I haven't really been super subtle about the fact that stumbling across the Band of Brothers miniseries on TV arouses an emotion on me that is probably not too dissimilar from the feeling an eight year-old girl might get while riding a pink fluffy unicorn under a double rainbow and eating a Rocky Road ice cream cone with sprinkles made from magical dolphin tears. The epic tale of hardass American paratroopers doing stuff in Europe goes right up there with Starship Troopers and Dirty Harry on the list of towering cinematic masterpieces of awesomeness that I could watch on an endless loop every waking moment for the rest of my life and still die a happy man and totally not bored at all, and it's one of those things that I compulsively watch any time I see it on television. (The book is incredibly powerful as well, of course, but since they don't run back-to-back book marathons on the History channel at three in the morning I don't usually delve into it as often as I do the miniseries.)
However, despite my intense love of all things Easy (heh heh), I've yet to do a write-up on the hero of the story, Major Richard "Dick" Winters – a man so unequivocally, ass-crushingly hard-as-fuck that mentioning him on a website about badasses seemed more like an inevitable formality than some wild, startling revelation uncovering the unsung heroes of American military history. However, with the good Major's passing two weeks ago – and the subsequent electronic landslide of mail that coated my inbox shortly thereafter – I realize that I cannot in good conscience leave this man off the list any longer. Major Dick Winters was an incredible war hero, and while I might not be able to do his story the same kind of justice that Stephen Ambrose did, I can at least make damn sure that he's included on a list of badass military skull-crushers.
Dick Winters was born on January 21, 1918, in a small town outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In 1941, after it became pretty obvious to everybody on this side of the pond that we were going to need to take a little boat ride across the Atlantic and regulate on some Germans Nate Dogg style, Winters enlisted in the Army in 1941. As a man who never half-assed anything in his life, Winters asked to be put into the Airborne service – the most elite and hardcore troops the Army had – and after passing through jump school went immediately to Officer Candidate School, busted his ass, and took over as a Second Lieutenant in E Company of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He immediately proved himself as a natural leader to the men – he had the perfect blend of skills that meant he could be totally awesome without also putting up with any of their bullshit. Before this guy had even shipped out to the battlefield, Winters was promoted to First Lieutenant, and he was so beloved by the troops that when his dickhead commanding officer started shit with him the sergeants in the unit told the battalion commander that they would rather hand in their stripes than see Winters get dicked around by some incompetent douchebag company commander who was barely qualified to identify the difference between enfilade fire and a Jeep Wrangler full of drunk Utahraptors with sunglasses on their heads and Hawaiian leis around their necks. The battalion commander was happy to take the Sergeants' stripes away from them, surs, but he also booted Winters' CO out of the company as well. It was kind of a minor victory for everybody, except of course the deposed commander, but don't feel too badly for the guy – he was such a douchebag that they had to get David Schwimmer to play him in the movie of his life, and that should probably tell you all you need to know.
Easy Company's first combat operation was a pretty serious little skirmish called Operation Overlord, where a little over a million men from a dozen different countries stormed the beaches of Normandy and ran full-speed in the direction of an army of heavily-entrenched German machine gun nests manned my men with nothing better to do than rake the entire ocean with one continuous stream of heavy weapons fire. The night before the invasion, Winters' unit was flown over the beach head under the cover of darkness, where they got to jump out of the side of a cargo plane while enemy artillery launched as much shrapnel as possible into the sky. The operation didn't start out great for Lieutenant Winters. After getting pelted with flak for 10 miles and slowly floating down through a hail of pointy metal on a parachute, Winters landed in hostile territory to discover that he'd lost his gun during the drop and could only track down 13 men from his unit. Oh, and the company commander's plane had crashed, killing everyone on board, so Winters was now the new commander of the unit. Good luck with that, buddy.
|"Captain Clarence Hester turns to me and says: 'There's fire along that hedgerow there. Take care of it.' That was it . There was no elaborate plan or briefing. I didn't even know what was on the other side of the hedgerow. All I had were my instructions, and I had to quickly develop a plan from there. And as it turns out, I did."
No problem. Winters relied on his training and his instincts, and somehow managed to keep his cool, survive through the night, organize his men into a cohesive fighting force, battle a few patrols of Germans, and regroup with the main force of paratroopers. But there was no rest for the weary – upon reaching paratrooper command was immediately ordered to assault a group of artillery beyond a nearby hedgerow – four 150mm heavy guns that were causing quite a bit of trouble with all of their annoying "hey let's lob a ton of exploding shells half a foot in length onto the guys who are storming the beaches" business, and someone arbitrarily decided that Winters was just the guy to put those bastards out of everyone's misery. Despite still having only 13 men to attack 50 Germans in entrenched positions, Winters didn't even flinch. He had one squad lay down covering fire with machine guns while he and a second squad ran from trench to trench capping fuckers apart and punching people in the face with brass knuckles. Despite getting shot in the leg while leading the charge, Winters barely even slowed down in his mad rampage of German-dismantling carnage, pretty much tearing the guns apart with his bare hands and then using the bend-to-shit howtizer barrels to club Nazis until their heads popped off, rolled down a hill, and knocked down a series of bowling pins Winters had strategically placed at the bottom of the hill. Winters not only successfully took the guns with just 13 men (losing only one man in the process) and ended the artillery bombardment on Utah Beach, but his first coordinated military action against the enemy was so fucking mind-blowing that to this day the cadets at West Point study it as the perfect example of how to assault fixed point defenses. Oh, and he also captured a detailed map of the German defenses surrounding the beach, which was kind of a useful thing for the American commanders to have. Not a lot of officers out there are awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and a place in American military lore for actions performed during their first combat maneuver, but then again Dick Winters wasn't like a lot of officers out there.
After helping capture the Nazi-infested town of Carentan during the Normandy Campaign, Winters returned to England and was re-deployed during Operation Market Garden in September 1944. Parachuting deep behind enemy lines, surrounded on all sides, and spread out over a ridiculous area still wasn't enough to make Winters feel anything remotely resembling fear or hesitation, and it was while he was re-decorating the windmills of Holland with the insides of Fascist infantrymen Dick Winters accomplished yet another towering act of military awesomeness. One day, while he was out doing some recon and assaulting a bunch of entrenched German machine gun nests, Winters accidentally came across a huge unit of battle-hardened SS infantry hiding behind a dike waiting to ambush the Allied flank. Despite only having 35 men with him and staring down over 300 of Germany's most elite soldiers, Winters once again set aside the numbers game and went completely balls-out – he got pumped up out of his fucking mind, charged on foot across a huge open field (at the head of his formation), got around beside the Germans, and opened fire on them from the flank, pinning them up against the dike and giving them no chance to escape. When he got bored of watching his men gun down the SS, Winters radioed in some artillery and blasted everything out of existence. He lost one man dead, 22 wounded (a 66% casualty rate for his platoon). He destroyed two full companies of German infantry – over 300 guys.
|"As I leap off and begin the charge I am pretty pumped up... I ran faster across the field separating us from the Germans than I have ever run in my life... When I got up to the road where the Germans were, there was a German in front of me, so I shot him. I then turn to my right, and there I see a whole company of Germans. I began firing into them... We had caught two companies of SS soldiers pinned to the dike, and as they retreated we poured fire into them, and then I called in artillery fire. We destroyed those two companies."
Winters went on to serve as the battalion's executive officer during the Battle of the Bulge in December, where he dug in to the town of Bastogne (a crucial key point blocking the Germans from breaking through Allied lines) and helped inspire the badass men of the 101stAirborne to basically single-handedly withstand a coordinated attack from 15 German SS divisions during over a week of non-stop fighting in the freezing cold winter. After that, he led his men to capture Hitler's summer home – the Eagle's Nest, and it was kind of fitting that after he helped stick a fork in Hitler he went to Hitler's house and stole some of his silver forks. The war ended a few days later. During nearly a year of almost incessant combat, Easy Company sustained 150% casualties, but Dick Winters had managed to lead them from beginning to end.
After the war, Winters went back to PA, married his girlfriend, trained Army Rangers at Fort Dix during the Korean Conflict, and continued being awesome. When he wasn't running his own company or having his life story turned into an Emmy Award-winning miniseries, he gave guest lecturers at West Point during their bi-annually offered "How to Be Fucking Hardcore 101" class. He died on 2 January 2011 at the age of 93.
|"How do you get the respect of the men? By living with them, being a part of it, being able to understand what they are going through and not to separate yourself from them. You have to know your men. You have to gain their confidence. And the way to gain the confidence of anybody, whether it's in war or civilian life or whatever, you must be honest. Be honest, be fair and be consistent. You can't be honest and fair one day, and the next give your people the short end of the stick."
New York Times
HistoryNet Interview with Major Winters
Major Dick Winters CMOH Website
Ambrose, Stephen. Band of Brothers. Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Winters, Richard D., and Cole C. Kingseed.&nbps; Beyond Band of Brothers. Penguin, 2008.