Beginning our “Outstanding Veterans” series is Major Richard “Dick” Winters, commander of Easy Company of the 2nd battalion, 506th parachute infantry regiment, part of the “Screaming Eagles” 101st Airborne Division. Genteel and respectful towards the men under his command, Winters would shape the lives of his soldiers in arms for eternity as he would shape the future of our nation.
Born January 21, 1918 in New Holland, Pennsylvania, Dick had a very average childhood alongside his parents Richard Sr. and Edith. In 1937 he was enrolled at Franklin and Marshall College, a private liberal arts university in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in the field of Economics. Following his graduation, in the summer of 1941 Winters enlisted in the United States Army. Marking the day in his journal, Winters wrote “I had no desire to get into the war,” but did so to fulfill the mandatory one year of service under the recently ratified Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 (America’s first peacetime conscription ordinance). Winters’s enlistment occurred a mere seven days after President Roosevelt signed the Service Extension Act of 1941 into law on August 18th; this addendum now mandated a period of 30 months of service for those drafted. Since Winters was a volunteer and not a draftee, his contract still fell under the 12 month period. This remained true until December 7th, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States officially entered the war, upon which the number of draftees and the rules surrounding them both augmented.
In September of 1941, Winters began basic training at Camp Croft, South Carolina. His good nature and inspiring leadership capabilities resulted in the devotion of other trainees towards him; noticing this, officials of the camp recruited Winters as an instructor while the rest of his unit was deployed to Panama. In April of 1942, Winters was put forth as a contender to attend Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was here Winters met fellow future officer and long-time friend, Lewis Nixon. At OCS, Winters decided to pursue paratrooper certification – a designation that had only recently become available with the creation of the Army’s new airborne forces. At the time of his graduation, Winters was commissioned as a second lieutenant and sent to complete more paratrooper training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia; after five weeks had passed, Winters was assigned to the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIC), Easy Company. As an experimental regiment, the 506th PIC saw a horde of brave volunteers who had qualified for paratrooper training. Such specified training included but was not limited to: parachute maintenance, how to exit an aircraft, landing techniques (ways to best prevent the breaking of legs), how to read the topography and geography of a landing zone, and of course as follows in the Army, rigorous physical exercise of the body. Of the 500 officers who underwent the training, only 148 (including Winters) actually completed it. In total, 1,800 of the initial class of 5,000 were deemed paratrooper material.
In September of 1943, the 506th PIR arrived in Liverpool to join Major General William Lee’s company – the 101st Airborne. Exhaustive, continuous training then began for Winters and the 506th in preparation for the Allied invasion of Europe. First Lieutenant Herbert Sobel, who was the commanding officer of the 506th, had a tumultuous relationship with Winters during their sojourn in England. The other men of the company admired Winters for his jovial and modest attitude – Sobel believed Winters would use this affection to his advantage and usurp him from his commanding position, though this was not Winters’ aim. Winters did doubt Sobel’s ability to effectively lead the company in battle – a fear which other men in the company shared. Sobel attempted to have Winters court-martialed twice, but was unsuccessful on both occasions. So devoted were the men of the 506th to Winters that many complained of the unfair treatment of Winters by Sobel and delivered ultimatums that Sobel be replaced or they would surrender their stripes to the regimental commander of the unit, Colonel Robert Sink. Though not impressed by this display, going so far as to actually demote and reassign some of these men, Sink did transfer Sobel to a new charge, being replaced by First Lieutenant Thomas Meehan. With Sobel gone, this “band of brothers” was now stronger than ever.
On the evening of June 5th, 1944, Winters was one of hundreds of paratroopers who jumped into occupied France in preparation for Operation Overlord, the codename for the Allied invasion of Europe. Though his weapon was lost during the drop, Winters managed to identify where in France he had landed and proceed to the rendezvous point, gathering several other downed troopers on the way. As Lieutenant Meehan had been killed that same day by German anti-aircraft machinery, Winters became the de facto leader of the 2nd Battalion of the 506th. On July 1st, 1944 Winters was promoted to captain and presented with the Distinguished Service Cross by Lieutenant General Omar Bradley.
Later that year, Winters and the 2nd Battalion were present at the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last-ditch effort to turn the war back in his favor. His endeavor was unsuccessful due in no small part to the 101st Airborne Division holding off fifteen well-armed German outfits for three days before General George Patton was able to break through the German line and resupply the 101st. Winters was promoted to Major after his remarkable displays of courage and leadership in Belgium. On May 5th, 1945, the war in Europe ended to the jubilation of the free world. Winters sought to return to America immediately as he had enough points (in the Adjusted Service Rating Score, a method of calculation used by the US Army to determine if and when a soldier was eligible for repatriation) but was delayed. He finally boarded a ship bound for the United States in November of 1945.
Upon returning home, Winters began working for his friend Lewis Nixon’s family company, Nixon Nitration Works, in Edison, New Jersey. He would eventually rise to become general manager of the plant. In 1948, he married Ethel Estoppey and used the GI Bill to his full advantage, taking classes at Rutgers University. When the Korean War began in 1950, Winters was called back to active service much to his chagrin. Winters traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with General Anthony McAuliffe whom he had served under during the Battle of the Bulge to formally request he not be sent to Korea. Winters pleaded that he had seen enough of war and while McAuliffe understood Winters’ predicament, he informed the major he was needed in Korea due to his expansive command experience. Before shipping out for Korea, Winters did attend Ranger school and completed successfully. He was able to resign his commission and remain home.
Winters and Ethel raised two children while living in New Brunswick, New Jersey. In 1972, the family moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania where Winters began his own business manufacturing animal feed. He retired in 1997. In the 1980’s, the men of the 506th Easy Company held a reunion in New Orleans – professor of history and author Stephen Ambrose happened to hear about this event and secured an invitation. Sitting amongst the famous men of Easy Company, Ambrose recorded their testimonies and reminiscence of days gone by. For Ambrose, the idea to immortalize this band of brothers in the written word seemed his cosmic destiny. Winters was initially opposed to the idea of speaking to Ambrose but after much convincing, he relented and shared his stories as well (Winters additionally corrected the stories of his men that had been embellished). In 1992, Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers: Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest was published, and became a massive success. Actor and producer Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg, coming off of the triumph of their 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan” got a hold of the book, and found it apt material to turn into a miniseries. Winters was a constant collaborator to the show during production, not allowing for any reworking of the events the Band of Brothers lived through. The show too became a massive success, winning an Emmy Award that was dedicated to the men of Easy Company.
Major Dick Winters died on January 2nd, 2011 at ninety-two years old. The following year on the 68th anniversary of the D-Day landings, a 12-foot statue of Winters was unveiled at Utah Beach on the Normandy Coast of France, to be dedicated to all the junior officers (like Winters) who gave their lives on that stretch of coast. A duplicate cast of that sculpture was placed in Ephrata, Pennsylvania where Winters lived as a child.
Written by Katie Costanzo, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.