At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and the coral islands of the Pacific.
They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world.
They came home to joyous and short-lived celebrations and immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted… As they now reach the twilight of their adventurous and productive lives, they remain, for the most part, exceptionally modest. They have so many stories to tell, stories that in many cases they have never told before, because in a deep sense they didn't think that what they were doing was that special, because everyone else was doing it too.
I know of perhaps no single individual to whom this better applies than Richard “Dick” Winters, who passed away peacefully at age 92 on January 2, 2011. He came from very humble beginnings in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But this otherwise meek and unassuming Christian man was destined for greatness. He was to become a United States Army officer and then a decorated World War Two veteran.
He commanded Company "E" (the famed “Easy Company”), 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, during the invasion of Normandy, and led them through battle after battle across half a continent in the liberation of Europe from brutal Nazi tyranny. (His official AP obituary can be found here.)
His service record, from D-Day to the end of the war, and the resultant heroism he displayed, are both recounted in the 2001 HBO mini-series: Band of Brothers. This itself was based upon the book by noted historian Stephen Ambrose titled Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992). Larry Alexander also documented Winters’ service record in Biggest Brother : The Life of Major Dick Winters, The Man Who Led the Band of Brothers (New York: New American Library, 2005).
Lastly, as if he himself knew time were short, Winters finally chose to tell Easy Company’s story in his own book: Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters (New York: Berkley Publishers, 2006). All three works can be accessed here. Both Winters’ own memoirs and Ambrose’s narrative of Easy Company are also available in audiobook format through iTunes.
Winters, like so many of his generation, exhibited phenomenal heroism in the face of the unspeakable horror of war. He received the following decorations for valor:
Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation with one Oak Leaf Cluster, American Defense Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 3 service stars and arrow device, World War II Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal, Croix de guerre with palm, French Liberation Medal, Oorlogskruis with palm, Belgian WWII Service Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, and Parachutist Badge with 2 combat stars.
A concerted effort is now underway to bestow upon him the (long overdue) Congressional Medal of Honor. Typical of his generation, he chose to come home and live out his life in relative anonymity. He eschewed fame and fortune to the very last. In deed, when he died, he had left instructions that his death not be announced until after he had been interred.
A remarkable incident recounted during the interview segment of the Band of Brothers mini-series illustrates well this humility. Winters quoted a passage from a letter he received from Sergeant Mike Ranney: “I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, 'Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?' Grandpa said, 'No… but I served in a company of heroes…'”
The aggrandizement Winters (and his men) refused to undertake, I will now give to him and his generation. Over 2000 years ago, an ancient sage, Ben Sira, wrote these immortal words (Wisdom of Sirach, 44). They aptly apply this day to the exploits of Major Richard Winters and all those who served with him.
"Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us… The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding… Leaders of the people by their counsels… men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations… All these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times.
There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them. But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten. Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore. The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will shew forth their praise."
Amen. So may it be.