Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

War and Memory –

World War II veteran Jim Duncan, 96, shares his wartime experiences at his Santa Fe home Wednesday, November 3, 2021. (Eddie Moore / )

Copyright © 2021

SANTA FE – “The pill boxes”.

Jim Duncan doesn’t even blink before naming the episode of World War II that he remembered most clearly.

Undoubtedly, he said, his troops had tried to take out German bunkers, concrete block houses with armed defenders, and Duncan had been sent alone to draw fire from the enemy.

“Duncan, we’re attacking the bunkers over there. I want you to leave this forest and run as fast as possible. “

If it wasn’t a suicide squad, it sure seemed so. While the Germans concentrated their fire on Duncan, the American forces were to hold onto the enemy’s position.

Jim Duncan in World War II. (Courtesy Jim Duncan)

“That was my most terrifying experience,” said Duncan. “Machine guns scared me more than anything. German machine guns had a much faster rate of fire than American machine guns. “

Fortunately for Duncan, the Germans apparently were too focused on the majority of Americans to bother shooting at a single, sprinting man. He could hear the enemy firing, but believes no bullets came near him.

“But we got the pill box,” he said.

During the war, Duncan received two Purple Hearts – one for bloodily mutilating one arm with barbed wire, and the other for putting shrapnel in one leg, injuries he considers insignificant.

“If you live long enough you will become a hero,” he said.

Duncan said that today is Veterans Day to remember the heroes who didn’t live long enough, who didn’t return from the war. He assumes that he could have known up to 100 of these men.

“I saw how many people were killed,” he said. “Many people I saw were taken away wounded and we left others wounded because we had to move on. I have no idea how many of these people died. “

Duncan, 96, sat in his Santa Fe retirement home with his memories close by – framed and hanging on the walls, stacked in photo albums on shelves, kept deep inside – as he told his story.

He was born in Madison, Wisconsin, to a career officer who served on General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff during World War II. Due to his father’s occupation, Duncan’s family moved often. He was living in Kalamazoo, Michigan when he joined the Army in June 1943, shortly after his 18th birthday.

He volunteered for the infantry but was sent to specialized army training at West Virginia University.

“I was pulled out to go overseas as a replacement,” said Duncan. “I was happy to go. I felt betrayed (outside of the fight). “

Duncan was transported to Le Havre, France, and into the fierce fighting that marked the final months of the war in Europe. He took part in the last days of the Battle of the Bulge, which ran from December 16, 1944 to January 25, 1945 in the Ardennes, Belgium, and was the bloodiest battle in the United States during the war.

In March 1945, less than two months after the Allied victory in the Battle of the Bulge, the 2nd US 9th Armored Division met. The Allies were able to move five divisions across the Rhine before the bridge, which was shot at almost continuously by the Germans, finally collapsed.

The 2nd Infantry Division moved through Germany and fought.

“We came to a castle,” said Duncan. “We had a tank destroyer with a big gun on it.” The tank destroyer fired at the German position.

“Four Germans and a machine gun fell out of that tower,” said Duncan. “Then we heard women and children screaming in this newer castle, a forest house nearby.”

The Americans found German women and children hiding in a cellar. Duncan understood enough German to know they were pleading not to be shot.

‘We won’t shoot you,’ I told them. “Americans don’t shoot women and children.” We got them a couple of K rations (canned food). “

In April the 2nd Infantry Division captured Leipzig.

After the conquest of Leipzig, the 2nd Infantry moved east to the Mulde in Germany.

Near the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia, Duncan and other members of the 2nd

Two things remain etched in his mind there.

“There was an American tank in front of the school with dead, burned bodies,” said Duncan.

The other was the motorcycle with a sidecar that suddenly appeared and came out of the woods near the school and into the open field as quickly as possible.

Men of the 2nd Infantry shot at the wheel, which turned over in the hail of bullets. It was later discovered that the motorcycle riders were wearing civilian clothes.

“The men fired reactively as they learned to,” Duncan said. “You shot at anything that was or could be a threat. I didn’t shoot, but I was the one responsible for this group of people. Some German soldiers put on civilian clothes at the time. You just don’t know. “

The tank, these people on the motorcycle, stayed with him all these years later, memories just a tad less vivid than the sprint to the bunker and his machine guns.

“You rationalize enough to say, ‘Don’t forget it, but learn to live with it.’ ”

The 2nd Infantry Division marched into Czechoslovakia on May 4, 1945 and attacked and liberated the city of Pilsen shortly before the end of the war in Europe on May 8.

In July 1945, the 2nd Division arrived at Camp Swift, Bastrop County, Texas to begin training for the invasion of Japan. But the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan on August 6th and 9th, and the war in the Pacific was over a few days later.

After the war, Duncan enrolled at Western Michigan University and met fellow student Colleen Cloney. They married in September 1947 and had seven children, six sons and a daughter.

Duncan had 35 successful years in Michigan banking and retired in 1985 as chairman, chief executive officer and president of a major bank and trust company.

The Duncans bought a house in Santa Fe in 1979 and settled in town in the early 1990s.

Colleen, who died in 2000, was a volunteer at the Museum of New Mexico. The shop in the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is named after her.

Duncan was diagnosed with esophageal cancer more than two years ago and has been in his home in the hospice for a year.

He wonders how many people today remember World War II or even know about the war.

“People today may not even know who (President Franklin D.) Roosevelt was or who Eisenhower was,” he said. “What can we do to make sure we remember that we don’t forget the guys who never had the privilege of coming back and doing the things I had the chance to do?”

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