Wally Neef, who turned 100 on Dec. 21, can still vividly recall the day he was wounded on the front line at the Battle of the Bulge.
“A second lieutenant got me one morning — ‘Come out with me, I’ve got to patrol the line, I’ve got to check the line, I’m going to take you with me,” said Neef, who was part of the Army’s 42nd Division, known as the Rainbow Division, which had been created in World War I, reactivated and deployed to Europe in December 1944.
The division arrived in the Ardennes Forest just in time for the Battle of the Bulge.
“He said, ‘Dig a hole here, I’ll be back,'” Neef continued. “When I was digging a hole they started shelling us with mortar shells.
“I kept digging and finally I got it deep enough they couldn’t hurt. He came back; it was getting dark,” he added. “We slept like this, two men in a hole curled up to keep warm.”
The next morning the second lieutenant went out to get K-rations for breakfast. While he was gone, the shelling resumed.
“They were getting ready to make a push — see, they always shell you first,” Neef said. “So he got back and he brought the rations, I’m eating breakfast standing in the foxhole, he’s standing outside of the foxhole.”
Neef had urged the officer to get in the hole, too but, then it was too late.
“Poof, poof, you could hear them mortars when they’re firing them,” Neef said. “I said, ‘More mortars on the way, sir.
“He didn’t duck — one lit him up from here to that chair, went in his throat, went in my shoulder.” he added “He laid over he started snoring — he was dead.”
Neef yelled over to soldiers in another foxhole, asking that they call back to headquarters, to tell him that he was wounded and the lieutenant was dead.
Neef, who retired to Nokomis in 1978 with his wife Zelma, after working for GM for 30 years, remained active in the Rainbow Division Veterans Association through the 20th century.
According to the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, about 240,000 were still alive as of Jan. 5, 2022. In December 2021, the VA reported that 234 veterans die each day.
The last Rainbow Division reunion was about 10 years ago, when only 65 people were left.
Though he returned to the 42nd after recovering from his wounds, Neef was ultimately transferred to 84th Infantry Division, which is where he was assigned when he was discharged at the end of the war, after achieving the rank of sergeant.
Neef didn’t talk much about his service years until after the passing of his wife of 61 years, in 2014, noted Ginger Pitts, a family friend who now serves as his health surrogate and durable power of attorney.
Neef was born in Detroit, near the intersection of 17th and Bagley streets and graduated as a member of the class of 1939 at Northwestern High School in Detroit.
He registered for the draft shortly after his 20th birthday in December 1942 and was working as an electrician when he was drafted the following September.
After Neef was wounded, the medic cut off his shirt and treated the injury with sulfa powder. That started a chain of care in which he went first to an evacuation hospital, which was just behind the lines and staffed with young doctors and nurses.
By the time the doctors got to him, Neef had lost a lot of blood.
“The only reason I didn’t bleed to death was on account of the cold weather,” he said.
Doctors sewed him up and the next time he recalled being awake was in a ward, which may have been an old warehouse, with about 50 other soldiers in cots — both Allied and German troops.
“I had the front bed there and every morning they were bringing guys in,” Neef said. “Germans — German soldiers and American soldiers and were fighting each other the day before — we’re laying side-by-side in the damn hospital.”
Later, they moved him to a hospital in Paris, where French doctors tried to remove the shrapnel.
“They operated on me, tried to get it out and they sewed me up,” Neef said.
He spent the night in pain. The doctor cleaned the wound again and sent him back to England.
Neef said doctors cleaned the wound but never got all the shrapnel out.
“The shrapnel is still in there, little tiny pieces,” he added.
After healing, he and other recovering soldiers started to train again and get back into condition.
“They were from all different units,” Neef said. “Paratroopers, tankers — I seen one guy with 22 bullet holes in him — he was alive; they didn’t hit a vital spot.
“We called him Swiss cheese.”
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower gave all the recovering troops a week-long pass in London, before they had to head back across the English Channel to Europe.
Neef first went back to France, then Luxembourg, and finally caught up to his outfit with the 42nd Division in Strasbourg, Austria.
“I didn’t know anybody,” Neef recalled. “They said, ‘Oh, we got a new guy.’ The captain said, ‘No, he’s one of the originals.'”
In a January interview in the living room of his home in Sorrento East, Neef segued to training after the Germans surrendered in May, 1945, and how the soldiers started getting bayonet practice, in preparation for combat in the Pacific Theater against the Japanese.
But after the Japanese surrendered the following September, that training ended.
Neef then recalled when the 42nd was headquartered in Zell am See Austria, were he got a haircut for the equivalent of three cents and a couple of cigarettes.
He later talked about meeting Russian soldiers, and how he was transferred to another unit because of the number of points he earned.
Servicemen were awarded points based on how long they had been overseas, the campaigns they participated in, medals and decorations earned and number of dependent children — the magic number for a ticket home was 85 points.
That prompted his transfer to the 84th Division and his move to Camp Lucky Strike — a tent encampment outside the French port of Le Havre — waiting to head home, which for him had always been Detroit.
By January 1946, he was back in the U.S. and on a bus headed to Marion, Ohio, where his parents had moved.
He arrived at the station after 4 a.m. and called home.
“They picked me up. They had a farm that was about eight miles out of town,” Neef said. “They inherited it when I was gone.
“I didn’t want to farm it, I wanted to go back to my job in Detroit, I was an electrician, I went to school to study a trade.”
Neef said that his parents never forgave him for moving back to Detroit, but his mother later introduced him to Zelma Weimer, the daughter of one of her friends, and they later married.
Zelma, who retired along with Wally, spent more than 30 years working in the aerospace industry.
Pitts became a surrogate daughter of Wally and Zelma Neef — who never had any children — after meeting the couple through Zelma’s sister Alta.
Neef still lives by himself, while Pitts takes him to church, doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping.
Wally and Zelma Neef enjoyed their retirement in Venice. Both volunteered with the Venice Theatre and Venice Area Meals on Wheels, and both were active with the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
Zelma had several local, state and national offices with the American Hibiscus Society and was a member of the Venice Orchid Society.
Her volunteer hours at Selby in the hibiscus garden was marked by a commendation from President Barack Obama.
Wally, who served as president of the Gulf Coast Chapel of the American Hibiscus Society, and Zelma would also show their prize-winning flowers at shows they were not organizing, while he also gave classes on how to graft hibiscus.
In 1970, before he retired, Neef took his wife to Europe to see Normandy — even though his tour of combat started after D-Day — and the villages and towns where he fought, some of which still had battle damage from the war.
The infantry, Neef noted, suffered the most casualties of all the service branches.
“You could last about three weeks,” he said and added that about four or five weeks after he landed in Marseilles, he was wounded and in the hospital.
“Some guys,” he said, “got killed their first day.”
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