Russell Dunham dies at 89; Medal of Honor recipient
By By Joe Holley
Apr 09, 2009 | 12:00 AM
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.
Holley is a reporter for the Washington Post, where this report first appeared.