Cold ocean spray slams against the metal hull of your amphibious craft as you head towards a foreign shore you know very little about. You cradle your weapon with sweaty palms, heart in your throat, as diesel fumes slam into your nasal passages and your landing vehicle pushes through wave after wave. It's June 6, 1944 and you're headed for Omaha Beach. It's D-Day and there is no turning back. Your country needs you. Nothing between you and hellacious combat except distance that is decreasing by the millisecond and a metal wall that will soon become your exit ramp onto a beach where men are waiting to destroy not only you, but everything you stand for. You're 18 years old and your name is Frank Denius. You don't know this now but you will go on to become one of the top ten most decorated warriors on the European Front. The driver of your vehicle slows to a crawl, the ramp descends and the fury of the entrenched Nazis is already being felt by your brothers.
It's a turkey shoot and you haven't even left the vehicle yet. No time to think. You have to make it to those Normandy cliffs or the beach becomes your graveyard. The cliff is a representation of everything you hold dear, those precious liberties won by the sacrifices of your brothers before you. Make it to the cliffs and you've secured a rite of passage that grants you another day in combat. The gauntlet's been passed and it's your turn to defend. Rounds whistle past and shells explode as you hit the shore, your boots pound uneven sand, as you break into a dead sprint. Some of your brothers didn't make it this far. They lie behind you, the youth of America, cold and lifeless in the water, their first experience in battle their last; but you can't think about that or you will become them. The cliffside draws nearer, your heart pounds against sweat drenched fatigues, and you're thinking about absolutely nothing except survival. Your brothers fall around you, the beach quickly becoming a sand and blood mixture, a monument of infinite sacrifice. You slam into the draw, 150 lbs on your back, and now it's time to climb. You made it, but this is only the beginning of two years at war that will leave you forever changed. Many of your brothers won't see you on the other side of the year. They will become the cold whitewashed stones gone too early on this side of eternity, solemn reminders of the necessity of men who believe in something more important than life itself.
Quite honestly, the project blogs are the first thing in my life where I’ve written and haven’t experienced writer’s block. Those quiet pauses in my train of thought are more than anything wrought from anxiety that I won’t be able to possibly do a legacy justice with these introductions. Throughout the last few months I've thought a lot about certain words that keep coming up in my interviews. Valor, courage, honor, selfless service, commitment... these are just words assembled by men in a haphazard attempt to capture a fighting spirit that truly can't be described. If not for the men and women depicted in the blogs, these words would have no backing or substance. I'm constantly reminded through these words of their vacant meaning without men like SSG Denius. How can you describe the very face of your freedom?
I thought long about how I would begin this description of the legendary Staff Sergeant Frank Denius. Instead, I want to tell you how I felt in spending my day with him. Before I even set out for Austin I’d built this substantial narrative in my subconscious of who he was, and what it would be like to sit with him and speak of some of our most fragile days as a nation. This story building happens every single time I cover a veteran. I can’t help it. This is followed by a complete teardown process upon meeting that veteran, where the reality completely changes my pre-conceived ideas or notions. To tell you the truth, I've grown to appreciate that process. As I entered Frank’s office, my heartbeat quickly elevated, sending chills up and down my spine, my nerves were accelerating on overdrive. Do you know what it’s like to sit with a giant and stare back at an embodiment of your freedom? I do.
I’ve sat at the table with icons of our most primal, necessary days and watched them unfold their lives in front of me like a beautifully crafted quilt, sewn from the fabrics of valor, courage, honor, duty, and selfless service. I watch them unfold this quilt with the most distinguished air of humility possible. Do you know what it’s like to watch a symbol of strength begin to tear up when they speak about returning home from two years of pure unadulterated violence of action to a freedom they finally feel they’ve earned? Do you know what it’s like to watch those tears fall when they talk about seeing the Texas flag, a symbol of their foundation, for the first time upon redeployment? Do you know what it’s like to watch a hardened soldier tenderly describe meeting the love of his life that gave him 65 years of selfless matrimony before her passing? What about hearing a man recount some of the greatest years of his youth which he spent watching his friends violently fall prey to the evils that envision the destruction of his country’s foundational principles? How about tears spent at the mention of a man watching his whole town cheer him onto the bus as he prepared to defend all that he loved? I’ve seen all these things and they leave me mesmerized, in a constant state of awe. Frank Denius served as one of the ten most decorated soldiers on the European Front, where he earned four Silver Stars and the "Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur” or — Knight of the Legion of Honour, the most prolific commendation the French bestow. I'll let Mr. Denius tell you the rest.
Can you talk about joining the Army and take us through a little bit of your service?
FD: I can tell you why I joined the Army but it will take a little explaining. I grew up in an East Texas town called Athens and when I was 13 my family thought, “Well, war is coming and Frank needs to be adapted and trained.” So, when I was 13 I went off to military academy in Kerrville, Texas. I graduated from high school in three and a half years and had one semester of college. At the age of 17, I joined the Army. The Army had a program back then, as well as the Navy. There wasn’t an Air Force then because it was part of the Army (Army Air Corps). I joined the Army and the Army sent me to the Citadel, the military college of South Carolina.
It’s a rigid, senior military academy. I had two semesters there and I was called to active duty at 18 years old. I was sent to Camp Roberts, California for artillery training where I was trained as a forward observer. The class was called “Instrument and Survey Section” so I did that for twenty weeks, came home for ten days, and then I shipped to Ft. Mead, Maryland where I continued artillery training for about three weeks. From there, I was shipped to Camp Miles Standish near Boston and in late February of 1944 I was shipped overseas to Liverpool, England. In England, we went to a British Army Camp and the second day my name was called with twenty others, “Get your bag and show up here in fifteen minutes.” I was sent to Ranger School and I don’t know why (laughs). Welcome to the Army where you answer the call no matter what.
After that, I was assigned to the 30th Infantry Division where we were placed on reserve for D-Day. So there I trained with Battery C, 230th Field Artillery as a Forward Observer. We were in reserve for the landing on Omaha Beach. The 29th and 1st Infantry Divisions were the lead divisions that assaulted Omaha. The 29th ID’s artillery was lost in the channel and my battalion was rushed in late on the 6th and early morning of the 7th of June to replace and help the 29th division’s 115th Regiment. For the first six days, my unit supported the 29th Division. By that time all of the 30th Infantry Division had landed at Normandy. From there, we fiercely fought our way inland from Omaha Beach area through the hedgerows. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen hedgerows but they’re about 75 to 100 yards square and bound on each side with a row of hedges that were anywhere from 8, to 10, to 12 feet tall. The reason for that is that there were apple orchards there and Normandy is a big dairy farming area as well.
From there, we fought our way maybe two or three hedgerows a day and then we finally came to the battle of St. Jean de Daye and that’s where my commanding officer I was supporting was killed in action. The battles in the hedgerows were vicious. I was able to take my commanding officer's place and was able to bring down artillery fire that wiped out the Germans in that area so we could advance. That’s when I was awarded my first Silver Star. Then from there, we were making very slow progress in the hedgerow country. Eisenhower and General Bradley were trying to think about how they could breakout from Normandy and so they devised the plan for St. Lô carpet bombing. 3500 planes would fly over and essentially just drag the area with bombing runs. At St. Lô we pulled back about half a mile depending on the terrain and the 24th of July the bombers came over and dropped some of their bombs short and killed 800 and wounded about 800 of my 30th ID brothers.
I was supporting that regiment with artillery fire at the time. I was actually in the field with General Leslie McNair (Commanding Army General of ground forces in Europe) who was killed there. I was about fifty yards away from him when he was killed in his foxhole. The next day the bombers came over again more successfully this time. That night we broke through the German lines at St. Lô. Normally, my battalion supported the 120th Regiment although there were three regiments of the 30th Division, the 119th, 117th, and the 120th so actually we supported all regiments that were on point. We broke through those lines and we were the point infantry division that broke through and then we penetrated south further into France. On July the 30th and 31st we were pulled away from the line for two days of rest.
It was the first time I’d had a bath or brushed my teeth in two and a half months. Then we got to see a USO show and it had Edward G. Robertson and Dina Shore. Dina was a movie star and vocalist and she sang to us. I was sitting on the edge of the row and she came down, bent over and kissed me on the cheek. My buddies said, “Which did you like best? The kiss or the shower (laughs)?” I said, “It was a tie (laughs).” That’s true. We were away from the line for about two days, moved back to the line, then from there moved into the town of Mortain. Mortain was a town of about 3,000 people. It was on the western edge of the Normandy area but it had a hill called Hill 314. It was the highest area in Western France. There were approximately 500 of us that moved to the top of that hill.
All of the division moved into the area but the 120th Regiment was located right in Mortain. My battalion, 2nd of the 120th, about 500 of us were on top of that hill. We replaced the 1st ID and improved their foxholes. They told us, “We haven’t seen a German or fired our rifles in three days. You guys will have it easy.” We worked on the foxholes, and my policy was to go into position with the Company Commander. I had an officer with me and I had my radio sergeant, Sergeant Goldstein, who lives in Toledo, Ohio and is still a great friend of mine. We talk about once a month still. The three of us started directing artillery fire with the Company Commander and started pre-setting that fire during the day because you can’t direct artillery fire at night.
We preset according to the areas we thought were likely to be counter-attacked. We zeroed in on the area with the callsign “emergency barrage number seven” so at night you didn’t have to adjust fire. All you did is that if you heard noise in that area you called it in on the radio to the fire direction center, and would just say, “Fire emergency barrage seven” and you could have about 200 rounds coming down in that area in about three or four minutes. We did all that around the front and side of the hill. There was another observer on the northern side of the hill that handled that particular area. I was on the south side of the hill. We also had normal barrages and we fired those normal barrages where we thought the enemy troops might gather and their artillery might be. We wanted to cover not only the likely areas of attack but the likely areas of assembly of troops and supplies.
We also had scouts on the side of the hill with silent phones to where they could whisper back to the company commander so they could alert them as to what was happening. That’s how they directed artillery fire during the night. That night, we were attacked by 70,000 German troops and 6 armored divisions. You might ask how in the world that happened but I can tell you that it did. We had zero notice. The Germans had moved those troops from other areas of Normandy and from Russia to attack us. The idea for them was to split Patton’s 3rd Army and when we broke through at St. Lô Patton’s 3rd Army broke through and he was making the end run towards Paris. Had we not held that area the Germans would’ve cut off Patton’s group and split the 1st Army. They would’ve had a location situated in between the 3rd Army and some of the 1st. It was a “hold at all costs, the Alamo” situation for sure. We fought for six days there. We were counter-attacked 24/7 but we held out.
After 6 1/2 days we lost somewhere between 2,000-3,000 troops. My new officer in charge at the time said to me at the beginning of all that, “I’m incapable of handling this.” He stayed in his foxhole the entire battle and never came out. It was up to me and my radio sergeant, Sergeant Goldstein, to handle things. That’s when I received my second Silver Star. By the 3rd day we’d lost about 50% of our troops on the hill due to either being wounded or killed. We dug into the side of the hedgerows so we could put our wounded in there to shield them from small arms fire and artillery fragmentation. The first night we were attacked by German strafing and paratroopers dropping into our area of operations. My radio sergeant and I went back to the CP and we started directing artillery fire from there.
We moved around some but we did that with the Company Commander because the Company Commander had his radio sergeant with a 300 Radio and he was in touch with all elements of the frontline of his company. Our radio weighed 100 lbs and there were two parts. There was the radio part and the battery part. You had to screw the parts together and run up a 15-foot antenna. That’s how you contacted the Fire Direction Center for our artillery. It wasn’t easy to move that radio around in the dark and when you put up that antenna it was almost like waving a flag saying, “Here we are.” Fortunately, we were able to hold the Germans off for those three days but we were running very low on medicine, food, and water. Luckily for us, there was a farmhouse on the side of that hill. The house had a well and our guys at night, even though there were German snipers around, would form a chain and take canteens to the well.
People ask me all the time what we’d do for food. Well, we ran out of the K Rations in about two days. We had a D Ration which was a bar that about the size of the old Milky Ways or the old Snickers bars. It was hard chocolate candy. You couldn’t chew through this thing but you could shave it down with the bayonet. That’s what I lived off of. Eisenhower called in an air drop of those K Rations. The Germans realized this so they positioned their 88’s where they could shoot down our planes. So, our C-47s flew extremely high to avoid those ground to air attacks. When they dropped the rations they drifted away from the hill so we had to fight through no man's land to get a few of them back.
This part will surprise you. We had artillery shells that had propaganda leaflets in them. These propaganda shells contained leaflets that read something like, “Surrender and you’ll be sent to England out of harm’s way.” My battalion commander said, “We’re going to try something if you’re willing to do it.” Of course, we were willing to do just about anything at this point (laughs). Back at the artillery line which was about 8-10 miles behind us, they took the propaganda shells (no explosives attached) and stuffed cotton and morphine and penicillin in those shells. Now you’d imagine that when those shells hit the ground it would mashup those supplies but we were still able to get some of the morphine and penicillin to the wounded troops. The medics were able to get some of that out and get it to those that needed it the most. That’s what we did. It was so important that we held that hill.
You could see the Atlantic Ocean which was 25 miles west from the top of that hill. If the Germans had broken through, cut off our 1st and 3rd Army, it would’ve disrupted our entire Normandy front. We had to hold on at all costs which we did. The Germans offered us a white flag of surrender on the second day and told us we fought valiantly. We said, “Nope.” We fought on through those counterattacks both day and night. It was a 24/7 battle. Two things happened at that time. We held the hill and we delayed the Germans retreating. The Air Corps had a turkey shoot on the German troops at that point. From there we fought our way with the British and Canadians attacking the German retreat. I went back with my battery and had to return to my battery commander and report an officer situation.
The next day we were in the attack again eastward near Paris in a town called Domfront. We got into that area around the 20th of August and stopped there to put in our defenses, so the French 1st Army under DeGaulle could come into Paris and claim victory. From there, we moved on foot chasing the Germans back towards Germany. Then we moved into Northern France where most of the World War One battlefields were. We were the first in Belgium, first in Holland, and the first in Germany. We got bogged down though because Eisenhower during Operation Market Garden decided to drop paratroopers into Holland and that was a failure. That operation took up all our supplies so we were stalled. After that failure, we moved to capture the town of Achen which was the biggest town on the western front of Germany about ten miles from the Dutch border. We started fighting from the north and northwest to Achen and circled the town, attacked the Germans and met the 1st Division at the southwest corner of the city. That was some hard fighting because we were in the forest and wooded areas in freezing temperatures with rain coming down. We captured Achen and started moving east into Germany.
We had two days to refit our artillery tubes so that gave us two days of rest to prepare for another battle. It was so nice just to be able to shower and get new uniforms. I still remember we used to keep our socks near our stomach so that when one pair got wet we could switch it out for the warmer, drier pair. On the 16th of December, the Battle of the Bulge started. We were already in Germany at that point so Eisenhower said to take our division (30th) to the Northern flanks where the German Army was penetrating and trying to break through to Antwerp. As a forward observer, my job was to not only direct artillery fire but I was the enlisted man in charge of the radio section and the survey section in the battery. I had nothing to do with firing the Howitzers although I would substitute into that job from time to time. I was known as a Staff Sergeant and Chief of Detail. That means I had certain functions including moving up ahead of the group and finding places to emplace our artillery.
As we moved forward, I had to pick those locations. My radio sergeant, jeep driver and I reported to division headquarters and in the morning we started moving towards Belgium. We didn’t have any maps or what we were even getting ready to do. All we knew was the Germans were coming. We relocated close to Achen halfway to a town called Malmedy. Malmedy is a very important location in Belgium. It was right on the fringe of where the Germans were entrenched and trying to break through. The town was on the northeast part of the Bulge. We moved into that position that night and my artillery battery moved down the highway into the area, and I pulled them over putting them into position. We were setting up a perimeter defense with no maps. That next day we moved into Malmedy, and set up artillery for about 30 days. I was always with the infantry, directing the artillery fire.
We got into a crucial battle with Colonel Peiper at Malmedy and that’s where I was awarded my third Silver Star. My radio sergeant received the Silver Star after that battle as well. We held our position and fought the Germans off for awhile. We had to blow all the bridges on the rivers to keep the tanks from coming across. Unfortunately, there were rivers everywhere so we had to blow a lot of bridges. That’s how we stopped Peiper. Our division was located at Malmedy, Stavelot, and Stoumont. Malmedy was where the Malmedy Massacre took place where 84 of our soldiers were murdered as POWs. On the 25th of January, I was wounded by shrapnel. That was my second time being wounded during the war. The first time was at Normandy. That took me off the line for three weeks and back to England, but I returned and we fought our way across the Rhine River to meet the Russians at the Elbe River. From there we moved to the eastern border of Germany and Czechoslovakia where we stayed for two weeks of May and all of June. That month of preparation was occupation duty with the Russians. We were starting to prepare for the invasion of Japan at that point.
We started learning different types of artillery fire. In Europe, you didn’t use what’s known as “high angle fire.” High angle fire is when the Howitzers are perpendicular to the ground like a water hose. You have to be careful to direct fire in such a way that the rounds don’t angle back towards you and become friendly fire. We had to learn that. We moved by truck to Camp Oklahoma City where we turned in all our equipment and everything except small arms. There I was selected as one of the ten most decorated soldiers of the European Front. I was pulled out of my unit and I went with the other nine guys that were part of the General’s party. We moved by train to Southhampton in July of ’45 and we were there for three weeks. It was the glory days. There was an orchestra, all the USO shows, and it was really a lot of fun. I still call them the glory days. About the 7th of August, we moved to the Port of Southhampton. We all boarded the Queen Mary there and that took about four days to load 18,000 or more troops on board. The day before we sailed the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and we got the word down that there was a new weapon called “Adam’s Bomb (laughs).”
We’d never heard the word “atomic.” It wasn’t even in our vocabulary. That bomb shocked everyone. The next one was dropped on Nagasaki and the war wasn’t over but it was beginning to look like the Japanese would surrender. Then about the 19th of August, we sailed for New York on the Queen Mary. I had a special armband because I was one of the ten most decorated soldiers on the European Front. I could go anywhere on the ship, I could eat anytime I wanted, and I had my own private, stateroom with sheets and towels. I had a private shower and I could go to the PX anytime I wanted to. When we got to New York we had a huge celebration. We had a big banner on the side of the Queen Mary with the “Old Hickory” emblem of the 30th Infantry Division. We moved from there to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey where we got fitted for new uniforms and we got our shots. Then we got on a troop train and headed for St. Louis. I went up to the engineer and asked him when we’d get to Texarkana, Texas and he said it would be about 5 a.m. or so. I made myself get up, grabbed my boots, ran to the flag pole, saluted the flags, prayed, and kissed Texas. I was so proud to be home.
From there I went to Ft. Sam Houston and my mother and grandmother came to Austin and met me at midnight. We drove 200 miles back to Athens, Texas and I was finally home. I had enough points to get out of the Army. If you had 85 points you could get out of the Army and get your discharge. I went to Ft. Sam and the Major there said, “Sergeant you have three months of terminal leave. Why don’t you just go home and get paid your three months?” I said, “Major if I can get discharged I can reenter the University of Texas for the fall semester.” He said, “Sergeant you will never find your records. There are over a million and a half records in the barracks here. You’ll never find yours.” I asked him if I could try and I found them in 45 minutes (laughs). I brought it back and he wouldn’t believe me but I finally got my discharge. I came back to Austin, went to the Registrar’s office and registered for the fall semester. I found a private residence in western Austin and got my own space for four years of school. When I started school I was still only 20 years old. In ’54 I was in Washington D.C. and I was with one of the congressman’s administrative assistants who was a friend of mine. I told him I wanted a Silver Star lapel pin to wear on civilian clothes and I gave him my serial number and address. About three months later I got a big box from the Defense Department and it was all of my medals. My fourth Silver Star was in there and I didn’t even know I had a fourth one (laughs).
What have you learned over the years most of all?
FD: Leadership is so important. I try to phrase out what I consider leadership and what I consider leadership is how you manage fear. Everybody is scared in combat. It’s how you manage fear that makes the best leader. I put it this way and I told Nate (Boyer) this. When you’re a QB, you come out of the huddle, you have the coach giving you the signal, and you look at the defense while your mind is moving a million miles an hour and you have some major anxiety associated with fear. A guy that can manage that fear can play quarterback. Very few can play quarterback. In combat that ability is even more serious because you don’t get second chances.
Do you remember your most fearful moments in combat?
FD: I’m not sure I ever had a time where I wasn’t scared in combat (laughs). I would guess that I was most scared when I was 19 years old, I lost my officer in charge, and I had to takeover for him. You don’t ever use binoculars in combat because they reflect light and you’re going to get about twenty rounds through the head when you use them. That’s what happened to him. He put those binoculars to his face and he was shot in the head instantly. I got up and I had to get up to a point where I could see but I definitely didn’t use those binoculars. My radio sergeant kept cautioning me to be careful. I had to get to where I could see the enemy though. Having that leadership role thrust upon me was probably the most scared I was. After that, I remember being at Mortain and being scared all the time but I learned how to manage that. You never know what’s going to happen in combat.
What’s it like to know that you’re fighting to the death against other human beings? Can you describe that feeling?
FD: The Nazis were just the enemy to me. I didn’t see them as human. This may sound somewhat braggadocios but when you’re in combat like that I think you have two things to think about. One, you have to survive to do you duty and two, you have to be able to carry out that duty. That first Silver Star I didn’t even know I received a Silver Star. My BC (battery commander) took me back to Division HQ and there were all these Generals and I remember standing in formation. I gave them my rifle to inspect and they pinned a Silver Star on my chest. I was doing my duty and the accolades were not my goal as a part of that duty. They just came because I did what I had to do. I remember when I got home at 20 years old I was just happy to be able to go back to school. I was a better student after the war because I was grateful for what I had. Combat has a way of doing that to a man.
Did some of those things from war follow you back home?
FD: I didn’t think about the war when I got home. I didn’t have time to think about it. When Saving Private Ryan came out in 1997 was when people first started asking me to talk about my experiences. Churches, civic organizations, and other groups would come to me and ask me to speak about my time over there. Up until that time, I never talked about it. It just wasn’t a priority to me. I’d already been there and done that (laughs).
Can you talk about one of the most memorable moments for you overseas?
FD: There were a lot of memorable moments overseas. I got wounded in January and it’s hard to describe but this is where my experience as a forward observer was interesting. I was with about 200 infantryman and the German lines were across the road from us. The German patrols would come through about every 7 to 8 minutes. We’d timed it perfectly. When a vehicle would come by about twenty of us would move across the road behind the German lines. We are talking about a zero degree temperature with snow up to our knees and I couldn’t wear an overcoat because it was like a blotter soaking up water instead of ink. We had a sweater, field jacket, gloves, underwear, and a toboggan. We got behind the Germans line with the purpose of directing artillery fire into that area so we could disrupt the rear echelon and effectively destroy their ability to defend themselves.
Just like at Market Garden we learned that if the first tank gets destroyed on those muddy roads it’s over for the rest of the patrol. We dug a foxhole and we looked for gates over night that we could put over the foxhole to disguise our position. My radio sergeant and I would put dirt over the top of that gate to give us some cover. I still remember that the body heat would melt that snow and the water would freeze the uniform. We lost about 20 guys out of the 200 just to exposure. One of my favorite things about my time over there was my time with my radio sergeant. We were so in sync that we moved as one. We were a team and we didn’t have to tell each other anything. We just knew what we had to do and executed.
What do you remember about death in combat and the experience of that?
FD: I will never forget the first American G.I. I saw killed, and it was at Omaha Beach. That was tough but it's a part of war. I just had to keep moving and so that's what I did. That image and memory has stuck with me though.
How’d you keep going after that moment?
FD: There’s duty and momentum in battle and you can’t stand around and stare. There’s no room for that. There is no time to bereave. Later on, in the hedgerows, I saw wounded and dead guys all around me. It was constant. It wasn’t my job to stop and render aid. I had to keep going and call for fire at all costs. I was over at a meeting at the medical school at UT with a retired colonel who is joining the medical staff there as a doctor. He asked me, “What was the treatment in WWII for the wounded?” I told him that penicillin and morphine were the treatment but I didn’t have time to stop. I called the medic and kept moving because I had a lot of guys to protect with artillery fire. The only choice was to endure the death around you and do your job.
What do you remember about the young Frank Denius?
FD: I played all sports growing up. My mother and father were divorced when I was about nine years old. I was raised by my mom, grandma, and grandpa. I remember a wonderful childhood growing up in Athens and I remember doing all kinds of pranks with my buddies (laughs). Every Sunday at the church we’d play football, baseball, and basketball. During the summer we had water pistol fights and rubber gun fights. World War One wasn’t too far behind us and we watched all the movies about that. We’d take a 2 x 4 and notch it and put it on stakes to hold that 2 x 4.
We’d cut rubber bands, stretch them, and place them across each notch. We could get about 40 or 50 notches, strap a leather belt across, pull that belt and fire about 40 or 50 rubber bands at the other guy (laughs). We didn’t have air conditioning in those days so a lot of people had outdoor furniture. Halloween would come around and we’d mix and match people’s lawn furniture (laughs). One of my best memories was when I was 10 years old my buddy would ride his Shetland Pony to my house on Saturday and he’d trade me the pony for my bike. I’d ride the pony to the picture show and watch my favorite cowboy movies. I had a great time growing up in Athens.
What did it mean to you to be a Longhorn?
FD: I always wanted to go to law school and I always wanted to be a Longhorn. When Coach (Darell) Royal came in as the head coach in December of 1956 we became instant friends. He invited me to practices and I’d travel with the team for out of town games. All the coaches have brought me to practice and I still travel with the team a lot. I go to all the out of town games and have gone since ’45. The first game was October 31st in 1945 against Baylor. I’ve missed two home games since ’45 and one was because I was awarded the Medal of Honor Patriot Award. I only missed part of the other game because I had a program I had to do for the university, but I got there by halftime. I’ve only failed to attend ten away games since ’45. Obviously, having the practice field named after me was great, as a long time fan.
What were some of your best memories post-war?
FD: My favorite memory of all time was seeing my future wife at an Athens High School football game right after I got back from the war. That was in 1945 and she was there as a senior. I was 20 and I told my mother about her and my mom said, “That’s Charmaine Hooper.” I told my mom I wanted to meet her and my mom set up a meeting. We got to know each other and started dating and we went steady when she started going to the university. We got married in ’49. I had such wonderful corporate experiences as well. I’ve had an incredible career in law and I’ve had so many cases that had a huge bearing on our society. I actually helped desegregate Texas A&M gender wise, and you wouldn’t believe the calls I got after that. A lot of people accused me of ruining Texas A&M because I was a Longhorn and I had an agenda (laughs).
What’s your favorite part about being a lawyer?
FD: I love the challenge of being a lawyer and getting to know your clients while getting to know the facts of the case. Studying the law, applying those laws to those facts and to those clients, helped guarantee success. It’s such an amazing feeling to get them the results they are seeking.
What do you remember about your wife?
FD: My wife was a beautiful lady, so smart, and just a perfect wife. She always knew the right thing to do at just the right time. My wife never met anyone she treated as a stranger, and people always loved everything about her. We were married in November of ’49 and she passed away in October of 2014. I couldn’t have asked for a better life with her. I had such incredible memories with her, our two children, and grandchildren. I look at my daughter and she looks just like her mother. She also knows exactly what to do at all times just like her mom.
How do you feel about the current culture in our society?
FD: I think the best way to illustrate this to you is to talk about how things were when I was called to active duty in Athens. There were guys like me that were in the service already but being called to active duty for the first time. Then, there were national guard guys who hadn’t joined yet but were being called to service. There were reservists that were being called too. The majority were draftees and there were about 400 of us that had to report to the town square. We reported at 6 and the whole town was there. The high school band was there and from there we were bussed to Mineral Wells. My bus broke down on the road to Mineral Wells but we eventually got there. Once I got to the camp at Mineral Wells I got assigned to the targets. I was in the pits to run those targets up my first day. I just wonder if our country could do that again. The whole town of Athens showed up for us. The feeling was unbelievable. I don’t know that this country will ever be that way again and that makes me sad.
If you look at the Korean War we had some patriotism but not as much as WWII. We had the Vietnam War after that which was catastrophic. It was never pitched right. There’s no difference between Vietnam and the wars we are still fighting today. Vietnam was just an unnecessary war to the people here in America. We don’t realize how serious the international situation is and how much it affects our country. The Cold War was hot during the Vietnam War. Our people don’t have any concept of the opposition that we have in the world today. I say that with our situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, China, and North Korea. Let me give you an illustration. When we met the Russians during WWII and we were camped across from them I’ll always remember this. Roosevelt had an agreement with Stalin that none of our stuff would have stamped on it “Made in the USA.” The Russians were told that it was all made in Russia and that they supplied us with all the materials we had in WWII. When we met them, if you left a jeep by itself they’d take it. They’d claim it was theirs. They’d steal our stuff so we literally had to keep guards on it. The relationship wasn’t very good with them but they were drunk on vodka most of the time. That’s the kind of people they are. They're not our friends. Every generation of Americans will need to pay a price for our freedom.
What do you remember about the Germans you captured?
FD: You’ll get a kick out of this. When we’d search the Nazis, we’d take their rings, watches, and wallets. We wanted some German souvenirs. We were always looking for Leica cameras (laughs). The orders came down from headquarters not to loot the prisoners. So, what we’d do is capture a prisoner and if his watch was better than the last watch we took we’d give that one to the other prisoner. We’d take a little money here and there and give the other part to each prisoner so the rear echelon would get some (laughs).
Suicide is a major issue in the veteran community nowadays. How is your generation different and what would you tell us?
FD: I’ve thought about this suicide issue. I don’t remember any of the guys that I was with becoming suicidal when they got home. I know some that didn’t really talk much about the war and some that were depressed but not suicidal. My radio sergeant can’t relate to anything that we did in combat. It upsets him to talk about it. He’s about two and a half years older than I am but he just doesn’t want to revisit that time. I think you have to individualize it and treat each case differently. Each soldier’s combat experience is different and what they went through. I think you have to know about their childhood growing up and how he was raised. Combat is such a shock to people that it triggers an emotion that’s hard to digest. I think it depends on the person but I think when people are wounded or mentally shocked nowadays they struggle with learning to reintegrate and deal with that. The easy way out is suicide.
I think that the main thing is when you come back into today’s world you need time to readjust, whereas in my situation I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to go straight back to school. I had to finish school, move on to law school, and move on to practicing law. I didn’t give a lot of thought to my wartime experience. I was always occupied when I got back. There was a lot of classwork to be done and I was involved in all the intramural sports at UT. There’s a period of adjustment nowadays in the modern world where everyone’s background needs to be analyzed. I think the most important thing when returning though is to push people towards their strengths. If someone has a natural inclination to go to school when they return, they should go to school. If he’s 38 or 39 years old when he gets out he needs some time to reorient and undergo psychiatric screening to help him become a civilian again. Then, there are somewhere it just won’t work. They get to feeling sorry for themselves and there’s no helping them. As for those wounded physically, they very often don’t see much of an upside to life when they get back and they need help finding those positives. There is still a lot of life ahead for them and it can be an incredible life with our advancements in technology.
What do you think in your past prepared you for service and war?
FD: I didn’t have a "normal" upbringing. I went to the military academy at 13 years old and when I got to Camp Roberts at 18 to report for active duty, I was made acting corporal on the first day. I was prepared to be a soldier from a very young age. I had guys that were older than me, under my command, from 22 to 36 years old. I’d never seen them before and they’d never seen me and they looked at me and said, “What’s that kid doing telling me what to do?” In combat, I’d tell them, “You better learn this because your life depends on it.” They listened then. Discipline is what was ingrained within me during that time and that followed me throughout the rest of my life even up until now.
Why the Army?
FD: I think I chose the Army because of my ROTC time in high school. I was proud to be a soldier because I knew the Army for a large part of my life. That was part of who I was before I even joined.
What did it mean to you to be a part of the 30th Infantry Division?
FD: The 30th Infantry Division was the number one ranked Division in the European Theater. That speaks for itself. We were involved in the five major conflicts and we had an incredible record. After the war, Eisenhower appointed a 35 man commission to evaluate the performance and we were ranked number one. I received the Presidential Citation but I’m still trying to get it for my division. The reason is that the Division was a National Guard division and the main Army Division was the 1st Infantry Division. I think the active army didn’t want to give us a presidential citation because we were National Guard. We did get the Presidential Citation for the Siegfried Line. That was all a part of Achen. The 30th was primarily National Guard from Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. By the time I joined them though there were guys from 48 states in the division. We just had that fighting spirit and we were the point division. There was never a fight we didn't want to be a part of. It was an honor to uphold that tradition of “Old Hickory.”
What would you say to a soldier going into combat?
FD: If I was going to tell a young soldier going into battle anything, I’d tell them discipline is the most important trait. The second thing would be that you need to learn the guys that you’re fighting with. You need to know every possible thing about the guy you’re fighting with. It’s important to understand where your buddies are coming from at all times. Master your training. You can’t master training without discipline though. Discipline is number one. I already had that because I went to the military academy at a young age and that followed me into combat.
Do you remember stepping off the ship into the LCI (landing craft infantry) when you arrived at Normandy?
FD: I can remember when we got to Omaha stepping off the ship into the LCI (landing craft that brought soldiers to the beach from the ship) and that was tough. I can remember that like I can remember this morning. You had to account for everything. I remember the LCI bobbing and weaving as I gripped those ropes. Gripping the vertical stripes of the rope was so important and you have to know to grip that strip. With a 150 lb pack, I remember I had to jump the last three or four feet into the LCI. I remember riding the LCI towards the beach but not nearly as well as I remember stepping off the ship and onto the ropes.
What was the feeling when you were headed for the beach?
FD: I told Mack Brown (former UT football coach) that when I stepped off that LCI and onto Omaha Beach, “Coach if you’d seen me run across that beach you’d have offered me a scholarship as a wide receiver (laughs).” I told the team that when I spoke to them. I remember every bit of that run across the beach and just making it to the cliff. It took about two hours to get to the cliff… or that’s what it felt like (laughs). It didn’t actually take long at all to get there. Climbing the cliff with 150 lbs on my back was one of the hardest parts of that. The modern day cemetery at Normandy is close to a draw. The draw is an indention in a cliff and that’s where I crawled up. I'm glad I made it across the beach. A lot of us didn't.
Can you talk about some of your great memories as a Longhorn?
FD: Coach Royal and I played chess every Sunday for years and years. I’ll always remember that. If you look on my wall you’ll see his last public picture and I was in that picture with him. I loved that friendship. The picture with him and I was right after I was awarded the French Legion of Merit.
What types of cases do you handle at your law firm?
FD: In my day, I went through a general law program. There may be specialties now but that didn’t exist when I started. I started off in the old brown building in downtown Austin with five other lawyers in our practice. I’m a general practice lawyer as I’ve always been and I still represent clients I’ve had for years. I don’t seek any new clients. I usually refer new clients to outside friends of mine who I know will represent them well. I’ve practiced law in just about every area. The good thing about starting so early as a lawyer is that I’ve been exposed to so many different phases of our laws. I have a very broad background.
How do you want your legacy remembered?
FD: I just hope people remember me as a great representative of the spirit of America. Although, I’d rather say that I hope they remember me embodying the spirit of the Longhorns (laughs).
If you put me at a podium to speak about Frank Denius, I could easily occupy your entire day, regaling you with tales of a prolific warrior immersed in conviction; a man who lived the Soldier's Creed both on and off the battlefield. If you only gave me a minute, I'd probably speak on his experiences post-war because that's where I see Frank's individuality. His battlefield accolades speak for themselves. I see that young Titan sprinting across Omaha Beach, but within that image I see the future husband of Charmaine Hooper gazing at her from across the stands at an Athens Highschool football game; on a night that he described as "the best night of his life." I see the man that went on to be a loyal husband of 65 years all the while carrying out a career in law that could only be described as "storybook." I see a father and grandfather. I see a man of fierce dedication in every facet of life, having a profound allegiance to discipline and the traits that made him a natural born leader.
There's still a part of me that feels a certain guilt when I think of my grandpa's brothers and never speaking with them about their WWII experiences. Pieces of that guilt drift away as I interview men like Frank. I suppose a part of me will always wonder what it would have been like to sit with them for a day and hear it from their perspectives. The simple fact is that I won't ever be able to chronicle their side of the story, at least on this side of life. The further along I travel on this journey of a project, the more I find my passion intensified and I can only attribute that to warriors like SSG Denius. Their resolve in the face of harrowing circumstances continues to be my greatest drive to light in capturing their legacies. I know that this generation is fading at a rate of almost 400 a day and I will never take that fact for granted. I know that number will rise exponentially moving into the future. I'm grateful now and forever.