[Vision2020] Cherbourg battle was his initiation

Moscow Cares moscowcares at moscow.com
Thu Jun 6 15:15:54 PDT 2019

Courtesy of today’s (June 6, 2019) Lewiston Tribune at:



Cherbourg battle was his initiation
Moscow man earned the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, among other honors

MOSCOW — When people ask 83-year-old Ernest Bunch about his World War II experiences, he prefaces his answer by saying, “I did my fighting and so forth because it was the thing to do. But I don’t think I’m a hero by any measure.”

Then he pulls a laminated card from his shirt pocket. “When people ask me about it, I just hand them that.”

The card lists the honors he earned — the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, a European-Middle East Campaign medal, a WWII Victory medal, a Combat Infantry Badge and an expert rifleman rating.

“I used an M-1. I was trained with the .45, and the carbine and the Browning Automatic Rifle.”

In other words, Bunch was a grunt — a member of the U.S. Army’s 79th Infantry who went ashore a few days after the Normandy Invasion began in early June 1944.

“We went on there at Omaha Beach, but we weren’t the first troops. When we went in, you could see bodies kind of floating and flopping around when the waves would hit them. But we pushed right in.”

The push, as it turned out, was toward the city of Cherbourg, France. American troops isolated and then captured the fortified port city during a three-week battle. The fighting was tenacious, and Bunch came out of it with his two Purple Hearts.

Raised in the farming country between Palouse and Garfield in Whitman County, Bunch was drafted at the age of 18. He’d already been married for a year to his teenage wife, Beatrice, and the two would eventually celebrate 65 years of marriage before her death in 2007.

Bunch remembers the nights on the battlefield thinking about home and the woman he loved. “The nights were so long over there in combat and you’d think about all those things, while you were still looking for anything that moved that wasn’t right.”

The Germans, who Bunch described as “damn good fighters,” plied the darkness with fixed bayonets. The Americans learned quickly to drape string between foxholes and tie it to their thumbs to thwart the enemy attacks. “I think that little trick with the string saved a lot of lives,” Bunch says.

After being drafted, Bunch hopscotched his way through basic training from Spokane, to Salt Lake City, then on to Kansas and eventually New York City where he and other infantrymen boarded an English banana boat for the trip across the Atlantic.

“They had these big rows of hooks that they hung the bananas on,” recalls Bunch, “and we hung our hammocks between the hooks.” For 10 days and nights Bunch says he fought seasickness as the ship rolled and heaved its way toward the war. “We landed in Scotland and boy, I hoped I’d never ride on a ship again. All you got to eat on that boat was sauerkraut and weenies and boiled potatoes three times a day.”

Once in England, training began in earnest, says Bunch. “They were getting us ready for the invasion.”

After trekking through the carnage of Omaha Beach, Bunch says the 79th spearheaded its way toward Cherbourg. “It got pretty darn rough. A lot of fighting. It’s just hard to describe it. I really don’t like to talk about it. War is hell.”

At one point, his battalion came upon a bombed-out church with more than 150 French civilians buried dead under the rubble. “It wasn’t good at all. Cattle, cows, horses got killed.” The stench, says Bunch, still lingers in his memory.

Bunch credits his father for teaching him as a boy how to shoot a rifle at running rabbits. He credits the lessons for helping keep him alive. “I don’t know, you get in the mood to stay alive,” Bunch says of combat, “and you’ve got to kill people to stay alive, and it’s pretty rough.”

He describes the incident surrounding his first Purple Heart as a “freak accident” and the second as a product of friendly fire from the skies.

“We were fighting in the hedgerows,” he says of the first situation. A German tank had the Americans pinned down and Bunch, who was schooled in explosives, crawled through the cover to set a charge underneath the tank. “But a couple guys from the other company had the same idea, only they had a bazooka.”

Bunch poked his head up at the same time the bazooka fired. “All I remember is just a flash. I got the tail end of it.” He was temporarily blinded in the left eye and suffered other more superficial head injuries. But medics patched him up and Bunch says he was back on the front lines within a few days.

His second Purple Heart came while Allied aircraft worked to blow out a bridge. “I was always told that if a bomb looked like a pinpoint when it’s coming down, you better get out of the way because it’s going to hit you,” says Bunch. “So I looked up and saw two that looked like pinpoints.”

Bunch doesn’t recall what happened next, but he still imagines the destruction and death. “They dug us out, and I happened to be one who was still alive. It was our own planes.”

He woke in a field hospital wearing a full body cast. Only his arms were exposed, and they were black and blue from the concussion of the bombs. “I thought I was going to die in that hospital. In the daytime you sweat, and at night you freeze.” He spent eight weeks in recovery. “And they wouldn’t let me go back with my outfit.”

Eventually, Bunch went to work at the hospital and then was assigned to a military police unit. “They gave me about two days of training and then I was an MP.” He hated the job. “Wrestling drunks, that was worse than the front lines.”

Bunch recalls arresting two officers for drunkenness and within a short time he was reassigned to head up a motor pool where jeeps, motorcycles and armored cars were serviced and maintained. He oversaw German prisoners of war who did much of the work.

“And that’s all I did, before I came home,” says Bunch.

He and Beatrice raised three children and he worked in maintenance at Washington State University until early retirement in 1976. Bunch is well-known for his care of Sunset Memorial Cemetery, located adjacent to the Moscow Cemetery. He purchased the 100-grave resting place, where his son was buried in 1955, during a county auction on a $5 bid, eventually turning it over to a nonprofit association.

Today, says Bunch, it appears the graveyard will become part of the Moscow Cemetery. He plans to be buried there next to his wife.


Seeya 'round town, Moscow, because . . .

"Moscow Cares" (the most fun you can have with your pants on)
Tom Hansen
Moscow, Idaho

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