Monday, January 10, 2011

World War II Hero Dick Winters Has Died

WorldWarIIHelmetMajor Dick Winters, highlighted in the mini-series Band of Brothers, died on January 2. This World War II paratroop commander was portrayed on screen and by his soldiers as a man of quiet leadership.

The mini-series, run in ten parts by HBO in 2001, chronicles the saga of Easy Company, part of the 101st Airborne Division. The story moves from basic training to D-Day, Bastogne, Operation Market Garden, and on to Hitler’s abandoned Eagle’s Nest retreat in southern Bavaria.

Winters was featured in the book Band of Brothers written in 1992 by the late historian Stephen Ambrose. The work caught the attention of Hollywood giants Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, and they produced the widely-acclaimed film.

The company—especially Winters--became celebrities, resulting in various companion books. Memoirs came from Lieutenant Buck Compton, Call of Duty; Sergeant Don Malarky, Easy Company Soldier; and from Philadelphians Bill Guarnere and “Babe” Heffron, Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends. Winters added his own book, Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters.

The mini-series included a few interviews with Easy Company men. Perhaps the most memorable came at the end when Winters recalls being queried by his grandson, “Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?” To which he responded, “No, but I served in a company of heroes.” Winters, by all accounts, was an unassuming man.

In thinking of Winters, it is difficult for me to not also recall Paul Tibbets, who piloted the Enola Gay over Hiroshima in 1945. I saw Tibbets at a World War II show in Reading, Pennsylvania, a few years ago. He was frail by then and perhaps still disappointed by critics of his role in helping usher in the nuclear age.

Tibbets arguably never received the acclaim that Winters eventually did. But both men were leaders who were tasked by their government, in different ways, to accomplish challenging tasks. Tibbets died in 2007; like Winters, he was 92.

Tom Brokaw calls World War II veterans “The Greatest Generation.” They were ordinary Americans who did their duty when called upon and then sought a normal life as spouses, parents and workers. They are part of our long-tradition of citizen soldiers.

In fact, one of Ambrose’s eight books on World War II is Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany. Ambrose mentions Winters and Easy Company a few times but discusses other units and exemplary conduct. One memorable quote comes from the 26th Division’s Sergeant Bruce Egger: “No man among us would want to go through it again, but we are all proud of having been so severely tested and found adequate.”

Although about two million of the 16 million World War II veterans are still alive, their ranks are thinning fast. We are indebted to Ambrose for telling us about Major Winters and his company and for the opportunity to see their heroism on the big screen. We need to acknowledge the contribution of these veterans—men and women—and cherish their memory.

See HBO’s Band of Brothers website:

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