Saturday, April 18, 2009

Russell Dunham, 89, World War II Veteran Awarded the Medal of Honor

I noticed the guys over at Protein Wisdom posted a couple of obituaries last week, for Harry Kalas (with an update for Marilyn Chambers) and Mark Fidrych. Be sure to check all the links.

I normally post obituaries on those who seemed to touch me in personal ways. I think Paul Newman was like that, although I never met the man. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had a huge impression on me when I was a kid, so it's hard to lose even people like that, strangers who've meant something dear to me at one time.

Yet I'm often moved by the loss of others with whom I've had no personal connection. And so it is with Technical Sergeant Russell Dunham, a World War II veteran of the European theater who killed nine Germans singlehandedly on January 8, 1945. Here's the obituary from the Los Angeles Times' obituary:

Russell Dunham, a World War II Army veteran who was awarded the Medal of Honor, the military's highest decoration for valor, after he assaulted three German machine gun emplacements, killed nine German soldiers and took two prisoners, died of congestive heart failure Monday at his home in Godfrey, Ill. He was 89.

On Jan. 8, 1945, Tech. Sgt. Dunham's company, part of the 3rd Infantry Division, was facing a formidable German force at the small town of Kaysersberg, France, on the Franco-German border. The men were issued white mattress covers as camouflage in the deep snow.

Heavily armed, Dunham scrambled 75 yards up a snow-covered hill toward three German machine gun emplacements. He took out the first bunker with a grenade.

Advancing toward the second, he glanced around to call up his squad and a bullet hit him in the back, leaving a 10-inch gash. As he struggled to his feet, a grenade landed nearby; he kicked it away before it exploded.

He then crawled through the snow to the machine gun emplacement and lobbed his own grenade into the bunker, killing two Germans. His carbine empty, he leaped into the foxhole and hauled out a third enemy soldier by the collar.

In excruciating pain, his mattress-cover overcoat stained a conspicuous red, Dunham ran 50 yards to the third emplacement and took it out with a grenade. As German infantrymen began scrambling out of their foxholes, Dunham chased them down the back of the hill. He and his elder brother Ralph, who was in the same unit, encountered a fourth machine gun; his brother took it out.

A German rifleman who shot at Russell Dunham at point-blank range but missed became the ninth German he killed that winter morning.

His back wound had yet to fully heal when Dunham returned to the front. On Jan. 22, his battalion was surrounded by German tanks at Holtzwihr, France, and most of the men were forced to surrender.

Dunham hid in a sauerkraut barrel outside a barn but was discovered the next morning. As the two German soldiers who found him were patting him down, they came across a pack of cigarettes in his pocket and began fighting over it. They never finished their search, so they missed a pistol in a shoulder holster under his arm.

Later in the day, his two captors transported him toward German lines. The driver stopped at a bar, the second soldier's attention wandered and Dunham shot him in the head. He set off toward American lines in subzero temperatures.

By the time he encountered U.S. engineers working on a bridge over the Ill River, his feet and ears were frostbitten. A medic working to save his feet from amputation told him that the commanding officer had intended to recommend him for the Distinguished Service Cross but had changed his mind. The young man from Illinois, the officer had decided, deserved the Medal of Honor.

Dunham was born in East Carondelet, Ill., on Feb. 23, 1920, and grew up in Fosterburg, Ill. After the war, Dunham worked for 32 years as a benefits counselor with the Veterans Administration in St. Louis.

His marriage to Mary Dunham ended in divorce. His second wife, Wilda Long-Bazzell Dunham, died in 2002.

Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Mary Neal of Cobden, Ill.; two stepchildren, Annette Wilson of Godfrey and David Bazzell of Jarreau, La.; three sisters; and three granddaughters.
What struck me about Dunham is not just his bulldog fighting spirit, but especially the businesslike manner in which he killed his captor before heading back to American lines. When we fight, we fight to survive. Dunham's valor on the battlefield demonstrates it, but few people today outside of the armed forces understand it.


rbosque said...


Dave said...

RIP Tech. Sgt. Dunham.

You certainly were what I would refer to as one hell of a real Amurrican.>

It is sad that we have almost lost the entire generation of those who did so much for us, and this entire world, in that God-awful war.

We shall never see their likes again.


Law and Order Teacher said...

These guys are what made America the great country it is. My father-in-law was in the Army Air Corps in WWII. These guys are heroes.

Grizzly Mama said...

I have noticed and commented in the past that it is the old men who among us are the only ones who have the balls to stand up and fight. I've seen it with my own eyes. God bless them all forever. God help us to find the courage to do what needs to be done.

Steven Givler said...

And to think that there were two of those Dunham boys in that unit!

And with respect, Dave, I have to disagree with part of what you said. It's my great honor to work daily with American kids who do credit to Tech Sgt Dunham's memory. It's just that our present culture does not honor their service or acknowledge it in ways that let their stories be known.

Sarge Charlie said...

I use the words of Sir Winston Churchill: "Never was so much owed to so few by so many"

I wonder if Americans will ever know how much we owe to the greatest generation.

GrEaT sAtAn'S gIrLfRiEnD said...

Comforting to know that Tech Sgt Dunham's spiritual grandsons in the 3rd Infantry Division "Rock of the Marne" are carrying on the valiant traditions and honors as the most proficient, high tech, humanitarian, all weather killers of killers in history.

Tech Sgt Dunham's legacy continues to this day with the heroic exploits of "Rock of the Marne"

Anonymous said...

My father was a world war two veteran, flying supplies to the Chinese and our troops over the treacherous 'hump' every day for two years. He came back to Nashville, became a teacher and bettered the lives of over fifty thousand of his students. My greatest challenge is to be half the man he was, and better the world like he did.
from a proud and loving son.
I miss you dad