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Captains Courageous
January 2002


By Col. Cole C. Kingseed, USA Ret.

"Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory."
                                                                                                  -- Gen. George S. Patton Jr.



In his analysis of combat leadership, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower once remarked, "Optimism and pessimism are infectious and they spread more rapidly from the head downward than in any other direction. Optimism has a most extraordinary effect upon all with whom the commander comes in contact." Ike's assessment remains as valid for America's Army in the 21st century as it did in 1944, particularly at the tactical level of war, where battles are won or lost under the calm direction of company and platoon commanders. Two officers who best personified Ike's dictum of optimism and courage were Capt. Richard Winters, commanding Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment during World War II and Capt. Lewis L. Millett, commanding Easy Company, 27th Infantry Regiment during the Korean War.

Dick Winters' path toward war mirrored that of millions of other American veterans of Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation." Born in Lancaster, Pa., on January 21, 1918, Winters spent his formative years in eastern Pennsylvania. His early heroes were Babe Ruth and Milton S. Hershey, who had founded a school for boys in the town that now bears his name. Graduating from Franklin-Marshall College in June 1941 as a business major, Winters volunteered for military service. His intent was to spend the mandatory one year in the Army, then return to civilian life to pursue a private career. Following his induction in August, he spent his basic combat training at Camp Croft, S.C., where he was stationed when he received word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Winters soon applied for Officer Candidate School and arrived at Fort Benning, where he graduated in July 1942 as a second lieutenant of infantry.

Seeking adventure, he next volunteered for airborne training. In Winters' eyes, the airborne training appeared to be "interesting work." The troopers were "hard, lean, bronzed and tough ...a proud and cocky bunch." Moreover, the physical training was very appealing to Winters. Standing 6 feet tall and weighing 177 pounds, he was accustomed to lots of running and outdoor activity. Also, the additional jump pay might help pay off his father's home mortgage.

When the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment was formed in August, Winters became one of the original members of Easy Company. Training at Camp Toccoa, Ga., was rugged, but Winters relished the camaraderie and challenges associated with airborne training. Assigned command of Easy's 2nd Platoon, he soon completed his five jumps and received his airborne wings. In mid-April 1943, he had also assumed the duties of company executive officer, a position that he found brought new challenges. Still a first lieutenant, Winters remained with Easy Company when the regiment joined the 101st Airborne Division in June 1943. Three months later, the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) deployed to England to prepare for the ensuing invasion of the European continent.

From September 1943 until June 1944, Winters quietly emerged as Easy Company's most dynamic and charismatic junior officer. He later attributed his success to his training and to the relationship that he had developed with the enlisted men. As a teetotaler, he never participated in the social life associated with the officer corps. Winters preferred the life of quiet reflection and organized athletics within Easy. He described himself as a "half-breed," being an officer with the responsibility to train the men, but being an enlisted man at heart. Always weighing on his mind was the tremendous responsibility of preparing his men for combat. In a private letter home, he commented on his personal crusade to improve himself as an officer and to improve Easy Company as Fighters and as men. The net result was a highly motivated company that was poised to inflict maximum punishment on the enemy when the "big day" (D-Day) arrived.

For those soldiers, sailors and airmen who participated in D-Day, June 6 was unlike any day in history. And it was on D-Day that Dick Winters had his rendezvous with destiny. Easy Company's mission, as with the other units within the 101st Airborne Division, was to seize the causeways behind Utah Beach to facilitate the expansion of the beachhead. Jumping from a C-47 Dakota at 150 miles per hour and at 500 feet and less, the Division's drop was scattered across the Cotentin Peninsula. Winters came down near the town of Ste. Mere-Eglise, several kilometers from the intended drop zone. Rallying a couple of troopers, he soon was en route to Ste. Marie-du-Mont, destined to be the Division's headquarters for most of D-Day. En route, Winters stumbled across the battalion staff and 40 men of D Company. By 7:00 a.m., E Company consisted of two light machine guns, one bazooka with no ammunition, one 60 mm mortar, nine riflemen and two officers. No one knew the whereabouts of the company commander, so Winters took command.

Three kilometers from Ste. Marie-du-Mont, the column encountered sustained enemy fire, and Winters was summoned to the front. The battalion commander informed Winters that there was a four-gun battery of German 105 mm cannons, a few hundred meters to the front across an open field opposite a French farmhouse called Brécourt Manor. The battery was set up in a hedgerow and defended by a 50-man German platoon. The guns were firing directly down a causeway leading to Utah Beach. The battalion operations officer directed Winters to take the battery. Taking his company, Winters made a careful reconnaissance and then issued orders for an assault. The attack would consist of a frontal assault led by Winters with covering fire from several directions to pin down the Germans. Winters selected three soldiers for the assault: Pvt. Gerald Lorraine, Pvt. Popeye Wynn and Cpl. Joe Toye. Asked later why he selected these three, Winters recalled, "In combat you look for killers.' Many thought they were killers and wanted to prove it. They are, however, few and far between."

Winters saw the impending attack as a "high risk opportunity." The key was "initiative, an immediate appraisal of situation, the use of terrain to get into the connecting trench and taking one gun at a time." Crawling on their bellies, Winters and his men got close enough and knocked out the first gun. Mowing down the retreating Germans, Winters then placed a machine gun to fire down the trench. He had also noticed that as soon as he got close enough to assault the first gun, the Germans in an adjacent hedgerow temporary lifted their fire so that they would not inflict friendly casualties. That was enough for Winters, who had a "sixth sense" that such a respite shifted the advantage to him.

With the first gun out of action, Winters grabbed two other soldiers and charged the second gun. Throwing hand grenades and firing their rifles, they took the second howitzer. Next to the gun was a case with a map that showed all the German artillery in the Cotentin Peninsula. Winters sent the map back to battalion headquarters and then directed another assault which rapidly captured the third gun. Reinforcements led by an officer from D Company soon arrived. Winters briefly outlined the situation and then watched D Company capture the last gun. With the mission complete, Winters ordered a withdrawal. It was 11:30 a.m., roughly three hours since Winters had received the order to take the battery. In summarizing Easy's action, historian Stephen Ambrose notes that with 12 men, what amounted to a squad, later reinforced by elements of D Company, Winters had destroyed a German battery, killed 15 Germans, wounded many more, and taken 12 prisoners. It would be a gross exaggeration to say that Easy Company saved the day at Utah Beach, but reasonable to say that it had made an important contribution to the success of the invasion.

Winters' action at Brécourt Manor was a textbook infantry assault, frequently studied at the U.S. Military Academy. Ever the self-effacing leader, Winters described the action to combat historian S.L.A. Marshall simply as laying down a base of fire to cover the assault. Left unsaid was his leadership by example. At every turn he had made the correct decision, from selecting the right men for each task, to making an accurate reconnaissance of the enemy position, to leading the maneuver element in person. In his own analysis, Winters credited his training and preparing for D-Day, his "apogee" in command. When the day was finally over, he wrote in his diary that if he survived the war, he would find an isolated farm somewhere and spend the rest of his life in peace.

For Winters' heroic leadership under fire during the attack at Brécourt Manor, Col. Robert Sink, the 506th PIR commander, recommended Winters receive the Medal of Honor, but only one man in the 101st Airborne Division was to be given that medal. Instead, Winters was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, with Silver and Bronze Stars awarded to the men of Easy Company who participated in the assault. Winters also formally received command of Easy when it was determined that the company commander had been killed in the airborne assault. Promotion to captain followed on July 2, but not before Winters led the company in another attack to capture Carentan, a small town at the base of the peninsula. Not until mid-July did the 101st return to England to prepare for contingency operations.

For Dick Winters, command of Easy Company was the culmination of a career that had begun but two short years earlier. He would lead the company with great distinction during Operation Market-Garden in mid-September, and then remain in Holland until late November. Trained for light infantry assault, the American airborne divisions were not designed for sustained infantry combat. Excessive casualties in Normandy and in subsequent operations, however, dictated that both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions remain in combat. For Winters and Easy Company that meant defending a 5-kilometer wide "island" that lay between the Lower Rhine on the north and the Waal River on the south. On October 5, in defense of the "island," Winters again wrote a shining page in the history of Easy. At the time, Easy Company consisted of 130 men and had to cover 3 kilometers along the front. Winters deployed his men with two platoons forward and one in reserve along a dike that ran roughly parallel to his front.

Now a veteran company commander, Winters received word that an enemy company was attempting to penetrate his defenses. Gathering half his reserve platoon, roughly 15 men, he immediately moved forward. Repeatedly halting the patrol to make a personal reconnaissance, Winters brought his men up to a small ditch adjacent to an enemy machine gun nest. The paratroopers wiped out the enemy position and Winters called up the remainder of the platoon. Carefully orchestrating another assault, he then directed that his men attack toward the road, behind which unknown numbers of the enemy were huddling. With two squads providing covering fire, Winters ordered the remaining squad to fix bayonets and to follow him across 200 yards of open ground.

Winters reached the road first, jumped over and saw a German sentry with 100 or so other Germans preparing for an assault. Without hesitation, he emptied two M-1 clips into the enemy. As more Americans arrived, the Germans turned toward the river and fled. By now, Winters had taken cover behind the ditch, but rose to pour a withering fire on the retreating enemy. Other members of Winters' 1st Platoon did the same. Just then another SS Company arrived, but Easy's fire was too intense and the enemy joined the flight. For Easy Company, it was a "duck shoot," with one man firing a total of 57 clips of M-1 ammunition into the enemy.

Col. Sink issued a general order, citing 1st Platoon's "daring attack and skillful maneuver." Four days later, he promoted Winters to executive officer of the 2nd Battalion. Winters' days in command of Easy were at an end, but it had been a glorious close. With only 35 men, he had routed two German companies of 300 men, killed 50, captured 11 and wounded approximately 100 enemy troops -- all at a cost of one dead and 22 wounded Americans. Winters later said this attack was "the highlight of all E Company actions for the entire war, even better than D-Day, because it demonstrated Easy's overall superiority in every phase of infantry tactics: patrol, defense, attack under a base of fire, withdrawal, and above all, superior marksmanship with rifles, machine gun and mortar fire." October 5 was also the last day that Dick Winters fired his weapon in anger.

For Winters, the war would continue. His toughest Fight was at Bastogne, and in March he received command of 2nd Battalion, which he led with distinction until V-E Day. At war's end, his battalion was at Berchtesgaden, but his heart was always with the men of Easy Company. What made Easy so special under Winters? The answer was simple. Shared hardship and stress created a bond that still exists today. The original members of Easy Company still sit together at reunions because they formed the core. To a man, the survivors acknowledge that Capt. Dick Winters was the best combat commander they had during the entire war. Winters shuns such acclaim, noting that "hardship and death bring a family together. Officers aren't family; the family belongs to the men, not the officers."

True to his word, when the war was over, Winters left the Army and found solace far away from the battlefield. A highly successful businessman, he is a frequent lecturer at West Point. His message to the cadets is always the same: Hang tough and take care of your soldiers. Asked by one cadet what his toughest challenge as a commander was, Winters instantly replied, "To be able to think under fire. In peace the toughest challenge is to be fair." As to what aspect of his military service provided him the greatest satisfaction, he answered without hesitation, "Knowing I got the job done; knowing that I kept the respect of my men. The greatest reward you can have as a leader is the look of respect.' The key to a successful combat leader is to earn respect not because of rank, but because you are a man."

Seven years after Winters commanded Easy Company, 506 PIR, and half a world away, a similar drama was being played amid the rugged hills of the Republic of Korea. Capt. Lewis Lee Millett commanded another Company E, a unit in the 27th Infantry, a regiment known as the "Wolfhounds." Millett descended from military stock dating to colonial times. One ancestor, Thomas Millett, was killed during the Indian massacre at Brookfield, Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1675. Later Milletts fought in the Revolutionary War; two great-grandfathers served in the Maine regiments during the Civil War; a great uncle died at Andersonville Prison Camp; and an Uncle Roland served with distinction in World War I. Millett's youngest son, SSgt. John Morton Millett, was later killed in the Gander crash in December 1985 while serving with Task Force 502, Multinational Peacekeeping Force in the Sinai.

Lew Millett's initial military service was with the 101st Field Artillery, Massachusetts National Guard in 1938. Before America's entry into World War II, Millett saw service in the U.S. Army Air Corps, 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, where he was a graduate air mechanic specializing in aerial gunnery. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced in 1940 that no American would fight on foreign soil, Millett immediately deserted and enlisted in the Canadian army in order to fight the Germans. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Millett, now in England, was transferred back to the American Army, where he earned a battlefield commission along with the Silver Star, Bronze Star (V) and the Purple Heart. Following a short stint in civilian life after the war, Millett again entered federal service from the Maine National Guard in 1949.

Before assuming command of Easy Company, Capt. Lew Millett was already a legend in the 25th Infantry Division. On one occasion, Millett had been wounded in the leg by a shell fragment. Ordered into an ambulance against his will, Millett was informed by a doctor that the Geneva Convention forbade weapons in ambulances. According to Wolfhound folklore, Millett replied, "I'm a soldier, not a lawyer. Where I go, my rifle goes." The physician replied, "Get in." Half an hour later, the Chinese ambushed the truck convoy and machine-gunned the ambulances. Millett immediately dove into a ditch and with his M-1, blasted a path clear for himself and two other G.I.s. Crawling through enemy lines he evaded capture and reached American lines. Millett wound up in a field hospital but less than two days later, he went AWOL to return to the fighting.

Shortly thereafter, flying in observation planes as a forward observer for the 8th Field Artillery, part of the 27th Regimental Combat Team (RCT), Millett spotted a downed observation plane, the wounded pilot beckoning for help. Ordering his own pilot to set down, Millett lifted the wounded pilot into his seat and fought off the enemy with his M-1. He then evacuated the injured pilot to safety.

An infantryman at heart, Millett soon requested transfer to a frontline company when he heard that Easy Company, 27th Infantry had lost its company commander in November 1950. Commanding Easy during the retreat from the Yalu had been Capt. Reginald (Dusty) Desiderio, who posthumously earned the Medal of Honor for heroism above and beyond the call of duty in the terrible fighting along the Chongchon River. Adored by his men, Desiderio had led the company with great distinction since its arrival the preceding summer. In his last fight, Desiderio's undaunted courage and heroism under fire coupled with the indomitable spirit of his soldiers resulted in Easy Company being recommended for the Presidential Unit Citation.

Millett became Easy Company's skipper on January 1 and immediately moved to place his imprint on the command. To increase the firepower in his unit, he obtained an additional Browning Automatic Rifle per squad. Each soldier also received four to six hand grenades. Next, he inculcated Easy Company with the spirit of the bayonet, considered by many to be a useless weapon unsuited for combat in Korea. He emphasized the bayonet, personally supervising all aspects of training. Two days of intense two-hour training periods, followed by daily thrusts, jabs and butt strokes against stacks of rice straw or a mud bank, made even the most dubious members of the command believe that their new commanding officer was a fighter. Sharpening the bayonets to a razor edge, the men heeded Millett's warning: "In our next fight, we'll use this. Have it ready."

According to S.L.A. Marshall, Easy Company's ensuing fight was only one small piece of the general engagement fought by the 25th Infantry "Tropic Lightning" Division in its advance from Suwon to the Han River in February 1951. On the division's right was the 3rd Infantry Division; together the two divisions comprised I Corps. Seven miles north of Suwon stands Hill 440, a dominating mass of ridges that blocks any advance on the two parallel roads that drive toward the Han River. Marshall likened Hill 440 to a mountain. Gibraltar itself did not look more formidable. After savage fighting, the Americans took Hill 440, inflicting more than 4,200 enemy casualties at a cost of approximately 70 American dead.

On February 5, 1951, Easy Company was in the RCT's lead along the left road when it encountered an entrenched enemy. Millett's first platoon was soon pinned down on a frozen rice paddy by direct fire from a low running ridge directly to their front. From his command post 50 meters in the rear, Millett made an instant assessment and ordered his 2nd Platoon to fix bayonets and come in on the 1st's left. Third Platoon was to support the attack by fire. "Fix bayonets and follow me," Millett shouted to 1st Platoon and rushed to the base of the hill. Temporarily protected by defilade, he then led the platoon forward, the men screaming at the tops of their lungs. S.L.A. Marshall reported that Millett was in the lead, shouting "she-lie sa-ni," which purportedly is Chinese for "I'm going to kill you with a bayonet." Covered by the fire from 3rd Platoon, Millett and the 1st Platoon reached the crest unscathed, just as the Chinese soldiers were beginning to evacuate their position. Shooting the fleeing enemy, Easy Company had achieved a spectacular victory at minimal cost, but this seemingly inconsequential action was merely a dress rehearsal for what was to occur two days later.

On February 7, Easy Company was once again in the lead as Task Force Bartlett approached yet another hill, this one designated Hill 180. With 3rd Platoon occupying a reserve position to provide covering fire should the need arise, Millett's two remaining platoons approached the ridge, with their commanding officer leading them. As he brought 1st Platoon abreast of the ridge, Millett received word that the enemy was in force atop Hill 180. Out of range of artillery, Millett contemplated delaying the attack or seizing the opportunity at hand. Without hesitation, he immediately prepared for an assault, directing his attached tank platoon to join 3rd Platoon in firing on the enemy position. Positioning himself with 1st Platoon, Millett yelled: "Get ready to move! We're going to assault the hill. Fix bayonets! Charge! Everybody goes with me."

Fortunately Millett and his men reached the base of the hill with minimal casualties. Regrouping under cover of a protective outcropping, Millett led the men forward toward the first of three knobs that characterized the hill. While personally leading his company, Millett placed himself at the head of two platoons and with fixed bayonet, led the assault up the fire-swept hill. In the fierce charge, Millett bayoneted two enemy soldiers and boldly continued on, throwing grenades, clubbing and bayoneting the enemy, while urging his company forward by shouting encouragement. Amid the roar of battle, Millett could be heard shouting for 3rd Platoon to join the assault: "Use grenades and cold steel! Come on up here, you sons of bitches!" At one point, Millett had to fire his M-1 to release its bayonet by the recoil. Despite vicious opposing fire, the whirlwind hand-to-hand assault carried to the crest of the hill.

Millett's dauntless leadership and personal courage so inspired his men that they stormed into the hostile position and used their bayonets with such lethal effect that the enemy fled in wild disorder, just as they had two days earlier. This time Easy Company had endured its fair share of casualties as well, but they had carried the hill. Wounded by a grenade fragment, Millett refused evacuation until the objective was taken and firmly secured. That evening, Easy Company took time to reflect on what they had done. Of the approximately 200 enemy soldiers who had occupied Hill 180 at noon, 47 lay dead on the ground and later reports confirmed the Chinese and North Koreans had incurred an additional 60 wounded. Of the dead that lay strewn on Hill 180, 18 had been killed with bayonets. Five months later President Truman awarded Capt. Lewis Lee Millett the Medal of Honor and Easy Company received its second Distinguished Unit Citation.

The assault on "Bayonet Hill" was hardly the last contribution by this illustrious soldier whose career spanned three decades. Millett later founded the 101st Airborne Division's Recon School, the 82nd Airborne Division's Raiders, the Rangers of Vietnam and the Commandos of Laos. During the Vietnam War, he refused all U.S. decorations with a statement that he was there to provide freedom for people under attack by tyranny and had no desire for personal recognition. While serving in the Phoenix Program, he voluntarily served as a hostage in a North Vietnamese battalion while its commander arranged to surrender to the South Vietnamese army. As a paratrooper, he made five jumps in Vietnam and eight in Laos. During the Persian Gulf War, Millett volunteered for duty during Operation Desert Storm, but was denied service because of age.

Over the span of two wars, Winters and Millett remained polar opposites who found common expression in leading soldiers in battle. Winters always yearned for a quiet farm in southern Pennsylvania; Millett found comfort in war.

Winters, who enlisted in the Army in May 1941 because enlistment was the most viable alternative to being drafted as the United States edged toward global war, personified the American citizen soldier. Serving his tour with the 101st Airborne Division from Normandy to Berchtesgaden, he returned to civilian life after the war. Temporarily recalled to active duty during the Korean War, he trained draftees for combat, but he never deployed to Korea. In later years, he and his company became the subject of historian Stephen E. Ambrose's Band of Brothers and an HBO series based on the book.

In direct contrast to Winters, Millett participated in combat in two armies and three wars in Africa, Europe, and Asia. His military career spanned 33 years and he served proudly as a military advisor to the governments and armed forces of Japan, Greece, the Republic of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Recipient of every major award for valor, Millett has served with distinction as the Honorary Colonel of the 27th Infantry Regiment since 1985.

Though Winters and Millett never actually met, the unifying feature of their leadership has been their unquestionable competency in battle and a unique ability to inspire soldiers to perform beyond their highest expectations in the test of combat.

In the final analysis it is difficult to determine what made commanders as different as Dick Winters and Lew Millett so effective in combat. As brilliant a commander as George S. Patton was, he had a difficult time defining the essence of military leadership. "I have it," Patton mused, "but I'll be damned if I can explain it." Winters and Millett had it, too. Inspirational leadership, coupled with shared adversity in war's dark crucible, produced outstanding commands, which, at their peak, were among the best, if not the best, companies in the U.S. Army during their respective wars. Perhaps it was a unique combination of commander and unit coming together at a critical time that characterized these excellent organizations. Millett said it best 50 years after that fateful February day when he led his bayonet attack against an entrenched enemy: "One does not charge up a hill without men who are as crazy as their leader." Regardless of one's perspective, Dick Winters and Lew Millett have bequeathed a legacy of combat leadership that serves as a model for the U.S. Army in the 21st century.



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COL. COLE C. KINGSEED, USA Ret., Ph.D., a former professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, is a writer and consultant.



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Copyright © 2002 by The Association of the U.S. Army

 

 

 

 

 

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