Remembering a True Hero, Major Dick Winters
You know about his life from 'Band of Brothers' — here's the rest of his story, which is worth remembering on this historic weekend
He was born on Jan. 21, 1918, in a small town in rural Pennsylvania. He was, until 2001, a not very well-known retired soldier.
But an HBO series that aired that fall changed everything. The series was “Band of Brothers,” and while nearly 10 million people watched the first episode, millions more have seen it since. Consisting of 10 hour-long segments, it may just be the best war movie ever made. It’s certainly a story about the best group of soldiers America’s ever made, and features one of the finest leaders this country’s ever had: Major Dick Winters.
An HBO series that aired that fall changed everything. The series was “Band of Brothers.”
A longtime resident of Hershey, Pennsylvania, Winters died in 2011 just shy of his 93rd birthday, not far from where he was born. But it’s his life we should celebrate every year, and the lives of the men he fought with.
“Band of Brothers,” based on a Stephen Ambrose book of the same name, chronicled the men of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The unit was known as Easy Company — but there was nothing easy about their mission.
That brave band of warriors jumped out of planes and parachuted right into some of the fiercest combat situations of World War II. They started behind enemy lines near the beaches of France, fought their way through Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, the Battle of the Bulge, and all the way to the Eagle’s Nest — Hitler’s plush retreat tucked away in the Alps above Berchtesgaden.
The tour of duty was so tough that — as one Easy Company soldier would later write about his fellow soldiers in the unit — “the Purple Heart was not a decoration but a badge of office.”
Richard Davis Winters was born in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, and moved to Lancaster — known to many today as Amish Country — when he was eight years old. Like so many small-town American boys, he was raised on small-town values, one of which was service to his country. His family connection to the military went all the way back to Timothy Winters, a British immigrant who served in the Revolutionary War and saw action at the Battle of Yorktown.
Winters graduated from Lancaster Boys High School in 1937 and attended nearby Franklin & Marshall College, where he was a member of a fraternity and played football and basketball. But Winters had to give up one of his passions — wrestling — because he was too busy working part-time jobs to help pay his tuition. He managed to graduate with the highest academic standing in 1941.
When the war broke out in Europe, Winters did what many young men across America did at the time: He enlisted in the Army. He was selected to attend Officer Candidate School, earned his commission in the summer of 1942, then volunteered to join a newly formed paratrooper unit.
Why such hazardous duty? “I applied for the Airborne because it was a new thing that looked like a challenge,” he told a reporter for American History Magazine in 2004. “I had always enjoyed sports and physical activity, and there was a certain appeal to being with the best.”
Nearly 500 officers volunteered to join that elite group of warriors — but only 148 made the cut. Winters recalled the stark conditions at Camp Toombs, Georgia, where he did some of his training. “There were no windows in any of the buildings, and the only place with electricity was the latrine,” he noted. “It was rough, but you were expecting to have it rough if you were going to be in the parachute troops.”
What were military leaders looking for in their soldiers at Camp Toombs? “We looked for the ones who looked like they could take it,” Winters explained. “When the going got tough, could they stick with it? We also looked for the men who accepted discipline.”
But they were looking for something besides toughness as well. "Another thing we looked at was if the individual was accepted by the other men," Winters noted. "The men did a lot of the work for the officers by sizing each other up. If someone couldn't be accepted by his fellow soldiers, he was gone right away. The men who were told to leave didn't get to vote or make an appeal. This was not a popularity contest."
All of the training was about one thing: preparing Winters and the other men to be the kind of leaders whom soldiers would follow into battle. And soldiers followed Dick Winters.
"I'd go through hell with him, no question about it," said Clancy Hall, who served as a private under Winters' command. "We all had the same feeling about him, too, I'll tell you. Everything we had to do, he was there right with us. He wouldn't run, you know."
"As their leader, you lead the way," Winters told a reporter. "Not just the easy ones. You gotta take the tough ones, too."
Winters took the tough ones. And none was tougher than his first assignment on D-Day, according to Col. Cole Kingseed, a former West Point military historian and co-author of "Beyond the Band of Brothers," Winters' autobiography.
"When he landed, he assembled his command, and it was a widespread drop. But Winters was able by D-Day morning to gather 12 men, and he was ordered to destroy a German artillery battery that was firing on Utah Beach, one of the two American beaches," Kingseed told the BBC days after Winters' death.
"It was a 50-man German battery and he had 12 men, and by fire and maneuver, by leading his men from the front, he was able to knock out each of those guns on Utah Beach." And what a difference that made, Kingseed explained. "By silencing those guns, the American Army suffered 192 dead on Utah Beach, in sharp contrast to Omaha Beach — where Americans suffered over 2,500 casualties."
In their assault on the position, Maj. Winters noticed a wounded German soldier crawling toward a machine gun. "I drilled him clear through the head," Winters told Stephen Ambrose.
"Band of Brothers" chronicled the horrors of war, and the camaraderie among men that war engenders. But one of the worst war experiences for Winters did not involve combat. While on patrol, his men discovered a slave labor camp that was a part of Dachau near Landsberg in April 1945. It was a ghastly scene — one he'd never forget.
"The memory of starved, dazed men who dropped their eyes and heads when we looked at them through the chain-link fence, in the same manner that a beaten, mistreated dog would cringe, leaves feelings that cannot be described and will not be forgotten," Winters wrote. "The impact of seeing those people behind that fence left me saying, only to myself, 'Now I know why I am here.'"
Winters wasn't always sure he'd live through the war. He told Ambrose that he knelt down and prayed after D-Day. "If somehow I manage to get home again, I promised God and myself that I would find a quiet piece of land someplace and spend the rest of my life in peace," Winters recalled.
After the war, he found that quiet piece of land. He bought a farm outside Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he spent the rest of his life with his bride, Ethel. But true peace eluded him. And then he decided, late in his life, to tell his own story. When he submitted the final revisions of his memoir to his co-author, he had good news to report.
Stephen Ambrose said he hoped that young people, after reading his book, would say to themselves, "I want to be like Dick Winters."
"It's over," Winters told Kingseed. "It's finally over." Winters had finally found the peace he'd prayed for 60 years later.
Winters is buried next to his parents in the family plot in the town where he was born. His grave is marked, "Richard D. Winters WW II 101st Airborne." He did not include the many awards he won during the war, among them the military's second highest decoration for valor — the Distinguished Service Cross — for his heroism on D-Day. But that was just like Dick Winters. He was humble in birth, and humble in death.
To anyone who would ask, Winters spoke often about what makes a good leader. "You have to know your men, and know what they're going through," he explained. "And you have to gain their confidence. And the way to gain the confidence of anybody [is] you must be honest, be fair and be consistent. You can't be honest and fair one day, and the next give your people the short end of the stick."
But great leadership, he added, also requires some distance from the people you're leading.
"You maintain close relationships with your men, but not friendship. You have mutual respect for one another, but yet you have to hold yourself aloof, to a degree. If you are too friendly, it works in a negative way when you need to discipline your men. In leading groups effectively, you have to rise above camaraderie."
That's why Winters looked so lonely throughout the entire "Band of Brothers" series. In his mind, good leadership required it.
In the final scene of "Band of Brothers," the real-life Dick Winters recalls a story that a friend of his told him about a conversation he had with his own grandson: "I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day, when he said, 'Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?' Grandpa said, 'No. But I served in a company of heroes.'"
In a BBC interview back in 2001, Stephen Ambrose said he hoped, after reading his book, that young people would say to themselves, "I want to be like Dick Winters." Anyone who saw that series wanted to be like Dick Winters — and the company of heroes he had the privilege to lead.
"One of the truths about history that needs to be portrayed — that needs to be made clear to a student or to a reader — is that nothing had to happen the way it happened," said David McCullough in a lecture at Hillsdale College some years ago. Allied victory in World War II did not have to happen. Men like Dick Winters – and then men he led — made it happen.
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of "Our American Stories." He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.