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Lieutenant Chester J. Churns

Forward Observer

Cannon Company, 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division

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Chester J. Churns was born in 1917 the son of a general store manager in the bustling town of Kansas City, Missouri. A bright child in his early years, Chester graduated from his local high school in 1935 and spent a few years helping out his father before finding a more permanent job as an associate of the Interstate Securities Company. He made a stable living and married his wife, Josephine, in 1941 before the call of war spread across the nation.

          In early 1942 Churns received his commission into the U.S. Army and shipped off to infantry officer training school at Fort Benning, Georgia, which he completed in November of that year. Not long after he received his primary assignment as an officer in the 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. The 30th ID was originally a national guard unit but upon being called up for federal service again in 1943, began taking officers from all across the country. Churns and the division arrived in England in February of 1944 and five days after the D-Day landings arrived in Normandy to help secure the allied beachhead and push into the European mainland. At this point, Churns had received specialized training in artillery and infantry tactics and became an assistant spotter for the regimental Cannon Company. Unlike artillery battalions, cannon companies consisted of a few batteries of 105mm Howitzers directly attached to infantry outfits like the 120th IR. While smaller, these men played an important role in the security and strength of infantry forces as a mobile, accurate, and dependable fire support team dedicated to the success of their regiment rather than divisional targets. While he may have missed the beach assault, Churns and the 30th quickly found themselves engaged in extremely harsh combat conditions which came to define the story of the “Old Hickory” division. Supporting the infantry at critical engagements like the Vire River, St. Lo, and Mortain, Churns and the Cannon Company fought tooth and nail to keep German forces like the elite 1st SS Panzer Division from overrunning allied forces with a steady and accurate barrage of fire.

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In September Lieutenant Churns was promoted to the head observer for the company when the former was killed by German artillery during a close fight. Churns was much more active than his predecessor and quickly earned a reputation for being a brave, bold frontline leader. He consistently found himself going far above what was necessary to get the howitzers their targets and to effectively support the men of the 120th. Over the course of the next months of service he would earn not only five campaign stars, but two Silver Stars and a Bronze Star for Valor because of his actions

          

Churns’ first Silver Star comes from the wintery hellscape of the Battle of the Bulge. When the Germans struck the American lines on December 16th, there was mass fear for the breaking of American troops and the collapse of the lines. The 30th, known for their crack service in prior campaigns, was given the task of stopping Hitler’s elite 1st SS Panzer Division which was rushing towards the Malmedy area. Having met the 1st SS months prior in Normandy, the 30th was surprised to find part of the unit having changed its tactics. While the division encountered many of the same Panzers and grenadiers it had months prior, some GIs began finding German soldiers of the 150th Panzer Brigade, now attached to the 1st SS, wearing American uniforms, driving American jeeps, trucks, armored cars, or tanks. Some of their Panzers were even painted up with American markings to confuse the allies. Deceiving allied troops and breaking the defensive positions, the Germans pushed through on to Malmedy by the 21st of December. On the morning of the 21st heavy fog rolled in and the men of the 30th secretly repositioned themselves into a “U” shape around a valley where German forces were believed to pass through. The plan worked flawlessly and before long an entire German battalion found themselves surrounded on three sides by heavy concentrations of American forces. It was when the fog lifted in the morning and the charade was up, however, that Churns went to work.

 

Now able to see the Germans heavily congregated in the woods and outer buildings of the town, artillery observers were sent to sight in the helpless and confused masses of SS troops. With limited time before the Germans could reorganize themselves into a defensive position or retreat, Churns sought to quickly find an effective spotting post. Noticing an abandoned building on a hill well past the allied lines, Churns rushed forward without support to secure the house as a forward observation post before it was too late. Trudging hastily through the thick snow under heavy German small arms fire in the woods, Churns soon found himself at the door of the house. Pulling out his issued .45 pistol, he kicked in the door, surprising a six-man German reconnaissance team who proceeded to jump up and grab their weapons. Before the soldiers could bring their weapons to bear, Churns brought up his own Colt 1911 and shot two directly in the chest. The others, frightened of this emboldened and fearsome American standing in their doorway, jumped out of the back door and windows to avoid facing wrath in the form of .45 ACP. Churns found the post as useful as he had hoped and began to call in artillery strikes on the still-trapped German forces as his assistant observer finally ran into the house out of breath with a radio strapped to his back. The regimental history discusses how his fire helped to bring massive casualties onto the congregated German forces facing the 120th and for his actions in securing the critical observation post, he was awarded the Silver Star. The 30th would go on to devastate the 1st SS and the other German units around Malmedy, leading the charge in a counterattack on January 13th which would mark the beginning of the end of the Battle of the Bulge.

     

A photograph of Churns in action from the 120th Infantry unit history
A photograph of Churns in action from the 120th Infantry unit history

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One of the guns of Churns' company in the Bulge
One of the guns of Churns' company in the Bulge

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A forward observation position for Churns' company
A forward observation position for Churns' company

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A photograph of Churns in action from the 120th Infantry unit history
A photograph of Churns in action from the 120th Infantry unit history

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By mid-April of 1945 the division found itself rapidly approaching the prominent Belgian urban center of Brunswick. To set up support for the eventual push, a few infantry companies as well as Cannon Company, of the 120th were sent to secure the bridgeheads at Ulfingen, a small town southeast of the city. It was here that Churns would earn his second award for valor. The attack came on April 9th and saw intense combat between the German garrison and the men of the 30th, only ending at 2345 when the call came in that the town had finally been secured. Unlike the men on howitzers, Churns found himself right alongside the combat infantry, a necessary position in order to accurately call in supporting fire. The men were not safe yet, however, as early the next morning explosions began wrecking the city. The retreating Germans had managed to gather several 88mm and 20mm cannons which were now organized on top of a ridge overlooking the canal outside of the town. Lieutenant Churns and his assistant observer, despite heavy exhaustion from the fighting to secure the city only hours before, took lead in silencing the imminent threats. Running to the outer buildings of the city Churns found a tall structure which had not yet been destroyed by artillery fire. Climbing to the highest level, Churns began coordinating direct fire support right on top of the German forces. Unfortunately, he was not undiscovered and soon the German artillery began targeting his own position and the buildings around him. Despite the hail of fire slamming directly into his observation post, Churns remained salient and continued to direct the American artillery until every gun of the German battery was eliminated. For his actions in helping to secure the bridgehead at Ulfingen and save the weary troops from severe German artillery, Churns was again awarded the Silver Star.

 

These are only two of countless heroic actions performed by Churns and the men of “Roosevelt’s SS” as the 30th was called. Engaging in some of the heaviest fighting of the war and playing a crucial role in supporting allied efforts time and time again, the 30th Division earned the reputation of the Army’s single best infantry division by head Army historian S. L. A. Marshall and many other generals in the European theater.

30th ID infantry marching through Belgium
30th ID infantry marching through Belgium

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Location of his second Silver Star Action
Location of his second Silver Star Action

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The riverbank at Ulfingen
The riverbank at Ulfingen

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30th ID infantry marching through Belgium
30th ID infantry marching through Belgium

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Churns served with valor throughout his campaigns in the World War and was decorated for his memorable deeds. He returned home to Missouri in 1945 but was not ready for civilian life, going on to serve several tours in Korea as a military advisor with Republic of Korea infantry units. Here Churns earned his second Bronze Star and a Korean Presidential Unit Citation. When the conflict was put to bed, Churns came home for the final time and returned to his job at Interstate Securities where he spent many years as the Kansas City branch president before spending some of his later years running a local bank. After a lengthy career he retired to Arizona with some family before passing away in 2006.

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2006
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1959

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