Last updated on October 11th, 2023 at 05:42 pm
It was early; so early that the sun hadn’t even risen, when Richard “Dick” Winters made his jump. The air was frosty, and the sky dark, so it was no surprise that he lost his weapon on the way down. Being a paratrooper came with hundreds of risks, so his gun being gone was preferable to his legs being broken upon landing, but it still wasn’t ideal.
Luckily, he landed safely and could get his bearings, and found other paratroopers that had survived the jump, too. With his small group, Winters started towards his assigned objective, collecting other paratroopers on the way.
What he didn’t know was that, earlier in the morning, the transport carrying his commanding officer, First Lieutenant Thomas Meehan, had been shot down. This made Winters the new commanding officer of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. It was D-Day–June 6th, 1944.
Who is Major Dick Winters?
Richard Winters lived an extraordinary life, so much so that his unit, the Easy Company, would be the focus of the JBO television series Band of Brothers.
After being named the commander of his company on D-Day, he led many successful operations and was heralded as being everything that a commanding officer should be. But before he was a legendary paratrooper, he was just a man.
Winter’s Life Before the Military
As far as childhoods go, Richard D. Winters had a relatively normal one. Born on January 21st, 1918 to father Richard Winters and mother Edith Winters, he started his life in Ephrata, PA.
When he was 8, the family moved to Lancaster, PA. Winters enjoyed sports and played many of them during his years at Lancaster Boys High School. He graduated in 1937, heading next to Franklin and Marshall College.
In college, he joined a fraternity, Delta Sigma Phi, and at first, enjoyed many of the extracurriculars just like he did in high school. Out of all the sports he took part in, wrestling was his favorite, but unfortunately, he had to give it and everything else extra up before long.
Winters worked multiple part-time jobs to pay for school, and it paid off. Graduating in 1941, Winters earned a Bachelor of Science in Economics. It was quite an achievement, but Richard wasn’t blind. He, and every other man his age, knew that war was looming on the horizon for the United States. Little did he know he would play such a pivotal role in World War II just a few years later.
Enlistment and Military Training
A dedicated journal keeper, Winters marked the day that he enlisted in the United States Army. He wrote, “I had no desire to get into the war,” but Winters was also a smart man. He knew that if he enlisted voluntarily, he would only have to serve the mandatory 12 months under the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. With war so close at hand, this length would undoubtedly be extended soon enough, and Winters saw the writing on the wall. He would rather enlist himself and complete his year instead of being forced into a longer term by the draft.
The Government proved Winters right soon after he enlisted. He joined up only seven days before the Service Extension Act of 1941 was signed on August 18th by President Roosevelt. It would force men drafted under this act to serve a mandatory 30 months instead of the previous 12 months. Since Winters had volunteered himself before the act was signed, he still only had to serve a single year. He lucked out by just a manner of days.
Training and Penchant for Leadership
Now that he was joined up, Winters was sent to Camp Croft in South Carolina. At first, he intended to simply go through training, but Winters was a kind, capable man who just so happened to be a natural-born leader.
These traits weren’t lost on his fellow soldiers, and eventually, were noticed by Camp Croft leadership, too. When his unit was deployed to Panama, Winters was tapped to stay behind as an instructor at Camp Croft.
Soon enough, he was chosen for Officer Candidate School, being moved from South Carolina to Fort Benning in Georgia. He excelled at Officer training, but that wasn’t the only life-changing thing to happen to him at Fort Benning.
While at Officer Candidate School, he met his lifelong friend, Lewis Nixon. He also made a decision that would shape the next few years of his life irrecoverably–he made the choice to get his paratrooper certification.
Paratrooper Training and the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Easy Company
At Fort Benning, Winters became a part of the Army’s airborne forces, which had only been around for a short time at that point. He graduated from Officer Candidate School and was subsequently shipped out to Camp Toccoa, also in Georgia, to further his paratrooper education.
In a little over a month, Winters had completed said education and was ready to receive his assignment. The number of paratrooper regiments was low, considering that the entire program was new. So, in August 1942, Richard Winters was assigned to Company E, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, where he would stay and rise in the ranks.
Because of the Army/Navy phonetic alphabet, Company E was also known as the Easy Company. There Winters started out as a platoon leader, but later that same year he was promoted to First Lieutenant.
Training with the 506th was tough. This stemmed from the fact that the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment was actually an experimental unit–they were the first to train for airborne duties as a formed unit.
With time flying by, the 506th needed to be ready. A good number of the members were quite new to the military and were unprepared for how tough the airborne unit was going to be on them.
All in all, 5,300 enlisted men volunteered, with only 1,800 being selected. Similarly, 500 officers volunteered for the program, and only 148 made it through the entire course.
Richard “Dick” Winters was one of them.
Joining the 101st Airborne and Training for the Allied European Invasion
Once finished, the 506th was sent to Liverpool to join the 101st Airborne under the command of Major General Lee. There, they underwent even more training to prepare them for the Allied invasion of Europe, codenamed Project Overlord.
The training in Liverpool was tremendously exhausting for the 506th, and it wore down some already problematic relationships between soldiers. Easy Company was being led by First Lieutenant Herbert Sobel, who was not the biggest fan of Winters.
So troubled was the relationship between Winters and Sobel that Sobel tried to have Winters court-martialed. Both attempts failed, and ultimately, Sobel was replaced by First Lieutenant Thomas Meehan.
And with that change in command, it was time to get to work.
Project Overlord and D-Day
Training was done, and it was time to put Project Overload into action.
At 1:15 a.m. on June 6th, Thomas Meehan was aboard a C-47 SkyTrain when it was hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire from the Germans. It went down, there in the dark, and everyone on board was killed.
Winters didn’t know about this tragedy when he jumped that night, losing his weapon but otherwise landing safely. It was here, at the hamlet of Le Grand Chemin, that he could gather several other paratroopers and head toward their assigned position.
When Winters and the rest of his crew arrived at their objective, he finally learned that Meehan and the C-47 were unaccounted for. Knowing that he was likely gone, Richard Winters took on the mantle of the Commanding Officer of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment Easy Company.
There was no time to mourn or grapple with the weight of this change. The Normandy invasion was happening, and Winters had work to do. With only 13 men in comparison to the German’s 50, Winters led an assault on a battery of 105mm Howitzers that were shooting the causeways that made up the primary exit from Utah Beach.
The Howitzers were located at Brécourt Manor, and later, Winter’s success in destroying the battery would come to be known as the Brécourt Manor Assault. While his primary goal was to destroy the Howitzers, Winters also found documents that showed the locations of other German gun positions along Utah Beach.
Later that year, Winters would receive his promotion to Captain, shortly before his unit was withdrawn to England.
Other Major Battles and Promotion
While Richard Winters gained his fame at Brécourt Manor, Winters and the 506th were present at other major battles in World War II as well. These battles include,
- Operation Market Garden
- Battle of the Bulge
- Siege of Bastogne
- Capture of Berchtesgaden
It was after the Battle of the Bulge that Richard Winters was promoted to Major. During this time, Winters was also holding the position of the Executive Officer of his battalion. During World War II, Winters received a number of awards, including the second-highest honor in the US military, the Distinguished Service Cross.
Major Winter’s Life After World War II
On May 5th, 1945, the European portion of World War II was over. Winters was ready to return home to the States but was asked to stay in Germany as demobilization began. After all his victories and triumphs, it seemed that Winters was finished with fighting. Although he was offered a non-reserve position, he turned it down, choosing instead to return to civilian life.
A year later, on January 22, 1946, Winters was officially discharged. The war hero could finally rest.
Winter’s Life as a Civilian
Back home, Winters blended back into the American public almost seamlessly. He was still close with Lewis Nixon, whom he had met during Officer Candidate School, and this friendship turned out to be quite valuable when he was offered a position at Nixon’s family company, Nixon Nitration Works.
While working there, Winters met his future wife, Ethel Estoppey, and they were married in May 1948. He rose through the ranks of his new job, eventually becoming the general manager. With his GI Bill, he was able to continue his education as well, taking classes at Rutgers even as he worked at the Nitration plant.
All in all, life was good. And quiet–for the moment, at least.
The Korean War
Years passed, and Winters was sure that he was done with war. America, though, was not, and in June 1951, Winters was recalled to active duty in the Army to serve during the Korean War. His orders were to join the 11th Airborne Division, but he was given some leeway and wasn’t required to report to his new assignment for 6 months.
Despite traveling to Washington DC to plead his case to General Tony McAuliffe, he wasn’t let off the hook. Luckily, when he reported to Fort Dix in New Jersey, he wasn’t sent to Korea. Instead, he took a position training officers. This new position was nothing like Dick Winters’ Easy Company.
It was sour work for the Major, and he was frustrated with the men that he was training, stating that they lacked discipline. In an odd move, Winters volunteered to attend Ranger school, where he became a Ranger.
His time in the States was running short, though, and it wasn’t long until his orders to deploy to Korea came down the pipeline. In Seattle, as he prepared to deploy, he was surprised when he was offered the opportunity to resign. Winters quickly accepted and was once again discharged from the Army without ever setting foot in Korea.
Major Richard “Dick” Winters was finally, truly done with war. He and his wife bought a farm, raising their family there and eventually opening an animal feed business of their own.
Band of Brothers and the Legacy of Major Winters
Winters never expected to be a Hollywood star, but after author Steven Ambrose wrote his book, Band of Brothers: Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, he found people were eager to know the story of him and his Band of Brothers, the Easy Company.
The book was a success, so much so that HBO produced a miniseries based on it. Band of Brothers, the limited series, was wildly popular and was nominated for several awards at the 54th Primetime Emmy Awards.
Richard Winters was invited to the Emmys, and when the show won Outstanding Miniseries, Winters was invited to speak for Easy Company. Other surviving members of the company watched on from a nearby hotel. Winters told the audience,
“I want to represent myself here as representing all the men of Company E that are present and accounted for and on behalf of all the men who have passed on before us. And we want to thank Steve Ambrose for listening to our stories and our memories and telling the story of Band of Brothers. We don’t want to forget Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and his entire crew that did a wonderful job in telling our memories.”
Richard Winters lived to the age of 92, passing away on January 2, 2011. He is remembered through his legacy as a brave, capable leader, and was honored as such when a bronze statue of his likeness was erected near Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, France, on the 68th anniversary of D-Day.
“Richard D. “Dick” Winters, Major, U.S. Army”
“Outstanding Veterans: Major Dick Winters” Reagan archives