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Sergeant James L. Farmer

Heavy machine gunner

M Company, 398th Infantry Regiment, 100th Infantry Division

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James Lawson Farmer started life surrounded by the rolling hills and forests in the Hollers of rural Lee County, Kentucky. His father moved to the area as a child and set up a family farm outside the small town of Beattyville where he settled down and eventually had James and his brother, Paul. Education was never too meaningful to the boys as farming season meant lots of long and hard work alongside their father in the fields, meaning both dropped out after middle school to help him full time. After several years of growing up in the shadow of the hills that surrounded their farm, the outside world came knocking on their door. War had begun. James was only 15 when the war started but his older brother was able to enlist in 1942 and joined the 28th Infantry Division when they journeyed overseas. Farm work was held up after his brother left and his dad found a job as the new county sheriff. For several years James’ life consisted of playing with his friends and exploring the nearby wilderness, occasionally receiving letters from his brother off somewhere in uniform. 

          Not two months after his 18th birthday James received his draft notice to join the United States Army in March of 1944. Following in his brother's footsteps, James donned the olive drab and spent 17 weeks in basic training before joining the 100th Infantry Division at Fort Bragg as they prepared to head overseas. It was around this time that James’ skill with the .30 Machine Gun earned him the position of a gunner in the heavy weapons company (M) of the 3rd Battalion, 398th Infantry Regiment. The division set sail in the fall and first saw combat reliving the 45th Division in the northern region of the Vosges Mountains. Here James was thrust pretty quickly into combat but was able to adapt and found himself constantly on the move supporting the defensive positions and forward advances of his battalion’s regular infantry. The campaign was brutal and German resistance was fierce throughout the wintery mountain setting, giving the “Men of the Century” a real taste for what European combat would be like in the months to come. 

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As December began the 100th neared the Maginot Line and its greatest fortification, Bitche. Fitting to the name, the city was infamous for its 13th-century citadel which had never once been overtaken by a hostile enemy force. Now incorporated into the Maginot defenses, the Germans turned the city and its citadel into a heavily barricaded fortress bristling with artillery batteries and machine-gun pillboxes. For two weeks he and his company fought the “tentacles” of German resistance reaching out from the city, countering strong German resistance with rapid machine gun deployment and accurate supporting fire. Before long the 3rd Battalion had finished liberating the outlying communities of Wingen and Reyersviller and all that remained was the steel-and-concrete monster of Bitche. According to one account, the 398th faced wrath any moment it found itself in the open as hidden observers called in fire ranging from 9mm submachine guns to 135mm howitzers. Nowhere was safe. The attack on the stronghold came on December 14th, James and the 398th cut through barbed wire and spent many, many rounds to drag themselves towards the gates of the first fort, Freudenberg. At some spots, men were firing point-blank through bunker slits while standing just outside them. The 3rd battalion reached its objective as an explosive satchel blasted open the great steel doors of the fort, allowing James and his compatriots to rush in and seize fortifications and tunnel networks before a German counterattack could be launched. At this point James had a much easier time, setting up his gun where the German ones once sat to hold off wave after wave of infantry hoping to regain the fiercely won ground. 

           The fighting over Bitche continued well into the timeframe of the Ardennes assault and into the month of March but the men of 398th held their lines and fought tooth-and-nail to capture what was once thought of as an impossible objective. For their critical actions in breaking the critical point which allowed the rest of the regiment to reach their objectives, James and the 3rd battalion were awarded their first presidential unit citation. With nearly 3 months of hard fighting under their belts, on March 16th the mighty fortress fell and the battle-weary men of the 100th Division earned their most fitting nickname, the “Sons of Bitche.” At this point, the rest of the Allied lines had pushed well on through the Rhine and the 100th now followed. Jumping on any vehicle they could find, the infantry roared through Southern Germany in pursuit of a mass-retreating enemy. 

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Battle map for the assault on Bitche
Battle map for the assault on Bitche

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The Germans realized they would have to at some point stand up against the rushing Americans and at this part of the line, chose the Neckar River to do so. In April of 1945 the city of Heilbronn, nestled along the Neckar, turned into the site of some of the fiercest urban combat in Germany. Containing troops of the infamous SS Hitler-Jugend division, the city acted as a key communication and rail center and represented the final hopes of a German army on the brink of destruction. The 3rd Battalion arrived last on April 3rd and was given the task to establish a bridgehead for American armor on the now bridgeless Neckar. The 3rd was sent north of the main city near an industrial area to perform a river crossing by boat and create the first bridgehead. James, now a machine gun platoon leader, joined M Company to cross in the first wave and put up his machine gun in a defensive position to protect the rest of the vulnerable battalion. The morning quiet was interrupted around 0900 the next day with the battalion split between the two banks. German artillery batteries opened a massive barrage that landed amongst the battalion with pinpoint accuracy, making crossing impossible and isolating James and the battalion on the east bank of the river. At this moment a full German regiment of Hitler-Jugend SS troopers launched wave after wave to totally obliterate the small bridgehead. While James fired his machine to the melting point and poured thousands of rounds of lead into the onrushing krauts, the bridgehead force was slowly pushed back to the bank and created a final line which the Germans failed to conquer. The remaining enemy forces dug in nearby and, for the moment, the battalion was finally safe. 

           For the next five days and nights, the battalion slowly inched more and more men across the river as fierce German assaults battered James and the GIs, allowing for no rest or relaxation with constant artillery barrages pinning the men in their crude foxholes. On the night of April 9th the Germans began another one of their wave assaults on James’ section of the line. As precision enemy artillery pounded the troops around him, he quickly realized that the onrushing SS were faced with little resistance. Knowing the heavy artillery had stopped his allies and seeing the position now vulnerable to an enemy charge, James braved the fire and jumped to his machine gun, pouring a hail of bullets into the mass of bodies running towards him and his incapacitated allies. The Germans took note and began focusing their fire on him. With bullets flying around and his friends slowly regaining their composure, James stood firm in the face of danger and was found personally responsible for killing or wounding at least 10 SS fighters (they only counted the ones that stayed on the ground) and suppressing the rest before his part of the line finally began returning fire to drive off the attackers. During the attack, James was heavily wounded by a German submachine gun which ripped into his right side and hand, tearing off several fingers and leaving his arm peppered with rounds. Thankfully the GIs alongside him took over and finished the job, allowing him to be evacuated back across the river to the regimental field hospital in the rear. For his crucial actions in stopping the German attack and saving the critical position along the small bridgehead James was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor.

Heilbronn, April 1945
Heilbronn, April 1945

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MG Team at Heilbronn
MG Team at Heilbronn

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Crossing the Neckar
Crossing the Neckar

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Heilbronn, April 1945
Heilbronn, April 1945

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Unfortunately, the wounds he suffered were severe and ended with the amputation of several fingers on his right hand. The damage to his arm and amputations meant he was no longer allowed to stay with the unit and he was evacuated back to Cleveland where he spent the next 9 months recovering and rehabilitating at Crile General Hospital. While staying at the hospital, representatives of the division visited to award him with his Bronze Star and Purple Heart, congratulating him on a well-deserved discharge. Now 20 years old, James returned home to Cressmont to marry and start his own farm, albeit plagued with the memories of his time in combat and missing a few fingers. He moved around a little bit and ended up in Franklin, Ohio towards the end of his life in retirement and passed away there in 2019.