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Dick Dunning on Serving in the 102nd Infantry in World War II

Cpl. Richard Dunning with 102 Infantry in Germany, 1944, shown with a 105 Howitzer.

I graduated from Greene-Dreher High School in 1941 and got a job that fall at Standard Oil Company in Linden, New Jersey, where my father worked. Dad had me lined up for an interview with the company, but I didn’t have any college. I had studied agriculture and farming in high school and was trying to go to work for an oil company—that’s a big difference! So I came home and Price Utt hired me as a handyman at The Lancaster. A couple of months later I got a telegram from Standard Oil offering me a position as a messenger for $100 a month, which was very good pay in those days.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, we were shocked. We couldn’t believe it, it seemed impossible. Our senior class had voted on the question, “Will the United States get involved in the war?” and of the 13 students in my class not one of us thought we would. When we got into the war, I felt like, as an American, I should get in there and help clean this war up. In 1942, rather than wait to be drafted, I volunteered for service. I went to Newark and took a test to be a pilot. I didn’t pass. I had studied agriculture and farming in high school and could tell you how to milk a cow, but I didn’t have enough math to pass the test. So I went right next door and enlisted in the Army. I have never regretted that decision. But I wouldn’t want to do it again—I had some close calls!

I was assigned to the 102nd Infantry Division, which was just being activated. First I went to Fort Dix where I had to take care of the furnaces that heated the barracks, and the only thing I can say about it is, it was better than K.P. I thought I’d never get out of there. Then they shipped me to Camp Maxey and that’s where we had our basic training. We learned everything about soldiering from the bottom up.

Camp Maxey was a new post in Texas—these camps were springing up all across the country—and ours was the first division to train there. It had an artillery range, obstacle course, infiltration course, even a mock village set up the way it would be in Germany. We weren’t used to standing at attention and saluting and all the rules and orders, but I’m pretty flexible so I did what they wanted. I was always very athletic—had played soccer, basketball and baseball in high school—and one day I was just naturally out there doing my thing and the Sergeant says, “Dick, you take over for a while.” So I got the job of leading the calisthenics…no change in pay. We did push-ups, jumping jacks, and one we called the crow hop, jumping up as high as you can from a squat position. About four weeks before shipping overseas we started doing fast marches, twelve miles out and twelve back, twenty-four miles a day. We got up at 4 o’clock in the morning, ate breakfast at 5 o’clock, and were out and back by noon. First time was rough, but after we got used to it we’d march in the morning and play basketball all afternoon.

Next we went to Louisiana for more rigorous training. The maneuvers there simulated battle conditions, but we didn’t use live ammunition. We had to crawl on our bellies, fire a machine gun and throw hand grenades. I was assigned to the field artillery and we practiced on the firing range. Camp Maxey was near the coast, and we had to jump off a boat into the water in full gear. Everybody was a little spooked because some of the guys couldn’t swim. They learned pretty quick though. Another time we had to swim out and on the way back in we were supposed to sink down and push off the bottom, come up and go down again for another push off. I always like to do a little bit more than expected to make sure I’m doing my share, and I guess I got out too far. I couldn’t reach bottom and had to try again. The third time I just put my hand up and a guy came over and took me out. We had to do some tough stuff.

The 102nd Infantry included various battalions and companies—engineers, signal, artillery, reconnaissance, ordnance maintenance, the MPs, medical, we even had our own hospital—and we all went to combat as a team. I was in the 379th Field Artillery Battalion, Company C. We used the standard 105 mm field howitzer, and our job was to support the infantry. We were normally situated anywhere from one to seven miles from the front line. I was a gunner corporal, and my job was to traverse the barrel of the gun, move it left and right. The sight had a dial, and you could move it. I would crank the handle to move the gun barrel and line it up with the target. I’d look through the sight and focus on the aiming stakes first and then use the stakes as a reference point to focus on the target.

When we finished training we were sent back to Fort Dix, and then a few weeks later I got on a troop ship, the MS John Ericsson, to cross the Atlantic. It seemed like the entire division was on this one boat. It took us 12 days to get to Southampton, England, and I was sick as a dog! On top of that, our radar picked up a German submarine on the way over, and a U.S. Navy ship dropped several depth charges. We stayed aboard ship in Southampton and the next day crossed the English Channel to Cherbourg, France. We crossed on a huge raft under cover of night. The weather was bad, and there were no lights. Everybody was loaded down with gear— weapons, helmets, overcoats, blankets. Suddenly this huge American LST [landing ship, tank] was headed right toward us. Thank goodness the captain—or someone—swerved in time. The ship missed us by a matter of feet. With all of our heavy equipment and heavy clothes, we would have gone down like a rock. It’s a miracle they saw us under those conditions.

It was September of 1944, and it was raining when we landed in Cherbourg. We were soaking wet, but we couldn’t set up the tents until they swept the area for mines. We parked our howitzers and finally got to bed about midnight, still soaking wet. They woke us up about 4 a.m. and lined us up in front of a tent. When it was my turn I walked up to the desk and the officer said, “Can you drive a truck?” “Nope.” “Can you drive a car?” “Yep.” They put me into this big 10-wheel truck and I drove around a muddy field, shifting gears, stopping, starting, and that made me a fully-fledged GMC driver! So forget the artillery, I was now part of the Red Ball Express. Patton had taken off and was ahead of us stranded without supplies. The railway system had been destroyed prior to the D-Day invasion so the Germans couldn’t use it, and trucks were the only way to move supplies forward. So they grabbed our outfit to drive convoys from Cherbourg to Chartres. We were the infantry waiting to get up to the front, but Patton was on his run and went out on a limb and had to have supplies. I went from gunner corporal to truck driver, and for the next three weeks we took truckloads of ammunition, food, gasoline in jerry cans, even toilet paper, to his troops.

One thing I remember about that time were the buzz bombs—German V-1 rockets—you could hear them coming and see them flashing. Most were aimed across the English Channel at London. They were a sight to behold.

From there we went to Holland, set up the guns and fired the first rounds into Germany. There were four howitzers in our battery, and six men to each gun. In training, the guns were set close together, but when we got into combat the guns were set a couple hundred yards apart, maybe more. If we weren’t widely dispersed, one round could come in and wipe out the entire battery, so that was the reason for the spread. We’d drive up, disconnect the guns from the truck, and start digging holes. We threw the dirt up on the ground in front of us for protection. Then we positioned the gun—it was heavy—in the hole. We opened out the gun’s trails to support it and put in the pins to hold the trails in place. We’d go through the motions and set zero. The last thing we did was put up the camouflage cover overhead.

Our reconnaissance planes were small, one or two men, and they knew where they were going. They would look for German howitzers and would call back and give us instructions on where to fire. And we had observers up near the front to spot targets. Next thing you know, we’d get a fire mission from headquarters and we’d aim the guns according to their numbers. My job was to traverse the gun left to right. The number one man raised and lowered the muzzle, and I had to line up the sight. We’d fire one gun and find out if it was over or under, and then I’d use the aiming stakes to realign the sight. Because of the recoil the sight had to be realigned after each firing. The number one man, he’d say, “OK,” and I would say, “Ready, fire!” We used high-explosive armor-piercing shells and had seven different types of charges. Charge seven would shoot seven miles. If it was a charge two we’d throw five powder charges aside, and we knew when it got down to one or two, the enemy would be just over the hill!

Everything we fired wasn’t an explosive. Some were shells carrying propaganda messages to the Germans. When the shells burst in the air above the German troops, all of the papers would flutter to the ground. They were written in German and promised that we would take care of them and not shoot them if they would surrender. “Take this shell to the Americans and you’ll get a free ride.” I don’t know how successful those papers were. We also had poison gas shells, but we never used them.

We were positioned behind the infantry and moving forward all the time. We moved quickly, so we were in Holland only a short time. We started in Holland and when we stopped we could see Berlin burning. We went all the way across the country in 168 days.

Each time we moved we had to get the gun dug in again. If we dug down far enough, there was enough room to get three or four guys sleeping in there on the ground. Sometimes we’d do all that work and then have to move on the next day; other times we were in one place for a while if the troops ahead of us were stymied. One time we were dug into a sugar beet field and as long as the ground was frozen it was fine, but then the weather warmed a little and the rain loosened the dirt and the sugar beets started dropping down on us. We got out of there just in time.

It was winter. The only galoshes we had were from soldiers that had been killed in combat. Before crawling into my sleeping bag at night, I’d put my warmest clothes, sweaters and whatever I could find, in the bottom of the foxhole. We had to walk a good distance from our gun position to get back to headquarters and get dinner. The distance wasn’t bad, but the conditions we had to pass through were. Cows and horses had been killed in the course of the fighting, and they were lying in the fields. The stench was awful. One time we saw a German plane shot down with the pilot still inside, dead.

When we weren’t firing the gun or if it was raining, I covered the sight with a canvas bag. Once after a real rough bombardment I went to take the cover off and saw that a piece of shrapnel had gone right through it. Had I been looking through the sight when that shrapnel ripped through, I wouldn’t be here today. Another close call came when the Jerry and American planes were fighting, dive bombing, and I stepped out to watch them. I heard a piece of shrapnel whiz past me. I got back down in that hole so fast! Another time we were strafed by a German pilot who was flying so low we could see him in the plane. He crashed up the road a ways.

Our battery did not have anyone killed during combat. Some of the batteries had a muzzle bust, when the shell sticks in the tube and explodes, this happened to two or three guys. Of the four batteries in our unit, ours was the only one that didn’t have anyone killed. About seven or eight had shrapnel wounds, but we were lucky we did not lose a man.

Before the Battle of the Bulge there was a big meeting, and we were told that the Germans were massing a huge group of soldiers to try to punch through our lines. They named possible locations, but they didn’t know for sure when or where the attack would occur. They took our trucks away from us—the ones we used to tow our guns from one position to another—to keep them from the Germans should they break through the line near us. We did a lot of praying that night, and fortunately for us the Germans chose a point about a mile away. They broke through and went on past us. We were close enough to see the tank battle, but they never circled around to capture us and I don’t know how far through they got. This battle was the last straw for Hitler, this was the one that got it done or not done.

When we had advanced far enough to cross the Roer River, we wanted the Germans to think we had a lot of howitzers ready to cross over. Well, we had inflatable rubber guns that we could set up to look like regular howitzers, except they’d sway in the wind. We threw some empty shell cases around them to make it look as if they had been shooting. Normally during combat you’d hide the shiny brass cases, but we’d hang on to a few and throw them around the rubber guns. We wanted to scare them so they’d pull their troops from the area and then we could go in through the opening. It seemed to work well.

The Germans blew up a dam along the Roer River so we couldn’t cross, but our engineers put together pontoon bridges that enabled us to get across. They were large and strong enough to support a tank as well as our guns. The river wasn’t too wide but it was deep, and the first soldiers across had a bad time. As our troops advanced, the artillery would move up behind them. We were in the back, and the action was up ahead of us.

As the Germans retreated we’d come upon abandoned trenches that were about six feet deep and had sleeping bunks dug into the sides. We went into one looking for souvenirs. I crawled up into one of those bunks and found a hand grenade with the pin pulled out—I got out of there quick! A medic was working his way along the trench ahead of us looking for German blankets, which were good quality, and he stepped on a shoe mine. We could hear him screaming before he was taken to the rear.

At one point during our advance we found we were near a coal mine. This was lucky because the mines had water for the miners and we could go in and take hot showers—what a treat! We used our helmets filled with water for shaving, but we’d sometimes go for weeks without enough water for good washing. I’m talking about pretty damn cold weather, too. So when we found the coal mines, we enjoyed those showers.

We were moving along the road when a group of soldiers came along shouting, “Off! Get off the road!” So we pulled over and by golly, here comes Patton, standing up in his jeep, and he went right on past us. Some soldiers didn’t think much of old “Blood and Guts” Patton. They thought it meant his guts, but their blood.

After Germany surrendered in May of 1945 we became occupation troops. For the next eight months we didn’t have a whole lot to do. Since the war was over, we didn’t need anybody to walk guard. We would move into a town and just stay there. I’ll tell you one thing that happened: everyone got called up to stand in a line and at the end of the line were the officers and a woman. They went down the line carefully so that she could look at each one of us to see if she could spot the soldier who had raped her. All she had to do was point a finger, but she got all the way through without identifying anyone.

Turned out we were in the Russian Zone so we had to move out. The Russians and Germans hated each other, and any number of Germans tried to follow us to the next town. The German soldiers were shooting at the Russians while the civilians came out, women and children, so they could surrender to us and get a decent shake. We had a couple of thousand people coming toward us shouting “Hände hoch!” which means hands up. I remember one little boy who was crying… War is awful!

On one occasion my friend Bruce and I got passes and decided to go to Scotland. We were having a good time, met a couple of girls, just company, and decided to stay an extra day beyond our pass. When we took the train back from Scotland to London, it was late, about two in the morning, so we went to a hotel to get a room. We gave our information to the girl and she said, “Just a minute, I’ll be right back.” She came back with two burly MPs. There we were, one day over the hill, and they put us in the jug! It was a big building, and the guards were on the upper story and could look down on the cells. We saw some nasty-looking characters in there, we were leery of those guys. Fortunately we were in for only one night. Normally Bruce was a quiet guy, but he got really upset when the MPs arrested us, and he said, “We’ve been busting our butts in Germany, and you’re here sitting on your duffs.” He was told: “A court-martial will be in your discharge,” and it was.

When we got back to Germany, I got busted for the third time. They took my corporal stripes away, but fortunately I kept my Good Conduct Medal. They didn’t touch that. The first time I got busted I turned my stripes in because I didn’t feel I should be a gunner, but they kept me as a gunner anyway, as a private. The second time was during the occupation in Germany. Soldiers were always looking for wine or cognac, and this one guy always got nasty when he was drunk. On this occasion he was down on the ground shooting his carbine in the air until he ran out of shells. He was in my section so I was responsible for him. He said to me, “Corporal Dunning, I need some shells for my carbine.” I said, “You don’t want that,” and he said, “I can’t use my gun without any bullets.” So I told him, “There aren’t any.” He took the barrel of the gun and smashed the wooden part against a tailgate, broke it all to thunder. I promised him a hand grenade at midnight and that quieted him down. Fortunately, he slept through. The next day the commander called me into his office. They had been looking for me to go on a sniper detail, but I had been out hunting deer. They have these little roe deer, and I’d give the deer meat to the German people to eat. He wanted to know what had happened to Mederick’s carbine. He said Mederick had told him that a truck ran over it, and I said, “If that’s what Medrick told you, then that’s what happened.” I felt bad for the guy, he didn’t have much education. Then he said, “That’s not the way I heard it,” and took my stripes. If I hadn’t gotten busted I would have come out a sergeant first class. There were good days, and there were bad days.

We did a lot of fishing and playing ball during the occupation—volleyball, baseball, basketball, tennis, table tennis. And horseshoes were big. We had baseball fields, and there was a castle that had good tennis courts that we could use. We won the volleyball championship and got a three-day pass. While the war was going on, we had no opportunity for sports.

I sent home a request for fish hooks and line, and when they came we got pieces of wood, tied the line and hook on the end and dropped the hook down into the water. We caught some nice fish that way. One time we were near a covered bridge and we could see shiners in the water about 20 feet below. We had a .22 rifle and had found some shells and were shooting at them. If we shot near them, they’d flip over and lie on their side for a minute, and then they’d come to and swim downstream. We heard a splash on the other side of the bridge and got up and walked around and saw a huge fish eating the shiners as they swam by. I think it was a great northern pike.

I wrote a lot of letters home, some to family and friends and some to guys who had been in the service. I have some of these letters yet. My brother Jack lives in Waymart now. He was 12 years younger than me, and I used to send him postcards so he could see what Europe was like. My brother Woody was in the Navy and was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone while I was in Europe. We kept in touch, and one time I complained to him about our food. Too often it was grapefruit juice and K-rations. He wrote back that he was fishing for sharks and using T-bone steaks as bait!

I came home in February 1946 on the USS Lake Champlain. Although it took 12 days to go over, we made it back in four days. Lake Champlain had been converted from an aircraft carrier to a troopship and made four or five voyages bringing our GIs home from Europe. I have a copy of  “The Great Lake” that reports on its fourth voyage when it carried 5,286 veterans.

It was good to be back! When I was discharged I got $300 and felt like a King of the Road. In order to keep my job at Standard Oil, I had to go right back to work. I met my wife up here in the mountains—she had moved here from New York—and we were married in 1955. We lived in New Jersey but always came back with our three children to visit family and friends. I retired as Senior Research Technician in the Engineering Lab at Esso after 43 years and bought this house. It used to be my brother Woody’s.

I did come home with one souvenir, a panoramic sight from a German 88-mm anti-tank gun—it’s my prize. It’s still in its original box. The 88 was a dreaded gun, with a big shell and accurate. It shoots in a straight line, not like a howitzer which you can lob in. I have my uniform with the corporal stripes and the division insignia on the sleeve, but I haven’t had it on in a long time. The gold “O” and “Z” above the arc signify our division nickname, the Ozarks. The pins are for field artillery, and the ribbons represent the Rhineland and Central European Campaigns. And this one is my Good Conduct Medal.

When I retired I got the idea maybe I could find some of the guys from the 379th. The post office helped me find my friend, Duane. He was in Arkansas, and the postmaster said if I was looking for his address not to seal the envelope and that would give him a chance to look around. Then he said, “Yeah, I know Duane. My daughter goes to his wife to get her hair done.” All in all I was happy with the way things turned out. About 15 years ago a group of them got together and gave me this certificate and they all signed it. I was very much surprised! Out of the 75 people I located, there are 12 of us left. I still keep in touch with them as much as I can.

This article was first published in The Greene Hills of Home, Vol. 28, No. 3, September 2011.