Obama’s Gramps: Kansas to D-Day
Washington ? Surely, Stanley Dunham was gazing skyward 65 years ago, on D-Day.
Dunham, the man whom Barack Obama would one day call Gramps, was a 26-year-old supply sergeant stationed near the English Channel with the U.S. Army Air Forces when the invasion of Normandy at last began. Six weeks later, he crossed the Channel, too, and followed the Allied front across France. A year later, he was on track to fight in Japan when the atom bomb sent him home instead.
Dunham, who died 17 years ago, was the Kansas-born grandfather with the outsized personality who helped to fill the hole in the future president’s life created by the absence of Obama’s Kenyan father. Sgt. Dunham’s war years have been something of a mystery, the details of dates and places lost with the passage of time. The units that he served in were unknown even to the White House.
But a life-size portrait emerges from interviews and records unearthed by The Associated Press. On D-Day, documents place him at Stoney Cross, England, in the 1830th Ordnance Supply and Maintenance Co., Aviation.
“This was the day we had all been waiting for,” Dunham’s commanding officer wrote the night of June 6 from their base near the English Channel. “Planes by the hundreds took off and landed at our field from dusk until dawn.”
His company supported the 9th Air Force as it prepared for the assault on Normandy and took part in the drive that carried the Allies across France. Dunham and the men of the 1830th came across six weeks after the initial Normandy invasion and followed the front through France, servicing airfields known by numbers — A-2, A-44, A-71, and more — in places such as Brucheville, Cricqueville, St.-Jean-de-Daye, Peray, Clastres, Juvincourt and Saint-Dizier.
Obama visits Normandy
On June 6, the 65th anniversary of D-Day, Obama visited the gravesites and beaches of Normandy, and looked out across the channel that his grandfather crossed from a staging area at Southampton, England.
“I knew him when he was older,” Obama said of his grandfather in 2007. “But I think about him now and then as he enlisted — a man of 23, fresh-faced with a wise-guy grin.”
To the 75 men of Dunham’s company, he was a good guy to have around.
For one thing, he taught the men how to use their new gas masks.
He also came up with a radio, games and books for a day room that Dunham’s commanding officer described as “a swell place to spend an evening.”
And when the 1830th had a party in the gym three days after D-Day, they had Dunham to thank for it.
On May 31, 1944, payday, Dunham had taken up a collection of 35 British pounds — about $150 in today’s dollars — to finance the event. He lined up a convoy of girls from Southampton who, the men hoped, would be “simply smashing,” as his commanding officer, Frederick Maloof, wrote in his diary.
“The party was a huge success, except that the beer ran out about 10:30 p.m.,” 1st Lt. Maloof later reported. “All agreed that the orchestra was good. A few of the die-hards were still crooning over the empty beer barrels at an early morning hour.”
For all the good times, the strains of war were ever present for Dunham and his fellow soldiers.
On the evening after D-Day, Dunham’s unit dug 27 foxholes.
“This was done in case of a retaliation by the Germans,” Maloof wrote.
On June 11, the first hospital ships returned from France, bringing tales of the “hardships encountered on invasion day.”
That same day, Maloof wrote that “our mail has not been reaching home, and the wives and sweethearts are beginning to wonder if we have gone across the channel on the first wave.”
The wives included Madelyn Dunham, back home in Wichita, Kan., with Stanley Ann, a toddler who would grow up to be Obama’s mother.
Madelyn, the beloved grandmother known as “Toot” who helped raise the future president, did her part for the war effort, working the night shift as a supervisor on the B-29 bomber assembly line at the Boeing plant.
Her brother is part of the war story, too. Charles Payne, Obama’s great-uncle, in 1945 helped liberate a sub-camp of the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, which Obama will visit June 5.
Stanley’s older brother Ralph, another great-uncle to Obama, also is a branch in the wartime family tree.
Ralph was called up after Stanley enlisted. He landed at Normandy’s Omaha Easy Red beach on D-Day plus four, then worked his way through France, Italy and Germany as an assignment and personnel officer.
Late in July, six weeks after D-Day, Stanley Dunham’s unit crossed the English Channel and landed at Omaha Beach.
“After looking over the Atlantic wall, with its pill boxes, we all agreed it was a miracle that the Allies were able to land,” Maloof wrote.
In his autobiography, Obama reports that during the war his grandfather was “sloshing around in the mud of France, part of Patton’s Army.”
That’s right, at least for a few months.
In February 1945, at Saint-Dizier, Dunham’s unit was assigned to Patton’s 3rd Army, and Dunham remained in that company until early April. Prior to February, Dunham’s unit had supported 1st Army operations.
Obama sketches Dunham as a man with a wild streak early on who settled down to sell furniture and life insurance.
By the time he joined the Army, he already had lived large. He’d been thrown out of his high school in El Dorado, Kan., for punching the principal in the nose. For three years he’d lived off odd jobs, “hopping rail cars to Chicago, then California, then back again, dabbling in moonshine, cards and women,” Obama wrote in his autobiography, “Dreams from My Father.”
Dunham had also fallen in love with a woman from the other side of the tracks — the good side — and married her. He eloped with Madelyn Payne just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, and he was quick to enlist after the Japanese attack.
“He was really gung-ho,” remembers Ralph. “He didn’t have to go because he was married. He could have held off.”
Returning from war
He was inducted at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on Jan. 15, 1942.
That November, while Dunham still was stationed stateside, he got leave to come home to Kansas when his daughter, Stanley Ann, was born at Fort Leavenworth.
Her unusual name, Obama wrote, was “one of Gramps’ less judicious ideas — he had wanted a son.” The family called her Stannie. Later, she would be known as Ann.
Four months after he transferred out of the 1830th, Stanley Dunham was discharged from the Army on Aug. 30, 1945, at Fort Leavenworth.
Obama tells the rest of the story in his autobiography.
“Gramps returned from the war never having seen real combat, and the family headed to California, where he enrolled at Berkeley under the GI Bill,” Obama wrote. “But the classroom couldn’t contain his ambitions, his restlessness, and so the family moved again, first back to Kansas, then through a series of small Texas towns, then finally to Seattle, where they stayed long enough for my mother to finish high school.”
Wanderlust sent the family on to Hawaii, where Dunham and his wife would be central figures in the life of their grandson after Obama’s father left the family. Madelyn died last year at age 86, two days before Obama was elected president.
Stanley, who called his grandson “Bar,” died in 1992 at age 73.