In many ways Richard "Dick" D. Winters was the quintessential war hero. Brave, humble and revered by the men he commanded. His now famous military experiences were documented in Stephen Ambrose's best-selling book Band of Brothers, and the HBO miniseries by the same name.
After enlisting in the Army in 1941, Dick Winters joined the parachute infantry and was assigned to Company E (also known as "Easy Company"), 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
In the early hours of D-Day, June 6, 1944, Winters parachuted into the darkness over Normandy, France. Later that day he led 13 soldiers on a mission to destroy a battery of German guns guarding a critical road out of Utah Beach. He bravely led that small group of men (outnumbered at least two-to-one) to overcome an entire platoon of German soldiers who were firing four howitzer guns at allied forces. He was even able to secure a map of the enemy's nearby defenses. This assault is still taught at West Point today as a definitive method for attacking a fixed position.
This would be the first of many more assaults led by Winters in WWII, who continued to rise in the ranks and gain the loyalty of his men as they made their way through France, Belgium (where he and his men fought in the momentum-turning Battle of the Bulge), the Netherlands and into Germany. As a Major he would become the commander of the 2nd Battalion.
After he retired from the army he married, had children and started his own company selling farm products in Pennsylvania. He died on Jan. 2, 2011, of complications from Parkinson's disease.
Of course, none of us knew that he had died until more than a week later, when the news was finally made public. Why the delay? The answer to that question is found in statements made by the men who served under him in World War II.
In 1945, as the war was winding down, one of Winters' soldiers, Floyd Talbert, wrote him a letter from a hospital back in the United States. Talbert expressed his gratitude and trust. "You are loved and will never be forgotten by any soldier that ever served under you," Talbert wrote. "I would follow you into hell."
This sentiment was echoed time and again by the men who served under him, including Clancy Lyall, who served as a private in Easy Company. "I'd go through hell with him no question about it. We all had the same feeling about him too, I'll tell you. Everything we had to do, he was there right with us. He wouldn't run...."
Another man who served under Winters, William Guarnere, said, "When he said 'Let's go,' he was right in the front. He was never in the back. A leader personified."
The words of the men who served with Winters are poignant and powerful, particularly when one considers the fact that they themselves were heroes. But while Dick Winters was seen by heroes as their hero, he would never accept that lofty label.
When asked if he was a hero by others, he was known to respond with his characteristic humility. "No. I'm not a hero," he would say, "But I served in a company of heroes."
And therein, I suspect, lays the answer to our question.
In typical Dick Winters fashion, and with the humility and thoughtfulness he displayed throughout his life, he asked that the news of his passing be kept secret until after his funeral. This notably private and humble man, I'm sure, couldn't bear the thought of the press or distant admirers gawking over him and disrupting a solemn occasion for his family.
Even as he was dying, Dick Winters was leading and serving.
Randy Hicks is president of Georgia Family Council, a non-profit research and education organization committed to fostering conditions in which individuals, families and communities thrive. For more information, go to www.georgiafamily.org, 770-242-0001 or firstname.lastname@example.org.