Every American should know his name and his story. And, thanks to a great book by Stephen Ambrose — Band of Brothers — and an equally great HBO television series, many do. What millions of Americans don’t know is that Richard “Dick” Winters died on January 2 at the age of 92.
“Son, that is what you call a soldier’s soldier,” my dad, an Air Force man, told me after the epic series ended. And you know how charitable Air Force men are about Army men.
The Washington Post didn’t report his death until January 9, and relegated the story to the obituary pages, rather than featuring a lengthy celebration on page one — which is what Winters’s life demanded. Indeed, we heard very little from the media about this great man’s death, largely because so few in the media actually cared about his life.
If Cher had died, we’d have heard endless stories within hours, with Diane Sawyer, Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, and Piers Morgan all fighting desperately to get the exclusive with Chaz.
Our media is bad, but our schools are worse. Our kids are peddled Earth Day celebrations, and cancer-awareness, drug-awareness, even clean-colon-awareness days. They get sex instruction, diversity seminars, and global-warming tutorials from Al Gore, but Veterans Day, and the stories of men like Maj. Dick Winters — well, that’s just not stuff with which we should be pestering our kids.
Major Winters, a longtime resident of Hershey, Pa., died at an assisted-living facility in nearby Campbelltown. But it is his life that we should all know, and the lives of the men he fought with.
Band of Brothers chronicled the men of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The group came to be known as “Easy Company,” but there was nothing easy about their tour of duty. That brave band of warriors jumped into combat in June 1944, starting near the beaches of France. They fought their way through Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands and the Battle of the Bulge, all the way to Hitler’s retreat — the Eagle’s Nest — tucked in the Alps above Berchtesgaden.
It was some of the toughest fighting in the European Theater. As a result of high battlefield casualties, the unit experienced heavy turnover. One Easy Company soldier later wrote that among his colleagues, the Purple Heart “was not a decoration but a badge of office.”
One of Easy Company’s very best officers was Maj. Dick Winters. He was the kind of guy anyone would wish to call their boss. Late in the war, one of his soldiers, Floyd Talbert, wrote him a letter from an Indiana hospital, thanking him for his loyalty and leadership. “You are loved and will never be forgotten by any soldier that ever served under you,” Talbert wrote. “I would follow you into hell.”
Who was this man who inspired such loyalty and such acts of bravery? And shouldn’t we study men like this to better understand our history? To better lead our families, our houses of worship, our companies — and our nation?
Like those of so many of our great heroes, his life began humbly. Richard Davis Winters was born in Ephrata, Pa., to Richard and Edith Winters on Jan. 21, 1918. His family’s roots in American history reached back to Timothy Winters, a British immigrant who served in the Revolutionary War and saw action at the Battle of Yorktown.
Defending his country was in Dick Winters’s DNA. Leadership was too.
He moved to nearby Lancaster when he was eight years old, and grew up in what is today known as Amish country. He was exposed to no big-city sophistication, no big ideas of the elites. He was a small-town American boy, raised on small-town values.
Winters graduated from Lancaster Boys High School in 1937 and went off to attend Franklin and Marshall College, where he was a member of a big fraternity on campus and played football and basketball for his chapter. Young Dick Winters had to forgo his favorite sport, wrestling, and a good deal of campus fun to pursue part-time jobs to pay the bills. Somehow, he managed to juggle all of that and graduated with the highest academic standing in 1941.
How about that, folks? A young man who helped pay his way through college by working. The horror! And he survived and thrived.
When the war broke out in Europe, Dick Winters did what millions of young men did — he enlisted in the Army. He was selected to attend Officer Candidate School, earned a commission in the summer of 1942, and then — drawn by the promise of extra pay for hazardous duty — volunteered to join a newly formed paratrooper unit. That’s right: He was drawn to hazardous duty by the promise of extra pay!
Given today’s endless obsession with protecting our kids against all harm — from baby seats to rubber playgrounds, plastic helmets, sanitizing hand soaps, and sanitized curriculums — it’s a wonder we are able to field a military at all. But back in Dick Winters’s day, we prepared men for such exigencies at every turn without even knowing it.
Nearly 500 officers volunteered to join the elite unit of daredevils for which Winters auditioned back in 1941. He was one of 148 who made the cut.
It didn’t take long for his fellow soldiers to figure out that Winters was the man they’d want to follow into battle. “As their leader, you lead the way,” Winters told a reporter a few years before his death. “Not just the easy ones. You gotta take the tough ones too.”
He took the tough ones. None was tougher than his D-Day assignment, according to Col. Cole Kingseed, West Point’s military historian and co-author of Beyond the Band Of Brothers, Winters’s autobiography.
“When he landed, he assembled his command, and it was a wide spread drop, but Winters was able by D-Day morning to gather twelve 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’s 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 the 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 Ambrose.
One of the most harrowing experiences of his service came in late April 1945. While on patrol, his men discovered a German slave-labor camp near Landsberg. It was a part of Dachau concentration camp. It was a ghastly scene, and Major Winters found wheels of cheese stacked in a cellar near the camp and distributed it to the emaciated prisoners.
“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,” Major Winters wrote of the experience. “The impact of seeing those people behind that fence left me saying, only to myself, ‘Now I know why I am here.’”
Toward the end of the war, Major Winters turned down an Army career. He instead returned to the United States and joined an Army buddy’s company, Nixon Nitration Works, in New Jersey. Winters owned a farm in rural Pennsylvania, was married to Ethel Estoppey, had two children, and lived the quiet and peaceful life he’d always promised himself after surviving the war.
Winters was awarded the military’s second-highest decoration for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross, for his heroism on D-Day.
He was buried in the Bergstrasse Evangelical Lutheran Church cemetery in Ephrata, next to his parents in the Winters family plot. His grave is marked “Richard D. Winters WW II 101st Airborne.”
Humble in birth, and humble in death.
“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 was by no means preordained. God-fearing, prayerful men like Dick Winters made it happen. America made it happen.
The final scene of Band of Brothers may be the most beautiful ever captured on film about war. Towards the end of that scene, 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.’”
So few of those brave veterans who fought the war that saved civilization are still with us. We can only hope that someone will record their stories for posterity. Men like Maj. Dick Winters changed eternity because they changed history.
Ambrose said in a 2001 BBC interview that he hoped that, after reading his book, young people would say to themselves, “I want to be like Dick Winters.”
Don’t we all.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network, which syndicates Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter Reagan.