Private Thomas Croft Neibaur
World War I Hero, Thomas Croft Neibaur, Medal of Honor Recipient
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Private Thomas Croft Neibaur, Medal of Honor Recipient
1918 | France
Thomas C. Neibaur No. 98595
October 16, 1918 422 South 12th St.
G. C. No. 118 W.D. 1918 Boise, Idaho
Thomas C. Neibaur, Private Company M. 167th Infantry 42nd Division. Near Landres-et-St. Georges, Frances, October 16, 1918. On the afternoon of October 16, 1918, when the Cote-de-Chatillon had just been gained after bitter fighting, and the summit of that strong bulwark in the Kriemhilde Stellung was getting organized, Private Neibaur was sent out on patrol with his automatic rifle squad to enfilade enemy machine-gun nests. As he gained the ridge he set up his automatic rifle and was directly thereafter wounded from a hostile machine-gun on his flank. The advance wave of the enemy troops, counter-attacking, had about gained the ridge and, although practically cut off and surrounded, the remainder of his detachment being killed or wounded, this gallant soldier kept his automatic rifle in fire from the skirmish line of his company at least one hundred yards in his rear and the attack was checked. The enemy wave being halted and lying prone, four of the enemy attacked him at close quarters. These he killed. He then moved along among the enemy lying on the lines, and by coolness and gallantry captured eleven prisoners at the point of his pistol and, although painfully wounded, brought them back to our lines. The counter-attack in full force was averted to a large extent by the single effort of this soldier, whose heroic exploit took place against the skyline in view of the entire battalion.
When, after a rather long journey on a very unlimited train, I landed at the small town of Sugar City, in the Snake River Country of the state of Idaho, which everyone knows is high up, and true Far West, I was met at the station by an elderly, blue-eyed man who told me he was the father of Thomas Neibaur, Congressional Medal of Honor. Sugar City is not a city; it is a small settlement, which has grown around a sugar factory built to make use of the many beets grown in the shallow valley. There are no cabs. Neibaur senior and I walked toward the house of the Medal of Honor man over the strewn golden cottonwood leaves of this beautiful October morning and as we walked, we talked. He told me that he worked in the sugar factory at night, and this made it possible for him to meet my train in the morning. Presently he would go to bed to sleep for the day.. . .
He went on to tell me of the accident. It seems that Thomas Neibaur, Medal of Honor, is an oiler in the sugar factory. He was oiling a big machine when a cog seized the sleeve of his right arm. Slowly the cog drew the arm in. When another man who luckily had seen it had stopped the machine, it had to be dismantled to free the arm, which by this time had been badly mangled.. . .
So when I advanced up the boardwalk to the front door of the Neibaur cottage, it was in fear of finding gloom and consternation behind the door. It opened and I saw four little children. They had been romping on the carpet; now they stood in line to be introduced, smiling with the utter trust, which is the Western Child’s. There were Fay, seven years old; Marian, six; Keith, three and the baby LaMar, just one year old. The mother appeared, young, pink-cheeked; an overworked mother and housewife who refused to look overworked. The house was gay with cleanliness; the sun poured in through the wide windows; white starched curtains completed the effect of lightness and clearness.
In the center of the room Thomas Neibaur sat, his wounded, white-wrapped arm laid before him across the table. My first surprise was at his youth. But then he was not quite nineteen when he went into the war, and only a kid when he won the Medal. What struck me next were his eyes, clear gray-blue eyes in deep orbits – the eyes of a sharp-shooter. I found myself saying, “You must be a good shot.”
He laughed, “Just a little better than the average around here,” he said. Which must be fairly good, the “around here” being Idaho, on top of the world, where you shoot deer and bear, and, at that, a part of Idaho not so far from famous Jackson Hole, where what is shot hasn’t always four legs.. . .
He is a Westerner entirely. He was born in Idaho, in the Bear Lake Valley near Montpelier, on a farm. His father came to Idaho when two years old, from Salt Lake, where his father had come with ox team in 1848, in the days of the gold rush. Young Thomas Neibaur spent his boyhood on a farm, going to the public school of Teton, near Jackson Hole; and he was on a farm when the war came, before he was yet nineteen.. . .
Tommy Neibaur was working on this brother-in-law’s farm when, in March 1917, came President Wilson’s call for twenty-five thousand volunteers. Tommy immediately became one of the first twenty-five thousand, enlisting in the Idaho National Guard a little over a week before the declaration of war. The Idaho National Guard was put to guarding railroads. From April to October Tommy guarded railroads. I asked him what he thought of military life.
He laughed and admitted that at first it did not seem so good. “I thought it was the bunk,” he said. “It was hard to get accustomed to the way they did things. There seemed to be an awful lot of foolishness about it.”
The guarding of railroads stopped in October, and the Second Idaho Infantry became part of the Forty-first Division, training at Camp Mills and then at Camp Merritt. He was a gunner in the 146th Machine Gun Battalion, and with that outfit went to France on the Olympic, in January, 1918. It was the first time he had seen the ocean.
“What did you think of it?” I asked.
“I thought it was big,” he chuckled. “I had thought Salt Lake big before that, but this was surely bigger.”
While in training over there, he was transferred, an infantryman once more, to the 167th Regiment of the Forty-second, or Rainbow, Division. The four infantry regiments of this division were from distinct parts of the land: the 166th of Ohio; the 168th from Iowa; the 167th from Alabama; while the 165th was the old Fifty-ninth Irish of New York. Neibaur was with the Alabama boys, who were to acquire a name for ferocity in battle and turbulence when at rest.
“A pretty tough bunch?” I suggested.
His eyes lighted up. “Well,” he said, “They were a bit rough and a bit rowdy, but there were no boys who’d stand by closer. I’ll tell you how it was. They were so full of life and pep they had to be doing something all the time. If there was nothing doing, then they’d have to do something. They’d raise hell.”
When I asked him about some of the towns where he had been, he was again amused. “You see,” he said, “We weren’t in any towns. Towns weren’t crazy to have the Alabamas and Headquarters seemed to think it was better for the towns if we weren’t in them, and better for us if we weren’t in the town. Two-third of us never knew where we were anyhow, and didn’t care. Yes, we were a bit rough – “
“And what kind of solider were you?” I asked.
“A pretty tame one,” he said quickly.
The division went to Lorraine, in “Quiet sector,” where, Neibaur says, “We hated ourselves.” IN the cold mud, under shell and gas, in endurance without much activity, they were learning, slowly being pickled into real soldiers. Then they were assigned to General Gouraud’s army and thrown into the great defensive battle of Champagne. In March the Germans had attacked; had nearly destroyed the British army; and had almost taken Amiens. In May they had attacked and driven in the Chateau Thierry salient to within fifty miles of Paris. Now they were preparing a third assault, which was to be the last one, and the end of the war. But Gouraud had ascertained the time and place of this planned final drive. He had brought up much artillery; he had left his front lines with a light screen of observing troops and withdrawn his main body several kilometers, so that the enemy must stagger across a wide terrain under storm of fire before striking them.
It was a great battle to be in, for one’s first. At midnight of July 14, the world suddenly became a stunned chaos of dreadful uproar. Both artilleries had started at once. All night the incredible din kept up, while shells dropped on the dugouts, bursting them open, or deluging the men in gas. All night, under this, the men patiently waited. At dawn little groups of the sacrificial thin front line began to trickle back. The enemy was approaching. The men left their holes and manned the defenses. For a long time they fired and fired across the level land without seeing anything. Then out of the haze and the smoke the German masses appeared.
Tommy Neibaur was an automatic rifleman; there were two in each platoon. He had a Chauchat automatic which sprayed twenty bullets one upon the other before having to be reloaded, swiftly, with another clip. Two boys at his side did the loading; he had only to shoot. He shot. Shot and shot and shot. All through the morning, through that afternoon, as attack after attack came to die at his feet like hissing foam of waves.
He says: “On the Chauchat automatic there’s a sort of bell-shaped thingamajib which is supposed to keep it cool. It didn’t keep mine cool. The gun was red-hot in my hands.
After that, Neibaur was in the hard battle of the Oureq, where he saw the brother regiment, the Irish 165th, almost wiped out. He saw the Irish fighting with the bayonet. “I never had to do that,” he says, “thank God.” Then he was at St. Mihiel, but the Alabamas were only in reserve.
So he came to the middle of October, 1918, and there was only a month of the war left, although no one knew that, and he was still a private, without the least decoration. Only a month of fighting left, and no decoration. Hurry up, Tommy Neibaur!
On October 11, the division was thrown full into the great battle of the Argonne, which had been raging since September 26. The sector given them was one in which the Thirty-fifth Division first had fought. It had gone on till exhausted and decimated. Then the veteran First had taken up. It too had gone on till spent; half of its infantry gone. And now the Forty-second was dumped before the formidable Driemhilde Stellung.
This was a cunningly arranged and intricately wired position consisting of three lines of entanglements and trenches. The first tangle of wire was breast high and as much as twenty feet deep, in small squares held strongly by iron supports, so that artillery fire had practically no effect upon it, unless the very ground in which it was planted was blasted off the planet. Back of this first entanglement were trenches four feet deep, with machine-gun nests set so that their fire criss-crossed, poured along every natural line of advance, and filled with buzzing steel the zigzag lanes left in sinister invitation within the wire. Behind this front line was a second line, and behind that a third. The division had this in front; behind them was an ocean of ooze, which made it impossible to bring up enough ammunition for the Irish who were to the left.
At five-thirty on the morning of October 14, the men left their water-soaked holes, and in mist and rain started across a lake of mud toward the barbed wire. All that day, and all the next, they broke themselves upon it, under a hail of machine gun fire and terrific bursts of shellfire. The line would advance till the bullets were one great wind. Many fell, others dropped into whatever shelter they could find. The order would be given to advance again. Three or four men would leap out, come into the line of fire; drop. Another group would leap forward to go down like the first. There would be another halt, while the enemy artillery searched the ground and with direct hits blew the men out of their holes. Then the order to try it again.
Thus for two days. On the morning of the sixteenth, what was left of the shattered regiment was gathered together and re-grouped. What once had been two or three squads was made into one squad; what once had been two or three platoons was made into one platoon; rags and tags of nearly destroyed companies were put together. M Company, Neibaur’s, was huddled in a small wood of willows, and was under heavy shellfire. “Was there gas?” I asked. “Plenty of gas,” he said heartily. A dreary rain fell. The men were cold, famished, exhausted. They had only one blanket apiece; for two days they had lived on their iron rations. “We didn’t care who won the war now,” said Thomas Neibaur, M.H.
The officers went among their men and told them that failure to take the Cote-de-Chatillion meant the loss of the great Argonne battle. The knoll was the key to the whole far-flung struggle, they said. It must be taken to win the battle and to win the war.
The Alabama boys went at it once more. By noon they had broken through the wire, and a little later had swept on clear to the top of the Cote-de-Chatillon.
As night approached a line was organized; the doughboys started to dig in against the counter-attacks sure to come.
Thomas Neibaur was in M Company and was the gunner of an automatic rifle crew. His gun was a Chauchat, weighed twenty-two founds, fired twenty rounds at a clip, and had fastened to it a rod which dropped perpendicularly when the gun was aimed, making a support very much like that seen in pictures of old blunderbusses.
The men of M Company spread out, were making the earth fly under their feet with shovels, and out in front with bullets. They were on a plateau and before them was a low ridge. They were, as it were, in the orchestra pit; the ridge was the stage.
And now, just as their long, bitter, three days desperate effort seemed about to be rewarded with success, and perhaps with a bit of relative rest, and perhaps with a bit of food for their hollow bellies, disaster stalked upon them. Men began to drop, singly or in groups. If anyone rose he was downed. If a head showed above a funk hole, a bullet burst it open. The work of organizing the position became impossible; and over that ridge ahead, soon, inevitably, a counterattack would be pouring. The entire company, or its pitiful remnant was pasted to the ground. A machine gun from somewhere had it enfiladed. Its deadly spout, from the side, was piercing its length as a needle threads bend.
To the left of the company was a wooded hollow; to the right was a wooded hollow; the wings, you might say, of the stage made by the ridge ahead. It was in the hollow to the right that the machine gun was hidden; and the holes in the dead, in the wounded, establish that.
Neibaur was lying in the hole he had dug, his automatic rifle pointed at the crest of the ridge over which presently the counter-attack would come, when Lieutenant Banks came crawling along, leaping from shelter to shelter and shouting for an automatic rifle team-gunner, a leader, a scout-volunteer who would try to get that murderous machine gun. Neibaur said he would go, and two other said they would go with him.
“What made you do it?” I asked him ten years later.
He threw back his head and laughed. “I don’t know,” he said. “A sudden rush of patriotism to the head, I guess.”
The loader who had volunteered to go along was a big Italian called Boscarino. I am not sure of the spelling because Neibaur is not. “I don’t know how to spell it,” he said.
The name of the second volunteer he doesn’t know at all. “I can’t remember his name,” he said, “but I can see him, all right, plain. He was a little bit of a guy, light-haired – the other extreme of Boscarino, who was big and black.”
Neibaur, and the big Italian, and the little bit of a guy, set out to get the machine gun. Neibaur carried the Chauchat and the other two carried ammunition.
The ridge before the deployed company was like a stage. The murdering gun was in a hollow, which was like the right wings of that huge stage. But to the left was another wooded hollow, like the left wings of the stage, and it was toward this that Neibaur and his two companions started, and into it that, slowly creeping, they vanished.
After a little they reappeared. It was as if, having exited into the wings close to the footlights, they were re-entering the stage close to the backdrop. After going deep into the hollow, they had turned at right angles, then after awhile at right angles again. And now they were coming out upon the ridge, a hundred yards ahead of where they had started, a hundred yards in front of the deployed company.
Of the details of this movement Neibaur does not remember much. They crawled. They carefully crept to shelter. It was hard toil, what with the weight of the gun and the ammunition. It was heart-thumping toil, for at any moment they expected to run into a group of the enemy. Neibaur led. Few words were spoken, these having to do mainly with the direction and with the calculations necessary to keep under cover.
Coming out of the ridge they redoubled, if anything, their care. They were now fully one hundred yards ahead of the company, one hundred yards nearer the enemy’s lines. They must keep from being seen from these lines; they must keep from being seen by the machine gun crew they were stalking; and, knowing how cunningly the Germans checker-boarded their deadly repeaters from other machine guns, surely set to protect with cross-fire the one they were stalking.
So they crept a little below the crest, to be out of sight of the main enemy lines; they crept low and went from hole to hole, from bush to bush, from stone to stone, hiding from the flanking machine gun they were after, and the others which were sure to be about. This was as if on a stage, in full view of their comrades below. They would vanish for long moments, and then a leap, some sudden rush, would bring them into sight; by those flashes their slow and infinitely hazardous progress could be followed, across stage, toward the right wings, where presently they would vanish again for the climax of the dramatic act – success or death.
Finally, Neibaur, Boscarino and the small blonde boy had reached that part of the ridge, which was the center of the stage. They came now upon new difficulty. A tangle of barbed wire was before them, a place where some sort of a redoubt had been begun by the enemy and abandoned.
They huddled low in a depression of the ground and considered. The obstacle was squarely in their path. It spread across to the right and the left as far as their limited vision reached. It was hopeless to go around it, or it would take too long (the machine gun they were after was still at the moment mercilessly prodding their comrades below). On the other hand, one cannot crawl over or through barbed wire. The only course was to stamp across and do this so swiftly that perhaps the leap could not be seen.
At Neibaur’s word, the three sprang – Neibaur with his heavy gun, the other two with the heavy cases of ammunition. Raising knees high, they started across the wire.
They had almost crossed when pr-r-r-r-r, a machine gun sounded from somewhere. The three men spun into the air, and slapped the earth.
Neibaur found himself still conscious, though he knew he had been hit. Lying on the ground, he looked about for his comrades. The blonde, slight boy lay nearby, dead, Boscarino was lying a little further on. Neibaur crawled to him. He was still alive, but shot in many places, evidently done for. Neibaur gathered up the ammunition and with it crawled a few yards ahead where there was a hole behind a bank of earth. Here he examined his wounds. Three bullets had zipped through his right thigh.
These wounds were not bleeding very badly he decided, nor had the bone been shattered. He was still good. Good enough to go on with this job he had undertaken. He would push on alone.
He could see what he was after now. In the hollow flanking his comrades, he could see, among trees, a low parapet, helmets behind – the venomous nest of the gun, which was destroying the company.
He set up his Chauchat, he gathered himself. Then he heard the Germans coming.
He laughed as he told me this ten years afterwards. “I hear them, and I thought there were at least five thousand of them. I looked toward the noise, and they were coming over the top of the ridge. But there weren’t five thousand – only about fifty. They were charging down on me, shouting and shooting, their bayonets fixed.”
What was really happening (although he did not know it until later) was that the counter-attack had come, and that he was facing one of its waves. All alone, one hundred yards in front of his company, he was facing the lance point of the German counter-attack.
He let go with the automatic at the fifty or more charging towards him. Bullets were spattering earth all about him, throwing pebbles into his very teeth. He shot fast – a whole clip, twenty shots. Then another clips, twenty more shots. “Were you hitting many?” I asked.
“Yes, I was. Oh I knew I was! I could see them drop. But the other were still coming!”
He slipped a third clip of twenty cartridges into the automatic. It let out ten of these in one purr – then stopped. He beat at it with his hands, he jerked at the mechanism. To no avail. The gun had jammed.
“Then I gave up,” he told me. “I dropped the damn old gun right there, and started down the hill toward my own guys below me.”
It must not be thought that he simply ran erect down the hill toward the line of his company. The fire, which had been sweeping the battleground, had risen to a new climax. The Germans were letting go with everything they had; the Americans were letting go with everything they had. It was a crawl under this sweeping carpet of fire, leaping from hole to hole, that Neibaur descended toward his fellows.
He was half way down when a fourth bullet struck him – in the right hip, in the leg already thrice wounded. This was a deeper wound than the others (Neibaur carries the bullet still, in the joint). It affected the spine; Neibaur lapsed into unconsciousness. He lay there on the slope between the two armies. He does not know how long, although it must have been a short time, for when he came to, the action from which he had vanished so suddenly was going on like a film only briefly cut. He woke up – and found himself surrounded by Germans.
They were all around him -- about fifteen of them. He watched them out of the slit of one eye, playing possum. They were starting to go away! One by one they were turning from him and going about their red business. He saw something gleam on the ground about twenty feet from him. His automatic pistol. They had thought him dead; but to make safety still surer they had taken his pistol and thrown it well out of reach (how far can a dead man reach?) and now they were crawling on about further bloody affairs, leaving him for dead.
Behind their departing soles, he quickly scrambled to elbow and knee, crept to his pistol and secured it.
All this time his company, deployed below, had been firing heavily, of course, from their foxholes; and able to catch a glimpse of his movements, had held their fire away from him. But while he had been lying unconscious, he had been out of sight; and where he was now, recovered, pistol in hand, he was still out of sight. Up he rose to signal his whereabouts, in definite disinclination of being plugged by one of his own.
At this, fifteen Germans leaped out of a hole and came charging toward him with fixed bayonets, ferociously determined to end it with this dead man who so disloyally refused to stay dead. “How did they look?” I asked Neibaur. “I remember only one,” he answered. “A great big fellow with a thick red beard like a ball of fire.”
Why did they not fire? They didn’t, and to this day Neibaur wonders why. They were out of ammunition, perhaps, he thinks. Maybe they did not think it necessary to shoot; not knowing he had regained his pistol.
But he had. He pulled them down, one, two three, four times. That boy who now says he shoots just a bit better than average “around here” – which means Sugar City, Idaho – must have been already in those days a little better than the average. Four of the charging men dropped dead in their tracks.
He held his fifth shot. Better face four men with a single cartridge in one’s gun than three men with nothing in one’s gun. Young Neibaur’s lightning calculation proved the correct one. Before that gun, with its one sure death still within it, the assailants wavered, slowed – and suddenly they were raising their hands in the air, tossing their helmets to earth, to surrender to this young Jove of the thunderbolt.
Waving the gun, shouting, Tommy started the prisoners back toward his comrades. Out of shell holes on the way he picked up seven more, and came into the lines with the eleven almost intact, only slightly pinked during the final gallop.
On February 9, 1919, just out of the hospital and still wobbly on his legs, standing at attention, in the snow at Chaumont, he saw the Congressional Medal of Honor pinned to his breast by General Pershing himself. France gave the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre with palm, Italy the Meritordi Guerra, and Montenegro its War Cross.
After the war, Thomas Neibaur did something, which he now declares to have been foolish. He plays the banjo. His neighbors tell that he plays it well. After the war, instead of getting right down to hard work, as those who didn’t fight agree a soldier should do, Tommy Neibaur with his two brothers and two cousins, all of them musicians, formed an orchestra and toured about, strumming banjos – a foolish thing to do, now says Neibaur. Then he married Miss Lois Sheppard of Sugar City. After which, dropping the banjo, he took a vocational course in agriculture at the Utah Agricultural College. Practice he already had had – all his life. And now today, having practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge, he is crazy to have a farm, and sure he could make a go of it. But he has not the necessary capital, so he works as an oiler in the Sugar City Factory to support his wife and four little children.. . .