Typically, the actions for which a man is awarded the Medal of Honor are the most exciting and frightening of his military career.
For Russell Dunham, it was crawling up a snow-covered hill using a white mattress cover as camouflage to destroy three German machine-gun nests single-handedly. Saving the lives of over 120 men, Dunham’s selfless and gallant act led to the Medal of Honor.
However, as far as fascinating war stories go Dunham was not finished yet.
Having been captured just weeks after hiding in a sauerkraut barrel, Dunham was quietly plotting his escape. When the opportunity presented itself, Dunham shot his captor, ran into the frozen woods, and raced towards American lines amid a flurry of German activity.
It was only upon his return to his unit that he discovered he had been put up for the nation’s highest military honor. He would go home with not one, but two inexplicable stories for the history of the war to chronicle.
A Natural Fighter
Russell Dunham was born in 1920 Illinois and spent the majority of his youth traveling from one place to another. His mother died when he was seven-years-old, and his father was very hard on him as they fought to survive through the great depression.
At age 16, Dunham left home to live with his brother in St. Louis and began the process of fending for himself. By 1940 with work hard to find, he joined the Army with his brother and a friend. Knowing that war was on the way, they felt it a responsibility to do their duty as much as it was to put food in their stomachs.
In late 1942, Dunham and his brother were heading out to North Africa with the 3rd Infantry Division.
To say that Dunham was suited for fighting is an understatement. He would exit the war not only with the Medal of Honor, but a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Croix de Guerre to go along with it.
Following fighting in North Africa, he and his brother were sent to Italy. Seeing plenty of action in the brutal campaign up the Italian peninsula, by the time Dunham set foot in France he was a proven and hardened combat veteran.
Storm the Hill
On January 8, 1945, Dunham was with his platoon on a snow covered hill near Kayserberg, France. They were pinned down by three enemy machine gun nests firing from the top of a snowy hill. Having been issued with white mattress covers for camouflage in the snow, Dunham said a quick prayer “God, give me this day” and crept up the hill under heavy machine gun fire.
Crawling over 75 yards, Dunham reached his target and threw a hand grenade killing two Germans and stunning a third. Having been instructed to take prisoners for interrogation, Dunham reached into the bunker, grabbed the German by the collar, and tossed him down the hill towards the rest of his platoon.
He then set out for the second machine-gun nest, but a bullet tore through his back sending him rolling 20 yards down the hill. However, he leaped back to his feet and resumed the charge launching a grenade into the nest killing the occupants.
Noticing a grenade landing at his feet, Dunham kicked it away without a second thought and charged the third nest. He blew that one up as well. When a German fired at him at point-blank range and missed, Dunham killed his ninth German of the day.
Dunham’s brother, Ralph, who had fought beside him throughout the war, took out a fourth machine gun nest.
Dunham would later muse that back at base the rest of the unit was asking what all the shooting was about only to be told: “the Dunham brothers were on the loose again.”
Escape from Captivity
Insisting on returning to his unit before his wounds had fully healed, Dunham was part of an ill-fated attack on the town of Holtzwihr. Unaware of the presence of German tanks, Dunham’s company were surrounded, and most had to surrender.
With quick thinking, Dunham jumped through a window and hid inside a sauerkraut barrel near a barn for the duration of the night. Unfortunately, when he stepped out to relieve himself the next day, two German soldiers captured him.
As they searched him, they came across his cigarettes and began to argue over who would get them. In doing so, they missed his concealed shoulder pistol. The Germans then placed Dunham in a jeep and headed for the German lines. However, on the way, they pulled up at a bar. When one of the Germans went inside, Dunham shot the other German in the head. He then headed off into the frozen woods for what would be a three-day journey back to friendly lines.
Moving at night towards the direction of friendly gunfire, Dunham was severely frost-bitten and in need of medical attention when he reached American lines. He returned to his unit in Germany after a period of recuperation, but the hard-charging Dunham brothers never saw combat again.
After the war, Dunham worked for the Veteran’s Administration and eventually passed away at the age of 89. While his accolades certainly outweighed those of his brother, the two men went down in history as a powerful fighting duo worthy of remembrance.