Eighty-eight year old Darrell Duncan of Cassville was born on the day World War I ended and the Armistice was being celebrated across the world, but the effects of that war and another World War not many years later affected his life more than he could have imagined.
Duncan’s father, who was still overseas in the army when Darrell was born, was gassed during the fighting, leaving him an invalid the rest of his life. And Darrell was to suffer battle wounds later that scarred him for the rest of his life. This is his story.
Though natives of Missouri, the Duncan family moved to Wisconsin while Darrell was still a young child and settled in Beetown, where he grew up. When World War II erupted, he was drafted into the US Army and assigned to the 114th Headquarters Company of the Fighting 44th Infantry Division. After basic training at Ft. Lewis, Wash., and assignments around the country, his outfit finally headed to Boston for shipping out to Europe. The voyage lasted 14 days as a navy escort charted a course to avoid German submarines.
“We landed in Normandy, two days after the battle of Omaha Beach began, “ he related, “and the sea , as far as one could see, was still red with the blood of those troops who made the initial invasion.” As his division pursued the retreating Germans, the enemy blew up munitions stockpiles and hurled tremendous fire power at the American and allied troops. “There were so many dead and dying everywhere….. it was a nightmare,” he said, adding, “We lived in fear most of the time. And, though it’s hard to imagine, I and many others had goose bumps as big as goose eggs on our bodies.”
When the Battle of the Bulge began, Duncan’s unit was right in the thick of it. He was wounded, treated at a field hospital and sent back to his outfit. A major second wounding sent him to an army hospital in France with shrapnel imbedded in his body from his jaw down to his left leg.
Doctors decided that only shrapnel from the leg would be removed. But following surgery, infection set in, and though surgical supplies were in short supply, the medical staff had no other choice but to reopen the wound, without being able to administer an anesthetic, to cleanse and drain it. Duncan shuddered as he told of the pain and screams that enveloped him, but was quick to name it a “million dollar wound” for it earned him his ticket to home. He moved out on a railroad cattle car to Austria and learned there that he was one of only three survivors of the more than a thousand original members of the 114th Headquarters Company.
One remembrance that remains with Duncan is that of more than 44,000 prisoners of war – Americans, Russians and others – they were able to free as they overtook enemy territory. “It was unbelievable to see men who were nothing but skin and bones, so badly treated and neglected,” he said.
The voyage back across the Atlantic took only 7 days this time, but best of all Duncan explained, during that time came the news of Japan’s surrender. “There was such joy and celebrating we could hardly sleep,” he said, “and when that Statue of Liberty came in view, we were overcome with emotion.”
Until records could catch up to him, now Sgt. Duncan trained new recruits at Camp Chaffee AR, and after nearly four years in service he mustered out at Camp McCoy, WI. “Back then there were no Welcome Home groups meeting returning soldiers, “ Duncan recalled. “We simply got on a bus or train and went back home. My mother didn’t know I was coming home until she saw me running to her across the field.”
Darrell picked up his life again in Beetown, married his sweetheart Margie Okey and pursued his interest in landscaping and forestry. He attended a florist school in Chicago and went on to establish successful shops in Lancaster and Madison as well as teach classes on gardening. Margie died at a young age, and Duncan later married Helen Yost who has remained his wife for many years.
When health became an issue the couple moved to Albuquerque, NM. He continued working as a florist there while developing an appreciation for desert plants until he and his wife retired to Cassville twenty-five years ago. No need to ask where they live. Just find the house facing the river where the yard is literally covered with flowers and shrubs.
Inside the house Duncan keeps the mementos of his US Army service – two purple hearts and bars, an expert rifleman’s medal, two presidential citations, three major battle stars, good conduct medal and a pillow cover depicting every place where the Fighting 44th left its mark. He also contends with a lasting limp from his wounded leg, and though he doesn’t fly, with all the shrapnel still in his body, he would set off major alarms if he passed through airport security check points.
When asked about the current deployment of troops, Duncan admitted he is very troubled by it because we face such a different culture and mindset and said he finds himself close to tears every time the picture of a fallen man or woman is shown. “It’s hard not to ask , ‘Whatever did I fight for?’” he concluded.