I am headed to Europe today for the “Beyond Band of Brothers” tour. Four countries in 12 days- wow!. I wanted to do an email about this awesome adventure!
This post was a fun one to write. To historians World War II is a fun war. It’s not complicated. We are not fighting for murky reasons and hidden agendas like Vietnam or Iraq.
In World War II the Americans were the good guys. We were attacked by the Japanese. The Nazis invaded other countries and killed millions of innocent people. The bad guys wore uniforms.
We fought them until they surrendered unconditionally. Then we rebuilt the economy of our enemies. Americans are smart, kind and tough. You see our country at its best in World War II.
Studs Terkel called World War II “The Good War.”
World War II
Almost everyone has seen the “Band of Brothers” miniseries. It focuses on the actions of one outstanding light infantry company during World War II.
The war was so big, with so many characters and outstanding heroes that you can get lost in strategy and personalities.
Easy Company’s story is about individual soldiers. During World War II, it fought in Western Europe.
What brings Easy Company’s actions to light is the individual stories of the men of the unit, and one extraordinary man in particular- Major Dick Winters.
Paratroopers are not ordinary soldiers. Their battlefields are behind enemy lines. They drop silently from the sky. They are messengers of death and destruction.
Lightly armed, unsupported by tanks and heavy artillery, they fight time after time against overwhelming odds and win.
This is the story of Arnhem, the Ardennes, Bastogne, Normandy and crossing the Rhine into Germany. It is the story of Easy Company, a heroic band of daredevils in America’s biggest war.
CAMP TOCCA, GA- Spring, 1942
The men of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, United States Army, came from all over America. They came from different backgrounds and social classes.
The company had farmers from the Deep South, coal miners from Middle America, and fishermen from New England. They were citizen-soldiers who joined the army after America was attacked at Pearl Harbor.
Franklin Roosevelt was President for most of their young lives. The men grew up in the Great Depression. For some of them, the army was the first time they had enough to eat. Only a handful of them had college degrees.
As a group they were self-starters and used to hard work. Some enlisted because they figured they were going to be drafted anyway. Some men knew that a man who enlisted got to go to the best units.
The best units give a man the best chance to stay in alive in combat. The best units don’t take draftees, only men who enlist and volunteer.
They all volunteered to be paratroopers. Some did it for the thrill of jumping out of airplanes. Others did it for the extra pay- $50 for enlisted men or $100 for officers.
They trained non-stop. Five to ten mile runs up mountains. Thirty pushups for every mistake plus one more “For the Airborne.”
Endless road marches with heavy packs in the middle of the night. Classes in weapons, explosives, and hand-to-hand combat.
The point was to become paratroopers. They could take anything.
Out of 500 officers who volunteered for training, only 148 completed the course. For the enlisted men, only 1,800 made it out of 5,300 volunteers.
They came together in the summer of 1942. By the late spring of 1944, they were as good a rifle company as any other in the world, maybe a little better.
Major Dick Winters
Major Dick Winters commanded Easy Company for most of the war. He started the war as a 2nd Lieutenant and rifle platoon leader. At 26, before the war ended, he got promoted to major and commanded the 2nd Battalion.
Winters was born and raised in Pennsylvania. He graduated from college before he joined the army in August 1041, so he wouldn’t be drafted later.
After basic training, he attended Officer Candidate School. After OCS he volunteered for the parachute infantry.
In August 1942, he was assigned to Easy Company. He first served as the platoon leader of 2nd Platoon, later he was the company’s executive officer.
Winters as a Leader
Captain Herbert Sobel was a tough company commander. He and Winters did not get along. Sobel was a petty tyrant who treated his men badly. His harsh training methods played a part in the company’s later success in combat.
Winters did his best to shield the Easy Company men from Sobel’s tirades. Many of the enlisted men of the company respected Winters for his competence and compassion.
Winters was a natural leader and Sobel was not.
NORMANDY, FRANCE- D-DAY June 6, 1944
In May 1944, right before Normandy, Winters replaced Sobel as the company commander of Easy. In Normandy, Winters and 13 men knocked out four Nazi artillery guns. The artillery pieces had 50 Germans in entrenched positions.
Winters personally led the attack. He destroyed all four guns and he lost only one man in the raid. The mission is still taught at West Point as the perfect example of how to assault fixed point defenses.
For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, our nation’s second award for valor.
In September 1944, Easy Company jumped into to Holland as part of Operation Market Garden. One day on a routine recon Winters came across a series of German machine gun nests.
With only 35 men he ambushed over 300 SS infantry, the most elite unit in the German army. He led a charge on foot, across an open field and got behind the Germans. He called in artillery while his men mowed down the surprised Germans.
He destroyed two companies of German infantry.
BASTOGNE, BELGIUM- December, 1944
In December 1944, he was the battalion’s executive officer. During the Battle of the Bulge, he led the defense of Bastogne. The town was a crucial road junction that blocked the Germans from breaking through Allied lines.
In a week of non-stop fighting in freezing cold weather, the 101st Airborne Division, badly outnumbered and outgunned, stopped a coordinated attack of 15 German SS Divisions from taking the town.
Dick Winters and Easy Company were at the tip of the spear in the middle of the action.
BERCHTESGADEN, GERMANY- May, 1944
In May 1944, he was the battalion commander. He and Easy Company captured Hitler’s summer home- The Eagle’s Nest. The war in Europe ended a few days later.
During a year of almost non-stop fighting, Easy Company sustained 150% casualties, Forty-eight members of Easy Company gave their lives to their country. More than 100 men were wounded. Some men were wounded several times.
Dick Winters led them through it all.
As brass knuckle paratroopers, they hit hard targets. They came in fast. They came in at night because night time is killing time.
The book and mini-series created the myth. The reality was violent and ruthless.
They were trained killers. They got used to carnage and destruction. They lived in a harsh world that required quick, violent reactions. They used muscle, courage and initiative to defeat a resolute and experienced enemy.
The brutal training broke down the barriers of the men. Where you came from and who you were didn’t matter.
Everyone double-timed around the camp. Every day they ran the three miles up the mountain and the three miles down the mountain.
They were loaded like bullets into airplanes. They jumped behind enemy lines to take back Europe from the Nazis. It was an age of guts and glory.
Tough men need a tough leader. They got one in Dick Winters. Winters led from the front. He led by personal and physical example in everything he did. He never asked a man to do something he wouldn’t do.
Here are Dick Winters’ Ten Principles for Success:
- Strive to be a leader of character, competence, and courage.
- Lead from the front. Say, “Follow me!” and then lead the way.
- Stay in top physical shape – physical stamina is the root of mental toughness.
- Develop your team. If you know your people, are fair in setting realistic goals and expectations, and lead by example, you will develop teamwork.
- Delegate responsibility to your subordinates and let them do their job. You can’t do a good job if you don’t have a chance to use your imagination and creativity.
- Anticipate problems and prepare to overcome obstacles. Don’t wait until you get to the top of the ridge and then make up your mind.
- Remain humble. Don’t worry about who receives the credit. Never let power or authority go to your head.
- Take a moment of self-reflection. Look at yourself in the mirror every night and ask yourself if you did your best.
- True satisfaction comes from getting the job done. They key to a successful leader is to earn respect – not because of rank or position, but because you are a leader of character.
- Hang Tough! – Never, ever, give up.
Hope you guys enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed typing. Write to you in two weeks about my trip- Hang Tough!