Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Dick Winters of "Band of Brothers" Fame Dies
If we think of all 10 episodes as one movie, HBO's Band of Brothers is my favorite. Rent the series (or go buy it), savor it . . . and ponder.
(Right) Dick Winters introduced President George W. Bush to a crowd of about 20,000 during a rally in 2007 at Hersheypark Stadium in Derry Township.
Dick Winters, the former World War II commander whose war story was told in the book and miniseries “Band of Brothers,” has died. Winters led a quiet life on his Fredericksburg farm and in his Hershey home until the book and miniseries “Band of Brothers” threw him into the international spotlight. Since then, the former World War II commander of Easy Company had received hundreds of requests for interviews and appearances all over the world.
He stood at the podium with President George W. Bush in Hershey during the presidential campaign in 2007. He accepted the “Four Freedoms” award from Tom Brokaw on behalf of the Army. He was on familiar terms with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, producers of the HBO mini-series, the most expensive television series ever produced.
Winters was always gracious about his new-found celebrity, but never really comfortable with it. He never claimed to be a hero and said that he had nothing to do with the national effort to get him the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor.
When people asked him if he was a hero, he liked to answer the way his World War II buddy, Mike Ranney, did. “No,” Ranney said. “But I served in a company of heroes.” That became the tag line for the miniseries.
In an interview shortly before the miniseries debuted, Winters said the war wasn’t about individual heroics. The men were able to do what they did because they became closer than brothers when faced with overwhelming hardships.
They weren’t out to save the world. They hated the blood, carnage, exhaustion and filth of war. But they were horrified at the thought of letting down their buddies.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Winters and his troops from Easy Company, 506th regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, parachuted behind enemy lines to take on a German artillery nest on Utah Beach. Winters made himself a promise then that if he lived through the war, all he wanted was peace and quiet.
His company fought through the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of a death camp at Dachau and to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden. The war described in “Band of Brothers” is ugly, but the young men developed character under fire, Winters said. He was glad the miniseries showed war realistically, not either glorified or demonized as in so many movies.
He wanted people to understand that success in war depends not on heroics but on bonding, character, getting the job done and “hanging tough,” his lifelong motto. In combat, he wrote 50 years after the war, “your reward for a good job done is that you get the next tough mission.”
When the war ended, Winters kept his promise to himself. He married Ethel, bought a bucolic farm in Fredericksburg, raised two children and worked in the agricultural feed business. He didn’t talk about the war until the late historian Stephen Ambrose wanted to put Easy Company’s exploits on paper.
Following the miniseries, Winters turned down most requests for interviews because he said he didn’t want to appear like he was bragging.
But he did feel the story of Easy Company was an important one, especially for young people. He was more likely to accept invitations by local school groups and spent time with students at Cedar Crest High School, among others. A talk he gave at Palmyra Middle School drew hundreds of spectators.
People who knew Winters during and after the war said he is exactly what he appears to be. He could lead without ever raising his voice or swearing. His friend Bob Hoffman, a Lebanon architect, said Winters’ eyes could “burn a hole right through you.”
The men who served under him and people who only met him later in life call him a hero, no matter what he says. According to the book, one wounded member of Easy Company wrote Winters from a hospital bed in 1945, “I would follow you into hell.”
He received a standing ovation from 500 veterans when he spoke at the dedication of the Army’s Military History Institute in Middlesex Township in September. When President Bush was in Hershey in April, he called Winters “a fine example ... for those brave souls who now wear our nation’s uniform.”
Ambrose, the author of “Band of Brothers,” said in a 2001 BBC interview that he hopes young people say. “I want to be like Dick Winters.” “Not necessarily as soldiers, but as that kind of leader, that kind of man, with basic honesty and virtue and an understanding of the difference between right and wrong,” Ambrose said.