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Frank Denius, soldier who helped to hold a vital hill in World War II, dies at 93

Frank Denius was a 19-year-old staff sergeant when he and 700 other men of the U.S. Army’s 30th Infantry Division – “Old Hickory” – found themselves on a hill in Mortain, Normandy, France, in August 1944 surrounded by four German Panzer divisions, including hundreds of tanks and heavy guns, and 40,000 Nazi troops, among them members of Hitler’s elite SS forces.

Denius, a forward artillery observer, and his comrades were trapped for six days. Half were killed or wounded in what the Texas-raised Denius, who died July 29 at 93, once called “an Alamo situation for sure.”

The hill in question – Montjoie – was known to the Allied military as Hill 314 from its height in meters; although only 1,030 feet high, it was by far the highest point in the region.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of Allied forces in Europe, ordered Old Hickory to “hold it all costs” as part of an effort to block Hitler’s counterattack to drive the Allies out of France and across the English Channel after the Normandy landings that June. Mr. Denius had waded ashore with a 150-pound backpack on Omaha Beach in the hours after the initial D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

From the two ends of Montjoie’s summit, hundreds of yards apart, Denius and 2nd Lt. Bob Weiss were able to call in Allied air and artillery strikes against the Nazi forces firing on the hill with tanks, artillery, machine guns and rifles, in Denius’ words, “24/7 for six days.”

With no specific front line around the base of the hill, he and his comrades engaged in hand-to-hand or bayonet combat with German soldiers they encountered at night, as both sides tried to draw water from the nearest well or pick up food rations dropped by U.S. aircraft.

When Denius’ men’s food and medical supplies ran out, he even called in a “friendly fire” artillery strike on his own precise position, requesting nonexplosive shells containing food and morphine for men who were badly wounded or dying. “Are you sure you want us to do that?” came the reply of the radio operator, who knew that even without explosives, artillery shells could kill.

“Back at the artillery line which was about 8-10 miles behind us, they took the propaganda shells (no explosives attached) and stuffed cotton and morphine and penicillin in those shells,” Denius said last year in an interview that was published on the Veterans Project blog, which honors the memory of American veterans of many wars.

Some of those shells buried themselves several feet in the ground, but Denius and his comrades dug them out. “Now you’d imagine that when those shells hit the ground it would mashup those supplies but we were still able to get some of the morphine and penicillin to the wounded troops,” he said.

Most historians say that Mortain was the battle that changed the outcome of the war in France after the Normandy landings. Senior German officers later acknowledged that defeat at Mortain was the “beginning of the end” for Hitler’s forces, which were forced back from Hill 314 in disarray.

Still with Old Hickory, Denius went on to help capture the German city of Aachen, part of the Nazis’ Siegfried Line. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the war’s bloodiest conflicts.

His decorations included four Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts, and in 2012, he received one of France’s highest awards, Knight of the Legion of Honor, for his “virtue, bravery and strong commitment to liberation.”

Franklin Wofford Denius was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 4, 1925. When he was still a baby, his parents moved to Athens, Tex. He was 9 when his parents divorced, and he was raised by his mother and her parents.

At 13, he enrolled at the Schreiner Institute (now Schreiner University) in Kerrville, Texas, where the emphasis was on military discipline, religious instruction and general education. He was still at Schreiner, just short of his 17th birthday, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

As soon as he turned 17, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to The Citadel military college in Charleston, South Carolina, to be trained as an artillery forward observer.

After the war, Denius enrolled at the University of Texas. He graduated with degrees in business and law in 1949. In Texas, he was best remembered as a financial and spiritual supporter of his alma mater, notably as a sponsor and honorary captain of the football team, the Texas Longhorns. After his death, the university called him “the ultimate Longhorn.”

He met Charmaine Hooper at a football game after the war, and they were married on Saturday, Nov. 19, 1949, the only day the Longhorns had a weekend off that season.

Denius began his legal career at the Austin law firm of Looney & Clark, where he built a reputation as a subtle but capable trial lawyer. He became a name partner in the firm Clark, Thomas, Denius, Winters & Harris, where he often represented President Lyndon B. Johnson in personal and business matters and became a lifelong friend to Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird. In 1976, he left the firm to set up his own practice.

He also represented Texas oil and gas businesses and eventually became president and chairman of the Southern Union Co., a natural gas company co-founded by his uncle and mentor, Wofford Cain.

Denius died of pancreatic cancer in a hospice center in Austin, said his son, Wofford Denius, an entertainment and music lawyer who lives in Beverly Hills, California. Survivors also include a daughter, Charmaine McGill, a philanthropist in Austin; and two grandsons. His wife died in 2014.

At the time of his death, Denius was president of the Cain Foundation, established by his uncle, which provides grants to Texas-based charities. His son and daughter continue to work with the foundation.

On Veterans Day 2009, the Frank Denius Memorial Plaza was dedicated outside the Longhorns’ stadium in Austin, honoring UT alumni who fought for their country. Denius commissioned a bronze statue he called “The Doughboy” to represent American veterans of all wars. With the help of historian Thomas Hatfield, he chronicled his war experiences in an autobiography, “On the Way: My Life and Times,” published in 2016.

Two years earlier, on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Mortain, Denius returned to Hill 314 for a ceremony honoring the 30th Infantry Division with a mini-ticker-tape parade. He walked up the hill with 500 local dignitaries and French townspeople to revisit his old foxhole. The event was filmed for a documentary by Lew Adams of VNE Productions in Austin.

“I hope that American people will always understand what freedom is and the price of freedom,” Denius said to the camera. “Because if you don’t, there still remain French people who can describe it for you.”

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