ARLINGTON — As an 18-year-old, he saw going off to World War II as an adventure.
Dwain Bumgarner thought he’d travel around, learn how to shoot big guns and smoke Lucky Strikes.
The veteran, now of Arlington, was drafted shortly after graduating from high school in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1942. The U.S. Army Private First Class was trained as a computer operator for a searchlight operation.
“That’s for spotting planes trying to bomb or strafe you,” Bumgarner said.
He operated the computer that shot a 90-millimeter antiaircraft gun as part of the C-Battery, 217th AAA Gun Battalion.
When the time came to ship off to Europe, their cables for the radar and computers had frozen.
“We had a hell of a time getting our stuff ready to move,” he recalled. “Shortly after, they sent us overseas.”
They landed in Wales and made their way to a camp in England.
“From there we started to get ready for the big invasion of France,” he said.
“We were fortunate to be behind the front lines. They didn’t want the Germans to capture the antiaircraft outfits,” Bumgarner said. “We started knocking down German planes. It wasn’t long before we had 11 to our credit.”
After the invasion of Normandy, Bumgarner continued fighting in the United States Third Army under the leadership of General George Patton. He and his fellow soldiers got orders to move under the cover of the darkness of night to Bastogne, Belgium, to help the 101st Airborne. They defended against the German counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge.
“German field artillery were firing overhead,” Bumgarner said. “They put a shell into the side of our radar and it hurt one of the fellows that operated it real bad.”
That’s when Bumgarner realized war was not the kind of adventure he’d imagined. The possibility of becoming a casualty was suddenly very real.
The C-Battery soldiers moved on to fight in southern France. They stayed for a while in a castle, complete with a moat and drawbridge and once drank themselves sick on champagne.
The soldiers traveled on, making it to Hitler’s hideout, a mountain-top refuge known as the Eagle’s Nest in the Bavarian Alps above Berchtesgaden, Germany, by the war’s end. The Allies celebrated victory over the Nazis in 1945.
“It was wonderful and exhilarating,” Bumgarner said. “I suppose we maybe got a little drunk that day.”
Bumgarner felt fortunate to be going home alive. Upon his return, he first set foot on American soil in New York.
“I saw the big Statue of Liberty with the American flag waving, that was something else,” he said.
Bumgarner was discharged from the Army and sent back to Janesville, where he was reunited with his parents, six sisters, and three brothers, two of whom had also served during the war.
He found work installing flooring, got married and raised three sons and two daughters.
After his first wife died of cancer, he moved out west and got remarried to Ellen Bumgarner in 1980. They split their time between Arlington and Yuma, Arizona.
Now, at 91, Bumgarner reflects on what meant to have served his country and fought for freedom.
“It was great to have been in the Army that defeated Hitler,” he said. “There’s pride in knowing we defeated one of the greatest enemies the world has ever seen.”