A van pulls off to the side of the road . It’s a stone ’s throw from the center of the historic town of St. Mere Eglise in Normandy, France. Nine people pile out, cameras in hand , looking like a typical group of tourists. They walk a few feet to a wooden gate overlooking a fruit orchard. “Why are we here?” the tour guide asks . “Come on, guess.” “Somebody landed here,” came the shouted reply.
First Lt. Richard D. Winters of “E” Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, is believed to have dropped into Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, just yards from where the tour group is standing. As a German antiaircraft gun fired into the night skies at the airborne armada 68 years ago, the Ephrata, Lancaster County, native was alone and five miles from his assigned drop zone. He was armed only with his jump knife, after losing all of his equipment during the descent. Little did he know his commanding officer, 1st Lt. Thomas Meehan, had been killed and the 26-year-old was now the leader of Easy Company’s 140 or so men.
The Franklin & Marshall College graduate was a long way from his loved ones in Central PA, from attending Officer Candidate School in 1942 and from running the three miles up Currahee Mountain and three miles back as part of his paratrooper training in Toccoa, Ga.
But, all Winters likely was concerned about at this particular moment was getting to where he was supposed to be, which was just behind Utah Beach. The largest amphibious invasion in history, as part of Operation Overlord to break through Adolph Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, was scheduled to start in a few hours. His job, along with around 24,000 other paratroopers, was to make sure the landing forces had a path off of the five beaches.
This is where his war started.
Sixty-eight years later, another central Pennsylvanian also found himself in Normandy, but under very different circumstances. Thirteen-year-old Jordan Brown of South Lebanon Twp., Lebanon County, was among those standing outside the orchard on this particular dreary day. The teen was on the cusp of finishing a major undertaking he started two years ago. That’s when he heard about an effort to honor his hero, the late Maj. Richard Winters.
The World War II Foundation had proposed building a monument honoring the leadership of all junior U.S. officers (those with the rank of first and second lieutenant or captain) who landed on D-Day and helped ensure the invasion was a success. The statue atop the structure was to feature a U.S. paratrooper moving forward in an attack position in the likeness of Winters. A humble man, Winters gave his blessing on the condition the monument honor his fellow officers from every American division that took part.
Brown decided he wanted to raise $100,000 for the $400,000 project. At the suggestion of a close friend of Winters, he decided to sell olive green wristbands featuring the officer’s favorite phrase, “Hang Tough.” The idea took off and Brown’s efforts attracted international attention. So much so, he was asked to speak at the dedication ceremony. “To me, ‘Hang Tough’ means to hold on. To keep going, even when things get hard. To never give up until you reach your goal. They inspire me,” Brown said. “It just feels weird to know that [the statue is] going to be there forever and ever. I can bring my kids ... I can bring their kids to France and be like, ‘Yeah, I helped with that.’ It’s just a feeling you don’t get a lot.”
No matter where Brown went, people were aware of his story. He was like a rock star. U.S. Airborne re-enactors from Belgium posed with him in front of the monument, an elderly British couple stopped him in the Utah Beach Museum to shake his hand and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge gave him a little pep talk before his speech.
“We have a young man like Jordan, doing his own thing, getting the attention of his young friends is a pretty remarkable thing,” Ridge said. “I guess to the extent that you’ve got a young man interested in history and the sacrifice of others speaks to a generation of good heart and great cause.”
Winters’ story is well known. A couple of hours after landing in that orchard, he took part in an attack on German troops in a crossroads a little more than two miles from St. Mere Eglise and later led a dozen men on an assault to destroy four German 105mm guns at Brecourt Manor that had been firing on Utah Beach. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s secondhighest military honor.
“One of the things I think is great about Winters’ leadership is he also knew when to stop as well as when to start,” said Paul Woodage, who’s considered one of the top D-Day tour guides in Normandy. “Winters knows the job he’s been asked to do, of knocking out these four guns firing on Utah Beach, is over. The point is that pulling the men back saved lives. If he pushed on down the lane, they’re all dead.”
Winters later led the men of Easy Company through Operation Market Garden in Holland, the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and the taking of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria. He rose to the rank of major and served as acting battalion commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 101st.
His exploits have been chronicled in several books, notably Stephen Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers,” and the popular HBO miniseries of the same name. Arguably, the Hershey man, who died in 2011, would become known as one of the most famous World War II veterans in the world.
With all the attention surrounding his time in the war, Winters could seem larger than life to those who never knew him. But to a handful of people at the dedication ceremony who knew him, it was important to remember the man and how his actions touched their lives over the years.
Two Easy Company veterans, Herb Sueth and Al Mampre, and three people whose fathers also served with Winters were on hand, bringing a personal touch that reached beyond the history books and Hollywood production. Suerth said his commander would have been overwhelmed by all the attention. Mampre, a medic during the war, noted his former commander had a quiet, yet determined demeanor about him.
“I thought he was very fair, honest and dedicated. I think he elicited confidence on the part of the people around him, which was very important,” Mampre said. “[We had] confidence in the fact he knew what he was doing when he was faced with a situation.”
Susan Finn, who lives in Lodi, Wis., has spent the last decade or so researching her father’s experiences during the war because she didn’t know a lot about what he did. Finn even had the chance to stand where her dad, the late Robert Burr Smith, landed in Normandy as well as in the barn where he slept the night of June 6, 1944. She credits Winters for bringing her and her sister into the “E” Company family.
“I always felt that he was very protective of the men, especially so of my father. I think there was a true fondness for my father from him. So, I’ve always felt like he shaped my father totally into the man he was,” she said. “This just sort of brings the whole thing to a nice, for me, culmination of 10 or 11 years of going to the Hollywood stuff and the reunions and everything. ... I think it’s really special.”
Over the years, Finn has gotten to know a lot of her fellow Easy Company family members, including George Luz Jr. Luz had a little different exposure to his father’s wartime experience, attending his first reunion in 1965. He said his dad, George, had as much respect for Winters as a person could possibly have for somebody. In his own way, Luz honored Winters by putting in his time and effort to assist the fundraising campaign for the leadership monument.
“My mom and dad just loved [him]. Dick [was] so thoughtful and it continued over the years. That’s how you really judge somebody, is not how they are today, but how they are in their entire life,” he said. “When my dad passed away, Dick continued to stay connected with our family, with my mom. [It’s] just a testament to the guy and why we worked so hard to get this monument done.”
The personal stories are what makes history come alive for many people. The words “dedication,” “leadership” and “character” weren’t just descriptions from a book about Winters. They came from people who served with him, spent time with him and knew him as a commander and friend.
Winters was chosen to serve as a symbol of all the junior officers who had to make tough decisions on D-Day, when their original orders broke down. Taking over as Easy Company’s commanding officer and then leading his men at Brecourt Manor on June 6, 1944, are perfect examples of situations hundreds of other first and second lieutenants as well as captains found themselves in during a battle that changed the course of world history.
Soon, the World War II Foundation hopes to complete a documentary, “Hang Tough,” as part of the leadership project. It will detail the building and dedication of the monument and emphasize Winters’ leadership abilities. The goal is to distribute 1,000 copies to schools and libraries across Pennsylvania in order to bring his story to students like Jordan Brown of how one individual could have an impact, in some small way, on generations of people.
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