Students of World War II and all Americans have lost a true hero with the death of Major Dick Winters.
In a scene from one of the early episodes of the HBO mini-series, Band of Brothers, a wounded soldier is telling his commanding officer that he had “goofed up” by getting shot and not being able to participate in an attack on a German artillery battery on D-Day.
The officer, then-Lt. Dick Winters, tells the soldier to take care of his wound and not worry about being out of commission. “There will be plenty more combat,” Winters tells the soldier, Private First Class Robert “Popeye” Wynn.
Years later, Winters wrote in his book, Beyond the Band of Brothers,” that he was amazed by Wynn’s comments. “Here was a soldier – hit by enemy fire in Normandy on D-Day, behind the German lines – and he is more upset that he had let his buddies down than he was about his own injury. Popeye’s actions spoke for all of us.”
As word began to spread today of Mr. Winter’s death at the age of 92 on Jan. 2, there were many remembrances of his heroics and the Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment soldiers he led from D-Day to the very end of World War II.
A common theme was the feeling among Easy Company’s soldiers that they didn’t want to let their commanding officer down, that they would have “followed you (Lt. Winters) into hell,” as one soldier wrote from a hospital bed in 1945.
“He was the first one out there, yelling, ‘Follow me!’” one of his staff sergeants, William Guarnere, now 88, was quoted as saying about the attack at Brecourt Manor. “We knocked out a battery of four guns, 150 millimeters, that was firing on the kids coming on the shore. He got shot in the leg and still kept going.”
For his actions that day, Mr. Winters was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Three of his men received the Silver Star and nine the Bronze Star. Years later, Mr. Winters received a letter from Eliot Richardson, attorney general in the Nixon Administration, noting that he had come ashore on the beach that was being fired on by the German battery and survived.
Mr. Winters went on to lead Easy Company through numerous battles, including Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau and the capture of Adolf Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden.
Following the attack on D-Day, Mr. Winters said he promised himself that if he survived the war, he would find a small farm in the Pennsylvania countryside and “spend the remainder of my life in quiet and peace.”
After the war, Winters found that farm, married, opened a business selling animal feed and apparently said very little about the war until approached by author Stephen Ambrose about his experiences. Winters is credited with persuading Ambrose to center the book around the accomplishments of Easy Company.
In the few interviews he granted after the appearance of the book and the TV series, Winters always claimed he was not a hero. But students of World War II and all Americans have lost someone who was a hero in every sense of the word.