Russell Dunham, Hero in 1945, Dies at 89

New York Times, April 10, 2009

By Richard Goldstein

Russell Dunham, who as an Army sergeant in World War II received the Medal of Honor for charging up a snowy hill in the Alsace region of France and single-handedly killing, wounding or capturing 18 German soldiers, died Monday, April 6, in Godfrey, Illinois. He was 89.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Mary Lee Neal.

On the afternoon of Jan. 8, 1945, Sergeant Dunham was leading a platoon in the 30th Infantry, Third Infantry Division, when the soldiers, among them his brother Ralph, were pinned down by German fire. They were at the bottom of a hill near the village of Kaysersberg, the birthplace of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Albert Schweitzer.

German machine-gunners and riflemen fired down on the Americans while an artillery barrage landed behind them. “The only way to go was up,” Mr. Dunham told Reader’s Digest long afterward.

Wearing as camouflage a white robe made from a mattress cover, Sergeant Dunham ran up the hill ahead of his platoon and charged a machine-gun emplacement. He was shot in the back, and his camouflage became useless: his white clothing was soaked with blood.

Despite “excruciating pain” from his wound, as the Medal of Honor citation told it, Sergeant Dunham wiped out three machine-gun nests and attacked German riflemen in foxholes. Moments later, Ralph Dunham destroyed a fourth machine-gun position.

Firing 175 rounds of carbine fire and throwing 11 grenades, Russell Dunham killed nine Germans, wounded seven and captured two others.

Two weeks later, his battalion was surrounded by German tanks at the French town of Holtzwihr. Most of the men were forced to surrender, but as Mr. Dunham told it to Peter Collier in his book “Medal of Honor,” he hid in a sauerkraut barrel outside a barn.

He was discovered by two German soldiers the next morning, but while searching him they found a pack of cigarettes in his pocket and began to fight over it. They never noticed a pistol in a shoulder holster under Sergeant Dunham’s arm.

While the Germans were taking him toward their lines, one of them stopped at a bar. Sergeant Dunham shot and killed the other soldier. He escaped on foot, was spotted a couple of days later by United States Army engineers building a bridge, and was treated for severely frozen feet.

He was awarded the Medal of Honor at a ceremony in Nuremberg, Germany, in April 1945.

Mr. Dunham, a native of East Carondelet, Ill., worked as a Veterans Administration counselor after the war.

In addition to his daughter, from his marriage to his first wife, Mary, which ended in divorce, Mr. Dunham is survived by a stepdaughter, Annette Wilson; a stepson, David Bazzell; his brothers Jim, Floyd and Junior; his sisters Josephine, Florence and Charlotte; three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. His second wife, Wilda, died in 2002. His brother Ralph survived the war and died years later.

In a 1999 interview with The Alton Telegraph in Illinois, Mr. Dunham told how “the shrapnel in my leg is a reminder of the war we fought.”

And a vivid image endured from that snowy hillside in France: “It happened in 1945, but I still remember staring into the eyes of the German machine-gunner.”



 

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