Bill Niemeyer: A Place Called Hill 378
For Memorial Day, 2018. (Originally posted in 2012)
By the morning of March 4th, 1945, the boys of G Company, 2nd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment, 5th Infantry Division had become hardened veterans. Most had just arrived in Europe barely 3 months before and now those same freshly minted young soldiers had checked the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, chased their asses back across the Rhine and were now slugging their way into the Third Reich itself. The war was close to being over with, the Allies gaining more momentum everyday and the enemy knew it. If the Germans were only fighting the western powers they most likely would have caved in already. However, on the other side of Germany, the Soviets were smashing towards Berlin and every day they held out meant more Germans could make their way west to be captured or at least get to an area occupied by the western Allies. No one wanted to be around when the Russians came, so the war ground on.
The boys of G Company probably didn’t care much about the reason why the Germans still fought them tooth and nail. Each man had had his life interrupted and shipped half way around the globe to stop an evil that was threatening to swallow the whole world. The boys of G Company had left pretty young wives, anxious mothers, college classrooms or good jobs, and took up a Garand Rifle to do their part. Complaining about what they were missing out on was pointless – the fella next to you had the same story – maybe even better than yours. Nah, complaining wouldn’t do any good. Best thing was to keep marching forward and get this over with.
As they wearily crossed the makeshift bridge built over the Kyll River they just cared about the fight they had ahead of them that afternoon, and the one after that, and the one after that, until these Krauts threw in the towel.
If any of the boys in G Company were still sleepy, chances are the mortar fire that greeted them as the crossed the bridge woke them up. The enemy they’d been chasing since Luxembourg had dug in around the town of Erdorf. As the German lines collapsed and contracted, the enemy became more dense, more desperate. Besides regular infantry, G Company was marching right into redeployed artillery and Panzer units. As they pushed forward, the resistance became stiffer and more determined. Each gain was met with vicious counter-attacks and artillery barrages.
G Company was deployed to sweep the fields around the village of Erdorf. This was pleasant farm land of rolling little green hills and blooming trees. To the boys of G Company, the area they were clearing of enemy troops looked a lot like familiar places in the northeast and midwest United States. Perhaps more than a few of the boys of G Company were suddenly lost in thoughts of an afternoon spent in surroundings much like this, and to the little places they left behind with names like Sussex County, Washington Courthouse, Mechanicsburg or Crescent Springs.
To the officers of G Company, this place was just called Hill 378.
The company spread out and took a low hill, just like they had countless other times in the last three months. All very textbook. Regrouping and moving forward, they entered a wooded area where entrenched German troops and the Panzer tanks were waiting. This obstacle, too, was eventually beaten aside by G Company, and just like every other hill and wood and field G Company had cleared in the past three months, they left some of their own. As the troops emerged on the other side of the wood and continued eastward into Germany, one of the 32 boys they left behind that afternoon was 22 year-old Private First Class Bill Niemeyer of Crescent Springs, Kentucky. The life he had put on hold in order to beat back the evil that darkened the world consisted of a young wife Marie, two infant daughters and a promising pitching career in the Chicago Cubs organization.
Bill Niemeyer was a stand-out athlete, growing up just south of Cincinnati in Crescent Springs, Kentucky. The Chicago Cubs gave him a contract right after graduating from St. Henry’s High and he reported to the Erwin Mountaineers in the summer of 1940. Bill went 7-17 in 31 games for a poor team. The next year the 6’-2” righty was traded to the Cardinals organization where he bounced around from team to team before the Red Sox snatched him up for the 1942 season. Bill was married by this time, and took the 1943 season off to be with his wife Marie and daughters Deanna Gail and Mary Johanna. With the war raging he gave baseball one last shot, and in 1944 he was back with the Cubs organization where he started in Erwin. After going 0-4 for another bad team he went into the Army in August, and by December was on his way to Europe.
Even though Bill Niemeyer never made it up to the Cubs, I wanted to depict Bill in a Chicago uniform. Was he good enough to have eventually made it to Wrigley Field? I don’t know. We will never know. The same as we will never know what any of the other boys in G Company who died that afternoon in Germany would have accomplished in their lives. The one thing I do know is that is their sacrifices, all veteran’s sacrifices, made it possible for me to have a good life in the greatest country in the world. As I sit here writing this, I can see and hear my neighbors enjoying this beautiful Memorial Day weekend. The shouts of the boys next door, the couple across the street putting a pair of mountain bikes in their SUV and the girl on the corner attempting to train her new puppy on her green front lawn. In a few hours I will be going over to see my girlfriend who I love very much, and share a nice, lazy summer evening. All that I see and hear right at this very moment was possible because of men and women like Bill Niemeyer, a 22 year-old promising ballplayer who once lived right down the street from where I sit right now, the place he left to go off to war and never saw again.
Many thanks to Gary Bedingfield who is the foremost authority on baseball and World war II. While looking around for a ballplayer to feature this Memorial Day I of course consulted his amazing website www.baseballinwartime.com. Consulting a page he constructed showing the many professional ballplayers who died fighting for our country, Bill Niemeyer jumped off the screen. He was born and raised right where I was sitting. I might even pass his relatives at the market or live next door. The fact that he came from this place made his sacrife a bit more personal for me, especially as I sat there with a nice fresh cup of coffee by an open window enjoying the beautiful Kentucky scenery he never saw again. The place of his death was even more interesting as that part of Germany looks very similar to what he had grown up in. I’m glad I found Bill’s name on that website and I encourage every other baseball fan to take a look at Gary Bedingfield’s monumental work. His site features in-depth articles about hundreds (actually it might even be thousands of entries by now!) of players who found themselves in the service during the war. Gary is also an author of two indispensable books on the subject, Baseball’s Dead of World War II: A Roster Of Professional Players Who Died and one of my personal favorites, Baseball In World War II Europe (part of the Images of Sports series).