Friday, July 20, 2012

Memorializing Major Winters

Remembrance Through Popular History

Earlier this week, I had the chance to visit the Hershey Derry Township Historical Society while driving through that area of Pennsylvania.  I was aware of their newest exhibit dedicated to one of the area's best known residents: Major Dick Winters, commander of E Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne in WWII.  Depicted in Stephen Ambrose's bestseller Band of Brothers and the immensely successful miniseries of the same name, Dick Winters has become the symbolic hero of the American effort in the Second World War.  Around the time of his passing in 2011, the local historical society established a permanant display to his memory. 

The interior of the exhibit features a recreation of Maj. Winter's home office, including his many accolades, memorabilia, books, and actual desk (with coffee stains and all).  Being the WWII nerd that I am, I naturally found the exhibit quite compelling and insightful, sitting at his desk myself.  From this desk, Ambrose conducted his interviews with Winters and the major wrote his own memoirs.  The exhibit is by far the museum's largest and is also the primary reason many travel to the site.  This only adds another dimension to an already rich legacy of books, art, films, and tributes to the commander.  What can this reveal to us?

Maj. Winters has become the superstar of American WWII History.  So much so that he has even been featured on a box of Wheaties cereal, with him being deemed "Champion for the Band of Brothers."  Such is the power popular written histories and movie depictions can have in what we know and appreciate about the past.  I refer to this pattern as the "Joshua Chamberlain Affect."  Just as the Civil War colonel Chamberlain rose to saintlike status following the movie Gettysburg, so too did Winters following cinematic depiction.  What people know about history, they often learn through film.  The hero of a war movie becomes the hero of the war itself.

As the Band of Brothers series shows us, this is not always a negative scenario.  Quality historical productions can serve as a stepping stone to further study of the past and evoke strong connections to original artifacts such as E Company's original unit banner, shown above.  A flag can represent unit pride, cohesion, and camaraderie.  Artifacts, just as the people who used them, have individual stories to tell.

For instance, these goat horns taken on one of Winters' hunting trips in Europe speak of his near-collision with death at the end of the war.  The end of hostilities in a war does not equate to an end in danger.  Click the photo to read the story behind the artifact.

Visitors can still sign a condolence book (shown above in a photo courtesy of Penn-Live).  Outside the exhibit stands a cardboard cutout of Winters standing in front of the now famous Schoonderlogt Arch in Holland.  Dick Winters was one man, just one of millions who led and suffered.  A book and film catapulted the heroism of he and his men to greatness.  What now?  For ten year-old student Jordan Brown of Pennsylvania (and his mother pictured above), he was inspired to take an active role in memorializing WWII veterans.

He and his family raised some $100,000 for the dedication of a Normandy monument in honor of American officers who participated in the invasion.  Atop stands a representation of Winters at nearby Brecourt Manor--a figure symbolizing the ideal U.S. officer.  While I was not involved in such a large undertaking at such a young age, I too was inspired by a historical movie to become involved in the history business.  In many cases, the young moviegoer of today is the historian of tomorrow.  The story of Easy Company serves as a means to appreciate and understand the bigger picture.  Such tales do not obscure or diminish the efforts of others, but rather serve as a window to additional perspectives.  As you might guess, this is not at all a bad thing.  (U.S. Army Photo.)

1 comment:

  1. I met Dick Winters at the Reading Air Show a few years back. A complete gentleman. He actually worked for a time in my home town of Edison, NJ. He is sorely missed as are all of the members of the Band of Brothers.