World War II wound renews memories

Family war stories resurface like the WWII bullet fragments in a Vancouver man's arm

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Did you know?

Three members of the 25th Infantry Division were awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism on Luzon in 1945.

photoCarl and Marguerite Wunder saw World War II military hospitals from different perspectives: He was wounded in the Philippines and she was a nurse's aide in London.

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photoCarl Wunder recalls shooting up a lot of suspicious-looking foliage as the Tropic Lightning Division fought though mountainous terrain.

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photoMarguerite Wunder worked at a bank when she was 16 because so many men had gone to war. At 21, she became a nurse’s aide.

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photoCarl Wunder preserves the decorations he earned while serving in the Army's 25th Infantry Division — "Tropic Lightning" — in the Pacific during World War II. They include a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Wunder was shot by a sniper in May 1945, but the wound is expected to heal soon.

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The stitches from Carl Wunder's encounter with a World War II bullet should heal up pretty quickly.

Not the entry wound: That was in 1945, when a bullet from a Japanese machine gun shattered his upper right arm.

This is more like an exit wound, after a doctor removed two bullet fragments Tuesday morning.

The bits of metal had been there for 67 years before finally working their way toward the skin. That's when they began to irritate Wunder -- particularly the bigger fragment.

"After it got to the surface, it would hurt when I touched it," the Vancouver veteran said Tuesday afternoon.

Brian Wunder knew his father had been wounded during combat in the Philippines: A Purple Heart medal is in a display case along with his dad's Bronze Star, the "Tropic Lightning" badge of the Army's 25th Infantry Division and GI dog tags still smeared with putty. (Soldiers stuck the metal tags together so they wouldn't rattle, Brian said.)

But Brian didn't know the wound was an ongoing story until a recent conversation with his mother, Marguerite.

"They had come back from the VA, and she said they had postponed (Carl's) procedure," Brian said. "I didn't know what she was talking about.

"She said it was his arm, he was wounded in the war, and a piece of a slug was still in there," Brian continued.

"I said, 'What?'"

So Carl showed him.

"It was right under the skin and it was driving him nuts," Brian said.

There are no statistics on this sort of WWII follow-up procedure, but it seems to be pretty rare.

"This is a rather uncommon occurrence, with just two cases of this sort in recent memory at Portland VA Medical Center," said spokesman Daniel Herrigstad -- and one of those cases was Wunder.

The 87-year-old veteran went home with three or four stitches. Sitting in the condo Carl shares with Marguerite, he pushed back his sleeve and showed an adhesive bandage on the inside of his right bicep.

Her war hit home

It wasn't the first time Marguerite had seen the result of WWII hostilities. She grew up in London and her family lived through the Blitz -- a months-long aerial assault by German bombers that was recounted during NBC's coverage of the 2012 Olympics.

The family had a bomb shelter in the backyard. But when it turned cold, they risked sleeping in the house and moved their mattresses under a big metal table.

When Marguerite turned 21, she became a volunteer nurse's aide and worked in a British military hospital.

Carl Wunder entered the war when he was drafted in 1943. The 25th Infantry Division had already been through combat on Guadalcanal when Wunder joined it in New Zealand.

"I was probably one of the last new recruits," he said.

The lean youngster -- his discharge papers list him at about 120 pounds -- was assigned the job of delivering messages as a runner.

In the late stages of Pacific combat, his unit marched up and down the mountains of Luzon. Of a group of eight men, Wunder said, only he and his buddy J.C. Frank made it that far -- and they didn't get out unscathed.

On May 3, 1945, their column's pointman walked into a clearing and was shot. Wunder and a medic went out to help, but the soldier was dead.

"I gestured to our Filipino litter-bearers. As soon as you make a move like you're giving an order, it makes you a prime target," Wunder said. "They thought I must be moving troops forward."

Really close call

He shifted his position and the machine-gunner hit Wunder in the right arm.

"I moved at just the right moment or I would have had two bullets in my head."

One bullet grazed his arm and the other fragmented when it hit the bone. Wunder said he wound up in an upper-body cast, with his arm braced up. He was rotated back to the West Coast.

Wunder was in a hospital when he ran into his buddy, who had also been wounded on Luzon.

"J.C. was a great shot," Wunder recalled, in a story that brought an interesting reaction from his wife. While the Wunders have been married for 61 years, the native Londoner still has some things to learn about rural American cuisine.

"J.C. was from North Carolina," Carl continued, "and he could shoot squirrels."

… And Marguerite's eyes opened wide in a puzzled expression that seemed to ask:

Why on earth would somebody want to do a thing like that?

Like her husband, Marguerite did encounter some enemy soldiers during WWII, but under far different circumstances. Her hospital included a ward for wounded Germans.

They got only male nurses, she added.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.