Obituary: Richard 'Dick' Winters, courageous WWII officer portrayed in 'Band of Brothers'

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 8:20 PM

Richard "Dick" Winters, 92, a decorated Army officer whose courageous leadership through some of the fiercest combat of World War II was featured in the best-selling book and HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers," died Jan. 2. He had Parkinson's disease.

The Patriot-News in central Pennsylvania reported that Maj. Winters, a longtime Hershey resident, died at an assisted-living facility in nearby Campbelltown.

Stephen Ambrose's 1992 book "Band of Brothers" followed the men of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The group came to be known as Easy Company.

One of Easy Company's officers was Maj. Winters, a charismatic and compassionate leader who entered Army service as a private and returned home after World War II as a major.

He and his men jumped into combat on June 6, 1944, above Normandy and later fought together through Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands and the Battle of the Bulge.

The unit experienced heavy turnover because of battlefield casualties. One Easy Company soldier later wrote that among his colleagues, the Purple Heart "was not a decoration but a badge of office."

Maj. Winters graduated from Franklin and Marshall College in 1941 before enlisting in the Army. He was selected to attend officer candidates' school, earned a commission in the summer of 1942 and then - drawn by the promise of extra pay for hazardous duty - volunteered to join a newly formed paratrooper unit.

Of about 500 officers who volunteered to join the elite unit, only 148 made the cut.

Maj. Winters excelled as a infantry leader and a paratrooper and became a hallowed figure among his men for his "follow me" attitude.

He received the military's second-highest decoration for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross, for his actions on D-Day.

That morning, after landing and untangling from his parachute, Maj. Winters gathered a small group of men for a raid on German cannon emplacements near Brecourt Manor.

Guarded by a platoon of 50 German sentries, the heavily fortified battery had been firing on Utah Beach, causing significant casualties and slowing the Allied advance.

In their assault of the position, Maj. Winters and his men killed 15 German soldiers and took 12 as prisoners. At one point, Maj. Winters noticed a wounded German soldier crawling toward a machine gun.

"I drilled him clear through the head," Maj. Winters told Ambrose.

Maj. Winters and his men destroyed three German cannons and completed the action with near-textbook efficiency.

Throughout the war, Maj. Winters's leadership skills earned him commendations and promotions. He served as Easy Company's commander and was promoted to lead the 506th Regiment's 2nd Battalion, which included Easy Company.

Maj. Winters and his men eventually saw the end of the European campaign while occupying Adolf Hitler's mountainside retreat, the Eagle's Nest, nestled in the Alps above Berchtesgaden. They celebrated by drinking champagne from the Fuhrer's 10,000-bottle cellar.

Late in the war, one of Maj. Winters's soldiers, Floyd Talbert, wrote him a letter from an Indiana hospital, thanking him for his loyalty and leadership.

"You are loved and will never be forgotten by any soldier that ever served under you," Talbert wrote. "I would follow you into hell."

Richard Davis Winters was born Jan. 21, 1918, in Lancaster, Pa.

His family's roots in American history reached back to Timothy Winters, a British immigrant who served in the Revolutionary War and saw action in the Battle of Yorktown.

Maj. Winters's own war story went untold for nearly a half-century until the publication of Ambrose's book, which became a national bestseller.

In 2001, a television miniseries adapted from Ambrose's work was released on HBO. The series, co-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, won six Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe.

Toward the end of the war, Maj. Winters turned down the opportunity to make the Army a career.

He returned to the United States and joined an Army colleague's company, Nixon Nitration Works, in New Jersey. He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War as a training officer.

For the rest of his career, Maj. Winters owned a farm in rural Pennsylvania and sold animal nutrition products to animal-feed companies. He married Ethel Estoppey in 1948 and had two children. He lived the quiet and peaceful life he'd promised to himself after surviving the war.

One of the most harrowing experiences of his military service came in late April 1945. The men of Easy Company discovered a German working camp near Landsberg that was part of the Dachau concentration camp. Maj. Winters found wheels of cheese piled in a nearby cellar and ordered that the nourishment be distributed among the inmates.

"The memory of starved, dazed men who dropped their eyes and heads when we looked at them through the chain-link fence, in the same manner that a beaten, mistreated dog would cringe, leaves feelings that cannot be described and will not be forgotten," Maj. Winters wrote of the experience. "The impact of seeing those people behind that fence left me saying, only to myself, 'Now I know why I am here.'"

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