In Memory, Evergreen: A soldier’s story, life in service, a kiss – Hall F. Duncan (January 27, 1924-November 30, 2020)
Note: This is revised and expanded from a story first posted in 2017, and printed in The City Sentinel newspaper.
Hall Duncan had many successes over a long career in art, journalism, education and other fields. After retirement from the University of Central Oklahoma, he still drew daily and worked on a children’s book.
When we last spoke, he had no intention of slowing down.
In 1944-45, as an enlisted man, he served in George Patton’s Third Army in two battles (leading up to the Battle of the Bulge).
An Oklahoman educated at Classen and Taft in the Oklahoma City public school system, he was a teenager when he entered the Army. After basic training at Fort Dix, he got to France after the Normandy invasion.
As part of Company I, Third Battalion, 101st Infantry, 26th Infantry (Yankee) Division, Private Duncan was soon at the front-lines – replacing soldiers killed or wounded before him. He ultimately fought in two battles. His efforts contributed to the liberation of Luxemburg and Belgium. (After suffering a serious wound, he was transferred into the Quartermaster Corps.)
On November 18-19, in 1944, there raged fights near the villages of Guebling and Bourgaltroff (close to the German border) during which Duncan’s unit lost 80 percent of its men (killed our wounded). They served under General George Patton, commander of the Third Army of which the Yankee Division was part.
After fierce fighting, Duncan was helping another soldier, seriously wounded, as they searched for medical help. They were crossing a field covered with dead soldiers.
The man he was assisting “probably saved my life.” Weakened, that fellow started to fall. As their knees buckled, a German sniper’s shot rang out. Because he was pulled toward the ground, Hall believed, the bullet that struck his right hand but missed his lower region, where it might have been fatal.
The pair made it to safety. Duncan saw his comrade days later, recovering.
During his hospital stay, one visitor was Gen. Patton, with whom he had a short conversation.
After his ultimate recovery, Duncan joined a supply (quartermaster’s) unit. The Third Army fought into Germany. The unit’s fighting ended at Pilsen (May 7, 1945) in what is now the Czech Republic.
In our longest interview, Hall said that after seeing soldiers die who stood two feet away from him in days of carnage, “I decided to spend my life helping others who are deprived of things we take for granted.”
After the death of his first wife, Margaret, Duncan was married for 13 years to Lois, before her death in 2011.
Years ago Duncan began to inquire about his military records, wanting to chronicle his time in Europe.
He got the help of now U.S. Sen. James Lankford (then serving in the House of Representatives) whose work yielded a remarkable discovery. In a ceremony, he presented a total of eight medals earned but not previously disclosed: The Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two bronze service stars, World War II Victory Medal, Combat Infantry Badge 1st Award, and Honorable Service Lapel Button World War II.
Over the past decade, Hall took several trips to Europe, to meet with European military veterans and get acquainted with a new generation in the cities, towns and rural areas he traversed as a soldier. In 2017, the trip of a lifetime unfolded from April 28 to May 9.
The Yankee Division Veterans Association sponsored an excursion whose “stars” were Hall and Franklin Simon, another Third Army vet. The trip retraced the route Patton’s Army traversed in the pivotal months that led to defeat of Nazi Germany.
Without his knowing ahead of time, a new wave of recognition for his combat service was planned. New honors included two medals and four other honors: a medal for his part in the liberation of Luxemburg (presented on behalf of a group of European historians), a Czech Republic Medal from war veterans of that nation, a pocket medal with a picture of George Patton (presented by his grandson George Patton Waters), a 26th Infantry (Yankee) Division commemorative medal (from the current commander of the Yankee Division Veterans Association and, from the Czech Republic (Pilsen Military Command), a commemorative casting recognizing the liberation of Pilsen on May 7, 1945.
In a 2017 interview, he recounted feeling “in some ways ambivalent. I felt tremendous sadness as I remembered the other guys. I wondered how many future Mozarts or even presidential candidates we lost in battle.”
And this: “I know that I’ve never felt so honored, so appreciated, as I did on this trip.”
He cherished one presentation made to him by a captain in the French Special Forces (Yann Rouvrais, who in the private sector heads up security operations for a major business). Duncan had met Rouvrais on previous trips and was humbled to get the new recognition from a friend.
“I have a tender spot in my heart for the French.” Hall considered mayors in two different towns “family.” And, “they our call me ‘our dear American Dad.’”
Lankford told CapitolBeatOK at the time I reported on Hall’s memorable trip, “America has many heroes that faithfully serve our nation, but we have a special place for our WWII vets who saved freedom for the entire world. When I first met Hall Duncan I was deeply moved by his story, his humility and his lifetime passion to serve people. He represents all that is great about the Greatest Generation.”
This reporter related to Duncan a story, from a documentary years ago, featuring an elderly French woman who had kissed an American soldier as his unit marched through her town in that war. Cherishing the kiss, she remembered his name. She wanted to write to him, but learned he had been killed in combat a few miles down the road.
With detective-like work, she discovered he was buried at one of the many U.S. military cemeteries dotting the French countryside. Even after marriage, she spent her life tending to his grave. Her daughter, grand-daughter and great-granddaughter then followed her example, and did the same.
Hall Duncan was misty-eyed as that summary ended.
“My first time through those villages, on our way to the east, I did not get to kiss a pretty girl. But years later, … I was being honored by one of the towns. A woman contacted officials when word got out of an event. … She told them she wanted to kiss an American soldier!”
In 1944, as the Americans approached her town and she saw them in the distance, the girl had raced home, to put on her finest dress and prepare. She returned to see them disappearing over the distant horizon, to the east.
So, she told the town leaders, “I want to kiss that American boy.”
“I got to fill in”, Hall Duncan recalled in our conversation. “She came to where we were. Her husband was with her. The husband gestured with his hand, it was with his support. And so, she kissed me, and I kissed her. It was quite a time. And, it was a nice kiss.”
Hall Duncan wasn’t born on the Fourth of July, but he served in the Yankee Division.
He was a man who fought in the most important war of the Twentieth Century. He did not eschew belated military honors, but in memory always put his comrades in combat first.
He became a firm man of peace, drawing abiding affection and deep appreciation.
Hall and I had intended to work on another couple of projects, focused on his efforts to assist people in the developing world, or those left behind in America. But a more-than-full-time teaching job kept me from making that happen.
We talked on the phone a few times, traded some emails and dreamed of a better world. Then, I lost touch.
His obituary in The Sunday Oklahoman reported that he spent the last year and a half of his life at the Lawton V.A. Center. Born at Oklahoma City’s St. Anthony Hospital in 1924. He was one of us.
Hall F. Duncan is survived by four sons, a fifth “son” (his business partner), “and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
In a long and blessed career, some stories are just stories – and that is usually enough. Tell it, and move on. Other writers (and reporters) will understand what I mean.
Other stories linger, becoming metaphors in the mind. They tell of lives well-lived, living poems memorized, vibrant and permanent in the heart.
For me, Hall Duncan’s life was one of those.
In stories about those who died, and of a particular man who lived helping others, memory becomes evergreen.