Separated by time but connected by a lineage of honorable service, five World War II veterans who fought with the 83rd Infantry Division were able to spend time with fellow soldiers serving now.
“I never expected anything like this,” World War II veteran and former Pvt. Arthur Jacobson said.
As part of its 75th annual reunion in August, Jacobson and four other 83rd Infantry Division World War II veterans, their families and friends of the 83rd Infantry Division Association spent the day at Fort Knox, Kentucky, with soldiers from the 83rd U.S. Army Reserve Readiness Training Center.
Known as the “Thunderbolt Division” or the “Ohio Division,” the 83rd Infantry Division fought in World Wars I and II, including in Normandy, France; the Ardennes in Belgium; and the Rhineland in Germany. The division was inactivated in April 1946.
Today, the division’s lineage lives on in the readiness training center. Redesignated the 83rd Army Reserve Readiness Training Center in 2014, soldiers assigned to the center at Fort Knox wear the 83rd Infantry Division’s distinctive black and gold patch.
Staff Sgt. Alice Torres, an instructor at the training center, volunteered to accompany Jacobson as the World War II veterans toured the post and attended a dedication ceremony honoring 83rd Infantry Division Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Ralph Neppel.
“This experience served as a reminder to me for why I am in the service,” Torres said. “I was most touched by Art sharing with me when he was injured in combat. We were at the [General George] Patton Museum and walked by a jeep used during the war. He stood there and told me how those jeeps went around picking up casualties.”
“I could see in his eyes he was reliving the moment,” Torres added. “It was hard for me to keep it together. It was an honor and a privilege.”
Today, the 83rd Army Reserve Readiness Training Center is responsible for the planning and execution of 32 Army courses ranging from leadership and readiness, to sustainment and instructor training.
Fighting Through Europe
During World War II, 83rd Infantry Division soldiers had a different mission from the training mission the 83rd conducts today. The soldiers fought the Axis powers from Omaha Beach and Carentan, France, to Luxembourg and the Hurtgen Forest along the Belgian-German border, according to the U.S. Army Center for Military History. It entered the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 27, 1944, fighting for about a month before moving back to Belgium and Holland for rehabilitation and training, then returning to battle in March 1945 as the unit advanced toward the Rhine, according to the Center for Military History.
Jacobson said he served in four of the five campaigns the 83rd Infantry Division fought in during World War II, according to an Army news release. “It was hell,” he said. “I was on the front line about eight months.”
A little more than three-quarters of a century have passed since Andre Beaumont, Chester Kochan, Aloysius Klugiewicz, Ralph Rogers and Jacobson wore the Thunderbolt patch on their shoulders, but their return to the unit was met by soldiers who treated them like brothers in arms.
“Simply unbelievable,” said Master Sgt. Isaac Haugen, an instructor at the training center. Haugen volunteered to spend the day with former Pvt. Rogers, who was only 19 when he became a prisoner of war while on patrol during the Battle of the Bulge.
Haugen said he was “astounded” to learn that Rogers weighed only 87 pounds when he left a Nazi prison camp.
Rogers shared some of his story with younger soldiers walking through the exhibits at the Patton Museum. “I could see a deep respect for his sacrifice on their faces,” Haugen said.
A boy was so excited after meeting the World War II veteran that he left to find his father and brought him back to introduce him to Rogers.
“There are not many times in our careers where one will have the opportunity to be involved in such a meaningful event,” said Col. Larry Thomas, commander of the 83rd Army Reserve Readiness Training Center.
Thomas and his staff worked for months with the 83rd Infantry Division Association to ensure that the event was meaningful, not only to the five heralded veterans but also to the association’s volunteer staff and current 83rd soldiers.
“Events like this are mutually beneficial and foster an esprit de corps between current and past members of the 83rd,” said Tom Thomason, the association’s president.
The association has more than 400 members worldwide, including World War II veterans, their families and friends. The association’s goal is to preserve the history of the 83rd Infantry Division through annual reunions and travel throughout Europe for reenactments and memorial ceremonies. Thomason has been with the association since 2014 “in honor of my father,” and said he became a member to learn more about his father, a rifleman who was wounded in France in 1944.
During the visit to Fort Knox, the five World War II veterans were welcomed by soldiers serving today. They shared lunch, enjoyed a flyover by the 8th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 229th Aviation Regiment, and toured the Patton Museum on-post, where the veterans got to hold a pistol used by Maj. Gen. George Patton Jr. during the war.
Story of Courage
The 83rd Army Reserve Readiness Training Center also named an auditorium for Neppel, the only 83rd Infantry Division soldier to receive the Medal of Honor.
On Dec. 14, 1944, while defending an approach to the German village of Birgel, Neppel and his squad came under fire from an enemy tank and 20 infantrymen. Neppel, the machine-gun squad leader, waited until the Germans were within 100 yards before raking the foot soldiers beside the tank, killing several of them, according to his Medal of Honor citation.
The enemy tank continued moving forward, firing a high-velocity shell into the American position from the “point-blank range of 30 yards,” the citation says. The entire squad was wounded. Neppel was blown 10 yards from his gun. One of his legs was severed below the knee, along with other wounds.
Despite his injuries and the danger from the oncoming tank and infantry, Neppel dragged himself back to his position, remounted his gun and killed the remaining enemy riflemen, according to the citation.
“I really didn’t do much,” Neppel said in August 1945 when he received the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman. “It was just a question of fighting on and doing what a fellow could or get killed. I don’t know why people are being so wonderful to me.”
He died on Jan. 27, 1987.
Naming the auditorium for Neppel will ensure that his story and valor are not forgotten. “Now, the thousands of students that walk our hallways each year will be able to view and appreciate the sacrifices Neppel and the 83rd ID endured during one of the most turbulent times in world history,” Thomas said. He added, “Having pride in our history helps us realize the importance of our current mission.”
For the soldiers—both former and new—the day’s events were memorable.
“This is living history,” said Master Sgt. Melissa Shropshire, an operations NCO with the 83rd Army Reserve Readiness Training Center, as she asked the World War II veterans to sign a book. “I wanted to capture a piece of history by having a living legend sign a piece of Thunderbolt history.”
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Maj. Tyler Mitchell, Active Guard Reserve, is a public affairs officer at the 83rd U.S. Army Reserve Readiness Training Center, Fort Knox, Kentucky. Previously, he served as a public affairs officer with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. He deployed to Operation Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2018.