Easy Company's natural-born leader
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.
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