THE FIRST CASUALTY OF G CO., 304th REGIMENT
By Sgt. Richard (Bert) Schappel, HQ Co., Co. G, 304th Regiment
On the icy night of Jan 24,1945 G Company moved from Hives, Belgium into Luxembourg. Our transfer was made in an open truck all night long: GI's were so desperately cold that there were fights even between good buddies, in an effort to get into the less windy space behind the cab. G Co., 304th was committed to defend the village of Osweiler from German attack. The village was only 4 kilometers from the Siegfried Line and the Sauer River. The hills were silent and beautiful but we knew how deceiving that was and how deadly they were. Before us lay the abandoned, destroyed city of Echtemach.
Osweiler, like so many other Luxembourg towns near the German border, had also been abandoned. Homes were devoid of furnishings but in good enough shape that each platoon was able to house its men in its own separate quarters. Without care most of our daytime activity could be viewed from the German side; therefore, we went out unencumbered only at night. The snow on the ground made the village look picturesque but, before we left, the snow had melted and Osweiler had become a sea of mud. I remember the houses there were small, peasant style, built adjacent to each other on narrow streets. There was a prominent 2 story school on a hill on one side of town with all its glass windows shattered and its brick spalled or destroyed and the ubiquitous spired village church at the village center. The church had a large hole in its roof.
I was a messenger at company headquarters. Besides three messengers, headquarters quartered the company commander, a communications sergeant, our first sergeant, and a 4 or 5 man group selected to protect the commander. We were in a house which had some of its roof missing. We couldn't have a fire for warmth but the structure was a "luxury" on its own, affording us protection from cold winds. We were much better off than other battalion companies who were dug in on a defensive line on either side of us. Our captain stayed in a separate room adjacent to company communications. Platoon officers stayed with their own men. Phone communications were active 24 hrs. a day, both within the company and with battalion headquarters.
We had 9 observation posts overlooking the village to survey German activity. We layed field wire between the OP's and the communications room. The posts reported to the communications room switchboard every half hour using secret codes. Personnel exchanges were made at night.
It seemed that every night we sent out Recon Patrols. Because of my constant service in the communications room I'd hear exciting stories of events and the patrols sounded so much like fun that I kept trying to get the communications sergeant to let me go on one of them. I did get my chance except it turned out to be, not a Recon Patrol, but a Combat Patrol complete with a full fighting platoon with its platoon leader, the company commander, and communications support. This was destined to be our first taste of group combat.
I remember Bill Farmer, one of the guys selected to protect the company commander. I never understood why. He was not burly. He was a young 18 yr. old from a small city in West Virginia. He had been raised by his grandfather and I assumed he had a pedagogic upbringing. He talked about a girl back home. He could play the piano for hours in the recreation room at Camp McCoy without sheet music. Many times when he went out to town on a pass he went with GI's older and more experienced than he. He was trying to learn smoking and drinking. I thought he wanted to become a man quickly but most of his actions were obviously teen-age. One time in Osweiler, he talked me into going into the church, up the choir loft to an organ which was still there in workable condition. It was a foot pumped affair and he got me to help him pump while he played. The organ worked well and sacred music floated out over that dangerous land.
Farmer was selected to go on the Combat Patrol also. The target was the village of Hinkle deep in the valley of the Sauer River. The village of Dickweiler lay at the top of the bluff and from there a gradually sloping dirt road went down into Hinkle. Dickweiler was our jump-off point and the ambulance and medical people remained there. At nightfall, the platoon went down the road while the captain chose a spot halfway down for his command post. Our communication team was running field wire down to the company command post from Dickweiler when a tremendous amount of German fire power commenced. What looked like Fourth of July sparklers danced up the slope toward us. Someone yelled 'Drop' and we did. I realized then that the Germans were firing tracers with their regular bullets and they were sweeping up the hillside. Their bullets went over our heads because we had dropped to the ground.
Some members of the captain's command post escaped back between bursts and told us the Germans had waited until our platoon was at the gates of Hinkle before firing. Hinkle, although on the Luxembourg side, was loaded with Germans, probably more than anticipated. All communication with the platoon was lost. Bill Farmer had been hit and the company commander was calling off the patrol. There was a call for a stretcher to get Farmer and we rushed up the hill to the medics' ambulance to get one. To a man we volunteered to go back down with it. The firing constantly swept the hillside. We would drop to the ground when firing appeared to be coming toward us. We were successful in bringing him back. It was my first experience under fire and I wasn't yet mentally conditioned to be scared. That came later. When we got Bill to the ambulance the medics said Bill had been hit in the head and killed immediately. I experienced an overwhelming sense of futility: we had risked our necks to get a buddy, a youngster, but we couldn't save him.
Amazingly the members of the platoon began to straggle up the hill. There had been no army maneuver instruction for this kind of event. The platoon, relying on instinct, had scattered. and it had been everyman for himself. They all got back marvelously unscathed. If the Germans had zeroed in on the road, I'm sure they would have had a big kill.
In retrospect, I guessed that Bill had looked at the sparklers coming up the hill with wonder. No one at the command post had yelled "Drop". That was all that was needed to seal Bill's' doom.
Memorials for Bill Farmer are meager: a name on a list in a Handbook and a marked grave among thousands at the US Military Cemetery at Hamm, Luxembourg. Apparently, there was no request for his remains to be transferred back to West Virginia. I have always wondered how much he was missed back home. The pity of it all, repeated over and over again in wartime, is "He was so young".