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Easy Company's natural-born leader

Becky Shambaugh
Pennsylvania native and journalist Larry Alexander grew up on the same street in the same town as Major Dick Winters, three decades later.

He is the author of the May 2010 book, In the Footsteps of Band of Brothers, in addition to Shadows in the Jungle and the national bestseller, The Biggest Brother.

On Thursday, Oct. 5, 1944, Capt. Dick Winters, commander of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, faced a monumental decision. He and about 35 men were lying in a shallow ditch, a mile or so east of the small Dutch town of Heteren. Half a mile to their left was the Rhine River, while on their immediate right flank was the Randwijkse Rijndijk, a road set atop a dike, leading to the town of Randwijk about a mile to Winters' rear.

Some 300 yards ahead was the Rekumsa Veerweg, another road mounted on a dike that led toward a ferry crossing to the Rhine, then to the village of Rekumsa, just visible over the river. Beyond the Rekumsa Veerweg dike were German soldiers. How many, Winters did not know. But he knew they were there. And they knew where he was as well.

Winters' dilemma was simple. He was in a terribly vulnerable position. Any time they chose, the Germans could move along the Randwijkse Rijndijk, which was 40 feet higher than the field the Americans were in, and pour a withering fire down upon the GIs, fire that they would be helpless to defend against.

Nor could Winters withdraw. First of all, dawn was breaking and German observers across the river would spot him and call down artillery fire. Secondly, and more important, if these Germans were part of an attacking force, he and his men were all that protected the rear of his battalion headquartered at nearby Hemmen.

At that moment, even though he did not know the enemy's strength, he made a clear decision: risk all and attack. Winters' gamble was successful. At a cost of one dead and 18 wounded, the 35 GIs surprised and routed two entire companies of SS troopers, killing 50 and capturing 11, in what Winters would forever call the Easy Company's "best day."

The attack that dreary October day is a prime example of what sets Winters apart from other officers and makes him one of World War II's finest small-unit leaders. Not only did Winters order Easy Company to attack in the face of uncertain odds, he was the first man out of the ditch and across the field. "When you're a leader, you lead," he once told me. "That means not just on the easy jobs, but the tough ones as well."

He chalked up his success that day not just to his own firm resolve, but also to surprisingly poor leadership on the German side. "They were poorly led," Winters told me. "There's no other reason that they would have allowed us to lie out there in that ditch almost totally unmolested, for about an hour, then attack and take them under fire from the rear. With the firepower they had, they could have come along the road on top of the dike and taken us on the flank, and we'd have been sitting ducks. They would have swept us away. They never should have allowed me to get out of that ditch."

Dick Winters was one of those rare military men -- a natural-born leader whose skill did not come from a West Point textbook but from within himself. Sitting in a room with Dick Winters, you know, without anyone telling you, that he is in charge. His very being exudes leadership. It's a part of his character. And he knows how to spot leadership potential in others.

"The qualities you look for in a leader include: Does the individual have the respect of the men? How do you get the respect of the men? By living with them, being a part of it, being able to understand what they are going through and not to separate yourself from them. You have to know your men. You have to gain their confidence. And the way to gain the confidence of anybody, whether it's in war or civilian life or whatever, you must be honest. Be honest, be fair and be consistent. You can't be honest and fair one day, and the next, give your people the short end of the stick. Once you can achieve that, you will be a leader."

Winters looked for those qualities, not just within himself, but in the men under him. The result was that many of the men, especially the veterans, took on leadership roles within their platoons and squads, making Easy Company a strong, tightly knit and potent fighting force.

Even today, the war long behind him Winters looks for qualities of strength and leadership in people, especially young people he meets. His favorite motto -- "Hang tough" -- means doing one's best at all times and in all situations. "I tell the young people, every morning, get up and look in the mirror, and tell the person you see there, 'Today I am going to do the very best job I can,'" he said. The smart ones listen.

By Larry Alexander

 |  May 4, 2010; 4:44 PM ET |  Category:  Books , Military leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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It's not too difficult from reading the comments who you'd share a foxhole with and not. Capt. Winters was a true American war hero, anyone who ever wore a uniform would have followed him into any situation. Only a meallimouth would be dumb enough to compare him to Custar. He comes out of the same strain of men like Washington, Grant, Sherman, Black Jack Pershing and IKE.

Posted by: johnturkal1 | May 8, 2010 7:38 PM

Major Winters had a distinct advantage over any leader today

Major Winters does npt have a tterrorist teabagger party complaining about everything, including successful missions

if Major Winters led the same patrol today, lushbp limpball would have questioned Major Winters' intelligence for leading his troops into a bad position in the first place

and glen beck would question Major Winters patriotism, because of the aforementioned bad position

the the attck led by Winters was successful would not matter a but

some republootard would say that Winters
just got lucky"

the problem with the teabagger terrorists and the republootards is that nobody would turn thier backs on that bukch of back stabbing idiots

Posted by: nada85484 | May 8, 2010 12:18 AM

Not very many of us have had the opportunity to visit the spots in Europe where Dick Winters repeatedly demonstrated his superb leadership.

But Washington Post readers have the opportunity to visit Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Stand there, where ex-Bowdoin College professor Joshua Chamberlain decided to attack -- because he could not retreat. Every now and then, America produces especially gifted leaders that we can all draw sustenance from.

Neither of these men were professional soldiers, but both led their men in intense combat very, very well because they were competent, confident, and genuinely cared about their troops.

Posted by: RetiredSoldier | May 7, 2010 9:39 PM

"Custer pulled a similar stunt at Little Big Horn in 1876 and he and his men paid a terrible price when "decisive" action proved a big mistake. Moral of the story. Leadership is greatly admired when it works."

The difference of course is that Custer placed himself in that position. Winters WAS placed In that position and led his way out of it. In other words, Custer led his way into that position while Winters led his way out. Big difference.

Posted by: clamb1 | May 7, 2010 9:31 PM

". Not only did Winters order Easy Company to attack in the face of uncertain odds, he was the first man out of the ditch and across the field. "When you're a leader, you lead," he once told me. "That means not just on the easy jobs, but the tough ones as well."..........
Custer pulled a similar stunt at Little Big Horn in 1876 and he and his men paid a terrible price when "decisive" action proved a big mistake. Moral of the story. Leadership is greatly admired when it works.

Posted by: slim2 | May 7, 2010 9:00 PM

I could only conclude that she was an
Affirmative Action O-6 whom the Army could not
find another assignment for."

That sort of guess is why she's a bird colonel and you are almost-certainly not. Just guessing but I'm probably not.

The thing is, I don't have to "conclude" that you're an idiot as the result of affirmative-action. I can just read your post and "conclude" that.

Posted by: dubya1938 | May 7, 2010 8:55 PM

I sat in a briefing a few weeks ago given
to an important delegation visiting our Command.

The lead U.S. representative was a bird Colonel,
a black female who seemed totally out of her league. I could only conclude that she was an
Affirmative Action O-6 whom the Army could not
find another assignment for.

The cream doesn't always rise to the top, unfortunately, in today's military.

Posted by: kerrd | May 7, 2010 8:31 PM

What I value in this example is that Winters measured all options and chose the best one--even though it was less-than-even money that he would succeed. A lesser leader would have seen the situation as "no-win" and just sat there because all the options were bad. Winters chose the "best of the worst" and went ahead.

Posted by: richardcdouglas | May 7, 2010 8:30 PM

On the flight back from deployment in Iraq we were crammed into the back of the plane. Up front, the officers and senior enlisted had five seats each so that they could sleep on the 14 hr flight home. Just one example of the poor leadership I experienced when the training stopped and the real war started. I was so disgusted with my command I put in my retirement papers as soon as I got home. Not all officers proved to be Bozos, but we accomplished our mission in spite of the leadership, not because of it.

Posted by: drees1956 | May 7, 2010 6:51 PM

Thank you Winters, and thank you Tom Hanks/Speilberg et al and the superb cast of Band of Brothers that let me envision how brave and courageous and selfless your generation was.

Posted by: Pillai | May 7, 2010 5:20 PM

A perfect example of 'leading from the front' and inspiring the men under your command.

But will today's military and civilian bureaucracy promote such excellent small-unit leaders to become large-unit leaders with more responsibility? Yes, but probably only if they meet ethnic quotas.

We can hope that general Ricardo Sanchez was chosen because he was the most qualified to command the Coalition Ground forces in Iraq at a critical time when the insurgency was just beginning.

But when push comes to shove and you really do need to get the job done, then perhaps it's best to ignore quotas and choose someone with the qualifications of a David Petraeus.

Posted by: BabeintheWoods | May 7, 2010 4:18 PM

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