January 11, 2011 (New Orleans, LA) – Among the weapons, uniforms, scrapbooks and other historic artifacts in the collection of The National World War II Museum, curators have discovered a series of special letters penned by Major Richard “Dick” Winters, an iconic veteran of the War whose recent death has drawn worldwide attention. The letters speak to the close friendship between Winters and the historian with whom he shared a wealth of experiences from the War, the Museum’s founder Stephen Ambrose.
Museum registrar Toni Kiser came across the letters as the Museum prepared to honor Winters with a display of artifacts related to Company E, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, more famously known as “Easy Company.” The company, which Winters commanded from D-Day to V-E Day, was immortalized by Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers and later the Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries.
Artifacts from Winters’ Airborne unit will be on display on the ground floor of the Museum’s Louisiana Pavilion through January 31.
A tribute to Winters will be posted on the Museum’s website, www.nationalww2museum.org, and will include a lengthy sample from the letters, which, while familiar to Ambrose, had not been consulted by curators or other researchers in the years since Ambrose’s death in 2002.
“It was really exciting to re-visit these and see how personal the relationship was between Ambrose and Winters,” said Kiser, “but also amazing to see how giving he was with his time and how willing he was to share all aspects of his story.”
In one letter from August 12, 1996, Winters responded to a request from Ambrose to talk about the strain of being a commanding officer, problems he had to overcome and living conditions faced by soldiers in combat. Listing qualities he believed a good leader must exhibit, Winters wrote, “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.”
He went on to say, “To accomplish this, you must be like a good mother taking care of her children. You must set a good 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 of 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 leader, Winters said, can be found in “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.’”
Museum President and CEO Dr. Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller recalls that Stephen Ambrose’s relationship with Winters began in the 1980s when Ambrose learned that Winters and other Easy Company veterans were holding a reunion in New Orleans and, joined by a graduate assistant, began gathering their oral histories on the spot. As years passed, Winters and Ambrose communicated frequently. “The relationship and friendship were very close up until the time of Stephen’s death,” Mueller said.
The collection contains eight letters to Ambrose, Tom Hanks, who produced Band of Brothers, and other contacts detailing not only his experiences but also his dedication to ensuring that the actions of his and other units were portrayed accurately in the production.
The Museum also has in its collection original audio tapes in which Ambrose interviewed Winters for more than 13 hours in 1990. The letters and tapes are available to researchers, on an appointment basis, through the Museum’s Collections and Exhibits Department.
Visitors to the Normandy permanent in the Museum’s main galleries can hear excerpts from a two-hour oral history interview Winters recorded prior to the Museum’s 2000 opening.
Major Richard “Dick” Winters died on January 2 at the age of 92.
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world – why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today. Dedicated in 2000 as The National D-Day Museum and now designated by Congress as America’s National World War II Museum, it celebrates the American Spirit, the teamwork, optimism, courage and sacrifice of the men and women who fought on the battlefront and the Home Front. For more information, call 877-813-3329 or 504-528-1944 or visit www.nationalww2museum.org. Follow us on Twitter at WWIImuseum or visit our Facebook fan page