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This Day in History: Russell Dunham's Medal of Honor

On this day in 1945, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Russell Dunham has been credited with saving the lives of 120 American soldiers.


Indeed, his Medal citation would later describe the one-man attack he launched as “spectacular.”


Perhaps Dunham was an unlikely hero? He’d joined the Army in 1940 mostly because he needed a job. His enlistment rescued him from a life in St. Louis where he was “ek[ing] out a living peddling soup, hot tamales, and other items on the streets,” as a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter would later describe. 


The young man’s new job first took him to North Africa, Sicily, and Italy before landing in France in 1944.


On January 8, 1945, he was serving near Kaysersberg, France: His platoon had been tasked with attacking a snowy hill held by the enemy. They were to secure it before a scheduled American artillery strike.


Instead, the platoon got pinned down by enemy fire. Dunham figured the “only way to go was up,” as he later told Reader’s Digest. It was a modest description of the single-handed attack on three enemy nests that would follow.


“Wearing a white robe made of a mattress cover,” his Medal citation later described, “carrying 12 carbine magazines and with a dozen hand grenades snagged in his belt, suspenders, and buttonholes, TSgt. Dunham advanced in the attack up a snow-covered hill under fire from two machine guns and supporting riflemen.”

Medal of Honor ceremony for 3rd Infantry Division Soldiers (April 1945). Left to right: Lt. Col. Keith L. Ware, 1st Lt. John J. Tominac, Tech. Sgt. Russell Dunham, Staff Sgt. Lucian Adams, and Pvt. Wilburn K. Ross.

He reached the first machine gun nest and charged at it, throwing grenades. He managed to take out some of the enemy, but not before he was hit.


The force of that blow was so strong that it sent him tumbling 15 yards back down the hill. He had a 10-foot gash in his back, and he was bleeding excessively.


“That’s when I got mad, you know,” he later told an interviewer. “I mean, that’s when I said, ‘I got to get rid of these guys.’”


He jumped up and resumed his attack. “You either fight your way out or lose,” he shrugged. And that’s just what he did, even though the white robe he’d been using was covered in blood and no longer an effective camouflage against the snow.


In the end, he attacked and took out three enemy nests, despite his injuries. He killed 9 of the enemy, wounded another 7, and took 2 prisoners. He had used about 175 rounds of ammo and 11 grenades.


Dunham’s story doesn’t end there, though. A few weeks later, his unit was surrounded by enemy tanks and forced to surrender. In a funny twist, the German guards who searched him got distracted by the cigarettes and candy they found in his pockets. As they fought over how to split up their find, they failed to find Dunham’s hidden pistol. He later used it to escape.


He managed to get back to American lines, but only after he’d survived three days in subzero temperatures.


Dunham received the Medal of Honor just a few months later.


“I don’t claim to be a hero,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter. “I had good men. They should have given it to the whole squad.”


Humble, as so many Medal recipients are.

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