LETTER FROM DICK WINTERS TO STEPHEN AMBROSE, AUGUST 1996:
August, 12, 1996
On Monday, August 5th I received your letter inviting me to give you a “paragraph or two on the subject of: [sic]
- Strain for a C.O.
- The variety of problems you had to deal with.
- Living conditions.
Over the past three days I’ve started and stopped at least half a dozen times. I know what you want. I want to give you exactly what you want in a few short to-the-point paragraphs. But it’s so hard to be selective with the dozens of stories on each subject just asking to be told.
Let me break down my answer to your letter with a few paragraphs in the order you requested them.
“Strain for a C.O.”
To be a good commanding officer, a leader, you must be in first class physical condition.
To be a good leader you must do everything in your power for the good of your men and to train your men with the goal in mind of making them the best unit possible, better than any other platoon, company, battalion.
To accomplish this you must be like a good mother taking care of her children. You must set an example, be the first one up in the morning and the last to go to bed at night.
To accomplish this you must also be like a good father, setting a good example and being up front and visible with the men before an attack and staying with the attack until it is over.
The ultimate test of a good troop leader is his actions when his unit is caught and pinned down by a heavy concentration of mortar or artillery fire. When this happens most men will freeze stiff as a board. They can’t move. They can’t think. They are frozen by a fear of death as they wait for the next incoming concentration.
The good company commander will be able to think and reason under this fire. His inner sense of timing will tell him that was the last concentration, the last round. As soon as it lands he will be out of his foxhole immediately, on his feet, walking around, talking to his men – “Is everybody all right? Be on the lookout for an attack. Let’s get moving.” The important thing is for him to be the first man on his feet, talking to his men. Just as soon as he starts talking to the men that fear of death that had them frozen stiff a minute ago will be broken and they will be up and moving and ready to follow him to hell and back.
“The Variety of Problems”
This is my first time I have ever stopped to try and make a list of “my problems’ [sic] during WWII as a troop leader. It surprises me how simple it is to put my problems in a few categories and how few problems I really had. Complaints, bitches – yes, a dozen every day, but few real problems.
My breakdown of problems:
- Tactics. They did not change from being a platoon leader to battalion commander. They were simple, easy to understand, and very efficient when the principles were followed by good leaders.
- Weapons. We had good weapons, dependable. They were the same from platoon leader to battalion commander. As the unit responsibility increased, you had more firepower at your command but in using it the principles did not change.
- Terrain/Weather. They were variables that changed from day to day. They [sic] were problems in Normandy with the hedgerows. In Holland we had flat fields, drainage ditches, rain and mud. Bastogne – see Living Conditions. In Germany the Germans blew every single bridge as they retreated during those last days of the war in April and early May. Then a few weeks later they screamed because we could not get enough food to them in the valleys of Austria.
- Liquor. There was too much drinking. I never had any problem handing that. I could look any man straight in the eye and tell him to sober up. “We’ll have a party when the war’s over.”
- Food. This is an everday bitch by the men in garrison, in the field, or in combat. We managed remarkably well in combat. We lived off the land. In Normandy — cows, Holland, vegetables, fruits, Bastogne – here for two weeks we were really hurting. They did manage to find some beans in Bastogne that they were good enough to share with the troops on the line, but as Bastogne there were no cows. Some unites found bins of potatoes but the 506th had none.
- Personnel. Replacement of men and officers for casualties after Normandy, during the Holland campaign, after Holland and after Bastogne — now that was a problem.
You could write a book on that one problem. I could talk all day about my problems with this one subject. However, for the purpose of this letter I’ll share my thoughts on just one phase of the subject for the simple reason that I have a good, simple solution to the problem that I can express in a paragraph or two.
After Normandy each company had the opportunity of having one outstanding non-commissioned officer receive a battlefield commision [sic] to 2nd Lt. All these men were top-notch soldiers. They had joined us as recruits, worked their way up through the ranks to platoon sgts. and first sgts. They had won the respect of their men in training and proven themselves in combat.
After receiving their commissions each man was transferred to another company. The army logic for this is that you can’t have the officers too familiar with their men. This logic is O.K. if you are in garrison back in the States, going through periods of training. However, in combat that logic is flawed.
A few weeks after these new 2nd Lts. joined their companies we jumped into Holland. They did not have a chance to learn to known their men; the men did not have a chance to learn to know and trust them. They were strangers; there was not that mutual trust thay [sic] had with their old platoons. These new 2nd Lts. had to do something special, outstanding to gain the mutual trust they had had with their old companies.
The results are there for all to see. The facts don’t lie.
Lt. J. Diel — Sept. 19, Holland — Co. E 1st Sgt. transferred to Co. F. — thought he must walk around in front of his men on line at Vechel. He knew better than that. K.I.A.
Lt. R. Hudson — Oct., Holland — Co. A Plat. Sgt. to Co. E Platoon Leader. — W.I.A.
Lt. R. Schmitz — Sept. 22, Holland — Co. E. to Co. F. K.I.A. — Vechel — same reasons as Lt. Diel.
This same factor of proving oneself applies to replacement officers and men and of course, that often results in another casualty. But why transfer a proven junior officer to a new unit where he must prove himself again?
Normandy. [sic] On D-Day morning jumping into Normandy I lost all weapons/ammunition/extra clothes and food when the kneebag I was carrying tore loose from my parachute harness with the opening shock. Weapons and ammunition were not replaced until I found a dead trooper and took his gun and ammunition. Food was bummed from buddies.
Having received my baptism to fighting under enemy fire D-Day morning, I realized the wisdom they had taught us about traveling light, being able to move fast under fire. I did not pick up any extra clothes during the day . [sic] As evening approached and we were forming a line of defense outside of Ste. Marie du Mont, I picked up a few newspapers and put them in my pockets. Later that night when I finally had a chance to settle down I used the newspapers as a cover. I’ll never forget those Normandy mosquitoes glancing off the newspaper as they dive-bombed me during the night.
Bastogne. [sic] Ask any man who was at Bastogne for an account of his memories and the story will always start and end with the world “cold”! [sic] This was especially true for the men of the 506th P.I.R. We had a sector to defend that had absolutely no farmhouses, buildings, or shelter of any kind. (1) Other unites of the 101st who were located in Bastogne itself or along other sectors of the sixteen mile perimeter of the defensive line around the town, had the advantage of having farmhouses or a small village where they could retreat for a chance to get warm, dry their socks, get a cup of coffee.
(1) In 1996 there are still no buildings in this sector of our line.
The elevation of the ridge we were protecting was exactly the same elevation the Germans had in defending Noville to our front. This meant that any frontline troop movement could be observed by the Germans and our men could be put under direct enemy fire.
The men had no way to protect themselves from enemy fire other than to stay in their foxholes. And they had no way to protect themselves from the cold other than to massage their feet.
It was due to these living conditions in the extreme cold of Dec. and Jan. at Bastogne that one third of the casualties which the 506 suffered was from trench foot.
How cold was it? One night sitting scrunched up in my foxhole I suddenly had the feeling that the foxhole was closing in on men, getting smaller. Tensing my shoulders I started to rub back and forth along the sides of the foxhole, scraping off the ice flakes that had been closing in on me. That’s too cold for comfort.
Ethel and I are