By Kevin M. Hymel
Major Dick Winters did not have the acerbic mouth of General George S. Patton, Jr., nor did he have the diplomatic skills of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Instead, Winters kept his own counsel, leading from the front, thinking his battles through before fighting them, and caring for the soldiers he led into combat. It was those qualities that endeared him to his men who would follow him almost anywhere. Winters can truly be considered an American hero, although he never considered himself one.
Born in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, on 21 January 1918, Richard “Dick” Winters attended Franklin and Marshall College, and graduated in 1941. After graduating, he volunteered for the Army, intending to put in his one-year mandatory service, but Pearl Harbor changed that. With the country now at war, he was accepted into Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. When the Army formed the 506th Parachute Infantry in August 1942, Winters became one of the original members of Easy Company. It was a connection that would last the rest of his life.
Winters trained with the unit at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, Fort Benning, and in England, where Easy Company arrived to prepare for the airborne drop into France as part of the Allied invasion of Western Europe. In England, Winters ran afoul of his company commander, Captain Herbert Sobel, who threatened Winters with a court-martial for missing a scheduled inspection (Sobel had changed the time of the inspection without informing Winters). When Winters accepted the court-martial, the company’s noncommissioned officers wrote letters to the regimental commander, refusing to serve under Sobel. Colonel Robert F. Sink, the 506th Parachute Infantry’s commander, removed and reassigned Sobel and put Winters in command of 1st Platoon.
Winters parachuted into Normandy, France, with the rest of the 101st Airborne Division on D-Day, 6 June 1944. In his first action, he led an ambush against a German wagon supply train. With paratroopers scattered over the French countryside, Winters assumed command of Easy Company when its leader, First Lieutenant Thomas Meehan, could not be located.
LEFT: Richard “Dick” Winters assumed command of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry, on 6 June 1944 in Normandy, France, when the company commander, First Lieutenant Thomas Meehan, could not be located. It was later determined that Meehan died when his plane was shot down over France. (Sovereign Media)
TOP RIGHT: The 101st Airborne Division shoulder sleeve insignia dates back to 1923. The “Screaming Eagle” on the patch alludes to “Old Abe,” the war eagle carried into combat by the 8th Wisconsin Infantry during the Civil War. (U.S. Army Center of Military History)
RIGHT: Winters and the 506th Parachute Infantry trained at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, in the summer of 1942. (National Archives)
It was later determined Meehan died when his plane was shot down and crashed in Normandy.
Winters’s first assignment as acting company commander was to eliminate four German artillery pieces manned by sixty enemy soldiers that were firing on Utah Beach at a place called Brécourt Manor. He gathered eleven Easy Company men for the attack and rounded up five more men from other 506th units. Winters divided his small attack force into two groups, which were supported by two machine guns. They assaulted the first three guns and put them out of action with minimal casualties, with Winters leading the attack. As Winters prepared to lead the assault on the fourth gun, a detachment from Dog Company arrived and eliminated it.
Winters’s next test of leadership came at the town of Carentan, where the 101st Airborne hoped to link the forces from Utah Beach with those from Omaha Beach. The plan was simple— Easy Company was to rush down a long sloping road into the town. Unfortunately, the Germans had set up machine guns in a house that were zeroed in on the road. “Move out!” Winters ordered, and his men started off. Just as quickly as the assault began, the German machine guns opened up, and the attacking soldiers ducked into ditches on either side of the road. Winters lost his temper. He ran from one side of the road to the other, grabbing men, cursing them, and pushing them forward. Soon, his men rushed into the town and began flushing the Germans out, house by house. While moving through the town, Winters received his only wound of the war, catching a fragment of a ricocheting bullet in the leg.
With Carentan secure, Winters pushed his company southwest and set up a defensive perimeter for the night. The next morning, just as the company was readying to attack, the Germans struck. German paratroopers, or Fallschirmjäger, supported by tanks, hit the American line. Fox Company, to Easy’s left, fell back, leaving Easy isolated. Winters’s men fought the Germans toe-to-toe as Winters ran up and down the line, encouraging the men, straightening out the line, and making sure everything was being done to halt the Germans. When he noticed the enemy was trying to flank him, he ordered mortars to break up the attack. With their momentum spent in the face of determined resistance, the Germans pulled back. Winters would later recall the German attack at Carentan was “without a doubt, the toughest fight of the war.”
The 101st was pulled off the line in July and sent back to England to absorb replacements and train for their next jump. As the new commander of Easy Company, Winters, promoted to captain, had to keep the unit disciplined, despite the men’s euphoria of having survived their first engagement. When one of his men, Private Ed Mauser, reported to him for being caught by MPs with his blouse unbuttoned, he fined him $15. When Mauser complained that Winters was being unfair, he simply responded, “It’s still going to cost you $15.”
Winters’s next fight came on 17 September 1944, when he led Easy Company in a jump into Holland as part of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s Operation Market-Garden. The 101st was tasked with seizing a bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal, but the Germans blew it up before the paratroopers could reach it. Their primary mission thwarted, Winters led his men in defense of the main road heading north to Arnhem. Winters and his company fought a number of engagements with the Germans, with each force attacking and retreating across the road, which soon earned the nickname “Hell’s Highway.”
Market-Garden was ultimately a failure, but Easy Company’s mission in Holland continued. Instead, the unit was transferred north to a spit of land cut by two rivers and dubbed the “Island.” During their assignment at the Island, Winters sent out patrols to keep tabs on the Germans. When one of his patrols was ambushed on the night of 5 October, he led a patrol and found a German unit dug into a dike, with the Germans unaware of Winters’s small force. After scouting out the enemy alone, he took part of his patrol to a dike that ran perpendicular to the German position. He assigned each man a target, and called out “ready, aim, fire.” Each man fired and seven Germans fell.
Winters then pulled the men back as the enemy opened fire. As the sun began to rise, Winters realized he was in a low position, outnumbered, and with no way to retreat without exposing his men. Despite the odds facing him, Winters decided to attack. Ordering his men to fix bayonets, he ran towards the German positions and popped a smoke grenade as a signal for his men to follow him. Winters, his adrenaline pumping, led the way and reached the top of the same dike where he ordered the first attack. He found himself alone, staring at a German sentry and “a solid mass of infantry.” Both he and the sentry lobbed hand grenades at each other, but both failed to explode. Winters then drew his rifle and fired from the hip. After shooting the sentry, he pivoted to his right and opened fire on the mass of Germans. He emptied two clips by the time the balance of his men reached the dike and opened fire. More Germans arrived and an artillery duel ensued. When it was all over, Winters and his small force had routed some 300 enemy soldiers at a cost of one man dead and twenty-two wounded. After the action on 6 October, Winters was promoted to executive officer of 2d Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry. It was a bittersweet promotion. His days leading Easy Company were over, but he would still be called to the front.
Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne in a C-47 transport prepare for their first combat jump into Normandy in the early hours of 6 June 1944. (National Archives)
This map details Easy Company’s successful 6 June assault on a German artillery position at Brécourt Manor that was firing on American troops on Utah Beach. The color photograph shows what the position looks like today. Winters was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for leading the attack against the German guns. (Sovereign Media)
When the Germans attacked the American lines in the Ardennes in Belgium on 16 December, General Eisenhower rushed the 101st Airborne Division to Bastogne just before the Germans encircled the town. The 2d Battalion occupied a forest north of the Bastogne, holding on against repeated attacks until Lieutenant General Patton’s Third Army relieved the siege. After Bastogne, the 101st stayed on the line, pushing north through snowstorms and heavy enemy resistance. The strain on the paratroopers was intense. Enlisted men and officers broke under the pressure. Winters credited his ability to resist the stress of war to his promotion, which pulled him further back from the line.
Once the Bulge was eradicated and the Germans were pushed back to their original positions, the 101st was re-assigned to Alsace and the town of Hagenau, which straddled the Moder River. On one occasion, Winters received orders to send out a patrol to make contact with the enemy and capture a few prisoners. When the mission succeeded, the regimental headquarters ordered him to launch another patrol. Privately questioning the need for a second patrol, and noticing that a fresh layer of snow would rob the men of the element of surprise, Winters said “Yes sir,” and ignored the order. He considered the order “an ethical dilemma of the first magnitude,” and believed he could not risk the lives of his soldiers on a mission of questionable value.
On 8 March 1945, Winters was promoted to major and elevated to command of 2d Battalion. Soon after, he and his battalion clambered aboard trucks and advanced through the German countryside unmolested as the Third Reich crumbled. On the way to Munich, the unit stumbled upon a concentration camp in Landsberg, where Winters witnessed the horrors of Nazism. He would never forget the sight of “starved, dazed men who dropped their eyes and heads when we looked at them.” Winters ended the war in Berchtesgaden, the southern German town near Hitler’s mountain-top retreat.
RIGHT: After heavy fighting on 12 June 1944, the 101st Airborne Division enters the village of Carentan. Securing Carentan allowed American forces on Omaha and Utah Beaches to link up. (National Archives)
BELOW: This color portrait of Winters shows him with the rank of major. Winters ended World War II as commander of 2d Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry. (U.S. Army)
Throughout the war, Winters always considered himself a “half-breed”: an officer with the responsibility to train and lead men, but one who also felt he was an enlisted man at heart. Nevertheless, he knew his role as an officer and maintained strict military discipline. When he found First Lieutenant Lynn “Buck” Compton hanging out with the enlisted men, he told him, “If you like them so much, why don’t you move out of the officers’ quarters and go sleep with them.” Compton got the message. Winters was also a teetotaler who preferred study and quiet reflection to the rowdy parties enjoyed by other officers. He knew his straight-as-an-arrow ways could hold back his advancement, but his steady leadership provided proof that he was an excellent officer.
RIGHT: Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne march along a road near the town of Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. (National Archives)
Winters also had the unique experience of almost always fighting while surrounded by the enemy—in Normandy, Holland, and Belgium. Before each battle, he would isolate himself even if just for a minute, review the plan of attack in his head, and say a brief prayer. That ritual cleared his head and gave him strength. It must have worked, because every attack he led or oversaw succeeded. He also never sent men to do a job he would not do himself. “He was absolutely willing to go through whatever we went through,” Don Malarkey wrote in his 2008 memoir Easy Company Soldier. “I always thought he was happiest when he was with us in the foxholes,” he added.
After the war, Winters worked for his friend and fellow officer Lewis Nixon at Nixon’s father’s plant, the Nixon Nitrate Works, in New Jersey. He married his wife Ethel in 1948. When the Korean War broke out, he was called back to active duty with the 11th Airborne Division. Having seen enough of war, Winters traveled to Washington, DC, and met with the Army’s personnel chief, Lieutenant General Anthony McAuliffe, who had commanded the 101st at Bastogne. Winters asked to be excused from the war and McAuliffe granted his request. Instead of heading to Korea, Winters trained new officers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, but he found the task frustrating and applied for Ranger school. He received orders for Korea and was preparing to deploy when orders came down that officers recalled involuntarily could resign. Winters soon left the Army.
His military service over, Winters bought a farm near Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, something he had wanted to do since D-Day. In his twilight years, Winters attended reunions and other World War II commemorative events. At a reunion in 1988, he met historian Stephen Ambrose, who took down Winters’s and other veterans’ stories. These testimonies eventually led to the book Band of Brothers, published in 1992. After the book came out, Winters attended a reenactment in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he sat over a map of the Normandy beaches, tracing his route as a small audience stood in awe. One person asked him what was the worst battle in which he fought. Without missing a beat, Winters replied, “Any time someone was firing at me was the worst battle.” He had almost finished explaining his D-Day actions when his wife drove up and honked the horn. Winters immediately stood up, apologized, and climbed in the car. He may have been out of the Army, but he still had someone to answer to.
In 2001, HBO premiered a ten-part miniseries based on Ambrose’s book. The series brought Winters instant celebrity outside historical circles. Fan mail poured in and he was asked to speak or represent World War II veterans at a number of events. A group of admirers unsuccessfully tried to get him the Medal of Honor for his actions at Brécourt Manor in Normandy, but Winters never commented on their effort either way. He had already received the Distinguished Service Cross for leading the assault against the German battery at Brécourt Manor and was more than satisfied with that honor. He was probably more pleased with the miniseries, which reached a large audience and made more people aware of what he and his men accomplished and endured during World War II.
Winters was passionate about preserving his World War II experiences. He kept files on his Army years, and when Ambrose asked for his help in putting together Band of Brothers, he wrote all the officers and men he served with, asking them to put their experiences on paper. Additionally, he had friends copy the 506th Parachute Infantry’s records at the National Archives. He then organized all the records, which he used to write his own memoirs, Beyond Band of Brothers. Those records are now kept at the Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Of all his experiences, one specific memory stayed with him for the rest of his life: the enemy sentry in Holland he encountered during the 5 October 1944 attack on a German position. “I can still see him smiling at me as I stood on top of the dike,” he wrote.
Dick Winters passed away on 2 January 2011, at the age of ninety-two. The public memorial service held for him celebrated his life after World War II and what his friend, Colonel Cole C. Kingseed, USA-Ret., called his “quest for the quiet and the peace for which every soldier yearns.” The service drew almost 2,000 admirers, a testament to the impact this simple warrior left on anyone who met him or shared his story through books or television.
Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book Band of Brothers recorded the exploits of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry, during World War II. HBO later produced a television miniseries based on Ambrose’s book, with English actor Damian Lewis as Winters. (Simon & Schuster)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin M. Hymel is a historian at the U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is the author of Patton’s Photographs: War as He Saw It, and leads tours of General George S. Patton’s battlefields for Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours.