Gone but not forgotten: tributes to Dick Winters keep coming

By on July 2, 2019

It was a simple tribute to a great man.

On the gravestone of Major Richard D. Winters at Bergstrasse Evangelical Lutheran Church cemetery lay a gold-trimmed U. S. Army medallion reading “For Excellence Presented by the Command Sergeant Major,” a rock from the peak of Mount Currahee in Georgia and a soft cover edition of the book “Band of Brothers,” the familiar name given to the group of soldiers Winters led during World War II.

These items are just the latest of a string of symbolic tributes lovingly left on the grave marker, often anonymously, by Winters’ fans and admirers since his death in 2011. Many of the items placed upon the marker are left by American citizens from across the nation, while others are from grateful residents from across the sea.

“Dear Major Winters,” one such letter reads. “I am here today with my wife to pay our respects to you sir, and to all the other brave young men of E Company. Thank you for what you did for the people of Europe. I will never forget your sacrifices for the world. Thank you sir! We salute you and your men. Arne and Marie from Sweden, September 14, 2018.”

Richard Davis Winters was born Jan. 21, 1918 and spent his early childhood in Ephrata at 41 E. Fulton St., the home of his grandmother Katherine Winters whose late husband had once owned the elegant Cocalico Hotel at Main and State streets (site of the post office today).

Although he later lived in Lancaster and Hershey, Winters always called Ephrata home. The linear rail trail was named for him in 2013. In 2015 a statue in his likeness became the centerpiece of the Winters Leadership Plaza on East Fulton Street, adjacent to his boyhood home and on the very ground where he played as a child.

An officer in the U.S. Army during World War II, Winters commanded Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. In 1992 the exploits of Winters and his men was the focus of a book by historian Stephen E. Ambrose called “Band Of Brothers.” In 2002 it became a 10-part HBO miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, winning 10

Emmys and converting Winters and his comrades into international celebrities. Winters himself would fly to Hollywood and receive the Emmy for Best Miniseries on national TV. For the rest of his life Winters would receive fan mail from around the globe.

Many items like these are just the latest of a string of symbolic tributes lovingly left on the grave marker of Major Dick Winters.

 

Often anonymously, the items have been placed here by Winters’ fans and admirers since his death in 2011.

 

Throughout his life Winters enjoyed speaking about his favorite topic, leadership, whether it was on TV with hosts like Charlie Rose, or before an audience of FBI agents in Washington D.C. But his favorite groups were kids where his message was simple; do the very best you can every day.

In later years and in declining health, Winters became reclusive. When he quietly died in January 2011, only six people attended the funeral; his wife, his children, their spouses, and his grandson.

Within a week word of his passing spread around the world through news reports and social media. As the location of his burial site became known, flags began appearing around his headstone so that, even today, there are seldom less than six and as many as ten flags. In addition, fans and admirers began placing items on the stone in tribute including patches, military pins and items symbolic of Winters’ past.

A note left on April 3, 2019 from “Gary and Linda D.” reads, “I brought back this rock from Currahee Mountain, Toccoa, Georgia, May you and your company rest in peace. I hiked up Currahee in Easy Company’s honor.” (Currahee is a mountain adjacent to the former parachute training camp near Toccoa, GA. As part of their conditioning Winters and the other men had to frequently run “three miles up and three miles down” its narrow, rutted trail.)

Items left on the stone include numerous 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagle” patches including the “Para-Dice” patch which depicts an eagle perched atop a large “O.” The “O” is flanked by two red dice showing a 5 and a 6. Taken all together they refer to the 506th Regiment.

There is also a cricket on a lanyard, the cricket being a metal toy the paratroopers carried on D-Day to differentiate friend from foe. In the pre-dawn darkness, one click of the cricket had to be answered by two clicks.

There is a Screaming Eagles patch commemorating the HBO movie and another that reads “First Coast Navy Fire & Emergency Services, NAS (Naval Air Station) Jacksonville and NS (Naval Station) Mayport.” Both are in Jacksonville, Florida.

Someone left a large cutout map of Idaho with a red heart drawn around the town of Hayden, and there is a set of bound uncorrected proofs for a book by Winters’ friend Col. Cole Kingseed called “Conversations with Major Dick Winters: Life Lessons From the Commander of the Band of Brothers.”

A few film canisters contain sand from Omaha Beach in Normandy, one of the D-Day landing sites, as well as soil from Brecourt Manor in France and Bastogne, Belgium, two places Winters saw combat.

There is a 9th Air Force shoulder patch and a modern-day Army captain’s hat.

Bergstrasse church secretary Jean Wilhelm said she recently received a phone call from a woman, possibly from Virginia, asking where Winters’ grave was located. The church used to have a map in a front window directing curious visitors to the site so they would not have to wander aimlessly around, but the map is gone. After she hung up, Wilhelm recalled the Winters statue on

East Fulton Street, so she emailed to lady.

“She was so grateful,” Wilhelm recalled.

Although he has been gone eight years, the grave continues to draw visitors. Bergstrasse Church currently stores the items in a box in the church office. Initially some sort of museum to house the artifacts had been considered, but for now no final decision has been made on their ultimate disposition, Wilhelm said.

So the tributes continue to accumulate. A carved wooden cross bears a painted American flag and the legend “God Bless America.” There are numerous loose coins, a compass, an Army National

Guard pencil, various medallions – some religious some secular – an Airborne dog tag, a pin reading F&Mily (Winters was an F&M College graduate), a set of captain’s bars, and airborne jump wings. In addition to these loose trinkets there’s a large plastic zippered bag bulging with a mish-mosh of badges and patches.

Some visitors are content to leave written tributes.

“Dear Richard Winters,” writes Meghan Yurkiewicz, residence unknown, “I’m not sure where to start but I guess I’ll start with saying this. I have never met you and you have no idea who I am but you are one of my heroes.” She goes on at length from there.

Vincent Fisher of Dayton Ohio wrote, “I came here today to thank you for your service to this great nation. You and your generation did so much for the world and the United States of America.”

But the one Winters might find most fulfilling is from Herman Achterhuis, who wrote, “Thank you sir on behalf of many free Dutch citizens.”
Freedom. That was what Winters and his men fought for.

Larry Alexander is a correspondent and columnist for The Ephrata Review. 

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