Born in dry Central California farm and orchard lands, Jim Neel grew up in Turlock and Modesto, Calif. Jim graduated from Modesto High School at age 17, applied for admission to The University of California’s first summer term and was accepted. High school graduation was in June 1943 and Jim’s summer term at Berkeley started right away. His 18th birthday was in July and, with less than a month as a collegian, Jim was drafted immediately. Jim responded to the induction center in San Francisco and was accepted into the Army. He was invited to join a program called the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), which he accepted. The Army gave him a few months' inactive leave to finish his first semester at Cal and, in December he was activated and on his way to Fort Benning, Ga.
In Georgia, most of his basic training company consisted of other young men who were participants in the ASTP. They all looked forward to completing basic training and going back to school until needed. That changed too. While in basic training (with just two weeks left) the ASTP, which involved over 100,000 other enrollees, was cancelled as the Army needed soldiers NOW! Jim was now going to be an Infantryman (he was already training at Fort Benning). When basic training ended, Jim was sent to Camp McCain, Miss., assigned to Company H, 302nd Infantry, 94th Division to be trained as a heavy machine gunner.
In July 1944, right around the time of Jim’s 19th birthday, the 94th Division got its orders for Europe and traveled from Camp McCain to Camp Shanks in New York. From there they traveled to New York where they boarded the Queen Elizabeth for their trans-Atlantic trip (in a varied course to avoid enemy attack) to Scotland. When they boarded the Queen Elizabeth and while still in the port of New York, Jim got the word that M Company, 302nd Infantry had lost their artificer which created a vacancy. He filled the vacancy, not as an artificer, but as a heavy machine gun crewman.
Machine gunners, as independent crews, provided direct support firepower for the rifle companies and were assigned by teams as needed. That meant that the machine gun crews went into combat with people they didn’t really know. With this transfer, Jim was now amongst fellow crewmen he had to get to know in a hurry.
Training in England continued once they got down to the south of England from their landing port in Scotland. Their training continued until Sept. 8, 1944, when they were ordered across the English Channel to France to replace the 6th Armored Division. The Germans had left behind two large and dangerous pockets of troops along the Brittany coast. American strategy after the initial June invasion was to rapidly pursue German formations and clear them out of western France. This strategy called for bypassing and isolating the German troops at St. Nazaire and Lorient. The 6th Armored had held them in place and now it was the first combat task of the 94th Division to maintain that containment.
According to the U.S. Army Center for Military History, “Following a brief stay in England, the 94th landed on Utah Beach on D plus 94, 8 September 1944, and moved into Brittany to assume responsibility for containing some 60,000 German troops besieged in the Channel ports of Lorient and St. Nazaire. The 94th inflicted over 2,700 casualties on the enemy and took 566 prisoners before being relieved on New Year's Day 1945.” The sector Jim was in was pretty quiet – boring, in fact. He never saw the enemy or fired his weapon.
The 94th maintained that containment until the end of December when they were ordered east in response to the massive German offensive which history has come to call “The Battle of the Bulge.”
The men of the 94th Division got into boxcars and left the Lorient-St. Nazaire sector by rail, heading east. When they got out of the boxcars, they got into military transportation (trucks) which took them to their destination, the Saar-Moselle triangle, facing the Siegfried Switch Line. Although it was the dead of winter and they expected it to be cold, they were surprised by how cold it was and the amount of snow on the ground. Snow was still a novelty to Jim, coming from the hot and dry Central California area, and not a pleasant one. Although they knew they were on the Saar, they didn’t know much more, for, as Jim says, “They didn’t give maps to privates.” Although not briefed in detail it seemed that their mission was to hold the area where they had been dropped off. They spent about two weeks in reserve not seeing any action. Jim had seen large numbers of U.S. tanks along the roads as they approached their area of operation, but to his knowledge they were not committed.
Referring again to U.S. Army’s Center for Military History information, “…the Division took positions in the Saar-Moselle Triangle, facing the Siegfried Switch Line, 7 January 1945, and shifted to the offensive, 14 January, seizing Tettingen and Butzdorf that day. The following day, the NennigBerg-Wies area was wrested from the enemy, but severe counterattacks followed, and Butzdorf, Berg, and most of Nennig changed hands several times before being finally secured. On the 20th, an unsuccessful battalion attack against Orscholz, eastern terminus of the switch position, resulted in loss of most of two companies." Although this is an important part of the 94th Division’s history, Jim’s unit was not involved.
The company Jim’s heavy weapons company supported had occupied some buildings that seemed to have been built for troops occupying the enemy’s Siegfried line. The rifle company personnel were in a building about 100 yards away from the building that Jim was in as an outpost. The company’s building was one story and had a basement. Jim’s was a 2-story affair that had wide windows in the second story with no glass left in them, apparently having been blown out before they got there and with as clear a view looking out as the enemy had looking in.
Sometime about the 20th of January, he awoke to see that there were German tanks just on the hill opposite the company position, with German infantry in amongst the tanks. They were quite close. Jim, initially alone in this lookout position, was joined that day by one rifleman who suggested that one of the tanks was close enough that they could probably get him with a bazooka, then left. Another rifleman soon showed up with said bazooka and ammunition. He joined Jim on the 2nd floor and, from their vantage point, took aim at the tank that seemed to be within range.
Jim, acting as loader, put his knee into the back of the gunner to stabilize him. He urged his gunner to hurry up as the tank’s main gun was traversing onto them, but he was slower than the tank gunner was. The tank traversed and fired, killing the gunner, knocking Jim to the floor and embedding shrapnel in his leg. The anticipated 2nd round from the tank followed the first, so he flattened out on the floor, waiting for the percussion round’s effect. The round came as anticipated and pushed him hard into the floor, knocking the breath out of him. When he recovered enough to move, he found that he could move although with a limp. Jim went downstairs. There, he saw a lone captain (whom he assumed was the rifle company commander) who told him to stay and fight, then left. With that directive and a fresh wound to his right leg, he went back upstairs to spot Germans. This occurred in the morning, and he spent the rest of day on guard.
The Germans seemed to be engaged in a containment operation as no further tank attacks were made until later in the day. While in this outpost with his still untreated wound, he heard the German tanks fire a couple of rounds, presumably into the building where the supported company was located. He then saw that the company was surrendering to the Germans. Jim decided that there wasn’t much he could do by himself limping around, so he joined them. The Germans asked for wounded to step forward, and, apparently, he was the only one wounded in this group.
His captors took him away and, after an interview by a German officer, Jim was sent to a German hospital with quarters for American POWs. There were about a half-dozen wounded American POWs there. A British doctor, who had probably been captured in Africa treated his wounded leg, leaving some of the shrapnel in his knee. This hospital stay lasted several weeks before he was moved to the vast German POW camp near Hammelburg. You’ve all heard of the depredations that existed in German POW camps, and they were all present at Hammelburg. While Jim was there, contraband radios in camp followed the progress of an American attack group that was coming to their camp on a raid. It was anticipated by the American and Allied prisoners that the raid was intended to free all of the prisoners, but the attacking American elements went only to the officer’s compound where Gen. George Patton’s son-in-law was held. The prisoners only learned of the failure of the attack the next day when they saw the Germans driving American vehicles around the compound.
As the end of the war neared, American and other prisoners were marched out of their camps, moving continually southeast, living off the land as they walked. This accommodation was better than the accommodations provided by the German camps, where available food and lack of food caused a good deal of illness among the troops. After marching several weeks, the prisoners arrived at the German prison camp at Moosburg. Several days after their arrival, they awoke to find that their guards had disappeared during the night. That same day, American troops came and the repatriation process of rebuilding the men and reacclimating them to the soldier’s life and routine began.
After the repatriation process and a 30-day leave at home, Jim reported to the training base established in Santa Barbara where former POWs were being prepared for the home invasion of Japan. As we all know, that eventuality was not seen due to the deployment of atomic bombs on Japan, and Jim was transferred to Fort Ord, where he served until his discharge.