The Rotary Club of Pismo Beach / Five Cites
Lucy Rebecca Wickstrom, Third Place
Grade 12, Coastal Christian School
Teacher: Mrs. Alison Limon
A True American Hero and the Four Way Test
I love history. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been absolutely fascinated by the places and events that fill every history book—but more than anything, I love to study the people that wrote those famous documents, led those famous armies, or inspired a whole people to stand up for what was right. As I study history, I am amazed and inspired by the astonishing number of normal, everyday people—just like me—who dedicated their lives to fighting for something; so many of them didn’t want to achieve fame or receive any recognition, but did what they did simply because it was right. To me, no time period in American history embodies this incredible principle better than the 1940s, during World War II. Countless ordinary young people became heroes in those years when duty to their country required them to serve, a fact that gives hope and encouragement to Americans even to this day. The word “hero” is often used very loosely today; however, I believe that the men and women who made so many sacrifices for their country and friends in those years should be esteemed as the most perfect definition of the word.
There is an innumerable amount of amazing tales about incredible soldiers during this global war, but one that has especially enraptured Americans is the story of the famous Easy Company, better known as the “band of brothers”, who fought in multiple countries across Europe while demonstrating extraordinary talent, courage, and loyalty to one another. Their story was popularized by Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 book Band of Brothers, and then again in 2001 by a miniseries of the same name. This surge in popularity caused all the veterans of Easy Company to gain well-deserved admiration; and these veterans included Major Richard D. Winters, the commander of this special company, who has been immortalized in American history as an exemplary leader, soldier, and friend. Dick Winters is my biggest personal hero and role model and an inspiration to many others, although he couldn’t have imagined this would become his legacy while growing up in rural Pennsylvania in the ‘20s and ‘30s. A shy, hard-working, athletic boy who loved to play sports, read his Bible, and blushed when friends asked if he had a date, he could not have been more normal when he volunteered for the U.S. army in 1941; and yet, he exhibited such astounding qualities of leadership and greatness that history rightfully regards him as a great American hero. Winters clearly used the timeless, vital principles of the Four Way Test to make decisions, both on the battlefield and in his everyday life. He used important questions like “Is it the truth?”, “Is it fair to all concerned?”, “Will it build goodwill and better friendships?”, and “Is it beneficial to all concerned?” to become the great man that history shows he was today.
Dick Winters valued honesty as an absolutely essential part of being a good leader. On many occasions in his life, he asked himself “Is it the truth?” to determine the right thing to do. He was completely candid and honest with his soldiers, and did not hesitate to inform them of the whole truth. He also displayed a commitment to the truth in matters of honor. Before Easy Company joined the war, while they were training in England, Captain Sobel, a tyrannical superior with a personal hatred of Winters, accused him of failing to show up for one of his duties when Winters obviously had, just as he was instructed. Sobel offered him an easy out, saying that he could escape serious discipline by taking an easy punishment: no weekend passes for two months, which didn’t matter to Winters since he never cared to leave the army base anyway. But Winters refused to compromise what he knew was true. Instead of taking the easy way out because it would be harmless and comfortable, he requested a trial by court martial to defend the truth. He knew that if he couldn’t be honest with himself, then he would never be able to do the same with his men on the battlefield. He stood up for what was right, leading by example and showing his men that some things were worth fighting for. Dick Winters believed, all his life, that the truth was one of those things. He also never broke his promises, including one very important one that he made on D-Day, in a break during Easy Company’s fighting. At the end of his prayer, while trying to catch some sleep before they had to move on, he promised God and himself that if he ever made it home again, he would find a quiet piece of land and spend the rest of his life in peace. Winters never forgot this promise, and kept it when he made it home safely. To him, honesty with oneself and one’s friends was absolutely crucial; when he said something, he meant it.
Major Winters also asked himself “Is it fair to all concerned?” before taking action out on the field. Winters showed great respect toward each and every man in his company, considering their opinions and listening to their concerns. He never favored one man over another, and considered them all equal. And one of the most amazing things about him is that, unlike many of his fellow soldiers, he showed great respect for the German soldiers that they were fighting against. He always upheld his disdain for the mistreatment of prisoners, once ordering one of his men—who was transporting eleven prisoners to battalion—to put only one round in his rifle so that if he killed one, the rest would jump him. While some officers disregarded the humanity of the Germans and allowed their men to treat the prisoners however they pleased, Winters respected the soldiers enough to ensure their safety after they had surrendered. He did not reserve fairness for his men only, but extended it even to the men that they were fighting. By recognizing the humanity in every single man on the battlefield—whether on his side or not—Winters was able to uphold respect and fairness in every situation.
The question “Will it build goodwill and better friendships?” must have come up the most often in Dick Winters’s life. He showed such incredible loyalty to the men that he served with, and wanted to develop a personal relationship with each one. He struggled with a desire to become close friends with his men despite being their superior, and wrote to a friend back home that he wanted so badly to be, as he said, “their friend and the guy they go to when they want a favor or they’re in trouble.” But he felt that he should maintain a certain degree of separation from them, so that he would not hesitate to send them into potential danger on the battlefield or break down mentally when they were hurt; however, despite the necessity that he stay somewhat detached, he managed to find that perfect balance, never shying away from going through the most difficult situations at his troops’ sides. Even after multiple promotions, he was always there, encouraging them, inspiring them, and talking to them one-on-one. While they led the siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, exposed to almost constant German fire and freezing temperatures with no winter clothes, he took time to stop by each man’s foxhole and see how he was doing. He could be found speaking to each of his men individually every night during the war, and it amazes and inspires me that this great leader took time to do that for every single man in his company. One of my favorite stories about him is definitely one that comes from Easy Company’s time spent training in England, when Winters came upon a sleepy young soldier who was keeping watch in the early morning after marching for twenty-four hours straight. He kneeled beside the boy, whose name was Shep, and saw that he was looking sorrowfully at a picture of his girlfriend back home. Together, they talked about how pretty she was and how much Shep missed her, and then Shep voiced his greatest fear: that he would never make it home to see her again. Winters patted the boy on the shoulder and promised, “You will…you’re a good man, Shep. Hang tough.” Shep did make it home to be with his girlfriend again, along with many other young men in Easy Company, due largely to the constant leadership, advice, and friendship of their commanding officer. By asking himself what would build goodwill and better friendships within the company, Dick Winters managed to become not only an outstanding leader and commander, but also a reliable and wonderful friend. No one could say it better than one of his own soldiers, Floyd Talbert, who wrote to Winters years after the war and said, “Dick, you are loved and will never be forgotten by any soldier who ever served under you. You are the best friend I ever had.”
Finally, Major Winters asked himself “Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” many times throughout the war. By joining the army even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, when he was just twenty-three years old, he showed his readiness to serve his country. This dedication to protecting others and being there for them continued to show itself throughout his life. During the war, he was not concerned with his own happiness or security, but instead always focused on what would benefit his men. Often, he sacrificed his personal safety for the morale and courage of his soldiers, charging fearlessly and alone toward the enemy on multiple occasions; while they fought in Carentan, he completely exposed himself to German fire to charge toward the town while pulling his men, frozen in fear, to their feet. He also gave up his own desires to help others, most notably when he was promoted from company commander to battalion commander. Winters didn’t want to leave his men and take charge of the whole battalion at all, but he knew that his promotion was best for the army and his soldiers, so he willingly accepted. He then served brilliantly as battalion commander, making the best of a situation that wasn’t ideal for him, because he knew that it was right and helpful to others. Once, as the war was coming to an end and every man was anxious just to make it home alive, he even disregarded a superior’s orders to lead a pointless patrol to snatch prisoners when they had just done so the night before, and it had resulted in two prisoners who could give no information and a nineteen-year-old American soldier killed needlessly. An avid rule-follower, Winters normally would never have disobeyed orders, but he knew that in this case, following them would not benefit anyone involved; so he let his men stay back and rest safely instead, risking his position in the army as a result. He was ready to go to great lengths to protect his men, and was always looking for ways to benefit them. Dick Winters had a remarkable concept of what would be truly beneficial to all concerned, and often sacrificed his own happiness and safety to make sure that his men were being treated with fairness and understanding.
I will always be amazed by the selflessness, loyalty, courage, honesty, and love that Major Winters showed his soldiers and friends. Reading about him and the sacrifices that he made for his country, family, and friends makes me want to aim for the same standard. I want to be the kind of person Dick Winters would have been proud of, and by using the four essential questions in the Rotary Club’s Four Way Test, I can do just that. Winters was just a normal young man, with hopes and fears and aspirations just like any other young person; and I believe that using these effective questions, all people have the tools they need to become great, just like Winters and so many other ordinary people in the pages of history did. I’ve been through some difficult things in my own life lately, but every time I feel like I want to give up or stop hoping that things will get better, I think about Dick Winters and my favorite advice that he ever gave, when he said, “Hang tough…do your best every day. Whether it’s in school or at your job or wherever you are, do your best every day. You don’t have to know all the answers. No way. Don’t expect that of yourself. Just do your best. Satisfy yourself so at the end of the day, you can look yourself in the mirror, after you’ve brushed your teeth, and say honestly to yourself, today I did my best. And if you do that, you’re being honest and everything is going to be okay.”