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Russell Dunham took out three machine gun nests, then went back to the front

Russell Dunham, a World War II Army veteran who received 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 on a snowy morning in 1945, died Monday at his home in Godfrey, Ill., of congestive heart failure. 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 Kayserberg, France. The men were issued white mattress covers as camouflage in the deep snow.

Heavily armed, Mr. Dunham scrambled 75 yards up a snow-covered hill toward the German machine guns. 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, tearing open a 10-inch gash. As he struggled to his feet, a grenade landed nearby; he kicked it away before it exploded.

He crawled through the snow to the machine gun 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.

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

The 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

His captors took him toward German lines. The driver stopped at a bar, the second soldier's attention wandered and Mr. Dunham shot him in the head. He set off for American lines in sub-zero 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 told him that the commanding officer had intended to recommend him for the Distinguished Service Cross but had changed his mind. The officer had decided he deserved the Medal of Honor.

In a 1999 interview, Mr. Dunham told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he wasn't aware of being in great danger at the time, or in other battles. "Once you get into battle, you forget your fears," Mr. Dunham said.

After the war, Mr. Dunham worked for 32 years as a benefits counselor with the Veterans Administration in St. Louis. His first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife, Wilda Long-Bazzell Dunham, died in 2002.

Mr. Dunham fought in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France, earning a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and almost every other combat medal available.

There are 98 living Medal of Honor recipients, about two dozen of them World War II vets.

Russell Dunham took out three machine gun nests, then went back to the front 04/08/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 11:31pm]
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