World War II veteran shares life of selfless service
May 8, 2014
FORT SILL, Okla. May 8, 2014 -- May 8, 1945, Allied forces celebrated victory over the German army; after four hard years of war American service members were ready to go home and get on with their lives.
Pfc. Hall Duncan was one of those GIs, but wasn't eligible to return stateside as he didn't have enough points to qualify to leave.
Undaunted, he chose to put that time to good use. The Oklahoma City native enrolled in college classes in what became a lifetime pursuit of self-improvement. Having just eclipsed 90 years of life, Duncan encouraged today's Soldiers to prepare for the future.
"Wherever you are take advantage of the opportunities to learn," he said. "Try to tie them in with things that you believe might be possibilities for you later in life."
Like many of today's Soldiers, Duncan's enlistment included combat. He arrived in France as a combat engineer in 1944, but fighting was so fierce, he was soon pressed into service as an infantryman. His unit, 3rd Battalion, 101st Infantry Regiment, was helping to clear the way for Lt. Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army just prior to the Battle of the Bulge.
"We were put into combat as quickly as they could get us there; so quick, you didn't know the buddy next to you," he said. "I didn't know my officers; the Germans were very good at picking out and eliminating them."
Fighting to liberate Bourgaltroff and Guebling, France, his unit was wiped out nearly three times. He said German machine gunners mowed down men like ducks at a county fair shooting gallery.
"I don't know how many Beethovens, Bachs, scientists and counselors were killed that day," said Duncan who estimated he was one of five or 10 survivors out of hundreds killed.
Barely a week into the fighting, Duncan was carrying a wounded battle buddy out of harm's way when he too was wounded and sent to an Army Field hospital. His brief combat time earned him a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. While under medical care, het met the "Old Man" as Soldiers in the 3rd Army called Patton.
"He came around, I'm almost sure, to find out why the losses ," said Duncan.
He remained in France to recover from his wounds, and in time, became friends with a couple French families that continue today.
When the war ended in Europe, he applied for and was accepted to study at Edinburgh and Aberdeen, Scotland. Following two brief terms, he'd accumulated enough points to return to the United States where he was discharged in April 1946. He then employed a benefit many veterans tapped into.
"I would never be where I am today without the GI Bill," said Duncan, who also studied in China, Scotland, Ireland and Belgium.
Even as he studied for his future, his mind continued to wrestle with the intensity and carnage he witnessed in battle. For the next eight years, he suffered from what today is known as post traumatic stress disorder. Then, he discovered peace within and a way to cope with the images and incidents that still occupied his mind "It's helping other people," he said emphatically.
Initially he thought his cartooning would be his best ticket to make a difference in the world via newspaper editorial pages. Though this proved successful, his combat time compelled him to do more with his life than make money.
He found meaning doing mission work in the Congo and in South Africa where he taught literacy and art.
Education remained a centerpiece of his service to others. He completed master's degrees in anthropology and education, taught college classes at Oklahoma State University for 17 years and finished a doctoral degree in cross cultural communication in South Africa.
Victor Driver is one of the many people Duncan helped along the way as he recruited him to attend Central State University with a personal letter and a phone invitation to visit the art department.
"As a student, I had great respect for without knowing about his life experience in World War II or as a missionary in Africa," said Driver, who refers to his mentor as Dad. "I get to see a man who practices what he believes in: the Golden Rule."
Recently, Duncan's life returned full circle back to France, where, in a sense, events long ago shaped what would become his life's work. Through contacts with French friends, he learned about a program to present the nation's Legion of Honor to World War II service members who aided French efforts to shed the yoke of Nazi tyranny. Duncan sent in paperwork, and returned to France in November to receive his medal.
The ceremony, Nov. 19, included active duty French soldiers, citizens of Guébling and Bourgaltroff, and the commandant of the French army in northeastern France who pinned the medal on him.
"I received that medal on behalf of all who fell the day I was there; it's not about me at all," he said. "Where it should be is with those who have gone before they are the ones who deserve the awards."
Living in a modest, orderly apartment, Duncan is surrounded by manuscripts, cartoons he's drawn and partially completed projects that vie for his attention. At an age when many people sit back and relax, he continues, with Driver's assistance, to look to the future and new ways to help others. Recently, he published a youth novel, "Escape to Macaya," about a teen kidnapped and sold into slavery. That issue caught Duncan's attention and he expects it will keep him busy for however long he has left in his lifetime. (Editor's note:Duncan will visit the Fort Sill Main Exchange, May 9 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to sign copies of his latest book.)