Ralph G. Neppel was just a farm boy from Iowa in the Army, trained to fire a machine gun. He worked hard at being a soldier, half a world away from his mother, a tenant farmer in Glidden, Iowa, which isn't even big enough to be the county seat in Carroll County. It was World War II. Everyone pitched in.
On December 14, 1944, in a field outside of Birgel, Germany, he would do something extraordinary.
And he would follow that up by living a life that was exceptional.
Ralph G. Neppel was born on October 31, 1923 in Willey, not far from Glidden. When he was 9, his father, Maximilian Neppel, died. Ralph helped his mother, Rose M. Neppel, work on his family’s farm. He went to local schools and became engaged to Jean Moore. She would be the girl he wrote home to when he joined the Army on March 20, 1943. He was a good soldier and was promoted to sergeant by the time he joined Company M, 329th Infantry Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division, as a replacement machine gunner after D Day.
On December 14, 1944, his company was headed east from Belgium at about the middle of the Belgium-German border, headed toward the town of Birgel, Germany, population 450, as the regiment had pushed through the Huertgen Forest and emerged on the Roer plain. By nightfall, the 329th had cleared Guerzenich and occupied much of Birgel.
A battalion of the 47th Volks Grenadier Division surrendered at the first shot. This created a critical situation for the Germans, which the Americans did not realize. The capitulation severed contact between the German LXXXI and LXXIV Corps, which endangered the operation of the Germans' Ardennes counteroffensive. To remedy the situation, German General von Zangen widened the LXXXI Corps sector to include Birgel and ordered the village retaken.
The Germans attacked at Birgel at dusk with infantry supported by six assault guns. This was the moment Sgt. Ralph G. Neppel did the extraordinary, driving off one of the assault guns and twenty accompanying infantrymen. A round from the assault gun wounded Sergeant Neppel and everyone in his squad.
“There was a tremendous roar … A blinding flash,” Neppel recalled years later. “The next thing I know I was laying 10 yards behind my gun. My crew was sprawled all over the road.”
The 21-year-old farmboy took charge.
"Neppel's life changed forever in that instant. One of his legs was shredded, and the other severed below the knee, yet he continued to advance, dragging himself back to position on his elbows, remounting his gun, and killing the remaining riflemen. Stripped of its infantry protection the tank is forced to withdraw, however before retreating the tank commander approached Neppel and shot him in the head. Luckily he was protected by his helmet. After being shot in the helmet and being grievously wounded, his awful thought when he heard the tank again was that it was moving forward and would soon crush him under its tracks. Instead, it retreated, and Neppel was rescued. When help arrived Neppel insisted they help his mates first. When he did receive aid, the doctors had to remove his remaining leg. He was to spend 6 months in a hospital for his injuries," historian Sue Eckhoff wrote.
One man saved the company and the village -- at the cost of both legs.
He learned to walk on artificial legs. He learned to golf on artificial legs. He even learned to play baseball on artificial legs. He also would marry the girl he left behind, and they would stay married for the rest of his life, raising three children.
Here is where the extraordinary became exceptional. On August 23, 1945, when President Truman, awarded 28 soldiers the Medal of Honor in the East Room of the White House, before a large audience of high ranking military officers and civilians and members of the families of those honored. The ceremony was long and drawn out and emphasized the heroics of these 28 men. Onee was blind. Neppel and PFC. Silvestre S. Herrera, 28 of Phoenix, Arizona. Herrera had captured an enemy stronghold after losing both feet in a charge through a mine field in France. An Army orchestra played. Life magazine featured a photo of a humbled Neppel in his wheelchair with his girl, Jean Moore.
Neppel did his part for the military. Now a Tech Sergeant, he went on a promotional tour to raise money for the war effort through war bonds. In those days, the government did not simply print money and pretend it balanced its books.
Back in Iowa, he received a hero’s welcome. There were parades and other honors for him. He kept his head. After the war, he operated farm equipment specially built for him. In 1949, President Truman ordered him to go to California for a veterans program. It was a ruse to get him on the highly popular radio show, "This Is Your Life," hosted by Ralph Edwards, who later did a television version of the series.
Neppel used his GI Bill benefits to get an education and a college degree. In 1964, he gave up farming and joined the VA in Iowa City in 1964 to work for the VA. While he made light of his handicap -- keeping two sets of artificial legs, one made him short, the other tall -- Neppel also became an advocate for increased handicapped access and rights. He realized that just because he adjusted to a life with prosthetic limbs, not everyone does, and that people in wheelchairs need to be able to use public accommodations.
There was a humility in him that either was instilled in him by his mother or learned on the battlefield. Most likely, a little of both. When people called him a hero, he would disagree, saying, "The heroes don't live."
Neppel died of cancer in 1987 at age 63. Two years later they named a wing at his VA hospital after him. He was just a farm boy trained to fire a machine gun, but he became a man who used his Medal of Honor to help others.