Arts & Life

An Interview With World War II Hero Richard D. Winters

Written by Tom Huntington | Jan 10, 2011 4:35 PM

(This article was orginally printed in November 2003 in Central PA magazine.)

Richard D. Winters was born and bred in Central PA, and he intends to stay here. "This is where I was born, this is where I was raised, and this is where I want to be buried," he says. But there was a time when he knew he might never see Pennsylvania again. On the morning of June 6, 1944, Winters, then a 26-year-old lieutenant, parachuted out of a C-47 transport plane over Normandy, one of 13,400 paratroopers taking part in the D-Day invasion. It was the start of a combat career that historian Stephen E. Ambrose commemorated in his book Band of Brothers, later made into an acclaimed HBO miniseries.

With his feet on Normandy soil, Winters gathered together a force of 12 men and attacked 40 Germans manning a gun battery that threatened the landings on Utah Beach. The successful action saved scores of lives and earned Winters the Distinguished Service Cross. He demonstrated his leadership ability again when the Allied forces attacked the French city of Carentan. "It was Lieutenant Winters' personal leadership which held the crucial position in the line and tossed back the enemy with mortar and machine-gun fire," said Col. Robert Sink, commander of the 506th. "He was a fine soldier out there."

But Winters' war had just begun. His unit, E Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, parachuted into occupied Holland in September 1944 to participate in an overambitious plan to bypass the German armies from the north. In December of that year, Winters and his men helped defend the Belgian city of Bastogne when the German armies completely surrounded it during the Battle of the Bulge. The 101st received the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation for their stubborn defense, the only time an entire army division has been so honored. By the end of the war, Winters and Easy Company reached the Bavarian Alps, where he liberated Adolf Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" retreat in the mountains above Berchtesgaden. Winters ended the war as a major, in command of the 506th's 2nd Battalion.

The office in his house in Hershey bears witness to this impressive military record. On the wall over the desk is a bright blue regimental flag he received on his 85th birthday in January [2003], a gift from the men who served with him. Below that is the map of the region around Bastogne that Winters carried during those cold weeks in 1944 when the 101st was surrounded by the enemy. He points out the panel that shows where his men fought — the only part of the map he ever needed to consult. "I only folded it once and never unfolded it," he says, then adds, with just a touch of understatement, "We weren't going anywhere." On the adjacent wall, side by side, are two photographs. One shows the 26-year-old Winters in Holland in October 1944. Next to that is a photograph of actor Damian Lewis, who played Winters in the Band of Brothers miniseries, striking the same pose. Next to the desk are the combat boots Winters was wearing during the attack on Carentan; he points out where a bullet fragment hit one of them, giving him a minor but painful wound. "I never lost a day of combat," he says.

As Winters speaks, United States forces, including the 101st, are once again on overseas assignment. Winters has been following the news of the war and its aftermath, but he knows what the troops in Iraq are going through — and he realizes how much warfare has changed in the nearly six decades since he first went into combat. "This is a different war," he says. "The weapons are so much more powerful. The range on them, the explosiveness. The communications. Back in 1944 we had walkie-talkies. My God, if there was a tree between you and the guy you were talking to, or a little grade, you couldn't talk to him. Today the communications are unbelievable. The weapons have changed. Tactics have changed." But there is one thing he knows remains the same. "Any time you're under fire, you have fire coming your way, this throws a fear into you that 'this one could be for me.' And that does not change, the fear of death, or being wounded. That doesn't change."

His advice to today's soldiers is the same battlefield wisdom he used during World War II. "Keep your head down. Know your job." Most important, he says, is to know the people who are fighting with you. They are the people who will help you survive. "No one man does this himself," he says. "He only does it by working together as a team."

When asked if he's a natural leader, Winters gently dodges the question. The men who served with him had no doubts. "Well, you know I would follow you into hell," one sergeant wrote to him after the war. "When I was with you I knew everything was absolutely under control."

A courteous, soft-spoken man, Winters avoids self-aggrandizement. "It goes back to the point I made a little while ago here," he says. "You don't try to do it yourself. You can't do it yourself. And don't forget that when it's done — that you didn't do it by yourself. You were working with somebody else.... That's leadership."

About the interviewer: Tom Huntington is former editor of American History and Historic Traveler, and his writing has appeared in Smithsonian, British Heritage and other publications. He is a contributing editor to America in WWII magazine and a senior editor for American Heritage and Invention & Technology magazines. He is currently working on a book about General George Gordon Meade for Stackpole Books.

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