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Sanford Winston, hero in WWII firefight in Pacific

Sanford Winston, shown in Berlin in 1963, received the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism in the 1940s. Sanford Winston, shown in Berlin in 1963, received the Distinguished Service Cross for his heroism in the 1940s. (Family Photo)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post / September 12, 2011

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WASHINTON - Sanford H. “Sandy’’ Winston, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who was a highly decorated hero of World War II and later served as a spokesman for the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, died Aug. 22 at his home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 90 and had heart and respiratory ailments, his son Mark Winston said.

Before becoming a media spokesman, Colonel Winston had a 25-year Army career and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross - second only to the Medal of Honor for combat valor.

After joining the Army at 19, he became an officer in the 136th Infantry Regiment of the 33rd Infantry Division. From 1943 to 1945, he led troops in New Guinea, the Philippines, and the Indonesian island of Morotai.

In February 1945, his division arrived on the Philippine island of Luzon with the mission of reaching a Japanese military headquarters in the city of Baguio. He and his troops endured three months of rugged fighting in heavily wooded, mountainous terrain, often at the level of hand-to-hand combat.

On May 12, 1945, Colonel Winston, then a first lieutenant known as Sanford Weinstein, was ordered to lead two rifle platoons in a frontal assault on a fortified hill situated on a formation known as Skyline Ridge.

As he and his men approached the top of the ridge, Japanese forces opened fire at close range with mortars, rifles, and machine guns. Several US soldiers were killed instantly, and others were seriously wounded. Many of the remaining troops scrambled down the hill to seek cover.

Despite being wounded in the hand and both knees, Colonel Winston remained on the field of battle. He threw aside his carbine and, according to an official military citation, “grasped an automatic rifle from one of the dead and dashed forward through intense hostile fire to close with the enemy.’’

“Firing from the hip as he ran,’’ the account continues, “he reached a point 25 yards from the attackers and, standing upright despite the withering enemy fire which tore his helmet from his head and cut his canteen from his belt, killed at least ten of the enemy including the crew of a machine gun which he destroyed with a grenade.’’

Colonel Winston single-handedly dragged six of his wounded comrades to safety under intense fire. According to a report he wrote years later, he said he ordered his able-bodied troops to help retrieve the other casualties from the battlefield - reinforcing the order with his leveled gun.

As the wounded soldiers were carried to safety, Colonel Winston “courageously led his men in a withdrawal through a gauntlet of hostile fire.’’

A year later, after his wounds had healed, Colonel Winston received the Distinguished Service Cross.

“Through his inspiring leadership and determination,’’ the citation read, he “saved more than 20 of his wounded men from probable death at the hands of the enemy and upheld the finest traditions of the military service.’’

Sanford Harold Weinstein was born in New York City. After high school, he briefly worked as a reporter in Miami and with the Associated Press in Washington. He changed his name to Winston in 1946.

In the late 1940s, he was assigned to write a history of his Army unit, which was published as “The Golden Cross: A History of the 33rd Infantry Division in World War II.’’

He trained Turkish troops, commanded a US infantry battalion in Germany, and served in Vietnam in the 1950s. While still in uniform, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, from which he also received a master’s degree in journalism in 1961.

He served at the Pentagon and in Europe before retiring from the Army in 1964. His other decorations included the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Star Medals, and two Purple Hearts.

After working in public relations for the Martin Marietta aerospace division, Colonel Winston became the press spokesman for Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary Wilbur Cohen in 1968. He later served under Robert Finch, Elliot Richardson, Caspar Weinberger, David Mathews, and Joseph A. Califano.

Before retiring from the government in 1979, he was a press adviser to Richardson during a United Nations conference on the sea.

Colonel Winston was vice president of communications for the National Association of Manufacturers before forming a consulting firm in 1984. He retired to Florida in 1990.

His first marriage, to Mary Simpson, ended in divorce.

He leaves his wife of 36 years, Elizabeth Minter Winston of Sarasota; two sons from his first marriage, Mark Winston of Berwyn Heights, Md., and Bryan Winston of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and three grandchildren.