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Soldier's World War II diary gets life online

Nov. 11, 2013 - 11:48AM   |  
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CHAMPAIGN, ILL. — Veteran Charles F. “Chick” Bruns of Champaign wrote a “blog” during World War II.

Only now is it being published.

And with the help of a website created by his son, readers can follow along — 70 years later — with daily entries in his diary, as his unit served in north Africa and Europe, until the war’s end.

Bruns’ son, Cissna Park farmer John Bruns, has repurposed the diary into website called http://www.70yearsago.com.

“My father is blogging from the past,” John Bruns said.

Chick Bruns, 94, a graduate of Holy Cross School and Champaign High School, had been selling clothing at Joseph Kuhn & Co. in downtown Champaign when he decided to volunteer for a year of duty with the U.S. Army.

Before that year was up, the U.S. had entered World War II, and Bruns found himself among the first servicemen headed as part of the Third Infantry Division for the invasion of Africa in the fall of 1942.

Bruns and the rest of his unit hit the beaches about 20 miles from Casablanca.

Since Bruns’ unit were combat engineers who did everything from building roads to defusing enemy mines, Bruns rode a truck as the Army moved across the deserts of north Africa.

“It was very different from working at Joseph Kuhn & Co.,” he said.

Bruns began a diary, where he noted his experiences and emotions each day of the war, from Africa to Sicily, Italy, France, Germany and Austria.

“A lot of that diary was scribbled as I tried to keep track of what happened,” Chick Bruns said.

Shortly after arriving in Africa, his ship sank, taking most of his personal possessions.

But Bruns happened to keep that notebook and a camera with him when the ship sank, allowing him to document his daily thoughts and experiences until after the German surrender in 1945.

Bruns also sent frequent letters back home to his family in Champaign, keeping them up to date on his experiences.

“I sent back letters as many times as I could,” Chick Bruns said.

Long after the war ended, Chick Bruns would frequently tell his war tales to John and his brother, Charles Bruns Jr.

John Bruns said those tales left a good impression upon him, and he thought his father’s experiences should be shared with the public.

So John Bruns began transcribing Chick Bruns’ diary with the intention of converting the text into a book.

Since some of the copy was written in pencil on onionskin paper, John met with his dad a couple times a month to ensure accuracy.

“I sent inquiries to different publishers and never got any interest in a book, so I decided to go in another direction,” John Bruns said.

When the elder Bruns took part in an Honor Flight last year to the World War II Memorial in Washington, it occurred to John Bruns that October 2012 would be 70 years from the date that his father began his diary.

“I saw that the domain name 70yearsago.com was available, and off I went,” John Burns said.

Presented in a blog format, each day the site includes what Chick Bruns wrote and photos he took, along with newspaper articles and historic references.

John Bruns said the site allows viewers to experience what his father did in the war in real time.

“He was writing with the blog format back then,” John Bruns said. “You could say he was a man ahead of his time.”

The site also includes “Where’s Chick” maps, allowing viewers to see where Bruns was on specific days as his unit moved across Africa and later into Europe.

“It just seemed like a natural thing to do to show people the progress his division took,” he said.

John Bruns said one of his favorite tales from the war involved a fruitcake.

“In December 1943 he got a fruitcake from his aunt,” he said. “It took about four or five weeks for the fruitcake to reach him.

“By the time my father opened the package, the fruit and most things in the cake were all moldy, but they ate it anyway.”

Chick Bruns said one of his jobs was to defuse mines that had been placed by enemy forces.

“We were always finding mines because the enemy mined the roads a lot,” he said. “If the infantry called us to some mines, we went there.

“If a mine was booby trapped, we would detonate it. But most of the time we would take the core out of the mine. We always carried pins in our pocket. We would stick the pins into the top part of the mine so the core wouldn’t go down when you stepped on it.”

Bruns said making mines safe was nerve-wracking at first.

“But as time went by, you just get over it,” he said. “It wasn’t so bad losing somebody in the platoon, but when you lost your friend, then that made a big difference.”

John Bruns said some of the daily comments are heart-breaking.

“There were times in his diary when my dad would say he would be home by Christmas the next year. He didn’t think it would be a 31/2-year event,” he said.

On Nov. 2, 1943, Chick Bruns wrote:

“Listen mom & dad, quit thinking that I will be home after my year is up because that’s out of the question. They need us, so we will stay till the war is over. I don’t think you will have long to wait. I think I’ll be home by next June.”

Bruns’ prediction was off by about a year. VE Day was May 1945, not in 1944.

The diary also offers a glimpse of Bruns’ loyalty to his unit.

“When they were in Anzio in Italy, his truck got hit by an artillery shell, and one of his best friends was killed,” John Bruns said. “My dad was in the hospital with shrapnel in his back and leg, and my mom got a message that he was injured in action,” John Bruns said.

As Bruns’ outfit continued on to Rome, Bruns didn’t want to be left out.

“So I got up, left the hospital and hitchhiked back to my outfit,” Chick Bruns said. “A lot of times when you go to the hospital and get out, they shipped you to a different outfit. But I had been with this particular outfit for two years or more, and I didn’t want to miss out.”

“Then my mom got a message he was missing in action because they didn’t know where he was,” John Bruns said. “But my family still kept getting letters from him, so we knew he wasn’t missing.”

Later in the war Bruns and his outfit reached Adolf Hitler’s home.

“The British had bombed it the day before. I’ve got pictures showing the smoke coming out of Hitler’s home,” Chick Bruns said. “We were there days before the outfit depicted in ‘Band of Brothers’ got there.”

Of the 200 members of Bruns’ unit at the start of the war, only eight survived to make it home at war’s end, Chick Bruns said.

“We probably lost more people from drowning as boats turned over than we did from gun fighting,” he said.

When it was time to head back to Champaign, Bruns sent a joyous final letter home to his parents.

“Now don’t think I’m a big baby if I break down and cry, but I have missed both of you so much that you will never know how much,” he wrote on July 14, 1945.

After the war ended, Chick Bruns began a career with the composing department at The News-Gazette, a job he held for 40 years until his retirement in the mid-1980s.

Bruns is still active with Holy Cross Catholic Church, where he has served as an usher for more than 65 years.

John Bruns said the people of today can learn much from the website.

“It gives you an idea of what my dad has been through,” he said. “That was a different generation back then. And when it was over, they went on with their lives. They are all heroes.”

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