Major Richard Winters passed away 12 years ago today. He is the real life hero that we all have come to know as the charismatic and compassionate commander of Easy Company in Band of Brothers. His obituary in Washington Post makes a note about his leadership through a letter written by Floyd Talbert, one of his soldiers, to thank Major Winters for his loyalty and leadership in the war:
“You are loved and will never be forgotten by any soldier that ever served under you. I would follow you into hell.”
After the war, Major Winters led a quiet and peaceful life on his farm in Fredericksburg and in his home in Hershey, Pennsylvania until Band of Brothers — the book as well as the TV series — put him into the international spotlight. He was a true WWII hero who was never comfortable being called one. When asked if he was a hero, he liked to answer the way his WWII buddy Mike Ranney did to his grandson: “No, but I served in a company of heroes.” This became a major tagline in Band of Brothers.
Major Winters died like he lived. Quietly. And, upon his request, his funeral service was private and unannounced. We are honored to make a tribute to this real-life war hero on this day.
I know a thing or two about war. My day job is to study and understand war. I have written academic articles on war, I have taught on war and even though I can write about war for pages and talk about it for hours as a scholar, the human cost of war is still incomprehensible to me.
Let me take a moment and look at my own family. My maternal grandmother never knew her father because he was a soldier in WWI in the Eastern Front in Turkey, and he literally froze because of the cold as he fought against the Russians. My paternal grandmother never knew her father, either; because he was also a soldier in WWI and was killed by a shrapnel in Gallipoli as he fought against the Anzacs.
Generations of young people have perished in wars for centuries… And, even though we do not have world wars today, we still have wars and young people still perish, or come back with no limbs, or arms, and even when they come home seemingly healthy, they need to deal with the psychological damage for years and years. Take Nicholas Brody, he is a fictional character, but very close to the truth.
Defending your country is one thing. Going across the Atlantic to fight for countries you have never been to, and for people you have never met, is something else. While I have major difficulty understanding the human cost of war, the following is even more incomprehensible to me: You are on a boat approaching the shores of Normandy… Or you are about to embark from a plane with your parachute like Dick Winters. What do you think? What thoughts go through your mind? Do you think of home? Your family? Do you think of death at all? Your own death that can actually arrive the moment you land? How do you pull it off?
Dick Winters is a man that pulled it off, and did that as a leader. He led men to battle, and always led from the front. He himself always set an example for his company that looked up to him and loved him as their competent and courageous leader.
There are two Winters quotes from Band of Brothers that together define this real life hero for me.
“We’re not lost, Private. We are in Normandy.” (Episode 2: Day of Days)
This is D-Day + 1. So, you may be in a land that you have never been to, and you do not actually know what direction you should go, but you are exactly where you are supposed to be to get the job done. This is Major Winters for me.
“We salute the rank, not the man.” (Episode 10: Points)
So, you keep your personal opinions about a colleague to yourself, and just respect the rank. So, the rank, not the man. This is true leadership. This is Major Winters for me.
Dick Winters was not someone dying to have a decorated uniform or chase after medals. He could have stayed in the military if he had wanted to after the war, but that was not the life he craved for. That is Winter’s diary entry about the D-day: “That night, I thanked God for seeing me through that day of days and prayed I would make it through D plus 1. I also promised that if some way I could get home again, I would find a nice peaceful town and spend the rest of my life in peace.” And, that is what he did. He found a peaceful town, got a job, married, had a family, and lived and died quietly. He was just a man that wanted to do the right thing. And he did.
Major Winters is buried in the Bergstrasse Evangelical Lutheran Church cemetery in his hometown Ephrata, Pennsylvania. They also unveiled a Major Dick Winters statue as the centerpiece of the Ephrata Veterans’ Plaza in 2015 in observation of Memorial Day. Penn Live Patriot News reports from their conversation with Rebecca Gallagher, the co-chair of the Plaza Committee:
“Rebecca Gallagher hopes the monument will serve, in Winters’ death, as the humble Ephrata native and World War II commander did in life.
Gallagher said the statue of the commander made famous by the miniseries “Band of Brothers” will provide the centerpiece to the Ephrata Veterans’ Plaza. But, in much the way Winters used his celebrity to shine attention on the “company of heroes” he would say he worked alongside, Gallagher said the statue of Winters will draw attention to all veterans the plaza is intended to honor.”
If you happen to be in Ephrata, Pennsylvania or somewhere close, you may want to visit the memorial and pay tribute.
Connie, one of the earliest Damian fans and a wonderful human being, has recently shared with me this beautiful art work by Jamaica Knauer. Connie saw it in Toccoa, Georgia, where Easy Company trained and purchased a copy from the artist. It turns out the first copy went to Major Winters and is now in the Historical Society building in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Damian Lewis, whose brilliant portrayal of Dick Winters immortalized this great American hero in Band of Brothers, had the opportunity to meet and get to know Winters as he was filming the series and after. Here is a few excerpts in which Damian talks about Winters with great respect and admiration.
The first one is from an interview with the People Magazine, October 2001. “I’m much more outgoing than he is,” says Lewis, 30, the British actor who plays Major Dick Winters. “But I didn’t say a funny thing to my friend for the nine months we were filming. Dick was spare with words, and that’s how I was.” He can still recite Winters’s diary entry the day after his D-Day assult: “I just want to find a quiet farm someplace and live in peace.”
The second is from the preface Damian wrote in September 2004 for the book Biggest Brother: The Life of Major Dick Winters, The Man Who Led the Band of Brothers by Larry Alexander.
“After the series had filmed I went and visited Dick and Ethel at home in Hershey, Pennsylvania. We chatted and joked as he showed me some of his momentos and walked me around their beautiful farm (another major achievement in his life). He treated me like a son and told me that he thought I’d done a pretty good job portraying him, although he was unsure at first! I thought, yup, that’s him. Authoritative, nurturing and honest all at once. I felt immensely proud that I’d had the opportunity to portray this man, a decorated war hero whose story I’d been entrusted with. It had needed a precision and an unfailing commitment to the truth. It’s what Dick always demanded, of himself and others.
Dick kept a diary at the war. He wrote letters home. He had several folders of memories. And I had them all for research. But I had never met him. At boot camp I called him for the first time, and through a series of phone calls I set about slowly trying to earn his trust. What emerged as I got to know him was a man not given to late night in bars, reminiscing, not given to romanticizing his past glories. He was a man whose recollections were analytical, pragmatically ordered, not emotional, a man who was much happier answering questions on technical maneuvers or what boot he wore his knife on (the left by the way), than what he felt, as he found himself isolated from his men, staring at a whole company of Germans, on top of that dyke in Holland, for example. “I was always just concentrating on getting the job done, ” would be his typical reply. It dawned on me what a happy coincidence it was that I had felt slightly removed from the “hype” at the beginning of the job, a little detached. For it was precisely his ability to distance himself from any hysteria and to remain calm and lucid in moments of danger that made Dick Winters a natural leader of men. But not only that. Once I had his trust, I found a warmth, a wickedly dry sense of humor and a willingness to listen that is not often found in men of power.
And as I sit in my trailer on another film set writing this now, the big band sound of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” swingin’ in the background on my stereo, I’m reminded of what Dick used to say to me during filming. “Just hang tough!”… but always with a twinkle in his eye.”
Finally, this is what Damian Lewis said of him when Major Winters died on January 2, 2011 at the age of 92.
“It’s a sad day today. Major Richard Winters, without question one of the great heroes of World War 2, has died. His story, and those of the men of Easy Company came to prominence through the extraordinary HBO series, Band of Brothers. I was honoured to have played, no, represent him on the screen. He was unstinting in his support of the project and of me. He welcomed me to his house in Hershey, introduced me to his loving wife, Ethel, and constantly exhorted me to “Hang Tough!” He has died quietly, in private, without fanfare, with the same modesty that he lived his life as one of the most celebrated soldiers of his generation. I will miss him, and I thank him. Currahee!”
And do you see why Damian is the perfect choice to play, no, represent Winters on screen? Of course, you do! Because, he has the charisma to represent this courageous man whom his company loved and respected as well as his “less is more” acting that makes Major Winters so compelling. No wonder Damian Lewis tells Independent in 2011:
“I get fan mail from the boys in Afghanistan asking me to sign box sets; they all sit out there watching it (Band of Brothers). I was filming in Greece and the US Navy came into land and they all mobbed me and said they’d watched it. Their commander had been showing it to them for inspirational exercise reasons. Young cadets at West Point were being shown this maneuvre that Major Winters, the man I portrayed, executed the day after they landed in Normandy. And I keep reminding people, I didn’t win the war, you know?”
Band of Brothers never gets old, people are in love with Damian Lewis’ Major Winters and thousands of families and friends enjoy a Band of Brothers marathon every year and today is another great day for a marathon!
30 thoughts on “In Memory of Major Dick Winters”
I may well have mentioned this on this site before, but today, it bears repeating, if only to honor the memory of Richard Winters. In September 2004, I had the distinct honor of meeting him briefly and enjoying a quick conversation on a busy day when he was involved in speaking and presenting some of his personal papers at a ceremony in Carlisle, PA. At that time the Major Winters website was operating and active and I conveyed greetings from those folks to him. He was so appreciative of that. He was warm and friendly, yet at that age (his 80’s) and so many years after his military service, he still had command presence. It was the nature of the man. It is so often said that meeting one’s heroes can be disappointing, believe me, that was not the case for me that day. It is a memory I have treasured these12+ years and always will.
Happy New Year, Connie! Wish you and your family a happy and healthy 2017!
It is a lovely story that should be shared regularly — especially on a day like this! I constantly repeat in my writing, and let me repeat it again here, that what those guys did in WWII, the level of courage and sacrifice they showed, is something I have never been able to comprehend. And Major Winters is a very special person. Not just as a natural soldier and a true leader, but also as a man pursuing a quiet life.
I knew the wonderful story Connie had told in the yahoo forum of damian lewis! I admire Winters, a very great soldier! But I believe that all the soldiers who make the landing are great soldiers!
We must visit the beaches of Normandy, listen to the elders, to know the admiration, the recognition, that have the people of this region!
Walking on one of these beaches, thinking of all these dead, eyes fill with tears !!
Visiting the Normandy beaches has been one of my ambitions since grade school years. I’ve never gotten there and probably won’t now. Too many years and too many faulty joints would stop me from that trip. However, I have gotten to the two other places I wanted to see, Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor. So I should not complain. Back to the good Major Winters. His grave is not hard to find, but still reflects his humility as it is located in an ordinary graveyard by an old Lutheran Church in Ephrata, PA. I’ve been there twice to pay my respects and there is always evidence of visitors there from all over the world, judging by the mementos that have been placed there.
I need to schedule a trip to Normandy in the next few years – I have friends that visited the area and what they have told is exactly like what Monique talks about. I understand that it is a truly overwhelming experience.
And why am I not surprised about Major Winters’ grave reflecting his humility? To be honest, I have known Winters only through Damian’s fantastic portrayal of him, and I really believe no other actor could pull that off, but Band of Brothers was so true to the character and so you know this man is in this only to do things right and for nothing else.
In Normandy, you will also have the pleasure to admire the magnificent statue of Major Winters, it is very similar, it is always flowered by the visitors! Damian had been very moved, he took off his cap, and said to be incomfortable
² when The journalists, having recognized him, did not hesitate to photograph him!his eternal modesty !!Monique
I love France – nothing compares to your food and wine – and have been to Paris for a couple of times. It’s time to venture out and Normandy is on the top of my list! And I am not surprised by Damian feeling uncomfortable and taking his hat off – I would say his parents raised him just right. He has kind manners.
You may have seen “Saving Private Ryan”, which preceded “Band of Brothers” and provided insight into the interest in the 1990s, of another WW2 story.
Don’t know for a fact, but this poem may have been an underpinning of the “Private Ryan” story:
“The Curahee Scrapebook”
“We have only died in vain if you believe so;
You must decide the wisdom of our choice,
By the world which you shall build upon our headstones,
And the everlasting truths which have your voice.
“Though dead, we are not heroes yet, nor can be,
‘Til the living by their lives which are the tools,
Carve us the epitaphs of wise men,
And give us not the epitaphs of fools.”
David J. Phillips, 506th P. I. Regt.
From “The Curahee Scrapebook”. This was written by David J. Phillips, (G Co, 3rd BN, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne Div. 1944-1945). The 101st Airborne had jumped into Normandy on June 6th, 1944. I believe that his son was later shot down and killed in Vietnam while flying an F-5C jet.
I saw Saving Private Ryan in the first week it opened at theaters. I will never forget the first 15 minutes.
Beautiful poem. As far as I know Saving Private Ryan was partially based on a true story: https://allthatsinteresting.com/saving-private-ryan-true-story-niland-brothers
Is that Dick Winters at the cemetery at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan? sure looks like him.
Mike, I don’t recall the cemetery scene at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan; would have to look at it again to be sure. I remember the one at the end though and that was not him. However, until I re-watch, I rather doubt it. I’ve never seen mention of Major Winters appearing in it in any correspondence, web postings, etc. in the past almost twenty years. Stephen Ambrose wrote the book, Band of Brothers in the early 1990’s, and he knew Major Winters then. Hanks and Spielberg made the miniseries from it, but that was after Saving Private Ryan was filmed. Hanks and Spielberg may not have known the Major at the time that movie was being created. Winters was a private man and somehow I cannot imagine him doing a cameo in a movie, but I certainly could be wrong. The exception to that of course are the interviews of the vets themselves included in the miniseries.
I was just watching the movie today and it sure looked like Richard Winters to me
Major Winters was one of the best of the best. I have read just about everything there is to read about him. He is the epitome of the American citizen soldier who rose through the ranks because he got the job done. What makes me respect and honor Dick Winters is that he achieved this with the undying loyalty of his men. These are the men who won the war, came home and help build rebuild America. They were the greatest generation.
Curahee Dick Winters!
Thank so much for your note. Absolutely! Major Winters was a natural leader and I completely agree that they were the greatest generation. Not that these men needed a TV series to get the recognition but Band of Brothers, I believe, made the future generations, who really did not know much about that generation, FEEL it. Currahee!
Lovely post to start reading at the beginning of the year. Winters was the epitome of soldier and leader. As Damian says he was always honest and his presence commanded respect, which is rare. Because power and respect might not come hand in hand always. Sometimes just fear and power come. I think that it was his values and honesty which made him courageous and charismatic with everyone. As Connie mentioned in that first beautiful story he was inspiring.
I love that pic with the flag and both “Winters” by side. Though Damian is not American, he is very respectful and understands much more the american accent, the spirit of each of his roles which in essence comes from the american culture.
I think you should write a book. As I have said some time before your writing is beautiful and we all would make good use of a Winters book on leadership or inspiration…I heard JaniaJania told me there are some on the mafia….I personally dont find very inspiring reading anything about crime but instead about great and sometimes unnoticed heroes like him. If it was not for the book and the miniseries I would have never known about his story.
Have a great beginning of year!
Thank you for reading us, for your kind compliments and for your support! I don’t think I will ever be able to fully comprehend the sacrifice that generation made. They were not super heroes, they were ordinary men that became heroes in war so future generations could live in peace. No wonder they are called the greatest generation.
You are very kind. I don’t think I could write a book about Dick Winters. But thanks so much for your kind words about the writing on the blog. I never knew I had this in me until I started the blog. Well, writing has always been part of my life since I need to write for the job but writing academic papers is quite different than turning an inspiration into words. But the kind of writing I do here feels kind of therapy. It is soothing. It makes me happy and I think that is the whole point 🙂
Hope the new year treats the world much better than the previous year. Much love <3
I agree with you. We will never comprehend the effort of that generation. But we live to see the benefits of their sacrifice. We still live in a free world with its ups and downs but we are lucky to have freedom of thought etc.
I can imagine its different writing here than in your daily job. But believe me you are a passionate and smart writer, give yourself the benefit of the doubt, you never know where life might take you
I wish the same that this 2018 be a peacef year and that conflicts and wars end…I truly hope so!
Elisa, there are already some good books on Major Winters. The most important one his own memoires: “Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters ” which he wrote together with his personal friend Colonel Cole Kingseed. But I like as much Larry Alexander’s “Biggest Brother: The Life Of Major Dick Winters, The Man Who Led The Band of Brothers” which will also give you a great insight into the Major’s life…. nice side fact is that the foreword was written by none other than Damian Lewis! And as 3rd there is Cole Kingseed’s “Conversations with Major Dick Winters: Life Lessons from the Commander of the Band of Brothers”. If you haven’t read these yet, I can highly recommend them.
Thank you for this wonderful tribute to a great American! He was a hero in the company of heroes.
Ironically, I saw a repeat of the first two episodes of the “Band of Brothers” series in Tampa, FL on the night of September 11, 2001. Since I didn’t have HBO at home, I would not have seen it. We were in Tampa for work with a Department of the Navy contractor and became stuck there when the flights were all grounded. Several days later, we rented a car and drove back to Washington DC, passing the Pentagon where smoke was still rising and the building was bathed in floodlights. That stream of events will always be connected in my memory.
“Freedom isn’t free”. “For those who fought for it, freedom has a taste the protected will never know.” Major Winters knew this deeply, first hand. I am thankful that he and his wife “led a quiet and peaceful life on his farm in Fredericksburg and in his home in Hershey, Pennsylvania.”
Next time we are camping near Ephrata, PA, am going to find his grave and lay a flower on it. And tell his story to those who will listen. It is worth retelling.
Thank you for reading and for your kind words! It is my pleasure to make a tribute to Major Winters. He was a true hero. Not someone that wanted accolades or medals. He just wanted to do his job right and then live his life right and that is exactly what he did.
I cannot comprehend the sacrifice those men were ready for in Normandy and beyond. The story deserves telling and retelling and I am so glad Band of Brothers will always be there making the story immortal.
You may know that the phrase “Band of Brothers” comes from the “St Crispin’s Day Speech” in Shakespeare’s history play Henry V, in Act IV Scene iii 18–67. It is a term Lord Nelson used to refer to the captains of his ships, as well.
“And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
“Heroes are people who rise to the occasion and slip quietly away.” Tom Brokaw
Thank you mrlabs1. Your response is beautiful and moving.
For mrlabs1: When you get to Ephrata to visit the Winters’ gravesite, there is a parking lot at the top of the hill beside the church, although the gravesite is down the hill close to the highway. But park in the lot and check either a window or door of the church as the last time I was there they had a map and directions to the site. Easier than walking around searching on your own.
I don’t know if I have ever mentioned this here, but while his funeral was private in Jan. 2011, there was a memorial service in Hershey in March of that year. It was open to the public although tickets were required. I attended and it was so moving! He had planned it himself and is a treasured memory for me, as meeting him years before has been.
Maj Winters was an incredible man who was a great soldier and an even better leader. Damian your portrayal representing Maj Winters has brought that to life to those of us that had never met him and for that I am so thankful. Because of you and others the Band of Brothers has impacted generations in more ways than I can adequately describe in this note. Being a veteran myself the whole Band of Brothers story had me right from the beginning. I then started reading as much as I could about Maj Winters so I could learn as much as I could about this inspiring man. The more I read the more he inspired, motivated and taught me how to be a better leader and man out in this world. What is so appealing about him is he was just being him, never intending or expecting what came from him being a great leader and man. I am so thankful Damian for you telling this story because otherwise I would have never had the opportunity to learn from such a great man which would have been my loss. Thank you Damian and thank you Maj Winters!
Thank you so much for your kind words about Damian’s portrayal of Major Winters in Band of Brothers.
I have watched Band of Brothers, Hang Tough and Saving Private Ryan at least a half dozen times and all three of them move me immensely. Your portrayal of Major Winters was superb. As you mention in Hang Tough that meeting the man was your inspiration to portray him and I can only assume that pulling off the part would have been a much more difficult ordeal without getting to know the man. I am writing this to you because I also am a veteran from the Vietnam era but have always been intrigued with WW2 because my grandfather was there at Normandy and at the Bulge but would never discuss the war with me when I was growing up.He was my inspiration for my patriotic ideals and growing up in the sixties was not exactly the most patriotic era especially as the war in Nam escalated. As I was in high school in the late sixties, that is when my grandfather finally opened up to me because he was so sickened by what was going on. He understood the protesting of the war but he could not and would not condone the way it was being protested. I wish these programs could have been made back then and made mandatory to watch ESPECIALLY the interviews with all the soldiers. We were raised by the generations that grew up during the depression and fought in the war so we were basically given a life on a silver platter per say so that we didn’t have to go through the same hardships but I’m sad to say I personally feel that it spoiled us into taking things for granted and lowered our understanding of true patriotism. To sum up my ranting I just want to say thank you and your fellow actors for creating these true works of art on screen paying homage to all those who sacrificed so much so we and future generations can benefit and prosper from them. I just hope our younger generations take heed.
I have served 28 years and have had several tours including Sierra Leone, Bosnia x 3, Iraq and a lot of tours of Afghanistan I think 6 I loose count. I have been a leader of men and been in difficult situations but nothing on the scale of Maj Winters. He is and will always be a true heroe to me and he has taken up his seat in heaven. God bless you Sir.
Warrant Officer Class 1 Edwards
Thank you very much for your note and for your service.
Very moving. Had a tear in my eye!
Thank you for reading.