PHILADELPHIA – Even as Parkinson's disease began taking its toll on Dick Winters, who led his "Band of Brothers" through some of World War II's fiercest European battles, the unassuming hero refused, as always, to let his men down.
Friends accompanied him to public events, subtly clearing a path through the adoring crowds for the living legend, whose Easy Company's achievements were documented by a 1992 book and HBO miniseries. His gait had grown unsteady, and he did not want to be seen stumbling.
Winters "didn't want the members of Easy Company to know," William Jackson said Monday of his longtime friend, who died last week at age 92. "Right up to the end, he was the company commander."
An intensely private and humble man, Winters had asked that news of his death be withheld until after his funeral, Jackson said. Winters lived in Hershey, Pa., but died in an assisted living center in suburban Palmyra.
The men Winters led through harrowing circumstances and under fire from the German army never let the toll of time dull their own admiration for their commander.
"When he said 'Let's go,' he was right in the front," William Guarnere, 88, and dubbed "Wild Bill" by his comrades, said Sunday night from his south Philadelphia home. "He was never in the back. A leader personified."
Another member of the unit living in Philadelphia, Edward Heffron, 87, called Winters "one hell of a guy, one of the greatest soldiers I was ever under."
"He was a wonderful officer, a wonderful leader," said Heffron, who had the nickname "Babe" in the company. "He had what you needed: Guts and brains. He took care of his men, that's very important."
Winters was born Jan. 21, 1918, and studied economics at Franklin and Marshall College before enlisting, according to a biography on the Penn State website.
Winters became the leader of Company E, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, on D-Day after the death of the company commander during the invasion of Normandy.
During that invasion, Winters led 13 of his men in destroying an enemy battery and obtained a detailed map of German defenses along Utah Beach. In September 1944, he led 20 men in a successful attack on a German force of 200 soldiers. Occupying the Bastogne area of Belgium at the time of the Battle of the Bulge, he and his men held their place until the Third Army broke through enemy lines, and Winters shortly afterward was promoted to major.
"His leadership example both on and off the battlefield will continue to inspire 'Screaming Eagle' soldiers for years to come," said Lt. Col. Patrick Seiber, a spokesman for the 101st Airborne Division, currently deployed to Afghanistan. "His principles for success on the battlefield are timeless, as they are as critical today in Afghanistan as they were on 'Fortress Europe' during World War II."
After returning home, Winters married his wife, Ethel, in May 1948, and trained infantry and Army Ranger units at Fort Dix in New Jersey during the Korean War. He started a company selling livestock feed to farmers, and he and his family eventually settled in a farmhouse in Hershey, where he later retired.
Historian Stephen Ambrose interviewed Winters for the book "Band of Brothers," upon which the HBO miniseries that began airing in September 2001 was based.
Winters himself published a memoir in 2006 titled "Beyond Band of Brothers."
In 2009, an exhibit devoted to Winters was dedicated at the Hershey-Derry Township Historical Society. Winters was also the subject of a campaign to raise money to erect a monument in his honor near the beaches of Normandy.
Winters talked about his view of leadership for an August 2004 article in American History Magazine.
"If you can," he wrote, "find that peace within yourself, that peace and quiet and confidence that you can pass on to others, so that they know that you are honest and you are fair and will help them, no matter what, when the chips are down."
When people asked whether he was a hero, he echoed the words of his World War II buddy Mike Ranney: "No, but I served in a company of heroes."
"He was a good man, a very good man," Guarnere said. "I would follow him to hell and back. So would the men from E Company."
Arrangements for a public memorial service are pending.
Associated Press writers JoAnn Loviglio and Randy Pennell contributed to this report.
The Richard Winters Leadership Project: http://easycompany.legacyconnect.com