 in Clinchco, Dickenson County, Virginia to parents Barnum and Audrey Colley Powers. One of five children, Darrell grew up spending a large amount of time in the great outdoors with his father. With that many mouths to feed during the Great Depression, Darrell helped his father bring home a large number of squirrels and other wild game for the table. The skills he learned doing so paid off greatly after he joined the Army.
In high school, Powers enjoyed playing basketball. His nickname, “Shifty,” was given to him due to his outstanding skills in the sport. Following graduation, Powers enrolled in a technical school; however, Dec. 7, 1941 changed things for him. On August 14, 1942, Powers traveled to Richmond, Virginia and enlisted in the Army.
“After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they (the government) moved all of us from the school over to the Navy Shipyard at Portsmouth, to do work on the ships there. I worked there as a machinist for a while. My buddy “Popeye” (better known as Robert Wynn, a fellow Virginian from South Hill) and me wanted to join the military so we went and signed up for the Army before we got stuck at the shipyard. We volunteered for paratrooper school.”
In time, Powers became a member of Easy Company as an Army sharpshooter and paratrooper with the 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment. Shifty’s proficient skills as a sharpshooter were a result of the training his father gave him as a youth. Dad told him: “People think hunting’s just being out walking in the woods, but its lots more than that. You see things, you hear things. You learn to know everything that moves around you. Might be a squirrel, deer, turkey, grouse, or another man. So you aim well, and aim for the eyes. It means a smaller target, but you have to promise me this – quick, clean kills only.” At the time, Powers was unsure whether his father was referring to squirrel hunting, or something he had learned during military service in World War I.
His father’s words regarding movement being the biggest give away became second nature to Powers and in time, he honed his skills so well that if a leaf dropped behind him, he knew it. One day he returned home with two squirrels and received the best compliment he ever heard from his father, “Well, that’s pretty good shooting, son. You shot ‘em both through the eyes, you know.”
Powers remembered, “. . . parachuting to the ground isn’t hard either. If you jump out of an airplane you’re going to hit the ground, one way or another. The hard part back then was landing. Nowadays they have a different type of chute and they can land fairly soft, but back then, with the chutes we had, you hit the ground pretty hard. They taught us to yell ‘Geronimo’ when we jumped. It was supposed to take our mind off jumping, but it didn’t work for me, so the instructors told me to yell ‘Currahee,’ but that didn’t help either. They finally told me to just yell anything I wanted. Well I finally found something I could yell and it kind of distracted me. I’d yell ‘Oh s_ _ t what am I doing here!’ It worked for me.” (The men of the 506th were nicknamed the Currahees after the Currahee Mountain at Camp Toccoa. Currahee is Cherokee for “stands alone.” Powers and his fellow Currahees adopted it as a unit motto.)
On D-Day, Shifty dropped behind enemy lines in Normandy, but missed his drop zone. Eventually, he crossed paths with Floyd Talbert and the two made their way to Easy Company. He was a participant in all of Easy Company's battles, including: Operation Market Garden, Battle of the Bulge, and the capture of Hitler's Eagles Nest. (The exploits of Easy Company were later heralded by historian Stephen Ambrose in his best-selling book, Band of Brothers. A miniseries later followed, produced by Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg.)
Powers recalled a bitterly cold day in the Ardennes when a German sniper shot three members of Easy Company and the rest took cover. Shifty was able to site the sniper by using the misty cloud of the man's breath and killed him with one shot. A number of company members credit Powers for saving many lives that day.
Shifty went on to comment about the inherent tragedy of combat: "We might have had a lot in common. He might've liked to fish, you know, he might've liked to hunt. Of course, they were doing what they were supposed to do, and I was doing what I was supposed to do. But under different circumstances, we might have been good friends."
Generally considered to be Easy Company’s best shot, one of Powers’ most remarkable testaments to the extraordinary gifts his backwoods upbringing brought to Easy Company occurred in Bastogne. Shifty informed his commanding officer of a tree he noticed in the distant forest which was not there just the day before. It turned out the "tree" was actually a camouflaged German artillery piece. Shifty had spotted the weapon from a distance of nearly a mile away and amongst a literal forest of other trees. Shifty's outdoor raising and keen observations saved many lives that day as well.
By the time he was 22, Shifty had killed eight men. Not happy about the duty assigned him, Powers made a decision to never let that information come out, especially if a child were to ask him if he killed anyone during the war. During this time, a special angel must have taken up permanent residence on Powers’ shoulder. Easy Company suffered 150% casualties, yet Powers was one of few company members who did not receive a Purple Heart.
A month after his birthday, the war was declared over in Europe and champagne toasts were enjoyed throughout the company. When it was time for people to start going home, Powers was one of many who did not have the 85 points required for discharge. Brigadier General George A. Taylor was aware of this fact and authorized a lottery so one individual from each company who was short in points would be given the chance to go home. During the drawing, the words were heard: “For Easy Company, the winner is . . . serial number 1-3-0-6-6-2-6-6 . . . Sergeant Darrell C. Powers.” Overcome with shock, it took awhile for the reality of winning the lottery to sink in to Powers’ mind. What Shifty did not know at the time was the fact Easy Company’s lottery was rigged in his favor by the rest of the company’s members using his name instead of their own.
Unfortunately, Powers would not make it home as quickly as he hoped. On the way to the airfield for the departing flight, Shifty was badly injured in an accident which forced him to recuperate for many long months in a hospital. As a result, his comrades in arms returned home before he did.
When the film Band of Brothers was released, Powers found renewed notoriety regarding his military experiences. Just prior to the miniseries’ debut, HBO flew everyone from Easy Company who was able to make the trip to Normandy for the premiere. On the way to Utah Beach, one of the producers told everyone in the van their lives would change forever in 10 minutes.
After viewing the movie, Powers felt it was good, but also realized it was a movie and though close to the real thing, it was just that – close. The movie was unable to fully express just how scared, cold and hungry a man in the depicted situations truly was. It required first hand experience to completely understand. (Powers was portrayed by Peter Youngblood Hills.)
When Shifty returned home after the premier, he began to experience the change the producer had mentioned that day in the van. Friends from all over town were now coming up and saying, “Hey, Shifty, I saw you on television last night.” After returning from the war, Shifty and other veterans had kept the past to themselves and went on with their lives. Following release of Band of Brothers, however, things changed. The movie served a special purpose because suddenly a new sense of gratefulness was being expressed towards all veterans; not just those who served in WWII, while making Shifty and others represented in the movie famous.
Shifty appeared one time during the “Band of Brothers” mini-series and spoke in moving, humane fashion about his grim, but necessary task during the war – killing the enemy. Ivan Schwarz, one of the producers of the HBO series, remembers Powers as a “kind, generous soul with a great sense of humor. Shifty was an incredibly humble human being. He was like most of the other [Easy Company] soldiers we met for the series. They were good guys who were kind of shocked that, 50 years later, people were making a big deal over them for just doing their duty. That’s exactly how [Powers] was, too.”
Powers now served as a loyal, resolute representative of the country he fought for and the men with whom he served. In 2006, Shifty had the opportunity to meet a German soldier he fought against in the winter of 1944 during the notoriously brutal Siege of Bastogne. He also quickly jumped at any chance to speak with current members of the U.S. military.
Shifty died June 17, 2009 at the age of 86 in Wellmont Regional Hospital, Bristol, Tennessee after a courageous battle with cancer. He is buried at Temple Hill Memorial Park, Castlewood, Russell County, Virginia. Shortly before he died, Shifty made this remark:
“I was in the army three years, one month and a couple of days. I was glad to see home. But you know something that puzzles me? In just about three years, we went into the Army, exercised, trained, fought, won a war and came home. Our boys have been in Iraq three years now. They can’t come home because the Iraqi army boys can’t do the job and do their own fighting yet? I just believe that as long as our boys are there to do their fighting for them, they won’t ever learn to help themselves.
* * * * *
“The world depended on them. They depended on each other.”
Band of Brothers tagline