Major Richard Winters passed away 9 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! You can guess what I want to do now, don’t you? 🙂