Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Legacy of Dick Winters

Who is the Keeper of History?

Me at the Winters D-Day Leadership statue.
A rather fascinating debate of contemporary historical memory has arisen in the past weeks regarding the legacy of Major Richard Winters--the well-known WWII officer of the 101st Airborne depicted in the iconic miniseries Band of Brothers.  Following his passing in 2011, his image and place in history has been contested by family, friends, and community members.  These sometimes contentious issues reached fever pitch within the past month as leaders in Winters's native Ephrata, Pennsylvania yearn to dedicate a memorial of him.  This monument, however, would be a copy of an existing memorial located near Utah Beach in Normandy--dedicated in June 2012 by the WWII Foundation.

The question is: Who does Dick Winters belong to?  All of the parties involved have very different answers to that seemingly simply question.

The leaders and citizens of Ephrata are emphatic in their right to honor their favorite local son.  As a Lancaster Online article quotes them, "we agree with the sentiment that Major Winters is now a public figure. He doesn't belong to any individual — he belongs to the American people."  They claim that not all citizens can travel to Europe and that a memorial to the major "deserves to be here in America."  Are they right?  Indeed, the honoring of such individuals as Winters can serve as an opportunity to build community pride and cohesion.  So too does the project hold the potential to deliver mass quantities of cash and visitors to the sleepy neighborhood.  Thus, what are the true motives of this endeavor?

And that is where the Winters Family comes into the equation.  Wishing to maintain the humble appearance of her late father, Winters's daughter, Jill Winters Peckelun, is one of the more vocal opponents to the memorial.  She stated in a recent press release:

After my father passed we discussed as a family how we wished to handle the requests that were coming in about having roads, races, cemeteries, etc named after Dad. We chose to honor him by passing it forward. Dad's no longer here to appreciate and enjoy the personal acclaim. We choose to honor him by encouraging that such acclaim, such resources, such support now go to the still living veterans and soldiers. It is their turn now. The sole exception we made was in renaming the little walking trail in Ephrata. In the opening ceremony for the trail I asked that an open letter I'd written be read. It praised the trail and asked that future endeavors focus on living veterans and soldiers. Portions of my letter were printed in the paper, but not the parts nobody wanted to hear.

The omission of so many people to include us in the initial discussion of a statue in Ephrata was more than an oversight.  As a family, our position remains unchanged. In fact, the experiences of these past few weeks have only reinforced our desire to have nothing to do with the sculpture.

Tim Gray at the WWII Foundation is likewise distressed by the varying levels of noncooperation.  He and middle-school student Jordan Brown were the two individuals who largely spearheaded the charge for the similar memorial in France (pictured above). Claiming that his views and the perspectives of like-minded opponents have been censored on the Facebook page of Ephrata's Winters Leadership Memorial, Gray is bearing his mantle via the page of the WWII Foundation.  You are free to browse the respective pages and decide where you fall on the issue.

This brings us back to the original question posed.  To whom does Dick Winters belong?  As I posted earlier, his persona of quiet, dignified leadership has exploded to near-mythical proportions a la Joshua Chamberlain of Civil War fame.  Unlike Winters, neither Chamberlain or his family were witness to his celebrity due to books and films.  Is this burst of popular memory to be dramatically embraced or respectfully reserved?  I do not have the clear answers.  Surely, the stories of Winters (and the entire WWII generation) belong to us all.  But so too are these memories entrusted to the families of those who knew such individuals best.  Just perhaps their wishes should take precedence.

This issue of commemoration is bound to be the subject of a History thesis or dissertation in years to come.  Monuments and their meanings continue to tell us as much about ourselves as the people they honor.  Fascinating stuff.

Artist's concept of the Winters Leadership Memorial in Ephrata (WLM).


  1. Thank you Jared for such a thoughtful look at this touchy issue. How to balance the wishes of the family with the needs (or at least the wants) of a community/nation is not a simple thing. I look forward to reading more of your blog postings in the future.

  2. The family is correct. Over 403,000 Americans died in WW II. Many were "Leaders" and most of them [ excluding the missing ] could be personally mentioned if any Americans wanted to take the time to do some research [ And they don't ]. So just save some time and visit a fairly large national cemetery; about half of our nation's WW II dead were returned to the United States. You'll find lot's of leaders there. That's why they were killed in 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945. I could name a few myself that lots of folks have never heard of. I'm sure that goes for lots of older people too.