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RUSSELL DUNHAM, 89

Russell Dunham, 89, Awarded Medal of Honor in World War II

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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Russell Dunham, 89, 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 April 6 at his home in Godfrey, Ill., of congestive heart failure.

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, on the Franco-German border. The men were issued white mattress covers as camouflage in the deep snow.

Heavily armed, Sgt. 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, tearing open 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 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 now stained a conspicuous red, Sgt. 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, Sgt. Dunham chased them down the back side of the hill. He and his elder brother Ralph, who was in the same unit, encountered a fourth machine gun; the older Dunham 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 Sgt. 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.

Sgt. 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 Sgt. Dunham shot him in the head. He set off toward 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 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.

He was born in East Carondelet, Ill., on Feb. 23, 1920, and grew up in Fosterburg, Ill. When he was about 16, he went to live with brother Ralph in St. Louis, and the two young men made a Depression-era living selling soup and tamales on the street and in bars.

After the war, Mr. 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.


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