Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – “The pillboxes.”
Jim Duncan doesn’t even blink before naming the World War II episode that stands out most starkly in his memory.
It was, without doubt, he said, that time his outfit was trying to knock out German pillboxes, concrete blockhouses manned by armed defenders, and Duncan was sent out alone to draw the enemy’s fire.
“Duncan, we are attacking those pillboxes over there. I want you to head out of these woods and run as fast as you can.”
If it wasn’t a suicide mission, it sure seemed like it. The idea was that, while the Germans concentrated their fire on Duncan, the American forces could lock in on the enemy’s position.
“That was my most frightening experience,” Duncan said. “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 were apparently too focused on the main body of Americans to bother blazing away at a single, sprinting man. He could hear the enemy firing, but doesn’t think any bullets came close to him.
“But we did get the pillbox,” he said.
During the war, Duncan received two Purple Hearts – one for getting an arm mangled bloody in barbed wire and the other for taking some shrapnel in a leg, injuries he considers inconsequential.
“If you live long enough, you become a hero,” he said.
Duncan said today, Veterans Day, is for remembering the heroes who did not live long enough, those who did not come back from the war. He figures he may have known as many as 100 of those men.
“I saw a lot of people get killed,” he said. “A lot of people I saw carried off wounded, and others we left behind wounded because we had to keep moving. I have no idea how many of these people died.”
Duncan, 96, was sitting in his apartment in a Santa Fe retirement community, his memories close by – framed and hanging on the walls, in photo albums stacked on shelves, preserved deep inside himself – as he told his story.
He was born in Madison, Wisconsin, the son of a career Army officer who served on Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff during World War II. Because of his father’s profession, Duncan’s family moved often. He was living in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when he went into the Army in June 1943, just after his 18th birthday.
He volunteered for the infantry, but was sent to specialized Army training at West Virginia University.
“I was pulled out of there to go overseas as a replacement,” Duncan said. “I was glad to go. I felt I had been cheated (out of combat).”
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 was fought in the Ardennes Region of Belgium from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, and was the bloodiest combat engaged in by the United States during the war.
In March 1945, less than two months after the Allied Forces were victorious at the Battle of the Bulge, the 2nd Infantry Division, including Duncan, arrived at Remagen, Germany, a Rhine River town, to guard a bridge that had been captured by the U.S. 9th Armored Division. The Allies were able to move five divisions over the Rhine before the bridge, which was under near continuous bombardment by the Germans, finally collapsed.
The 2nd Infantry Division moved through Germany, fighting as it went.
“We came to a castle,” Duncan said. “We had a tank destroyer with a big gun on it.” The tank destroyer fired on the German position.
“Four Germans and a machine gun fell out of that turret,” Duncan said. “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 that they were pleading not to be shot.
” ‘We will not shoot you,’ I told them. ‘Americans do not shoot women and children.’ We got them some K-rations (canned combat food).”
In April, the 2nd Infantry Division captured Leipzig, Germany.
After seizing Leipzig, the 2nd Infantry moved east to Germany’s Mulde River.
It was near the border of Germany and Czechoslovakia that Duncan and other members of the 2nd Infantry Division came upon a schoolhouse with an open field on one side and dense woods on the other side and behind the school.
Two things there remain etched indelibly in his memory.
“There was an American tank in front of the school with dead, burned-up bodies inside,” Duncan said.
The other thing was the motorcycle with a sidecar that suddenly appeared, coming as fast as it could out of the woods near the school and into the open field.
Men of the 2nd Infantry fired on the cycle, which overturned amidst a hail of bullets. Later, it was found that those on the motorcycle were wearing civilian clothes.
“The men fired reactively, as they had been trained to do,” Duncan said. “Anything that was a threat, or might be a threat, you shot at. I didn’t shoot, but I was the one in charge of that group of people who did. Some German soldiers were putting on civilian clothes then. You just don’t know.”
The tank, those people on the motorcycle, stick with him all these years later, memories just a shade less vivid than the sprint to the pillbox and its machine guns.
“You rationalize enough to say, ‘Don’t forget about it, but learn to live with it.’ ”
The 2nd Infantry Division crossed into Czechoslovakia on May 4, 1945, and attacked and liberated the city of Pilsen just before the war in Europe ended on May 8.
In July 1945, the 2nd Division arrived at Camp Swift in Bastrop County, Texas, to begin training for the invasion of Japan. But the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan on Aug. 6 and 9, 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 were married in September 1947 and had seven children, six sons and one daughter.
Duncan had a successful 35 years in the banking business in Michigan, retiring 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 the city in the early ’90s.
Colleen, who died in 2000, was active as a volunteer with the Museum of New Mexico. The store at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is named for her.
More than two years ago, Duncan was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and has been in hospice care at his home for a year.
He wonders how many people today remember World War II, or even know about the war.
“People today might 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 to come back and do the things I’ve had the chance to do?”