Dick Winters is gone, and I never did shake his hand…

Dick Winters has died. “Captain Winters,” I think of him as, from the time when he commanded Easy Company of the 506th PIR,101st Airborne Division — although on D-Day, the day on which his actions should have earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, he was still a lieutenant, and by the time the company had captured Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest he was a major, and battalion commander.

Yes, the guy who was the main character in “Band of Brothers.”

He was a peaceful, modest man who, when war was thrust upon him and the rest of the world, discovered talents and personal resources that would otherwise likely have gone unsuspected. The video clips above and below, with actor Damien Lewis in the role of Winters, perfectly illustrates the qualities that Stephen Ambrose described in the book that inspired the series: Mainly, an uncanny coolness under fire, and certain, unhesitating knowledge of exactly what to do in a given situation — knowledge which he quickly and effectively communicated to his men in real time, with a minimum of fuss. The video clips show how Winters led a tiny remnant of Easy Company (of which he was only acting commander, since the CO was missing, later found to be dead) to take several well-defended, entrenched guns trained on Utah Beach — saving untold numbers of GIs — with only a couple of casualties among his own men. This was on his very first day in combat. The action is used today at West Point as an illustration of how to take a fixed position.

This guy has long been associated in my mind with the definition of the word, “hero.”

In later years, when he was interviewed in old age about the things that happened in 1944-45, you could still see the manner of man he was. His manner was that of a man you’d be confident to follow, a man you’d want to follow if you had to go to war, while at the same time being perfectly modest and soft-spoken about it. And on this link you’ll see what some of his men thought of him.

As I wrote about him last year:

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.

Well, I never did impose upon him to get that handshake, even though I’ve been to his general neighborhood again since I wrote that. And that causes me now a mixture of satisfaction and regret.

15 thoughts on “Dick Winters is gone, and I never did shake his hand…

  1. Steve Gordy

    Rest in peace, Major Winters. You made it possible for the rest of us to live in a free world.

  2. Brad

    Last night, as a tribute, I watched the first two episodes of “Band of Brothers” (of COURSE I own it on DVD). Awesome, as always — and awe-inspiring.

    The second installment ends with Winters (on the night of D-Day) making that promise, to God and himself, that if he got home alive, he’d live the rest of his life in peace…

  3. bud

    Major Winters seems to be an honorable soldier who understood what war was and why wars should be fought only when absolutely necessary. I find Major Winters courage and humility honorable traits that we should all strive for. May he rest in peace assured that his sacrifices were not in vain.

  4. Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    There’s been a couple of times when I too have had opportunity to question individuals such as Major Winters, but have declined.

    While I would have loved to have spent hours asking questions and listening to their experiences, I figured they’ve earned the right to go about their lives and not be pestered by just another history buff that comes up out of the blue.

    I was happy just to have been able to have seen them in person. And to me, that’s when you know you’re in the presence of a true hero.

  5. bud

    One thing that I’ve learned from the World War II veterans is that most of them believed they were doing a job, an important and dangerous job for sure, but a job nonetheless. I’ve had several conversations with them about the proper recognition they feel is their due. And usually they indicate they are a bit embarrased by all the various tributes and ceremonies for what they consider a job well done. So it puzzles me that so many baby boomers continue to obsess over the world war II “heros”. Let’s let them live out their lives in peace and limit our recognition of their accomplishments to Memorial Day and Veterans Day. That would give these men the proper respect that they deserve without elevating them to idol status that they themselves do not want.

  6. Pat

    @ bud – “So it puzzles me that so many baby boomers continue to obsess over the world war II ‘heros'”. Maybe we just miss our fathers – mine would have been 100 now. And we miss the integrity of their leadership. Tom Brokaw woke us up when he wrote his book.

  7. Brad

    Yeah… I know that bud is truly trying to understand. But the fact that he does have to struggle to understand this helps to explain why, even though I think bud is a really good guy, he and I are often at odds. There are things he gets that I don’t, and vice versa. We have a tendency to perceive the world VERY differently. It’s sometimes surprising that we share a common language.

    I say that not to judge bud. I’m just saying we’re different.

    As for me… I’ve just always felt like I was born too late. In my reading of history, I recognize kindred minds in the folks who were young adults in the early 1940s, the people who fought the war, both abroad and at home. Their attitudes about the war, about their country, about duty and obligation, and about the fact that we were all in this together, just seem to be mine.

    And it’s not that I see that time with rose-colored glasses (which Brokaw SEEMS to do, but I’ve never actually read all of his book, so maybe that’s unfair). I know that fighting that war wasn’t some thrilling adventure, a romance of some sort. I know that it sucked, big time. I know what a mistake it is to think of them all as those heroes who seemed born for the role. These were people with other plans for their lives, plans that were VERY rudely interrupted by Hitler and Pearl Harbor. A great expression of that is the scene in “Band of Brothers” when David Webster saw some ranking German officer prisoners and started shouting at them, demanding to know what the hell they thought they were doing starting a war, interrupting his life and dragging him halfway around the world to stop them. I think that was a fairly typical attitude (except Webster probably expressed the situation more eloquently than some would, being a Harvard man).

    I have another difference with Brokaw. While I admire and respect these elders who fought the war, I’m also… jealous of them. Because they had the chance, and I didn’t. Yes, this is partly because I DO romanticize the idea of putting my life on the line (or giving it up) to stop someone as clearly evil as the Nazis, or the Japanese militarists. That sets me apart, I think, from some of the folks who actually fought the war. I’ve always identified with the martial idealism of Mr. Roberts, in the novel (and movie), who burned to get into the war, because he thought it eminently worth fighting.

    But I also know that the average GI — every one of which I see as a hero — would see that as a load of crap. And I appreciate that. And I PARTICULARLY appreciate that even though he had that attitude, he fought and won the war anyway.

    One must also stand in awe of the sheer scale of the struggle, and that mere humans were equal to it. There was no hanging back from winning this, and the scope of the national effort it took is mind-boggling — the idea that we could as a people unite in ANYTHING that hard, requiring that sort of unanimity of focus.

    As I said above, I watched those couple of episodes of “Band of Brothers” the other night, which take you through D-Day. And seeing small hints of the scope of that invasion — the hundreds of C-47s in the air just for the airborne part of the effort (which of course had to be done with CGI for the series) — boggles the mind. You think of all those aircraft factory workers, all those ordinary Americans saving up the materials and going without, all the training of every one of those paratroopers, and the pilots and crews, and the folks on the ground in England who fed them, and what it took to equip every soldier… and that was just one small corner of what happened that day — a day in which we put 175,000 men on the beaches, using 5,000 ships and boats, each man prepared and equipped and shuttled ashore at great expense, effort and risk. Every man walking ashore through the most withering, destructive fire that Nazi Germany could prepare for them, the defenders having presighted every square inch of the beach…

    And that was just what happened ONE DAY, on one front of the war.

    Whether you think they were heroes or not, even whether you think what they did was worthwhile or not, you have to be struck with awe at what they did…

  8. Pat

    Well, Bud is right that they felt they were doing a job – a necessary job. Pearl Harbor made it obvious. It was a just war.

    I feel for those who are serving now, because the mission is not so clear and these young men and women get mixed messages from back home. In some interviews, we hear them say they are just trying to make sure their unit gets home alive. I strongly feel those who are sent into combat should get all they need to do the job. If we want to hold someone accountable for the situation, it should be our elected officials.

    As far as WWII having a certain romanticism about it, I’ve met enough medics, foot soldiers, and warbirds to know that wasn’t their reality. I think distance gives us the perspective to see mainly the heroics and gloss over the horror. We see the extraordinary deeds performed by ordinary men. It should encourage us. Who knows when any of us might be called upon?

  9. bud

    Brad you are a living, walking paradox. To be both “pro-life” when it comes to the unborn and so utterly fascinated with the horrors of war is truly remarkable.

  10. Brad

    I feel the same way about anti-war people who are “pro-choice.” To be more specific, I am bewildered by really sensitive, caring people whose hearts bleed for the weak and helpless among us, and yet won’t lift a finger to stop the killing of the weakest and most helpless. I’ve had long conversations with friends who are fully cognizant of just what a horrible thing abortion is, and can speak of it fairly eloquently, and STILL stick to their “to each his own” political position, which is what “pro-choice” means. It’s like — and a prochoice friend actually offered me this analogy, as a way of demonstrating that he got my point — saying, “I personally am deeply opposed to lynching, but if someone else believes in lynching, I have no business interfering.”

    When I have these conversations, I think to myself, “There’s just no way a person can be that inconsistent.” But then I also think, “They have just as much trouble understanding how I can be a Just War advocate.”

    Which is actually a separate point from the one you raised. I think you were reacting to the fact that I find military history interesting, which I do. Of course, you can be anti-war and still be fascinated by military history — not that many people are, but you can be.

    Both apply to me. I’m a history buff, and one of the subsets of that that particularly interest me is military history (another would be the ideas of the early American Republic — say, 1770 to the 1820s). But within that, there are some areas of military history that interest me more than others. WWII is far and away the most interesting to me. As I’ve said, I feel a particular affinity to the generation that fought that war. I’m also interested in the Napoleonic Wars, although I don’t know nearly as much about that period. I’m actually less interested in, say, the American Civil War — although ironically, I know far more about it than I do about Napoleon, just because you can’t be a thinking, reading American and not know a certain amount about 1860-65.

    Speaking of 1865… I inadvertently got a second major in history in college. I didn’t set out to do it; it’s just that I took so many history electives that I realized in my senior year that if I took two or three more courses I’d have a major, so I did. Anyway, my two favorite history courses back at ol’ Memphis State were “U.S. Social and Intellectual History Before 1865,” and its post-1865 companion course. Fascinating stuff — and not about war at all.

  11. bud

    Brad this might come as a huge surprise to you but I am very fascinated with military history, espcially weaponry. Do you know the difference between the main guns on the South Dakota class of battleships and the Iowa class? Both are 16″ guns but the SDs (a treaty class of ships) had 45 caliber guns whereas the Iowas had 50 caliber guns. That’s just a factoid I know off the top of my head. The Japanese Yamato and Musashi had the biggest guns of all @ 18.1″.

    And the more I read about this stuff the more disturbing I find the notion of being pro-war (calling it pro just war is a bit like calling a disease pro just cancer). So it is possible to be knowledgable of something and still be adamently oppossed to it.

  12. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    For the record, this anti-war, pro-choice person does not believe that fetuses are “us”–just potential “us”– I do not believe that every sperm is sacred or that every sex act must be open to the possibility of procreation.Once you are born, you are a human, with fully vested rights. Until then, not so much.

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