Richard W. "Dick" Durkee, 86, a highly decorated Army veteran who led bayonet attacks on enemy lines in two wars and received the military's second-highest medal for heroism, died Sept. 14 at his home in Berwyn Heights. He had dementia.
Mr. Durkee, who had been a promising boxer and baseball player in his youth, was an Army paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II. He was a member of the doomed 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion, which lost more than 80 percent of its 643 troops in Belgium's Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945. The casualties were so severe that the unit came to be known as the "Lost Battalion."
In 2001, Mr. Durkee was one of 40 surviving members of the Lost Battalion to be honored at the Pentagon with the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest award a military unit can receive.
In early January 1945, 2nd Lt. Durkee led his platoon in an assault on German machine gun emplacements in an effort to seize the Belgian town of Rochelinval, the site of a bridge that was the only means of escape for nearby German forces. As he approached the position, Lt. Durkee turned to another soldier, saying, "Send up the damn men so we can attack the town."
"Sir, I can't," the soldier answered. "They're all dead."
The lieutenant went back to find more than 15 men killed by machine gun crossfire.
"There was my platoon," he recalled in 2001, "body upon body."
After keeping his squad awake through the night, lest they fall asleep and freeze to death, Lt. Durkee ordered a daring maneuver on the mountainous battlefield Jan. 4, 1945. Running through ankle-deep snow, he led 30 soldiers in a bayonet charge on German lines. He was the first to reach the enemy foxholes, and in less than 30 minutes of hand-to-hand fighting, 60 German soldiers lay dead.
Allied forces captured Rochelinval on Jan. 7, 1945, and German forces retreated the next day.
At the Pentagon ceremony for Mr. Durkee and the other survivors of the Lost Battalion, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, said, "We are in the presence of heroes."
On March 23, 1951, six years after his extraordinary charge on German lines, 1st Lt. Durkee led a squad of soldiers in an attack near Uijongbu, Korea. His official citation captures the moment in all its drama, bravery and horror:
"When his ammunition was expended, Lieutenant Durkee single-handedly assaulted an enemy position and killed the occupant with his bayonet. Unable to remove his bayonet from the body of the dead soldier, he went unarmed to another hostile position, seized an enemy soldier's rifle by the bayonet, wrested the weapon from his hands and clubbed him to death. Although his hand was seriously lacerated during this action, Lieutenant Durkee continued to lead the assault against the enemy, and his men, inspired by the fearlessness of their leader, overwhelmed the hostile troops and secured the objective."
For this action, Mr. Durkee was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor for wartime heroism. His wounded right arm remained partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. By the time he left the Army in 1955 with the rank of captain, he had also received the Silver Star, two awards of the Bronze Star and four Purple Hearts.
Mr. Durkee was born in Hornell, N.Y., was a Golden Gloves middleweight boxing champion in 1938 and 1939 and later played semiprofessional baseball. After his military service, he graduated from the University of Maryland and became an insurance claims adjuster in Prince George's County for Markel Corp. He retired with a medical disability in the early 1970s.
He had lived in Berwyn Heights since 1955 and was a member of Hope Lutheran Church in College Park.
His marriage to Kathleen Durkee ended in divorce. His second wife, Sigrid Lohner Durkee, whom he married in 1954, died in 1981. A son from his second marriage, Lawrence Durkee, also died in 1981.
Survivors include two children from his first marriage, David W. Durkee of St. Petersburg, Fla., and Jeanne Freeman of Crownsville; three children from his second marriage, Richard W. Durkee Jr. of Safety Harbor, Fla., Sigrid "Susie" Hayward of Cordova, Md., and Kimberly D. Durkee of Berwyn Heights; 13 grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren; and five great-great-grandchildren.
Despite his disabled arm and persistent neck problems, Mr. Durkee enjoyed tennis and recreational sky diving. As a member of the International Association of Airborne Veterans, he made parachute jumps in Israel, China and Russia.
At age 74, while sky diving at the North Pole, he broke his neck and dislocated both shoulders upon landing. When a doctor spoke to his daughter, he said Mr. Durkee was "delirious," claiming he had been injured while jumping out of an airplane at the North Pole.
A year later, after he had been patched up, the old paratrooper made one final jump, just to prove he still could.