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His brothers' keeper
by Linda Whipple
How Richard D. Winters ’41 kept the story of Easy Company alive for future generations.
On this late October afternoon miles and years away from the battlefields of World War II, Richard D. Winters ’41 is sitting in the second-story office of his Hershey, Pa., home, remembering and reliving the war. Outside, the last rays of autumn sunlight are casting shadows on the long, neatly manicured lawns of this peaceful residential neighborhood.
Winters is surrounded by maps, photos, and memorabilia that serve as continual reminders of his service to the country as commander of E “Easy” Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
A shadow box filled with battle decorations hangs on the wall behind his office door, along with a map of Utah Beach (Normandy) that goes back to Roman times, and Winters’ signature “Hang tough, pardner” cowboy poster. On the opposite wall is the company flag, and to the left of it, framed and autographed photos of military top brass, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as photos of Winters as a soldier and of Damian Lewis, the actor who played him in the Emmy Award–winning Band of Brothers HBO miniseries based on the book by Stephen E. Ambrose.
“He started off on the weak side,” the usually laconic Winters says of his miniseries counterpart. “I wasn’t so hot when I started out either.”
Above Winters’ desk is the road map of Bastogne that he carried with him the entire time that Easy Company held a 17-mile perimeter around the Belgian city during the Battle of the Bulge, and a framed Band of Brothers poster signed by the surviving men of Easy Company—his “family.”
Millions of TV viewers worldwide watched the company’s saga unfold—from training at Camp Toccoa, Ga., through D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, to the capture of Adolf Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” Bavarian chateau. Even more now have access to the story on video and DVD. Winters is flooded by fan mail from people of all ages who recognize him as a genuine hero. He is proud of what he has accomplished, but he never intended to become a celebrity. Telling the story of Easy Company was his motivation from the start.
The men of Easy Company were highly motivated citizen soldiers. They had volunteered for the paratroopers, a new and experimental regiment, and by the late spring of 1944, they had become an elite company of airborne light infantry. “At the peak of its effectiveness, in Holland in October 1944 and in the Ardennes in January 1945, it was as good a rifle company as there was in the world,” Ambrose wrote.
Easy Company distinguished itself early. In its first combat action, during the early morning hours of D-Day, a company platoon led by 1st Lt. Winters took out a German battery unit looking down on Utah Beach.
Winters swivels his desk chair around to face a map of Normandy, where the 101st Airborne, known as the Screaming Eagles, jumped behind enemy lines on D-Day as part of the massive Allied invasion of German-occupied France.
“We landed here,” he says, pointing to an area outside the little French village of Ste. Mère-Eglise. “The German defense was to flood the low lands. The water was two feet to over six feet deep—that was part of their defense. They didn’t need a lot of men to stop any troops that were landing.”
With only 12 men, Winters launched a daring frontal assault on the Germans, hitting them from different directions at once. He and his men succeeded in opening up one of four causeways leading to Utah Beach, which made it easier for the invading Allied forces to come inland. Winters received the Distinguished Service Cross for his valor.
Picking up a long metal pointer, Winters turns and points to a map of Holland. “We jumped north of Eind-hoven,” he says, “Then the job was to hold the road open.” But it couldn’t be done and Operation Market-Garden, as the high-risk offensive was called, ultimately failed. Easy Company was forced to retreat to the “island,” a flat agricultural area below sea level, where dikes held back the floodwaters of the Lower Rhine.
Capt. Winters, by then, organized a patrol, consisting of a squad and a half from the 1st platoon, and led an attack on a full company of SS troops that had come across the river by ferry from the north and was attempting to infiltrate the island. What he didn’t know was that another SS company had crossed over, too.
He took the Germans by surprise. “By dumb luck, I caught them [the Germans] in their winter overcoats. They were all packed together.” The Germans were lying with their heads down to avoid the covering machine-gun fire. “I was shooting at their backs. I had two companies on the run.”
In their long overcoats, the Germans moved slowly and awkwardly as they attempted to run away. Easy Company kept up the fire, while Winters called for artillery support. His men had to scatter when the German artillery started up and the shelling became too intense. With just one platoon, however, Winters had routed two German companies of about 300 men.
A couple of days after the attack, Winters was promoted to executive officer of the 2nd battalion. He rose to major just before the Army moved into Germany.
Ambrose once told him, after writing Band of Brothers, “From now on, Winters, and for the rest of your life, your subject is leadership. You’ve got it.”
So how does he define leadership? “It’s something you have within you that gets the job done,” explains Winters, a corporate manager in the feed business before he retired. “You start with a cornerstone—honesty—and from there you build character, you build knowledge. With honesty goes being fair, making decisions, and being right, most of the time.”
My home is your home’
Among the “very sincere” letters Winters has received since the broadcast of Band of Brothers is one that closes with a brief, open-ended invitation: “If you ever come to Argentina,” the letter writer states, “my home is your home.”
“I thought, oh my god, that’s beautiful,” Winters says. “He
put it together exactly right.”
In September 1943, the 101st Airborne landed in England after spending seven days packed together so tightly aboard a transport ship that “you can’t move without bumping into somebody.” The men were taken to the little village of Aldbourne, where the troops were bedded down for the night, and the officers retreated to a building set aside for them. But it was just as crowded in there.
“I got up the next morning and just wanted to get away from everybody,” recalls the chiseled Winters, his voice soft and his eyes darting back and forth as he visualizes the scene. “On a Sunday morning, what do you do? You go to church.”
Afterward, Winters still wanted to be alone so he went to the cemetery adjacent to the church, walked to the top of a hill and sat down by himself. He could see an elderly couple fussing around a new grave. They finished tidying up and then came over to sit on the bench beside him and visit.
“Would you like to come to tea at 4 o’clock?” they asked.
Homesick and wondering whether he’d ever see home again, Winters was overjoyed by the invitation. He went to tea. A couple of days later, battalion leaders decided they needed more billets for officers. The elderly couple agreed to take two men provided Winters was one. Their home became his home for eight months.
Mr. Barnes was a lay preacher in the church and Mrs. Barnes played the organ. “I realized that to go to church was a privilege, so I went to church,” Winters says.
On a typical evening, he would be reading when
he would hear a knock on his door, and Mrs. Barnes would ask: “Lt. Winters, would you like
to come down and listen to the news?”
“I loved it. I appreciated it,” Winters says emphatically. “I had found a home and these people had adopted me.”
While the other soldiers were out carousing in
the pubs, Winters was studying and reading at home every
night—and gaining the respect of his men.
Winters returned to Aldbourne after the D-Day
invasion of Normandy, having won the Distinguished Service
a spot on the
BBC news. Mrs.
Barnes greeted him like his own wonderful mother
would have done. “I’m
so proud of you,” she told him. “I just knew you would do good.”
Old soldiers say the bond created in wartime is special, forged by a heightened sense of caring and responsibility for one another. “You remember that my life depends on you and your life depends on me,” Winters explains, adding that men who have this kind of bond cherish it and don’t want to lose it.
Maybe it isn’t such a coincidence that many of the men in Easy Company had the nurturing of good mothers. “I had a wonderful mother—very conservative,” Winters notes. “My mother came from a Mennonite family. Honesty and discipline were driven into my head from day one.”
His family lived on South West End Avenue in Lancaster, close to campus. He studied business at Franklin & Marshall and worked hard digging pole holes for Edison Electric, shoveling snow, and cutting grass to afford his studies.
When he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941, his Aunt Lottie bought him a diary. Soon after the D-Day battle, Winters was hit in the leg during a skirmish and was laid up for a few days. That’s when he began to write.
Using the training he received in college, Winters became a student of war. “I must remember this. I must remember this,” he kept telling himself. He wrote down all the dates and just a few words, but in the sequence in which they happened—with no rewrites or edits later to alter the truth. “When you write the ledger in combat and you’re surrounded by people you fight with, you don’t exaggerate. You make darn sure you’re conservative.” He sent the diaries home to his parents for safekeeping.
Finding the right person to tell the story of Easy Company wasn’t easy. Before he found Ambrose, Winters was in touch with another writer who first wanted to know: “How much money do you have?” Ambrose simply said: “Send me your memories.” He had some time between projects and thought he could work in the story. So Winters, with the help of his wife, Ethel, who typed up his voluminous notes, did just that. In some passages, Winters points out, Ambrose used his diaries almost word for word.
Ambrose returned the diaries to Winters—along with
the other stories he collected from the surviving members of Easy Company—after
completing his work on Band of Brothers.
Actor Tom Hanks, who coproduced the HBO miniseries with Steven Spiel-berg, met Winters and became interested in the story of Easy Company while researching his starring role in Saving Private Ryan.
When Ambrose sold the rights to Hanks, Winters sent the actor a complete copy of his diaries. “You send me golden nuggets,” Hanks replied. In return, Hanks found out that Winters doesn’t drink or smoke, but has a taste for ice cream. So now Hanks sends Winters four half-gallon containers of ice cream from a famous Oklahoma City manufacturer every year for his birthday.
With the deal struck, teleplay cowriter Erik Jendresen came to Hershey to hammer out “the bible”—a 250-page outline for the miniseries. That outline was divided up among six writers who took different episodes of the film and interviewed the surviving members of Easy Company in depth.
“The writers are always creative,” says Winters, who would ask them: “Why couldn’t you use it the way I remembered it?” But he acknowledges that they need to look at the material from the audience’s point of view. On the real D-Day, for example, the guns were camouflaged. “But you can’t make a picture with guns camouflaged.”
After watching the Emmy Award presentations on TV all his life, Winters never imagined that last September, he would be living it: that a limo would whisk Ethel and him away to the airport for a direct flight to Los Angeles; or that he would be put up at one of the finest hotels in Beverly Hills, and a masseuse would arrive at his door with a table and oils to give him a nice massage before the big night.
And then, of course, there was the awards ceremony itself,
followed by the acceptance speech he gave on behalf of all the men of
Easy Company, and the celebration afterward.
Heady stuff. But to regain his sense of perspective, Winters has only to reread his own diaries.
“My story today is the same as it was in 1944,” he says. “I intend to keep it that way.”
Editor’s Note: Franklin & Marshall magazine is collecting stories of World War II alumni for a website archive. Send stories (500 words or less) to email@example.com, or to Editor, Franklin & Marshall magazine, P.O. Box 3003, Lancaster, PA 17604.