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Central figure in 'Band of Brothers' dead at 92

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
Richard "Dick" Winters died January 2 and was buried after a private funeral Saturday.
Richard "Dick" Winters died January 2 and was buried after a private funeral Saturday.
  • The mini-series "Band of Brothers" told the story of Easy Company
  • Richard "Dick" Winters was a young officer with Easy Company
  • He led the company from D-Day toward the end of World War II
  • Winters would have turned 93 in February

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Washington (CNN) -- Richard "Dick" Winters, a decorated hero of World War II and the central figure in the book and miniseries "Band of Brothers," has died. He would have turned 93 years old in February.

Winters died January 2 and was buried after a private funeral Saturday, according to retired Army Col. Cole Kingseed, a close friend and co-author of Winters' memoirs.

Winters began his career in the Army shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, and he volunteered to become a paratrooper, according to his wartime memoirs "Beyond Band of Brothers."

He was assigned to E Company, more commonly known as Easy Company, of the 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

After months of training in the new tactic of soldiers dropping by parachute behind enemy lines, Winters and the men of Easy Company parachuted into Normandy hours before the first troops hit Omaha and Utah beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

When he landed he discovered he'd lost his "leg bag," the satchel carrying all his weapons, when he jumped out of the plane.

He was behind enemy lines on the most decisive day of World War II with nothing but a knife.

"I later discovered that in our small contingent from Easy Company, we all lost our leg bags and ended up using whatever weapons he could scrounge," Winters wrote in his memoirs. "This was a hell of a way to begin a war."

Still, within hours he organized a small group of troopers to attack a German artillery position. They took out nearly two dozen Nazi soldiers and four large cannons which had been firing on American troops landing on the beaches.

His actions that day earned Winters the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest medal for valor in the U.S. military. There is still an effort underway to have that medal upgraded to a Medal of Honor, an action the humble Winters never supported.

Kingseed said Winters told him, referring to the men he commanded in Europe, that "war does not make men great, but sometimes, war brings out the greatness in men."

D-Day also cost Easy Company the life of its commander, which put then-Lt. Winters in command of the unit.

He later led his men through Operation Market Garden, a major allied offensive in Holland in September 1944.

In December of the year, Easy Company and the rest of the 101st were ordered to hold back a German offensive around the town of Bastogne in Belgium. Surrounded by Nazi troops and tanks and facing bitter cold with no winter clothing and limited food rations, Winters and the rest of the 101st held back the Germans and, along with other allied units, eventually repelled the enemy offensive.

After leading his men in battle all the way into Germany, Easy Company eventually was assigned to occupy the "Eagles Nest" -- Hitler's mountaintop retreat near the Austrian/German border.

A short time later, Winters left the Army with the rank of major and never saw combat again. He went on to become a successful businessman and a public speaker.

Kingseed, who considered Winters his best friend, said he "epitomized the citizen soldier" who won World War II.

Gen. David Petraeus, who has commanded the 101st Airborne Division during his career, said in a statement on Monday that "Major Winters embodied the very best of what a leader and soldier should be. He and the men of Easy Company lived the "brotherhood of the close fight."

"The deeds of Dick Winters and his men from Easy Company will always live on," Petraeus said.

Steven Spielberg, the Hollywood mogul who produced the "Band of Brothers" mini-series, issued a release Monday saying in part, "Dick Winters was at the vanguard of representing 'The Greatest Generation' in bringing honor to all his Band of Brothers." Spielberg said Winters "would not have wanted this credit. He would have simply asked all of us to never forget how his generation served this nation and the world in WWII."

Reaction also came from Tom Hanks, who co-produced the series, and from the actor who played Winters in "Band of Brothers."

"When our days run their course and a man like Dick Winters leaves us, time and providence remind us that human beings can do giant things," Hanks said in a statement. "Dick Winters volunteered to go to war, leading paratroopers into unknown, yet certain, dangers. He led by both command and example; his wartime philosophy was simple -- 'Follow me.'"

Actor Damian Lewis, who portrayed Winters in the series, told CNN that Winters' support for him during the production was "generous and unstinting. I'll never forget his rallying cry to me to 'hang tough!'

"He has died quietly, in private, without fanfare and with the same modesty that he lived his life as one of the true heroes of his generation," Lewis added.

Winters did not make any money off his memoirs or the speeches he gave later in his life. His royalties from the book went to a variety of organizations, including veterans groups, breast-cancer research organizations and the Ronald McDonald house in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he lived for years.

His family is planning a public memorial service for Winters in the near future.

In the meantime, his family is asking that in remembrance of Winters, donations can be sent to any veterans hospital.

Winters is survived by his wife, Ethel, and a son, a daughter and a grandson.