Sunday, January 09, 2011

Major Richard “Dick” Winters, 1918-2011

Longtime readers of SYLG know that Dick Winters is a personal hero of mine, and I wanted nothing more in life than to meet him in person. Sadly, that will never happen, as we lost Major Winters on January 2nd. He requested a private, unannounced funeral service, which took place on Saturday. He was 92 years old.

If I were king of the world, the news of Major Winters’ passing would be broadcast over every internet provider, television, radio, and cellphone. The tributes to this man, one of the greatest of “the greatest generation” would soon follow. Winters’ life story would be taught in schools, and told to every man, woman, and child on Earth.

But we know that’s not going to happen, because America’s priorities aren’t in order. In today’s America, people are more concerned with parasites like Lindsay Lohan and Michael Vick than a man who led one of the most decorated companies in World War II. And that disappoints me.

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. 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.

I still believe Major Winters deserved the Medal of Honor for his actions on D-Day, but you know that he would disagree.

Thankfully, Major Winters helped spread the good word about Easy Company after the war, and did so until his death.

Winters was always gracious about his new-found celebrity, but never really comfortable with it. 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.”

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.

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.”

Is there any American would wouldn’t? If Dick Winters was leading, at least you knew he was leading from a position of strength.

In November, I posted a story about a fund-raising effort to erect a statue of Major Winters in Normandy, France. An 11-year old Western Pennsylvania boy was selling wristbands to gather some of the money needed for the project. (The link for the wristbands is still in the right sidebar, where it will remain.) The organizers wanted to erect the statue “before it was too late” for Winters to see it. It was at the link that I learned that he contracted Parkinson’s Disease, and it finally dawned on me that our heroes are not going to live forever.

So what do we do? We live by the example our heroes set. We aspire to emulate our heroes and those actions and attributes that make them heroic. In Major Winters’ case, those actions had nothing to do with his combat record. They had to do with his humility, his leadership skills, and his ability to bring out the best in people, whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom. If we can honor Dick Winters by being more like him, he can live forever in us all.

Godspeed, sir. Thank you for your service, your example, and your heroism. Currahee!

In honor of Major Winters, there will be no posts tomorrow.

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