Pfc. Joe Steimel of Holiday Park in North Port was a twice-wounded mortar-man who served in the 29th Infantry Division that fought its way through France and Germany during the last year of the war in Europe in World War II.
After basic in Texas, Steimel sailed for Europe aboard the cruise-ship “Aquitania” in July 1944. He reached Glasgow, Scotland in seven days. The new recruits took a train south to South Hampton, England. Two days later they boarded another ship that docked at Omaha Beach in France.
“They put us in trucks and took us to St. Lo, France. That’s where I joined the 29th Division right after we got to St. Lo,” Steimel said.
They made me an ammo bearer for a mortar unit,” he explained almost 75 years later. “I was given a cape with six punches—three in the front and three in the back — that would carry six, .61-mm mortar shells. There was a gunner and two ammunition bearers in each mortar unit.
“Two days later we went into combat in France. We had to fall back because of the killed and wounded our division suffered,” Steimel said. “I was the only one left in our mortar unit, so I became the gunner. The other two guys had been killed or wounded.
“When we returned to the front lines I was given two other people who became ammunition bearers.
“It was my job to set up the mortar and zero it in. I waited for my forward observer to give me coordinates where to fire. I would fire one round and then he would see where it hit and tell me. He would say go right or left, backward or forward.
“If I hit the target my observer would tell me to fire three rounds for effect. My ammunition man would drop three shells down the mortar tube after I made sure the gun was in line.
“Right after that we would take our mortar and run. In coming German artillery was headed our way. They had a couple of guys spotting our location along their front line.
“As the 29th got close to Paris, our division split off and went to western France. We were headed for a submarine base along the Atlantic coast that was as far north in France as you go along the coast,” Steimel said.
“We went by a 40 & 8 train (40 soldiers and eight horses to a boxcar in World War I) to the sub base. We expected to capture the base from the Germans in nine days or less. It didn’t work out that way. Two weeks later we were still trying to breech the thick concrete walls of the sub base.
“The Rangers were called in to do the job. They climbed up over the concrete walls and forced open the main front gates. We were waiting and charged in. Most of the Germans surrendered.
“The thing we had the most problem with were German snipers. We found out that some of the enemy snipers were French women who had German boyfriends.
“After we captured the sub base they put us on another 40 & 8 train and sent us back to eastern France. We ended up along the Siegfried Line separating Germany and France. We had no trouble going through the line because our infantry preceded us.
“When we got to Belgium my gun emplacement took a direct hit from enemy fire. It tore my gun up, but I pretty much escaped by jumping in a nearby slit trench. A sailor, who was working as an ammo bearer for me, jumped in right after I did and was hit in the back by shrapnel. I heard later that he died.
“For the next three days they gave me a rifle and I became an infantryman until they got another mortar. I was taking a little R & R in an old coal mine—taking a shower and cleaning up. My lieutenant asked me what was wrong with my left hip. I told him nothing, but he sent me to the aide station. They found a piece of shrapnel in my hip about the size of a pencil eraser. I got a tetanus show and was sent back to the front.
“On Oct. 27, 1944, my little brother’s birthday, I received my first Purple Heart Medal. I sent it home.
“A short time later three of us mortar-men set up in a gravel pit south of Cologne, Germany. Our infantry was in front of us and our artillery was behind us, firing over our head. Someone put a short round in and our artillery hit a bunch of our people and killed them.
“I suffered a concussion from the incoming friendly fire. I was bleeding through my eyes and nose. They took me back to the aide station were I spent the next two or three days. Then they put me in a Piper Cub and I was flown to Paris. From there I was put in a C-47 (twin-engine transport) and flown to Oxford, England where I spent the next six weeks recovering.”
They gave him an Oak Leaf Cluster to go with his Purple Heart. In other words, Steimel had been wounded twice on the battlefield.
“When I got out of the hospital in England they made a truck driver out of me,” he said. “After Christmas ’44 I was sent to La Havre, France. There I was used for whatever they needed me for. I became a driver for Lt. Col. Wilson in Germany.
“While there my old division, the 29th, came through going home. I asked them about going home with them, but they told me they had a complete division and couldn’t take me.
“I told this to my colonel and he said, ‘I can tell you how you can get home before them. Re-enlist for another 18 months.’
“I did and and because I already had accrued 90-points they put me on a liberty ship headed for Boston. It took a month to cross the Atlantic because of the rough water. Almost everyone on board was seasick.
“During the 90-day leave I got I got married to my wife, Judy. I was shipped back to a military field hospital in Antwerp, Belgium where I drove a medical supply truck all over Germany. Sixteen months later I returned to the U.S.A. and was discharged from the Army. It was 1946.
“I ended up working for General Motors at their Alison Aircraft Plant in Indianapolis, Ind. For the next 18 1/2 years I worked for them until I retired in 1990.
“Judy, my wife, and I bought an RV and toured the country for the next nine years. We hit all 50 states. The only one we didn’t make in our RV was Alaska and Hawaii. In 1999 we sold our RV and retired to North Port.
The Steimels have six children, three boys and three girls: Jill, Sally, Sandy, Steve, Tim and Wayne.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, August 21, 2017 and is republished with permission.
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