A couple of weeks ago, an elderly gentleman approaching his 93rd birthday passed away quietly into the night in rural southeastern Pennsylvania. His name was Dick Winters. Like so many young men of his generation, Winters joined the US Army nearly seventy years ago. His leadership was soon recognized, so he attended Officer Candidate School (OCS) to quickly (they were called 90-day wonders) learn the skills of officership.
Now a 2nd Lieutenant, Winters volunteered for a new Army concept called paratroopers. Volunteer infantrymen would go through rigorous training and form units that would jump out of perfectly good airplanes behind enemy lines, then seize and hold key strong points, waiting for relief from stronger, conventional armor and infantry units. Airborne units, proven by the Germans in the first year of the war, were elite troopers. Winters not only volunteered for this type of duty, but he would be called to lead them into battle as a company commander.
In the US Army, a company is the basic fighting element. There might be 150-200 men in the company, generally organized into three platoons. Initially, Dick Winters was assigned as platoon leader. As he trained with his men, first in Toccoa, Georgia and later in North Carolina, the enlisted men recognized both his quiet demeanor and inherent leadership skills. Winters led from the front. He set the example and the troops appreciated that.
The first commander of E (Easy) Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the famed 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” did not enjoy the same loyalty as Dick Winters. In fact, the men hated his guts and vowed they wouldn’t follow him into combat. After they deployed to England and shortly before D-Day, he was replaced by Lieutenant Thomas Meehan who, like Winters, was well respected.
In the complex plan of the Normandy Invasion, the greatest seaborne assault in the history of warfare, the 101st Airborne along with the 82nd “All America” would parachute shortly after midnight into the Cotentin Peninsula behind the eastern flank of the invasion at Utah Beach. Since Utah was cut off from the other four invasion beaches, planners felt that the landing 4th Infantry needed to be supported from the rear. That was the job of the two American airborne divisions – to disrupt German defenses sufficiently to enable the 4th to get ashore and establish their advance.
Tom Meehan never had the opportunity to command Easy in combat – his C-47 with the headquarters element was shot down and all aboard killed as they approached the drop zone. The senior platoon leader, Dick Winters, assumed command and would lead the company into combat. In the darkness and early morning hours, he began to gather the scattered remnants of Easy from across the Normandy countryside.
On the afternoon of June 6th, 1944, Winters led thirteen paratroopers into an assault on a German artillery battery at Brecourt Manor protected by over fifty enemy soldiers. Winters’ squad destroyed the four howitzers that threatened the Utah landings and routed the enemy. To this day, the assault on Brecourt is studied by infantry courses and staff colleges as the epitome of a small squad attack on a fixed position.
Throughout the Normandy campaign and Operation Market Garden in Holland, Winters brilliantly led his company. In Holland, now Captain Winters stepped up to become the executive officer for 2nd Battalion. Later with a promotion to major, he became the battalion CO.
On December 18th, Easy and the rest of the Screaming Eagles were rushed to the Belgium crossroads village of Bastogne to block a major German assault — what we now call the Battle of the Bulge. In the worst winter that Europe had experienced in a half century, they hung on, alternately battling the Germans and frigid cold.
When the Germans demanded their surrender, the 101st commander General Anthony McAuliffe answered “nuts.” A week later when the 4th Armored broke through the German encirclement, Easy and their comrades were still hanging on. As the old saying goes, the starting position for a paratrooper is to be surrounded by the enemy. They never flinched.
The exploits of Easy and their great CO were recorded in 1992 by historian Stephen Ambrose’s best-seller “Band of Brothers.” The title comes from a verse in Shakespeare’s history Henry V; “From this day to the ending of the world, we in it shall be remembered, we band of brothers.” Later, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks turned the book into a ten part miniseries by the same title. If you’ve never read the book or seen the screen version, you should.
Did the members of Easy consider their service and sacrifice heroic? The answer was best summarized by one of its’ members response to his grandson’s query, “We’re you a hero in the war grandpa? No, but I served in a company of heroes.”
It takes a special leader to command such a group of brave men, and Dick Winters was an example of the finest company commander the Army could produce. On the evening of his first frightful day in Normandy, he vowed that if allowed to survive such horror and carnage, he would lead a peaceful life and never raise a hand again against his fellow man. Until his life on earth ended in early January, he kept that pledge. Now, he belongs to the ages. God rest, good and faithful servant.