Someone mentioned recently all the personal heroes he’d had the chance to interview in his career in journalism. I’ve had some of those — such as my friend Jack Van Loan. But on this day I think of one I DIDN’T interview, because I wouldn’t let myself bother him. I didn’t feel I had the right to.
Over the last few years I had occasion to visit central Pennsylvania multiple times, while my daughter was attending a ballet school up there. Almost every time I went there, I thought about going over to Hershey to try to talk to Dick Winters, the legendary commander of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. He was the leader — one of several leaders, but the one everyone remembers as the best — of the company immortalized in Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers, and the HBO series of the same name (the best series ever made for television).
But I never did. As much as I wanted just to meet him, to shake his hand once, I never did. And there’s a reason for that. A little while ago, I was reminded of that reason. The History Channel showed a special about D-Day, and one of the narrators was Winters, speaking on camera about 60 years after the events. He spoke in that calm, understated way he’s always had about his heroics that day — he should have received the Medal of Honor for taking out those 105mm pieces aimed at Utah Beach, but an arbitrary cap of one per division had been place on them, so he “only” received the Distinguished Service Cross.
Then, he got a little choked up about what he did that night, having been up for two days, and fighting since midnight. He got down on his knees and thanked God for getting him through that day. Then he promised that, if only he could get home again, he would find a quiet place to live, and live out the rest of his life in peace.
I figure a guy who’s done what he did — that day and during the months after, through the fighting around Bastogne and beyond into Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest itself — deserved to get his wish. He should be left in peace, and not bothered by me or anyone else.
So I’ve never tried to interview him.
(The video above and below is the televised dramatization of the action at Brecourt Manor for which Winters received the DSC. I was struck by how well the actor Damien Lewis captured a quality that Ambrose had described in his book. Winters had the rare ability to stay cool under fire, and more importantly to analyze the situation instantaneously and know exactly what to do in the given situation, and convey it to his men. Nobody who hasn’t been in those circumstances knows how he would react — neither did Winters, before this day — but everyone hopes he would perform exactly the way then-Lt. Winters did.)
Such gentleness and restraint becomes you. Those are rare virtues these days.
We recently saw the “Band of Brothers” set at the end of the war when Easy Company liberated a death camp. My wife took it hard; she had some idea of what her father saw when he went into Dachau in ’45. Dick Winters has earned all the peace he wants.