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Maj. "Dick" Winters, Easy Company hero of World War II

PHILADELPHIA — Even as Parkinson's disease began taking its toll on Dick Winters, who led his Band of Brothers through some of World War II's fiercest European battles, the unassuming hero refused, as always, to let his men down.

Friends accompanied him to public events, subtly clearing a path through the adoring crowds for the living legend, whose achievements with Easy Company were documented by a book and HBO miniseries. His gait had grown unsteady, and he did not want to be seen stumbling.

Mr. Winters "didn't want the members of Easy Company to know," William Jackson said Monday of his longtime friend, who died Jan. 2 at age 92. "Right up to the end, he was the company commander."

An intensely private and humble man, Mr. Winters had asked that news of his death be withheld until after his funeral, Jackson said. Mr. Winters lived in Hershey, Pa., but died in an assisted-living center in neighboring Palmyra.

The men Mr. Winters led through harrowing circumstances and under fire from the German army never let the toll of time dull their own admiration for their commander.

"When he said 'Let's go,' he was right in the front," William Guarnere, 88, and dubbed "Wild Bill" by his comrades, said Sunday night from his south Philadelphia home. "He was never in the back. A leader personified."

Another member of the unit living in Philadelphia, Edward Heffron, 87, called Mr. Winters "one hell of a guy, one of the greatest soldiers I was ever under."

"He was a wonderful officer, a wonderful leader," said Heffron, who had the nickname "Babe" in the company. "He had what you needed: guts and brains. He took care of his men, that's very important."

Mr. Winters was born Jan. 21, 1918, and studied economics at Franklin & Marshall College before enlisting, according to a biography on Penn State's website.

He became the leader of Company E, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, on D-day after the death of the company commander during the invasion of Normandy.

During that invasion, he led 13 of his men in destroying an enemy battery and obtained a detailed map of German defenses along Utah Beach. In September 1944, he led 20 men in a successful attack on a German force of 200 soldiers. Occupying the Bastogne area of Belgium at the time of the Battle of the Bulge, he and his men held their place until the 3rd Army broke through enemy lines, and Mr. Winters shortly afterward was promoted to major.

"His leadership example both on and off the battlefield will continue to inspire 'Screaming Eagle' soldiers for years to come," said Lt. Col. Patrick Seiber, a spokesman for the 101st Airborne Division, currently deployed to Afghanistan. "His principles for success on the battlefield are timeless, as they are as critical today in Afghanistan as they were on 'Fortress Europe' during World War II."

After returning home, Mr. Winters married in May 1948 and trained infantry and Army Ranger units at Fort Dix in New Jersey during the Korean War. He started a company selling livestock feed to farmers. He and his wife, Ethel, and family later settled in a farmhouse in Hershey, where he later retired.

Historian Stephen Ambrose interviewed Mr. Winters for the 1992 book Band of Brothers, upon which the HBO miniseries that began airing in September 2001 was based.

The miniseries followed Easy Company from its training in Georgia all the way to the war's end in May 1945. Its producers included actor Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Damian Lewis portrayed Mr. Winters.

"Dick Winters was at the vanguard of representing 'The Greatest Generation' in bringing honor to all his Band of Brothers when he collaborated with Tom Hanks, Stephen Ambrose and me in the mounting of our tribute series," Spielberg said in a statement. "He would not have wanted this credit. He would have simply asked all of us to never forget how his generation served this nation and the world in WWII."

Mr. Winters himself published a memoir in 2006 titled Beyond Band of Brothers.

He talked about his view of leadership for an August 2004 article in American History Magazine. "If you can," he wrote, "find that peace within yourself, that peace and quiet and confidence that you can pass on to others, so that they know that you are honest and you are fair and will help them, no matter what, when the chips are down."

When people asked whether he was a hero, he echoed the words of his World War II buddy Mike Ranney: "No, but I served in a company of heroes."

"He was a good man, a very good man," Guarnere said. "I would follow him to hell and back. So would the men from E Company."

Arrangements for a public memorial service are pending.

Maj. "Dick" Winters, Easy Company hero of World War II 01/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 10, 2011 9:53pm]

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