PART ONE

Band of Brothers

From this day to the ending of the world . . .

We in it shall be remembered . . .

We gallant few, we band of brothers.

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, Henry V

1

Beginnings

I am still haunted by the names and faces of young men, young airborne troopers who never had the opportunity to return home after the war and begin their lives anew. Like most veterans who have shared the hardship of combat, I live with flashbacks—distant memories of an attack on a battery of German artillery on D-Day, an assault on Carentan, a bayonet attack on a dike in Holland, the cold of Bastogne. The dark memories do not recede; you live with them and they become a part of you. Each man must conquer fear in himself. I have a way of looking at war that I have stuck with in combat and the six decades since the war. I look at those soldiers who were wounded in action as lucky because they often had a ticket to return home. The war was over for them. The rest of us would have to keep on fighting, day in and day out. And if you had a man who was killed, you looked at him and hoped that he had found peace in death. I’m not sure whether they were fortunate or unfortunate to get out of the war so early. So many men died so that others could live. No one understands why.

To find a quiet peace is the dream of every soldier. For some it takes longer than others. In my own experience I have discovered that it is far easier to find quiet than to find peace. True peace must come from within oneself. As my wartime buddies join their fallen comrades at an alarming rate, distant memories resurface. The hard times fade and the flashbacks go back to friendly times, to buddies with whom I shared a unique bond, to men who are my brothers in every sense of the word. I live with these men every day. The emotions remain intense. Here is my story set against the backdrop of war and among the finest collection of men I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.

I was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on January 21, 1918, the son of Richard and Edith Winters. At the time of my birth, my family lived in New Holland, a small town near Lancaster. We moved to Ephrata while I was young and then settled in Lancaster when I was eight years old. What I recall most vividly from my youth was that I was scared to death to go to school and of the strangers around me. By the time I attended junior high school, I had finally adjusted to my changing environment and began to exhibit some leadership talent. The school’s principal took a liking to me and I became a school-crossing guard. I guess this was the first time that I was in a position to exhibit any leadership. Reading and geography were always my favorite subjects. I was an average student academically and enjoyed high school athletics, particularly football, basketball, and wrestling. My dad worked as a foreman for Edison Electric Company. For forty dollars a week, Dad labored tirelessly to provide for his family and to ensure we had the necessities of life. He was a good father, who frequently took me to baseball games in Philadelphia and in the neighboring communities. I had a wonderful mother—very conservative. She came from a Mennonite family, but never converted to that faith. Honesty and discipline were driven into my head from day one. Not surprisingly, Mother was undoubtedly one of the most influential people in my life. A mother takes a child; she nurtures him, she instills discipline, and she teaches respect. My mother was the first one up every morning; she prepared breakfast for me and my sister, Ann; and she was the last one to bed every evening. In many respects she was the ideal company commander and subconsciously, I’m sure I patterned my own leadership abilities on this remarkable woman. In my early days at home, she had always impressed on me to respect women, and my father had repeatedly told me that if I were going to drink, I should drink at home. I made up my mind, however, that I wasn’t going to drink, and I have never lost my respect for women.

My early heroes were Babe Ruth and Milton S. Hershey, who had recently established a chocolate empire near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Every American boy admired Babe Ruth, the most popular ballplayer of his era. As for Hershey, he was not only a shrewd and determined businessman, he was also a great philanthropist. Born in 1857 on a farm in central Pennsylvania, Hershey believed wealth should be used for the benefit of others. He used his chocolate fortune for two major projects: the development of the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, in 1903 and the establishment of the Hershey Industrial School for orphaned boys in 1909. Now known as the Milton Hershey School, the school’s original deed of trust stipulated that “all orphans admitted to the School shall be fed with plain, wholesome food; plainly, neatly, and comfortably clothed, and fitly lodged. . . . The main object is to train young men to useful trades and occupations, so that they can earn their own livelihood.” Any man who would dedicate his life to doing something for orphans had to be a good man. I admired Hershey tremendously.

Growing up during the Great Depression was hard, but Lancaster County provided sufficient jobs for most of the residents. Lancaster lies in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, where the residents developed a work ethic that stemmed from our heritage and our religious affiliation to the Mennonite and the Amish backgrounds. This work ethic rubs off and it accounts for the fact that each day, you strive to do your best.

I graduated from Lancaster Boys High School in 1937 and matriculated to Franklin & Marshall College, where I finally buckled down and studied harder than I had ever studied in high school. While going to school, I naturally did a great deal of reading. The subjects ran from poetry and literature to philosophy, ethics, religion, sociology, psychology, and all the other subjects associated with a liberal education. To defray college expenses, I earned money for tuition by cutting grass, working in a grocery store, and in what might have been prophetic of my future career with the paratroopers, painting high-tension towers for Edison Electric Company. Studies, work, and the ever-present lack of funds did not provide much opportunity for running around, but I did have a great deal of time to spend with my inner thoughts and ideas stimulated by reading. In June 1941, I graduated tops in the business school and earned a bachelor’s degree in science and economics.

Rather than having the draft interrupt a promising business career, I immediately volunteered for the U.S. Army. Under the Selective Training and Service Act recently enacted by Congress, each man was required to serve one year of military service. It was my intention to serve my time, and then be free of my commitment to the military. My official entry date was August 25, 1941. Though I felt a strong sense of duty, I had no desire to get into the war currently raging in Europe. I preferred to stay out of it, and I was hoping the United States would remain neutral. Volunteering for military service was merely the quickest way to rid myself of compulsory service. I had already decided not to volunteer for anything, to do the minimum work required, and to return home to Lancaster as soon as my year was up. As the day approached for me to join the army, I expressed my intention to just pass my time to my foreman at Edison Electric, who was a former military man. He jumped on me and told me in no uncertain terms to do my best every day and not to become a slacker. In the years ahead, I sent him a note through my father and thanked him for straightening me out.

September found me at Camp Croft, South Carolina, where I underwent basic training. Pay for a private was $21.00 a month, a far cry from what I had been receiving prior to my enlistment. Military life suited me, but my initial months in the U.S. Army were characterized by long periods of boredom punctuated by brief interruptions of spirited activity. When the majority of the battalion deployed to Panama in early December, I remained at Croft to train incoming draftees and volunteers. I still enjoyed reading, but since I had been in the army, I had not been able to enjoy the luxury of the dreams and aspirations that characterized my youth. The army managed to take up a large portion of the twenty-four-hour day, and by the end of each day, my body was half-dead and my brain stopped functioning about the time that Retreat sounded. If anything, my career was aimlessly drifting.

My world changed dramatically the following Sunday when our unit received news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I first heard of the attack while on a weekend furlough at the Biltmore Estate outside Asheville, North Carolina. After the initial shock wore off, my next reaction was somewhat selfish as I realized that I was going to be in the army for more than one year. Everyone clearly understood that he was now in service for the duration of the war and that before too long, each of us would deploy to a combat theater of operations. None of us was exactly sure how each was going to be affected, with the exception that all of us had that empty feeling in the bottom of our stomachs that the country had been attacked without provocation. My duties as a trainer changed dramatically now that the nation was at war. Now that the army had a definite purpose, the cadence around camp quickly accelerated. Officers cracked down on us, proclaiming no Christmas furloughs, censoring mail. Everything now went according to wartime law. The changes gave me an eerie feeling at first, but when I looked at it from a different perspective, I did not feel too badly; the sooner we retaliated against Japan, the quicker the war would be over.

In retrospect, the U.S. Army was totally unprepared for the war in which it was about to embark. Two weeks after the Japanese attack, supply sergeants at Camp Croft collected all our gas masks and shipped them to the Pacific Coast in anticipation of a possible Japanese assault on the California coast. I could not help but think that a few insignificant masks—training masks, no less—would not have much effect on the outcome of the war. Before the reality of war totally transformed the army, I hitchhiked home to Lancaster to enjoy a ten-day furlough with my family.

In mid January, the army picked up its pace and rapidly transitioned from a peacetime establishment to a wartime military force. Six-day weeks gave way to seven-day workweeks. This gave me the opportunity to observe some of the officers more carefully. Most of the officers at Camp Croft had come directly from the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), including my platoon leader. Neither he nor the other platoon leaders knew their jobs. My frustration reached new heights one rainy day when a lieutenant came to teach our platoon about the new M-1 Garand 30-06 semiautomatic rifle, which the army was just fielding. In giving the nomenclature and the operation of the new weapon, he picked up a 1903 Springfield rifle and spent forty-five minutes talking about the M-1. The lieutenant didn’t even realize he wasn’t holding an M-1. I thought this was impossible as no leader could be this dense.

I knew that I was a better man than most of the officers whom I had met, so I flirted with joining the commissioned ranks. I was already exploring the possibility of attending Officers Candidate School (OCS), when our commanding officer asked me if I would be interested in becoming an officer. I was very fortunate to be selected since at the time I was only a private and most commanders were picking noncommissioned officers (NCO) who were career soldiers and who had considerably more experience than I had. Things proceeded rapidly from that point. After filling out an application, I breezed through another physical examination and went before a board of officers. I had hoped to have a few hours to prepare for the interview, but I was told to report that afternoon. I tried to be as confident as possible and evidently succeeded because I received orders to attend a three-week preparatory course at Camp Croft for officer candidates.

Competition in the course was stiff and I certainly had to work to make the grade, for just about everybody attending the course was at least a sergeant, while I was a temporary corporal. I felt like an innocent babe in the woods when I compared myself to these seasoned NCOs. What I lacked in experience, however, I compensated by studying. The one advantage I had over the other officer candidates was a college education, and I clearly understood the importance of study and doing my homework.

The course itself was very broad. The directors of the intelligence, communications, and heavy weapons schools delivered comprehensive lectures to the class during the first few days. By the end of three weeks we received a detailed summary about every aspect of the army. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the preparatory course and enjoyed the opportunity to acquire additional training before reporting to Fort Benning, Georgia. By keeping my nose to the grindstone, I finished the course with flying colors. The only question remaining was to which OCS class I would be assigned. Until I received definitive orders, I remained at Camp Croft.

As I awaited news of my next assignment, I briefly considered an offer to transfer to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to attend OCS as a member of the Armored Corps. Here was a chance to put an end to all the suspense and to get going quickly so I could leave in a few days. After thinking it over and asking the advice of the other officers, I decided against their common advice and decided to stick with the Infantry. I already had seven months of background in the ground service, and the thirteen weeks at Fort Benning would give me a background sturdy enough to enable me to carry my head high. In the Armored Corps, I’d be taking it cold and I was darned if I wanted to be an officer if I couldn’t be a good one. On April 6, I received news that I’d be leaving Camp Croft for the class that started the following day.

Fort Benning, nestled in the red hills outside Columbus, Georgia, is a picturesque military post. Benning was an old army camp with modern facilities. Trees lined the wide streets and brick barracks contained modern furniture and reading rooms. Officer candidates were housed in wooden barracks, like at Croft, but the post was far cleaner than what I had experienced. The food wasn’t plentiful, but it had a certain quality; in fact, it was nearly as good as home cooking.

The equipment used in the course was complete and the best possible. Every time I’d turn around there was a tank going by, somebody jumping from an airplane or off the jump tower that had been constructed for parachute troops. I was particularly impressed with the paratroopers who ran around Fort Benning at an airborne shuffle. Their cadence reflected a military unit with a high degree of morale and enthusiasm.

Within a few days of looking things over, I planned to ask my parents if they cared if I joined the paratroopers after I received my commission. When I finally announced my intentions, I received a strong veto, and many more from friends and neighbors. I had usually taken my parents’ advice, but this time I was determined to trust my own judgment. The more I looked at the paratroopers, the more I was inclined to join them as soon as I graduated from OCS. Of all the outfits I’d seen at Fort Benning, they were the best looking and most physically fit. After ten months of infantry training, I realized my survival would depend on the men around me. Airborne troopers looked like I had always pictured a group of soldiers: hard, lean, bronzed, and tough. When they walked down the street, they appeared to be a proud and cocky bunch exhibiting a tolerant scorn for anyone who was not airborne. So I took it in my head that I’d like to work with a bunch of men of that caliber. The paratroopers were the best soldiers at the infantry school and I wanted to be with the best, not with the sad sacks that I had frequently seen on post.

In addition, the physical training appealed to me: lots of running—five miles before breakfast, and every place they went during the day. The only thing holding me back was my swimming. I was no flash at that angle and it was a requirement to join the paratroopers. Another selling point was the pay of an airborne 2d lieutenant, $268 a month, which wasn’t bad while it lasted. Still, I would have to be accepted, as all the paratroopers were volunteers and they were handpicked to join the elite airborne forces. I reckoned that was why they were so damn good. In the event that I was accepted into the paratroopers, it would mean another month at Fort Benning and then on to an advanced airborne school for parachute officers.

The officer candidate course itself proved physically and mentally demanding, but not as difficult as I had anticipated. Officer candidate school in 1942 was a rudimentary course conceptualized by Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and implemented by Brigadier General Omar N. Bradley, the commandant of the Infantry School. Officer candidates attended classes and conducted field exercises six days a week, being off Saturday afternoon and Sunday. Classes focused on the essentials of combat leadership and familiarity on weapons systems, infantry tactics, and general military subjects. Following the ordinary training day, we studied an average of two hours every night. After a few weeks the cadre conducted an evaluation to determine which candidates would probably be the best officers and surprisingly, this old private won over the more seasoned NCOs.

One of the peculiarities of OCS was that the cadre was so strict. For almost eight months at Camp Croft, I had never been gigged for any infraction during daily inspections. In April, however, I was cited for two minor deficiencies during a barracks inspection. That was good compared to the average candidate, who received one almost daily. We had to have our shoes exactly in position, uniforms spaced equidistant on hangers, and the fold in blankets 7 inches instead of 6 inches. The cadre went around with rulers during every inspection. They ran us ragged daily and we studied like fools each and every night. Missing a formation resulted in dismissal from the course. The transportation to and from Columbus was so inadequate that I resigned myself to remain on post and study for three months, to see an occasional movie, and to eat some ice cream.

Classes covered a myriad of military topics, ranging from demonstrations on the functions of supply to firepower demonstrations on fortifications with tanks and trucks. Each week the officers and noncommissioned officers told us the next week would be the toughest yet, and they always spoke the truth. Within two weeks we had what was supposed to be the toughest test we would have while we were at Benning. The subject was map reading, but after college, the examination seemed like a true-and-false test. I was not worried in the least about studies, but I studied just for my own satisfaction. Marches increased in length and duration and much more time was spent in the field and on the firing ranges. The range demonstration that perked my interest was one that had been designed to fire machine guns over the heads of our own troops and to hit the enemy. We also learned how to aim at one target and hit another, the idea being that you could still score a hit if a smoke screen had been laid to obscure the principal target. Two weeks prior to graduation we completed the weapons portion of the course and I was not sorry, for all I had been thinking about were lugs, cams, operating rods, gas-operated, and recoil-operated firing mechanisms.

After considerable time on the firing ranges, we began tactical training, which I particularly enjoyed because I could use my head once again. During one field problem, we observed a battalion in the attack at a river line as a company of engineers constructed a footbridge, a vehicle bridge, and a ferry under fire, cover of smoke, and fire from airplanes. In retrospect, I characterized the course as a thirteen-week marathon in the Georgia swamps. As the course neared completion, my ambition remained with joining the airborne troopers and the more I learned about the infantry, the more I was sold on the fact that I wanted no part of it. Stories circulated throughout Fort Benning that 50 percent of the infantry either died from disease resulting from living in the filth or from casualties on the front lines. After observing firsthand the life a doughboy lived, I thought a doughboy had to be crazy.

During my time at OCS one of the officer candidates caught my attention. Lewis Nixon was the son of privilege and wealth. Born September 30, 1918, Nixon was the grandson of the last man to design a battleship as an individual. Educated at Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Nix” was far more educated than most of the members of the class. A world traveler, he returned to the family-run Nixon Nitration Works, a converted industry that manufactured cellulose nitrate to be used in tubing for pens, pencils, sheets for playing cards, and covers for eyeglass frames. Nixon entered military service at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and completed basic training at Camp Croft. Nixon was a hard drinker, a free spirit who enjoyed the wild life and partied with the best of them. On the surface no two individuals were more diametrically opposed in temperament than Nixon and I. I was a confirmed teetotaler and never swore. I preferred a quiet evening in the barracks to the nightlife of Columbus, Georgia, or neighboring Phenix City, Alabama. Despite the differences in lifestyle, I sensed we shared mutual feelings and ways of looking at life. I could understand him and help him understand me, as well as understand himself. Our friendship evolved naturally, and he soon became my closest friend. Lewis Nixon was the finest combat officer with whom I served under fire. He was utterly dependable and totally fearless.

As we neared graduation, I found myself not very excited about the prospect of ending this phase of my career. It was the most despondent that I had felt since my last furlough. This time it was a combination of not knowing where or what my next assignment would be and if I would get my next leave. If I was accepted by the paratroopers, I could be ordered to report the day following graduation. If not, it might be sealed orders, which meant no leave, and then proceed directly to a combat theater. The uncertainty was killing me.

Our OCS class graduated on July 2, 1942. My overall impression of the course was that it had been fairly easy, and while it had not been exactly a vacation, I had enjoyed the experience. We now entered a charmed class, a distinct social class within the army. We now commanded respect and authority. It was the dream of every private from the day he enlisted in the army and we were just about to reach out and grasp it. Minor items now seemed more important, such as the purchase of uniforms. Distinctive officer uniforms had been arriving the past few days and our barracks looked like a fashion show with the men parading around, flashing bars, decorations, and smiles. Even the fact that in three days some of us would be heading for combat made no difference. I determined that was the way to be, to live and let live. At times, however, it was hard to convince myself that I was now a commissioned officer.

With graduation, I was honorably discharged from the United States Army at the convenience of the government in order to accept a formal commission of a second lieutenant. Following lunch at the officers club, we were free to go our own way, though few of us had actual assignments. Nixon was assigned duty at Fort Ord, California, and attached to the military police unit on post. With no immediate openings in the paratroopers, I returned to Camp Croft to train another contingent that had recently arrived. As an officer I didn’t last long at Croft: about five weeks to be exact, before receiving orders to report to the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, at Camp Toombs, Georgia. At first I hated to leave Camp Croft for I was well acquainted with my old outfit and the new company to which I had been recently assigned. I still had four soldiers from home in my platoon, including one with whom I had gone to college and wrestled while in school. None of us let a little brass come between us. Other officers frowned on my relation with the enlisted men, but it didn’t bother me at all. I worked darn hard on that platoon and just before I departed, they all qualified on the firing ranges, with the exception of two soldiers. Before I departed Croft, the platoon gave me a Shaffer pen and pencil set as a token of their esteem. Then I left, leaving a camp that held many fond memories.

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