In uniform, with his helmet resting on his side and a slight smile on his face. This is how U.S. Major Richard Dick Winters posed in 1944 under the archway at the entrance to an estate in the east of the Netherlands. The complex is called Schoonderlogt and is located in the village of Elst, in the Betuwe region. The Allied troops called the area The Island and the fighting there lasted 198 days during World War II. Winters and his men, members of Easy Company, transcended the realm of military memory thanks to a television series released in 2001: Band of Brothers (HBO), co-produced by filmmaker Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks. British actor Damian Lewis plays Winters, and the image of him, posing in the same place as the U.S. officer, has become so famous over time that the owners of the property are going to install a fence and charge for photos to stem the flow of tourists.
The archway leading to Schoonderlogt is still in place, but on both sides, and within the grounds, there are private homes with families whose daily lives are interrupted by crowds of curious onlookers in search of vestiges of the past. Those who come here tend to come from other war museums, and many are fans of the series who tour all the war sites mentioned in the show, from Normandy to the Bavarian Alps. Not all of them come from the United States: some come from Brazil, South Africa, Italy and many other countries. They come to see the room where Winters slept and in which he wrote his reports on the war. The residents of the area, however, want to strike a balance between preserving the past and their privacy.
In an email they explain their decision to adapt some restrictions: “We are aware of the history of the site and visits are permitted, but in order to make the complex accessible and to pay for its maintenance, certain agreements will have to be reached. Visits and photos will have to be paid for in the near future.” Tickets can be purchased on their website. For an extra fee, visitors will be able to take photos with an original Jeep Willy MB vehicle from the period, and with a life-size image of Dick Winters. The owners of the estate will be the only ones to charge for these pictures, confirmed Bauke Huisman, from the Betuws Oorlog Informatie Centrum, BOIC (Betuwe Region War Information Center).
Easy Company was part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army. Known as the Screaming Eagles, their insignia is the head of a white eagle. The term Easy refers to E, in the phonetic alphabet used during the war, and they set up their headquarters on the Schoonderlogt estate during one stage of the war.
The company’s soldiers landed in Normandy and fought in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria. They took the Eagle’s Nest — Hitler’s alpine refuge — and were among the first to liberate a concentration camp. Major Winters was respected and admired by his subordinates, but he only became well-known outside the military thanks to the account of his exploits written by his compatriot Stephen E. Ambrose, based on interviews with veterans and which gave rise to the HBO series.
“Band of Brothers includes a lot of stories, with some Hollywood flair, but all of them real. Richard Winters wasn’t as well known before the show, but Spielberg and Hanks, who made Saving Private Ryan (1998) together, had so many veterans’ stories” that they ended up finding Winters, said Bauke Huisman.
During the campaign in Europe, Winters successfully commanded, among others, the destruction of a German battery at Utah Beach, the code name for one of the stretches of Normandy coast during the June 1944 landing. He did so with a few men — a type of operation he later repeated with the capture of some 300 German soldiers in a Dutch village. That moment is shown in one of the episodes of Band of Brothers, titled Crossroads. After the war, he returned to civilian life, bought a farm in the U.S. and had two children with his wife, Ethel. He traveled several times to the Netherlands, as did other veterans, and passed away in 2011 at the age of 92. During his lifetime, he received several decorations, including the French Croix de Guerre and the Purple Heart, awarded on behalf of the President of the United States.
Huisman grew up just 100 meters from Schoonderlogt and has researched the history of the war in the region. In front of the farm, “visited by thousands of people a year,” there is a memorial to the 101st Airborne Division, installed in 2019. The monument is part of a private initiative with government support, a project that is very special to Huisman “because many things happened here that are worth telling,” he says. According to him, from the Netherlands, people tend to just “remember the failed Allied operation Market Garden [which tried to take the bridges on the Rhine, Waal and Meuse rivers to create a corridor that would allow the Allies to enter Germany], and it seems that afterward there was a silence for months. But that’s not the case.” The Island is located between the towns of Arnhem — the scene of the last bridge that could not be won — and Nijmegen. The American soldiers spent about two months in the area.
“In October 1944 there were about 1,500 Allied servicemen in the area, and during Operation Pegasus the regiment was ordered to evacuate some comrades trapped on the north bank of the Lower Rhine,” Huisman says. According to his estimates, some 60,000 people were evacuated from The Island. The land was left uncultivated for months, “and there were an estimated 1,500 civilian casualties.” “Also killed were about 1,400 Allied soldiers and 5,000 Germans. The wounded were five or six times as many,” he says. In his opinion, the memory of this place is not as well represented as what happened in the west of the Netherlands, “where the story of Anne Frank,” “the bombing of Rotterdam (1940) or the Hunger Winter (1944-1945), which killed some 20,000 people, predominate.”
The Dutch scholar considers it an honor to take care of the monument, which follows in the wake of similar ones in Normandy, in the Dutch province of Brabant and in the Belgian city of Bastogne. Together, the memorials create a sort of European tour following the trail left by the Screaming Eagles. “They are the ones who made the biggest sacrifice. They are the real stars of this memory,” he says. In Normandy, a statue since 2014 remembers Richard Winters and the officers who served during the Allied landing. In Ephrata, Pennsylvania, where he spent part of his childhood, there is a reproduction of the same effigy.
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