Dick Winters: Reflections From Major Winters Of Easy Company

6/12/2006 • American History

After his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1945, Major Richard Winters returned to civilian life. He worked for a while for Nixon Nitration Works, the family firm of his wartime friend Louis Nixon. Following a brief tour of duty during the Korean War, he returned to Hershey, Pa., embarked on a successful business career, raised a family and lived the quiet life he had promised himself after his first day in combat on June 6, 1944. In 1992 this solitude was interrupted with the publication of historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s best-selling book Band of Brothers, which brought the World War II story of Dick Winters and Company E, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division — which he had commanded from Normandy to Berchtesgaden — to the public’s attention. The spotlight intensified exponentially when Hollywood’s Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks teamed up to bring Winters’ story to tens of millions in the highly acclaimed, Emmy-winning HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. This mass exposure transformed Winters and his comrades into cultural icons for generations far removed from World War II. They have become the embodiment of millions of American servicemen who marched off to war as ordinary men but achieved extraordinary things.


Faced with his newfound fame, Winters seized the opportunity to continue to lead and instill in others the lessons about leadership he learned in the life and death crucible of war. It was Ambrose who, after chronicling Winters’ story, impressed upon him that his leadership ethics could inspire all generations.

Major Dick Winters: After Band of Brothers became such an unexpected success, Ambrose wrote me a letter of thanks. In that letter he said, ‘Thanks for teaching me the duties and responsibilities of a good company commander.’ Later on, he again acknowledged me in his book on Lewis and Clark. He continued to do this with every book he wrote afterward. I appreciated that recognition, and I appreciated the fact that he never forgot me. I was one of the first people he called when he said that he had sold the book to Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

Ambrose later wrote me another letter and said that in the future, whenever I had an opportunity, I should talk on the subject of leadership. So, as a way to deliver what I believe is an important message, and to honor my friend’s request, I speak on this subject whenever I have an opportunity.

Winters’ first opportunity to lead came in 1942, when he completed Officer Candidate School and began his journey to Easy Company and war.

When I first joined the Army I took a series of tests to see where I would best fit. I scored high enough that I qualified for Officer Candidate School [OCS]. While I was at OCS at Fort Benning, Ga., I applied for the airborne, a new thing that looked like a challenge. I had always enjoyed sports and physical activity, and there was a certain appeal to being with the best. After graduating from OCS, I reported to Camp Croft, in South Carolina, where I was busy training new men. I had been at this for about 13 weeks when I got orders to report to Camp Toombs in Georgia. On the way to the camp I was pretty unsettled. I took Highway 13, passed a casket factory and reported in at Camp Toombs. There was not much there, and I was assigned to a tar-paper shack. There were no windows in any of the buildings, and the only place with electricity was the latrine. This was rough. But you were expecting to have it rough if you were going to be in the parachute troops.

Training started right away, and there was this Currahee Mountain that we had to run up and down. It was wicked, a real killer. But Currahee was terrific, as it became a test for all the men and officers. Everyone had to run up it — walk actually, in what we called the ‘airborne shuffle.’ It was equal for every man, every officer. Nobody was getting by with a thing. Everybody was being treated the same.

Shortly after Winters’ arrival in July 1942, the Georgia camp’s name was changed from the ominous Toombs to Toccoa. The new airborne officers were highly selective when it came to picking the men to fill what was to be the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

We looked for the ones who looked like they could take it. When the going got tough, could they stick with it? We also looked for the men who accepted discipline. I already knew discipline is what makes a good soldier. On the runs and the hikes it was discipline that kept the men going. Another thing we looked at was if the individual was accepted by the other men. The men themselves did a lot of the work for the officers by sizing each other up. If someone could not be accepted by his fellow soldiers he was gone right away. The men who were told to leave didn’t get to vote or make an appeal. This was not a popularity contest.

At Toccoa, Winters first met Colonel Robert Sink, the legendary commander of the 506th. Sink turned down two promotions during the war to stay with the regiment, an unusual choice given his West Point credentials as a professional soldier.

When I first met Sink I was in awe. He was sitting behind his desk smoking a cigarette. He came across as having this West Point attitude. You know, ‘You are not any big deal.’ But I learned pretty quickly that my first impression was wrong. Sink was a terrific leader, and he stuck with the regiment from the beginning to the very end of the war. I often wondered during the war how come this guy is sticking around? Frankly, I thought it was his drinking problem. He had a drinking problem, but it did not affect his leadership of the regiment.

This was his first regiment. And if you look at it through his eyes, and you see these troops coming from civilian life, direct from school, from work, maybe a few of them with a little college, and he is supposed to make a regiment out of this group?

It makes it even tougher when you look at the officers he was assigned — and I include myself here. Here I am, a year out of college. I go through basic training as a volunteer. I signed up for Officer Candidate School. So a 90-day wonder, and now I am a second lieutenant. And this is the kind of stuff he was assigned and told to turn into a crack airborne unit. He had a heck of a job. To make it worse, he had nothing there at the camp. There were no buildings when he first reported in. He had to build an obstacle course. He had to beg, borrow and steal what he needed. He had to search for men who knew even the basics of their job. Of the cadre that he started with in Toccoa, not one of them was around by the time we got into combat. They were all good enough men, they were just not fit enough to be in the airborne. They came in and were there to teach us, give us basic training and construct the camp, put it together, but not one of them was around by the time we were ready to go to France. Sink did a terrific job from start to finish. He stuck with us throughout the entire war. I respect ‘Bourbon Bob.’ He was a good man.

Following Camp Toccoa, Winters and his men continued training at Fort Benning and other camps in the States before shipping out for Aldbourne, England, in September 1943. Winters credits his time in the idyllic English village and his relationships with its residents with truly preparing him for the tasks to come.

On the way over to England, the conditions on the troopship were awful; even the officers were crowded together. We arrived in Aldbourne on a Saturday evening and were immediately made busy getting the men settled and bedded down. All of the officers were crowded together in another building. The next morning, Sunday, I decided to get away from everybody to be by myself for a few minutes. The best place to be alone with your thoughts is in church, so I went to church. It gave me a chance to relax a little bit, get my thoughts together. I didn’t pay any attention to the sermon, that wasn’t important — I just needed to be alone. After the service I still wanted to enjoy my solitude. Adjacent to the church there was a small cemetery. I went out of the church and walked up a hill to two small benches, and I sat down. As I looked over the cemetery I could see an elderly couple fussing over a grave. They eventually wandered up the hill and sat beside me.

We were soon engaged in a little conversation, and they invited me for tea. We had been briefed on how to handle our dealing with the English. It had been pointed out to us that they were on very strict rationing and that we shouldn’t overdo invitations of this kind and make their problem all the more severe. But I went to tea and had a few visits with them after that. Shortly, it was decided that the officers were too crowded and some should be boarded with families in the town. Mr. and Mrs. Barnes offered to take two officers in, as long as I was one of them. I took Lieutenant Harry Welsh with me. Our quarters were with the family in a room over their store. It was not a big room, and we slept on army cots, but it got us away from the crowds. Now Welsh, he enjoyed going out in the evenings to the pubs, but I preferred to stay at home with the Barneses. In the evenings, as was their custom, shortly before 9 o’clock when the news came on, Mrs. Barnes would come up and knock on my door and say, ‘Lieutenant Winters, would you like to come down and listen to the news and have a spot of tea?’ So naturally I took the opportunity to join them and listen to the news. Afterward Mr. Barnes, who was a lay minister, would lead us in a short prayer. Then we would have a small treat and chat for a while. Then, at 10, Mr. Barnes would announce that it was time for bed. That ritual became so important. I’d found a home away from home.

And, you see, the day I first saw the Barnes couple they had been decorating the grave of their son, who was in the Royal Air Force and had been killed. They adopted me and made me part of the family. This helped me prepare mentally for what I was about to face. As I look back on the months before the invasion, my stay with the Barnes family was so important. They were giving me the best treatment they could; they gave me a home, which was so important for my maturing.

While his time with the Barnes family afforded him an opportunity for calm and reflection, the days after his transfer to the marshaling area at Uppottery, England, were filled with final preparations for the impending invasion of Normandy.

They would take groups of us into tents in the marshaling areas to brief us and show us sand table models of the area where we were going to be jumping. When I went into the tent, a staff officer instructed us to memorize everything we saw — the roads, bridges, trenches, everything. It was all very impressive, but you can only take so much of this. Frankly, I didn’t let myself get carried away trying to memorize every cockeyed thing, because the big thing in life, not only in making a jump into Normandy, is that you have got to be able to think on your feet. That’s what we had to do, and that’s what we did. You’ve got to be able to think on your feet throughout your life. You have to do it every day.

The miniseries depicts a moment in the marshaling area at Uppottery when Winters disciplines Lieutenant Lynn ‘Buck’ Compton, a fellow officer and close friend.

Compton had been with the company for six months, and I liked him very much. One problem, however, was that he had gotten into the habit of gambling with some of the men in the marshaling area. That is why I reprimanded him. It is a poor policy, and it puts him in the position, the embarrassing position, that if he wins, he must take from the men. He had taken from the men already. The point I was trying to make is that you have to be prepared to give to the people you lead. You must give in every way. You must give of your time, and you must be consistent in your treatment of them. You must never take from people you lead. Later, at Brécourt Manor, Compton did a fantastic job leading his men.

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, Winters leapt out into the flak-filled skies over Normandy and landed outside of Ste. Mère-Eglise just after 1 o’clock in the morning. After a harrowing night, he managed to collect a handful of men from Easy Company and bring them to Le Grand-Chemin, from where he led the attack on a battery of four German guns at Brécourt Manor — guns that lay at the end of crucial Causeway No. 2, and that the 4th Infantry Division needed to get off Utah Beach. Of all Winters’ actions in France, the destruction of German guns positioned at Brécourt Manor, raining down fire on the Americans struggling off Utah Beach, has been the most often cited. Professors at West Point have used this action as a lesson on the proper method of carrying out a small-unit attack. Chillingly depicted in the HBO miniseries, this daring assault is credited with saving many lives and expediting the advance of American forces inland on D-Day.

After roaming around at the tail end of another column for most of the evening, I finally stumbled into Le Grand-Chemin, where the 2nd Battalion was gathering. At the time, E Company consisted of just 13 men. As I was sitting there with my men, an officer came back and said, ‘Winters, they want you up front!’ When I got there, Captain Clarence Hester turns to me and says: ‘There’s fire along that hedgerow there. Take care of it.’ That was it. There was no elaborate plan or briefing. I didn’t even know what was on the other side of the hedgerow. All I had were my instructions, and I had to quickly develop a plan from there. And as it turns out, I did. We were able to take out those four German guns with the loss of only one man, Private John Hall, who was killed just in front of me. He was a good man, and his death was hard on me. But the attack leaves good memories. We got the job done. It was only later, much later, that I realized how important knocking out those guns had been to our securing Causeway 2, which became the main causeway for troops coming off Utah Beach.

Years later, I heard from someone who had come up off the beach on that causeway. This guy, a medic, had been following behind some tanks. As they came up from the beach, one of the tanks became disabled. When the driver got out, he stepped on a mine. The medic went out into the field and patched this guy up. Later, after the book came out, this medic wrote me a letter and pointed out that he always wondered why the fire onto Utah Beach had stopped. ‘Thanks very much,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t have made it without those guns being knocked out.’ That medic was a man named Eliot Richardson, who, as it turns out, later became attorney general in the Nixon administration. So we did a little good out there for those troops coming in on D-Day, which makes you feel pretty good.

After more than a month of combat in Normandy, Easy was pulled out of the line in July and returned to England on July 12. The 101st Airborne Division spent the remainder of the summer preparing for a series of missions that were all canceled as Allied forces raced across occupied France. In September the 101st was one of three airborne divisions that took part in the Allied effort to seize a bridgehead over the Rhine. Following the drop in September, the division fought a series of small battles along its corridor of ‘Hell’s Highway’ in Holland before moving to positions along the southern band of the Lower Rhine River, known to the men of the 101st as ‘the Island.’ It was here, on October 5, 1944, where Winters led an attack that prevented a German breakthrough of thinly held American lines.

The Island leaves memories that I have never forgotten. We went up to the dike along the Rhine River to relieve the British. I was sent up ahead of the men and had an opportunity to witness a British attack. The officers walked with the men across this field. They all walked. Nobody took evasive action; nobody tried looking for cover or anything. They walked, the officers with their side arms in their holsters and the men with their rifles in their hands, going across a wide-open field. The Germans just cut them to pieces. I never saw anything like it. It was like a battle from the Civil War. It was very noble, very brave and unbelievably foolish. We had to replace them, and I had a tremendous front to cover. So the only thing I could do was place strongpoints at certain places along the dike and then cover the spaces in between with patrols.

It was on October 5 at a place we called the crossroads. Earlier that evening one of my patrols had encountered a large number of Germans and been forced to withdraw. When they reported in to me what they had encountered, I decided to take a group out to stop these Germans from infiltrating our lines. When we got to the spot where the Germans were and I could see how many there were, I immediately gave a hand signal back to the men in the squad I had with me to follow me up to the dike. As they came up to me, I assigned each a target. I stepped back and in a quiet stage whisper said, ‘Ready, aim, fire.’ We eliminated all of our targets. At this point we are on the German side of the dike, and there are other Germans on the other side of the road leading to the Rhine River that intersects with the dike.

There was only one thing to do. I withdrew my men to an adjoining gully to assess the situation. I got in touch with company headquarters and told them to send up the reserve platoon. After I was joined by another platoon and some additional machine guns, I went off by myself a little way to assess the situation and decide what to do. My group was the only thing separating the Germans from the rear of my battalion. So I decided we must charge them. I returned to the gully where the rest of the platoon was, and after ordering fixed bayonets, which makes every man have a second thought, I signaled when to throw a smoke grenade. This was the order to charge. As I leap off and begin the charge I am pretty pumped up. In fact, I have never been more pumped up in my life. I ran faster across the field separating us from the Germans than I have ever run in my life. All the men in the company are behind me, but they seem to be moving so slow. Nobody seemed to be moving normally, only me. When I got up to the road where the Germans were, there was a German in front of me, so I shot him. I then turn to my right, and there I see a whole company of Germans. I began firing into them, and they seemed to be moving so slow and then the rest of the company joined me. As the boys said later, it was a duck shoot. They never had a target like that before. We had caught two companies of SS soldiers pinned to the dike, and as they retreated we poured fire into them, and then I called in artillery fire. We destroyed those two companies.

I remember when I was interviewed for the movie, I told one of the writers that as I shot the German, he looked up at me and smiled. Well, I kept going with my story, but later, as it turns out, the writer wanted to play up the thing about the smile. He wanted to play that up as a flashback, the type of bad flashbacks you can have. I have flashbacks every day. But the writer wanted to play up that point. And that is why in the series that German is portrayed as a kid and why later on when I am in Paris they portray me looking at this kid on the train and having another flashback. It’s stupid, but I didn’t get the chance to review the scenes.

Winters believes his ability to inspire men to follow him into harm’s way on the dike in Holland and elsewhere was attributable to his bedrock beliefs in basic leadership qualities.

The qualities you are looking for in a leader include: Does the individual have the respect of the men? How do you get the respect of the men? By living with them, being a part of it, being able to understand what they are going through and not to separate yourself from them. You have to know your men. You have to gain their confidence. And the way to gain the confidence of anybody, whether it’s in war or civilian life or whatever, you must be honest. Be honest, be fair and be consistent. You can’t be honest and fair one day, and the next give your people the short end of the stick. Once you can achieve that, you will be a leader.

It’s a matter of adjusting to the individual, and you do this every day. You don’t have just one way of treating people; you adjust yourself to who you are talking to. I might talk to one person one way, someone else another. Ambrose had spent a good deal of time thinking about leaders and leadership. He had it about right. If you have character, that means the guy you are dealing with can trust you. So when you get into combat, and you get in a situation such as we were in along the dike in Holland, when I gave the orders, ‘Ready, aim,’ and this cook who had been in the unit only a short time but was experiencing his first combat action interrupted and said, ‘Don’t talk so loud!’ nobody else there was thinking about anything except what he had been told to do. They trust in you, have faith in you and they obey right now, no questions asked.

You get it done by making a decision quick, getting to it and getting the thing done. Don’t sit back and let the other guy make a decision that will put you on the defensive. Make up your mind quickly and get it done, right or wrong. Were you going down the tube, like running across that damn field? I could have been caught in the middle of the field if the Germans had been on the ball, and lost every goddamn man in that platoon. In some ways we lucked out.

Another character who features prominently in the story of Easy Company is Captain Ron Speirs, who took over Easy Company outside of Bastogne when Lieutenant Norman Dike froze in the field during an assault and Winters turned to Speirs and commanded him to ‘take the company in!’ Two of the stories that have circulated about Speirs were that he shot some German prisoners in Normandy and, later, one of his own sergeants.

Speirs was very effective. He got the job done. But if you were around and talked to the men who worked under him, he was never liked.

Now, he could turn around and walk away and talk to someone at my level and be a completely different guy. He could take orders. He was very likable.

The stories about him are true. When I first heard, I was speechless. What he did was unbelievable, inexcusable. If you talk to somebody in today’s Army, they would say, well, how come he wasn’t court-martialed? Well, you needed every man you had. Those guys that goofed up, didn’t measure up, you couldn’t just get rid of them. You needed the body, because if you lose that body, then somebody else has to shoulder twice the burden. You needed every body you could get. At Foy, he was the first officer I saw when I turned around. It could have been anybody, but it was Speirs. I didn’t ask, ‘OK, would you mind taking over?’ No, I just turned around, saw him and said take over. It was just a roll of the dice that he was standing there when I needed someone.

Through the course of his campaigns with Easy Company, Winters developed a great affection for his men and his men for him. He led them and, despite his affection, commanded them.

You maintain close relationships with your men, but not friendship. You have mutual respect for one another, but yet you have to hold yourself aloof, to a degree. If you are too friendly, it works in a negative way when you need to discipline your men. You can have your men’s respect and friendship, but there is a point where you have to rise above this relationship and make sure they are following the orders that are in effect for everybody. In leading groups effectively, you have to rise above camaraderie. You have to be fair to everyone. Everyone must know that they are treated equally.

Winters acknowledges different styles of leadership and cites the ability of men to lead through fear, such as Speirs and E Company’s first commander, Herbert Sobel. He asserts, however, that the most effective leader will have quiet self-confidence and self-assurance that ultimately commands the respect of the men.

In Sobel’s case it was in training, and in Speirs’ case it was in combat. It is impossible to imagine what would have been the result if we had been led into battle by Sobel. He had driven the men to the point of mutiny, and, more important, he had lost their respect. If he had been in command, more men would have died in battle. Speirs had the men’s respect. He had my respect. We both knew he would get the job done.

If you can, find that peace within yourself, that peace and quiet and confidence that you can pass on to others, so that they know that you are honest and you are fair and will help them, no matter what, when the chips are down. I was never one for officers’ parties. And in my diary I would keep asking myself why am I sitting here when the others are out at parties. I am at the Barnes home studying my manuals. I’m reading and educating myself. Getting ready. But before the evening is over, I will pick up and read a novel before I go to sleep. Now, a good guy would have been out at all those parties. The pressure of being a good fellow oftentimes brings people to what? You can be a good fellow, get along with everyone and not be a good leader. Sure, I was a good fellow during the day. I joked and palled-around with the other officers, but then in the evening I would go home and I could be myself.

I was fortunate enough to fall in with the Barnes family. They were wonderful people. For the nine months prior to the invasion, I was there and studied, developing my own personality, my own personal perspective on command. Most of the other officers never had that. It was a chance for self-analysis. If you listen and pay attention, you will find that your own self-consciousness will tell you if you are getting off track. Nobody will have to tell you that what you are doing is incorrect or ineffective. If you take advantage of opportunities for self-reflection, and honestly look at yourself, you will be able to be a better leader.

At age 86 Dick Winters lives in Hershey with his wife of 56 years, Ethel. He receives hundreds of letters a month, many of which come addressed simply to ‘Major Richard Winters, Hershey, Pa.,’ and he attempts to respond to each one, with Ethel’s help.



This article was written by Christopher J. Anderson and originally published in August 2004 issue of American History Magazine.


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