Conversations with Major Dick Winters: Life Lessons from the Commander of the Band of Brothers

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9780425271537: Conversations with Major Dick Winters: Life Lessons from the Commander of the Band of Brothers

On the hellish battlefields of World War II Europe, Major Dick Winters led his Easy Company—the now-legendary Band of Brothers—from the confusion and chaos of the D-Day invasion to the final capture of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.

But Winters’s story didn’t end there. It was only the beginning.


He was a quiet, reluctant hero whose modesty and strength drew the admiration of not only his men, but millions worldwide. Now comes the story of Dick Winters in his last years as witnessed and experienced by his good friend, Cole C. Kingseed.

Kingseed shares the formative experiences that made Winters such an effective leader. He addresses Winters’s experiences and leadership during the war, his intense, unbreakable devotion to his men, his search for peace both without and within after the war, and how fame forced him to make adjustments to an international audience of well-wishers and admirers, even as he attempted to leave a lasting legacy before joining his fallen comrades. Following Winters’s death on January 2, 2011, the outpouring of grief and adulation for one of this nation’s preeminent leaders of character, courage, and competence shows just how much of an impact Dick Winters left on the world.

This is a story of leadership, fame, and friendship, and the journey of one man’s struggle to find the peace that he promised himself if he survived World War II.

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About the Author:

Cole C. Kingseed is a thirty-year Army veteran who served in a variety of command and staff positions. He earned his MA in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College and his PhD in history from Ohio State. He taught at West Point, where he served as chief of military history for four years. Kingseed is the author of fifty-three articles on corporate and military leadership and such books as Eisenhower and the Suez Crisis of 1956 and Old Glory Stories: Combat Leadership in World War II. He is a founding partner of Battlefield Leadership, LLC and president of his own leadership consulting firm, The Brecourt Leadership Experience, Inc., whose clients include International Paper, Ernst & Young, USAA, and Bayer Corporation, among others.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE

I am generally skeptical of any author who puts within quotation marks conversations he never heard or who pretends to recollect with absolute fidelity conversations he heard many years ago. I, too, am guilty of some reconstruction, but the conversations with Major Dick Winters that appear in this book are as I best remember them. There are a few conversations in which I did not participate and others that I heard firsthand more than fifteen years ago. The former conversations are based on the memory of mutual friends who shared their recollections with me to provide the reader with a fuller understanding of Major Winters. In the latter conversations, the key phrases appear as I meticulously recorded them in my journal within days of my visits with the major. Additionally, the candid conversations outlined in the forthcoming pages follow a more thematic than chronological order; hence within each chapter the dialogue quoted often transpired over repeated sessions with Dick Winters and was not confined to a single visit. Consequently, I urge the reader to exercise some discretion in accepting with absolute certainty every word that is recorded and to take my recollections with the necessary grain of salt.

FOREWORD

Aside from an occasional short wrap-up on the national network news stations and an Associated Press release that appeared in the obituary section of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s Patriot-News on January 10, 2011, I suspect few Americans noticed the passing of Major Dick Winters of Hershey, Pennsylvania. Winters was a most remarkable man whose story was chronicled by historian Stephen E. Ambrose in Band of Brothers. In the wake of the 2001 Emmy Award–winning HBO miniseries of the same title, Winters published his own memoirs in an effort to set the record straight and to record the accomplishments of an airborne company in combat during World War II. Beyond Band of Brothers rapidly climbed on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction, peaking at number ten within two months of publication. As for Winters, one reviewer stated that he “was too humble for a genre that requires a little bit of conceit.” The American public disagreed.

I suppose the obituary would have attracted greater attention had it read, “Died January 2, 2011, the commanding officer of the Band of Brothers,” for it was by that title that Dick Winters was more widely known. I had every reason to know him, for not only had he asked me to coauthor his memoirs in November 2003, but our personal and professional association also predated his death by well over a decade. In his declining years, when public access to this aging veteran was extremely limited, I was privileged to visit Winters on a monthly basis. At first, our discussions revolved around his role in the twentieth century’s bloodiest conflict. Ironically, after I mailed the memoir manuscript to our publisher in April 2005, we never again addressed the war in detail. Winters had finally left it behind him. “It is finished,” he stated emphatically when we submitted the manuscript. In his final years, we spoke only of more pleasant issues, nothing more than two old soldiers sharing memories of time long past. What struck me most was his undying loyalty to the soldiers whom he led in the most cataclysmic war in history. In the twilight of his own memory, his thoughts always returned to Easy Company, to happier times when a group of young men joined together to fight for freedom and to liberate a world from tyranny. Especially treasured were the memories of experiences he shared with family, friends, and the men of Easy Company. None was ever forgotten by the old soldier who resided in the white house along picturesque Elm Avenue in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

I first met Dick Winters on April 6, 1998, when he traveled to the U.S. Military Academy to address the Corps of Cadets on the topic of frontline leadership during World War II. As chief of military history in the Department of History at West Point, I routinely encouraged my officers to ask veterans to speak to their respective classes. Few members of the military faculty took me up on my suggestion, for no other reason than that ambitious young officers preferred to teach the cadets themselves and seemed reluctant to turn over control of their classes to outside teachers. On that particular afternoon, however, Major Matt Dawson entered my office to inform me that he had invited Major Dick Winters to address his class on the Battle of the Bulge.

“You know who Dick Winters is, don’t you, sir?”

I had never heard of Winters, although I had read Ambrose’s Band of Brothers six years earlier. His name simply did not register. Fortunately, I did not have to reveal my ignorance because Dawson added, “You know, the guy from Band of Brothers.”

“Yes, Matt, Dick Winters from Band of Brothers.”

“Would you like to join us for dinner tonight?”

Seldom did I “pull rank” on one of my subordinates, but on this occasion I made an exception to my long-standing policy. As with most of the leaders who spoke at West Point on the subject of leadership in combat, I wanted the opportunity to explore how leadership among the ground troops is essentially different from any other situation—even air forces and navies, where the violence is indirect and depersonalized. This reflects the fact that armies are sui generis: Their primary function involves the direct employment and the direct experience of human-generated violence. Consequently, I graciously thanked Major Dawson for the invitation, but added that I preferred to host Winters alone for a quiet dinner at the Hotel Thayer on the grounds of West Point. It was one of the best decisions that I ever made as an army officer. And so it began.

I remember him as if it were yesterday. The old soldier emerged from the elevator in the hotel lobby at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, dapperly attired in a dark blazer with the crest of the 101st Airborne Division on his pocket. His neatly cropped gray hair reflected a military man far younger than his current seventy-nine-plus years. I am not sure what I had expected to see. At the time of our initial encounter, most veterans of World War II were in their late seventies or early eighties. Most veterans who visited West Point to share their reminiscences with the cadets walked with the aid of canes or walkers. In Winters’s case, there was a noticeable spring in his step that belied his age.

This shy, quiet gentleman who introduced himself simply as “Dick Winters” immediately made an indelible impression on me. From the beginning, I was “Cole,” he was “Dick.” Never once for the next thirteen years did we ever address each other by rank or surname. Over dinner Dick and I discussed a myriad of topics, all associated with his wartime experience and his thoughts on leadership in war. Why were some commanders more effective than others in inspiring their men? How did you identify the best soldiers in your company? Had he relieved any commander in combat? To what did he attribute his success in Easy Company? Were his leadership principles applicable to the civilian and the corporate worlds? Minutes evolved into hours as we discussed leadership under a number of circumstances. Before we finished dinner, I had already decided that I would include Dick Winters in the book I was writing about combat leadership during World War II. To my great satisfaction, he invited me to spend a few days on his farm outside Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania. By the time that the evening was over, I had received the best primer on leadership than I had obtained in twenty-five years of commissioned service.

No man, with the exception of my own father, exerted a greater influence on my life. For the next decade, Dick’s and my lives were mutually intertwined. I am honored that he considered me his friend. For some inexplicable reason, he chose to share his memories with me. He seemed comfortable communicating with me in a way he never could or would with popular historian Ambrose. Little could I have realized that henceforth my professional life would revolve around the heart of the company town founded by Dick’s boyhood hero, Milton S. Hershey. In the decade of our association, I remained a frequent guest, never missing an opportunity to visit the man who not only captured the imagination of veterans of the Greatest Generation, but had also bequeathed a legacy of selfless service to a younger generation in search of heroes and heroines. Now that he is gone, it seems appropriate to share the story of our friendship, how it began and how it matured over time. And if the readers will be patient, surely they will understand the manner by which this citizen-soldier touched thousands of lives with his favorite aphorism, “Hang Tough!”

PART ONE

*   *   *

CHAPTER I

We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top. . . . In our youths, our hearts were touched by fire.

—OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, JR.

It was nearly two years from our initial meeting and less than six months from my visit to the farm outside Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania, before Dick extended an invitation to join him in Hershey to answer any “questions that you have.” We had corresponded regularly during that interval, but a number of things had precluded a visit. First, on Easter Sunday in 1998, Dick had experienced a bad fall that resulted in him landing on the back of his neck and suffering a mild concussion. “In the past,” he wrote, “following a fall or injury, all I needed was a good night’s sleep and I would wake up feeling good as new. Not this time. I am feeling much better, but progress is slow. It’s like taking two steps forward, then going back one step.” I later learned that the concussion was severe enough that Dick cancelled all his speaking engagements for the remainder of the summer.

Then in mid-September, I received another letter from Dick in which he begged off once again and asked my understanding of his position. What generated this second postponement was a letter from actor Tom Hanks. What Dick related in his missive was that Hanks had called to inform him that Steven Spielberg had purchased the rights of Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers and he intended to produce a miniseries about combat in western Europe during World War II as a sequel to Saving Private Ryan. As Dick wrote, “You can, I am sure, read between the lines what they would like me to contribute. Let me get back to you after the dust settles on this latest development.” Dick signed his letter with his signature closing, “Hang Tough!”

Now, driving past the beautiful rolling hills where Dick Winters made his home near Hershey, I was struck by the fact that everyone remembers one’s own past in color, but all too often we make the mistake today of seeing the historical past in black-and-white. Just as anyone alive today remembers childhood, youth, events from when he or she was twenty-five years old, all in color and fresh, so too did those now long gone, those of the Greatest Generation who fought in World War II, or those who saw battle in the Civil War, the Revolution, any era—this is how they remembered their lives and experiences. Seeing the stunning green hills of Dick Winters’s life, it was hard to imagine them as he remembered them from years past, but the reality is that to him they were just as green and just as beautiful then as they were to me that day. This is the challenge of remembering the past—it is not black-and-white, dull and faded, but rather vibrant and rich, in vivid color regardless of the era.

An hour later, I pulled up to a white house on spacious Elm Avenue in Hershey. Dick greeted me at the door and immediately escorted me to his upstairs office. “Cole, this is my den where I retreat to share my memories. Here, my maps, my decorations, and my memorabilia surround me. This is my personal refuge.” On the walls were maps, photographs, the Easy Company guidon or pennant, and the escape map that he carried when he jumped into Normandy on D-Day. Next to his chair were his spit-shined Corcoran jump boots that he wore on that historic day of days. Even in today’s U.S. Army, Corcoran jump boots and bloused trousers are the mark of distinction of the airborne soldiers and distinguish paratroopers from the “straight-legged” infantry. Dick called those boots his “good luck charm.” The bullet hole in one of the boots dated from Carentan in mid-June 1944. When he returned to England that July, he put new soles on the boots, and he kept them every step of the way through the remainder of the war.

Looking at all the memorabilia, I could not help but ask what he considered his most prized possession. I was surprised by his response. Every military officer who commands a company in combat treasures the company flag—we call it a guidon in the military—that bears the designation of the unit and crossed rifles if you are an infantry commander. Different branches of the service have various insignia, and their guidons bear different colors. Infantry guidons are always blue. As a fellow infantry officer, I naturally assumed Easy Company’s guidon would occupy the highest place in Dick’s affection. “I know you think it is the guidon,” he said, “but you’re wrong.” Pointing to a flower mounted under a glass frame, Dick replied, “As I look at these mementos from the war, what I treasure most is this edelweiss. After the loss of so many soldiers and after witnessing untold suffering during the war, the edelweiss symbolizes freedom to me. It represents renewed life and hope for a better world. Edelweiss is one of the few flowers that grow in the snow, above the tree line, in the Alps. I personally climbed a mountain in the Austrian Alps to pick this edelweiss, and I have cherished it ever since.”

We spoke for the better part of an hour, and then Dick suggested we get down to business. “I know you have lots of questions. Last year when I spoke to the cadets at West Point, I noticed you took pages of notes. That impressed me. As I recall, we were discussing D-Day and the fighting outside Brecourt Manor. Why don’t we start there?”

A word of explanation—Brecourt is a small farm outside of Ste. Marie-du-Mont, just two miles inland from Utah Beach. On June 6, 1944, the mission of the 101st Airborne Division, to which then Lieutenant Dick Winters was assigned as a member of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was to secure four causeways behind the beach to facilitate movement of the amphibious forces into the interior of the countryside. The causeways were actually elevated roadways over which wheeled traffic could pass since Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had flooded the surrounding countryside to preclude amphibious and airborne forces from landing behind the beaches of Normandy. Easy Company operated as part of 2nd Battalion whose specific mission was to seize causeway number two, leading directly from Utah Beach to Ste. Marie-du-Mont.

And perhaps here is the place to remind readers that an infantry squad in World...

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