combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2007

Lightning Joe
      and His Four Silver Stars

Not all of the sixty-eight infantry divisions available to the U.S. Army in World War Two were made up of draftees and enlistees. Some were National Guard Divisions – composed mostly of men who had signed up during peace time, to be soldiers, usually one evening a week and two weeks every summer. While some were attracted by the chance to wear a uniform and still live at home, others no doubt had joined for the extra money. The Great Depression that had begun in 1929, didn't really end until World War Two. It's doubtful that many of these young men thought that their decision would guarantee a short life span.

29th Infantry Division patch

One of these outfits was the Twenty Ninth Division, better known as the Blue/Grey Division because most of its members were from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. One young man, not quite sixteen years old at the time, decided in 1938, that he'd like to be a soldier. His name was Joseph Farinholt, of Catonsville, Maryland.

Joe told the officer at Baltimore's Fifth Regiment Armory he was twenty three. When asked why he didn't say he was the minimum age of eighteen, he replied, "My uncle told me if I ever told a lie to tell a big one – so I did." At any rate, Joe Farinholt was now a soldier, and when the Twenty Ninth was mobilized in March of 1941 and sent off to Fort George G. Meade, nineteen year old Joe became a soldier full time.

The one big advantage of being part of a unit that is mobilized, is the fact that you go on active duty with people you've known for years. Joe and his buddies had been told they'd be on active duty for twelve months. Then came December 7th, 1941 and twelve months quickly became – for the duration.

Joe Farinholt's regiment, the 175th, along with all the other 29ers, as they'd come to be called left Fort Meade on April of 1942. There would be stops in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, before orders arrived on September 6, directing the Division to start preparing for overseas deployment. When the troop trains headed north, Joe Farinholt knew he was headed for the European Theater of Operations. On September 27, 1942, The Queen Mary, now converted to a troopship headed out in to the Atlantic. Her destination – England.

In November of 1942, the Twenty Ninth moved into barracks in Tidworth England, replacing the famous First Division (The Big Red One) which was leaving for the invasion of North Africa. The two divisions didn't know it, but they would be meeting up again. In Tidworth, the 29ers began what would become twenty months of grueling training. Joe Farinholt relished the tough schedule. Despite being only twenty one, he realized that tough training today might keep him alive when the shooting started.

As time went on the 29ers began to wonder just what part they would play in this war. They watched other outfits leave for North Africa and what would later be called the Italian Campaign. They knew that other units were being shipped directly from the states to fight in what Churchill called "the soft underbelly of Europe." One day they looked around and found themselves the only division in England. But the common soldier is never privy to information that will directly effect him. In fact, no one below the rank of Colonel knew that the Army had special plans for the Twenty Ninth. It was called "Operation Bolero" and the plans called for a massive build up of troops in England and then a cross channel invasion of Occupied France. The man holding things up was Winston Churchill, whose insistence on the Mediterranean Campaign was taking troops slated for a landing on the coast of France. Bolero had been postponed several times, much to the chagrin of Dwight David Eisenhower, who believed a cross channel invasion of France was the quickest path to victory.

Sergeant Joe Farinholt who was now commanding an antitank platoon in the Third Battalion of the One Seventy Fifth knew none of this. He knew only that it was his responsibility keep himself and thirty two men under his command razor sharp because when combat came, they would be doing the fighting and the dying.

By 1944, the Americans had won the argument and the 29ers began to get plenty of company. By the Spring of 1944, eighteen divisions had joined them in England, including The Big Red One. This was going to be big. Prior to this, in July of 1943, something else big happened to The Twenty Ninth – they got a new commander. His name was Charles Hunter Gerhardt, a West Point Graduate, class of 1917, who had little regard for National Guard soldiers. The only thing Gerhardt had in common with most of the 29ers was his German ancestry. He was crusty and didn't want to be liked – he'd rather be feared – and he set about instilling fear, as soon as, he arrived. The new Commander was spit and polish almost to the point of ridiculousness. He even insisted that everyone keep the chin straps of their helmets under their chin. Gerhardt was tough but, he won, so he had to be considered successful – but he also would command a Division that had a two hundred and four percent casualty rate by May of 1945. Enlisted men sarcastically noted that Gerhardt actually commanded three divisions – one in the field, one in the hospital, and one in the cemetery. It mattered not. Joe Farinholt and the twenty two thousand men in the Twenty Ninth, commanded by Gerhardt were about to take part in perhaps the greatest crusade in the annals of warfare. They would fight the best soldiers in Europe – and win – though few of the original number would be around at the end.

Operation Bolero became Operation Overlord to the planners, but to those who landed on Omaha Beach – it would always be remembered as: D-Day. In too many cases, the D stood for death.

Joe Farinholt was neither relieved or sad that the One Seventy Fifth would not land in the first wave. He was concentrating on his orders which were to deploy his antitank in such a way as to be ready for a German counter attack as soon as he got ashore. It was the evening of the 7 June before he was on his landing craft and headed for the beach. He felt a consistent bumping against his craft as they made their way to shore. He looked over the side and realized it was the bodies of dead GI's. Farinholt says he had no feeling about all the destruction he saw on Omaha – he was numb to any feelings as his training took over and he did his job. No doubt it was Joe Farinholt's ability to concentrate on the job at hand that enabled him to compile the brilliant record that followed.

The landing on Omaha had not gone as the planners drew it up. For one thing, the practice beaches in England didn't have one hundred and twenty foot bluffs that had to be scaled. Luckily for the 29ers that job fell to a Ranger Battalion that landed with them. It was also thought that Omaha would be lightly defended by green troops. The veteran German division that just happened to be there on maneuvers unleashed a withering fire that killed many men before they ever got to the beach – these were the dead bodies that bumped against Joe Farinholt's landing craft. There are still those today who believe everything about the D Day landing was wrong, including the time of day – landing in darkness would have been better – and the type of landing craft – many thought the LVT or alligator, that had been used so successfully in the pacific, and could do 5mph on water and 18mph on land, were much better than the two landing vehicles in use on Omaha. Those landing craft stopped as soon as they hit land. But large egos make large mistakes and enlisted men like Joe Farinholt pay the price.

The planners knew about the bluffs and knew the only way to get off Omaha was through four draws large enough for men and vehicles, including tanks. The problem was that few outfits landed where they were supposed to and some landing craft didn't get as close as they were supposed to. Equipment laden men had trained for years for just this moment, and many drowned before they ever got a chance to use their training. For a time, chaos reigned.

In truth, the 29ers and other outfits were able to get off Omaha Beach because of the heroism of various officers and NCO's who convinced men paralyzed by fear (most D-Day soldiers were facing combat for the first time) that the way to stay alive was to keep moving. Also, as a matter of logistics, the thousands of men and machines waiting offshore could not land until those on the beach had moved inland. Couple this with the fact, that the Germans, due to poor planning - Hitler had insisted the landing would be at Calais – simply didn't have enough troops in Normandy to hold up the landing for an extended period. It could be argued that German stupidity rather than Allied brilliance averted a disaster on Omaha Beach. Historians to this day wonder what would have happened on D-Day if the German Luftwaffe had been able to have an impact.

General Gerhardt would never permit the use of the word disaster among those under his command – "since those reports are never true." Joe Farinholt and his comrades of the 175th didn't have time to dwell on the mass of dead men and destroyed machinery they encountered when they landed on Omaha the evening of June 7th. They'd already been given a difficult task. They were to take the town of Isigny, nine miles inland from Omaha beach. It was expected they would encounter German resistance all along the way. Instead, resistance was light except for the village of La Cambe and even there more 29ers were killed by a mistaken British air attack than by the Germans. A set of captured orders told the Germans to fight a delaying action, but Colonel Reed of the 175th feared his men might be walking into a trap. As the regiment marched toward Isigny they began to take prisoners who were decidedly not German, but oriental in appearance. It was originally thought these were Soviet pows who'd been given a choice of fighting with the Germans or dying in a POW camp. Indeed, they were Russian POWs but had willingly joined the Germans on the Russian front because they so hated Josef Stalin. There were approximately one million of these soldiers, who against their wishes had been transferred to the war in the west because Hitler did not trust them to remain loyal. They did not want to fight against the Allies, but knew a German loss would mean their repatriation to the Soviet Union and execution. They were known as OST soldiers and the Allies at the time couldn't figure out why they fought so hard. When Joe Farinholt and his comrades saw the men with Oriental features, they wondered – "who the hell are we fighting anyway."

By the time the 175th got to Insigny, the town had been pretty much destroyed by Allied air power, and was taken without much of a fight. The 29ers began to feel better about their situation and they marched along shouting their battle cry: "Twenty Nine Let's Go!!" Next stop – Saint Lo.

When Erin Rommel heard that the Allies were off the beaches and headed inland he knew the jig was up. Better end this now, negotiate with the Allies and save lives. For this reason he joined the failed 20 July 1944 plot. He was forced to commit suicide and the killing would continue for ten more months. It was during the first half of that ten month period that Joe Farinholt would compile a record never equalled by any enlisted man.

During an interview in 2000, Joe Farinholt explained his army job to writer Michael W. Rogers who was compiling a book about Maryland's World War Two heroes. "I was a platoon leader of an antitank unit and my primary responsibility was to knock out German tanks. I had a crew of thirty-two men and three 57mm antitank guns. The guns weighed 2700 pounds each. German tanks were superior to ours, especially the fifty ton Tiger and the seventy-one ton King Tiger. You had to hit the Tigers in their weak points or the shells would just bounce off. It took all three of our guns to knock off the first King Tiger we encountered. I was very apprehensive about that. Sometimes we didn't use our guns, but would wait for the tank to pass, and then throw a bottle of gasoline into the engine, then finish it off with bazookas and grenades when the crew opened its hatch. Once in a while I'd jump on top of the tank and throw a grenade in just as the hatch was opened. I never worried about killing Germans – it was them or us." For his extraordinary ability in destroying German tanks, Farinholt was given the nickname Lightning Joe, by his company commander.

portrait of Lightning Joe

The drive to Saint Lo, one of the last German strongholds in France was costly, especially in men. It was on the Bayeux highway, some miles outside the city on 13 July 1944, that Lightning Joe Farinholt earned his first Silver Star. "I spotted a German mortar position, so I picked up a bazooka and ran forward to knock it out. The Germans I didn't kill ran away. Then I looked up and this German tank was headed right for me. I jumped in the brush, reloaded the bazooka and knocked out the tank as it went by." Then, young Joe, who was just four days short of his twenty-second birthday, scurried back to his lines, landing on his posterior. An officer picked him up and said, "son, you've just won a Silver Star."

The war between the Regular German Army and the Americans was pretty much a gentleman's war, though SS and Hitler Youth were killed without compunction. Farinholt gives one example of a gentleman's war. "I had to abandon our guns when our position was overrun. I had to leave a wounded boy behind so I covered him with leaves and told him to lie very still. Then I started to feel guilty because I'd left that boy behind and knew I had to go back for him. We were in hedgerow country so I ran low through two hedgerows and two open fields until I got to the boy. I dragged him back wondering why nobody was shooting at me. When I got to safety I heard clapping and cheering. I looked back and there stood about fifty Germans applauding me. War could be funny sometimes."

The drive to Saint Lo was brutal but Gerhardt kept pushing. Joseph Balkowski in his book, Beyond The Beachhead gives a good example of just how brutal it was. "E Company of the 175th started the Drive to Saint Lo with one-hundred and eighty- seven men and six officers. One officer and fifty men actually went into the city." It was war at its bloodiest. On 18 July, when Saint Lo was about to fall, Lightning Joe won his second Silver Star after a German counterattack. "Our position was overrun after a counterattack and we had to leave our equipment or be taken prisoner. After dark, we went back and hooked two of our guns to trucks while under heavy fire. We couldn't get a truck to our third gun so we pulled it out by hand. We really baffled the Germans with that move because they thought they had us cornered. The next morning we stopped a column of tanks with those guns. That was my second Silver Star."

By the time Joe'd won his second Silver Star, there were few left from the original National Guard soldiers he had reported to Fort Meade with in 1941. But by this time also, hard nosed Gerhardt had stopped believing that Guard soldiers were inferior to the regular Army. He'd seen too many go to the hospital or the grave. Two thousand men had died in the 43 days it took to go from Omaha Beach to Saint Lo. But Joe Farinholt was still standing – still fighting.

At a ceremony honoring the dead, Joseph Balkowski said: "The day was hot, the air was still, the battle flags hung limply from their staffs." The ceremony ended with Taps and The Star Spangled Banner and at the end, the 29ers yelled in unison: "TWENTY NINE LET'S GO!" Lightning Joe Farinholt yelled right along with the rest – but he couldn't help thinking of all the good men who were not there to yell. Many years later, he'd still be having nightmares about those men.

Gerhardt continued to drive his men relentlessly, men fell and were replaced. Joe Farinholt knew better then to get close to his men. "I had no control over the replacements I got. Some were very green and didn't last long." Also, some cracked under the strain of combat. "I got a call on my radio one day. One of my guys said I better hurry to him because he was thinking about shooting himself. By the time I got there he'd shot himself in the leg. I carried him to the aid station and told him to keep his mouth shut about what happened. That was the only time one of my men cracked. I have no shame in what I did. That boy was a good soldier but he was only sixteen." Joe Farinholt continued to take care of his men and do his job.

On 13 October 1944, he won his third Silver Star west of Geilerkircken, Germany. The After Action Report describes his actions:

T/SGT Joseph A. Farinholt, 20343338, 175th Infantry, US Army for gallantry in action against the enemy in Germany. On 13 October, 1944, during a period of heavy and constant enemy shelling, casualties were sustained in the 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry. Amidst this intense barrage of fire, T Sgt Farinholt left his sheltered position and went to the aid of the wounded where he administered first aid treatment and personally evacuated four casualties to a place of safety. The outstanding courage and unselfish devotion to duty displayed by T Sgt Farinholt while under decimating enemy fire, reflect great credit upon himself and the military service. Entered military service from Maryland.

In his account, Lightning Joe gives credit to the men who went with him. "My men never ceased to amaze me. They'd do anything to help their fellow GI's."

During the battle for Bourheim, Germany, Joe would win his fourth Silver Star But this time things would be different. Up until now, he'd watched other men fall. The one award Joe didn't want was a Purple Heart – that was about to change. The citation describes what happened when Lightning Joe won his fourth Silver Star.

T/SGT Joseph A. Farinholt 20343338, 175th Infantry US Army for gallantry in action against the enemy in Germany. On 26 November, 1944, while the Third Battalion 175th Infantry was defending the town of*****enemy Infantryman supported by tanks entered the town and advance against the battalion's thinly held line. Realizing the gravity of the situation , T SGT Farinholt ordered his antitank platoon to remain in position where they delivered such devastating fire upon the enemy that they were forced to divert their attack to another sector of the town. Then, finding all communications severed by enemy artillery fire, T/SGT Farinholt , despite suffering from a broken leg, asked to be placed in a vehicle while he drove under fire to the command post to inform the Staff of the situation. Such courageous actions reflect great credit upon himself and the military service. Entered Military Service from Maryland.

What the citation didn't say was that Lightning Joe had suffered life threatening wounds. "We were doing a good job of keeping the German tanks at a distance until the gun nearest our command post was hit, and the gunner was killed. I ran to the gun to replace the gunner position, and we were able to knock the tread off a Tiger tank, but the Tiger was still firing. The rest of the crew ducked for cover, but I was stupid enough to stay put while the tank sprayed our position. The armor-piercing rounds cut through the protective shield of the gun and I was hit with shrapnel. I didn't know how bad I was hit till I tried to walk, and saw my right leg hanging by skin. I crawled to my Jeep and made my way to our command post to let them know what was happening. I couldn't use the brake on the Jeep, so I just crashed into a wall. When I looked at my leg I got scared, but somebody said I had a million dollar wound."

They wanted to take Joe's leg off at the hospital. "I told them they couldn't do that because I would need it later." A general happened to be on the scene and ordered the battalion surgeon to try to save Joe's leg. They did, but the leg never completely healed. Joe had to wrap it in bandages twice a day for the rest of his life. Lightning Joe also had over twenty pieces of shrapnel in various parts of his body. The last two pieces would not work their way out until 1986.

Joe had a million dollar wound but it would be 1946 before he could leave the hospital and return home. By that time the war had been over for a year and General Gerhardt and the 29ers who survived the rest of the war were back in the states. Only ten percent of those who landed on D Day had escaped being a casualty. In fact there was a common belief that the war had been won by dead men – meaning those who were willing to take chances that brought victory until that fateful day when their luck ran out.

Lightning Joe Farinholt did not die. Perhaps he had been luckier than most, but if that be the case his time in the hospital would bring the best luck he ever had. Her name was Agnes Marshall. She was a stunning red head. Joe met her when she accompanied another woman to the hospital to visit her husband. The husband just happened to be Joe's buddy, and when the women left, Joe bet his buddy ten dollars he would marry the stunning redhead. Joe won the bet. He and Reds were married on 19 May 1946, and would stay married for fifty-six years.

By the time Joe and Reds had come home and settled in the small town of Finksburg in Carroll county, Maryland, the victory fever of 1945 had abated and most GI's had settled into civilian life. No brass bands greeted the man who had set a record for winning Silver Stars, so Joe and Reds set about living their lives and raising a family. Sometimes people would ask Joe what he did in the war, and he'd reply that he won four Silver Stars. Nobody seemed that impressed so Joe never mentioned it again. Only his buddies at The American Legion recognized the greatness of Joe's record, and for many years that was good enough for him. Besides, Joe and Reds soon had four kids and there was a living to be made. Those Silver Stars didn't put any bread on the table.

Lightning Joe on parade

It wasn't until 1994 and the anniversary of D Day that people began to ask questions and Carroll countians learned they had a genuine hero in their midst. Carroll countians were people who had a sense of history, and by golly a hero deserved recognition. The accolades for Lightning Joe Farinholt began to pour in and have never stopped. He became arguably, Carroll county's most beloved senior citizen. He gained a place of honor in the Memorial Day and Veterans' Day parades, sometimes riding in a Jeep and other times in a restored '42 Desoto. He couldn't march in the parades because of his leg but there were photos aplenty of Joe standing ramrod straight saluting Old Glory, while wearing his Legion cap that bore the Twenty Ninth Division logo – and always a Silver Star affixed to his shirt.

But gradually, other stories began to emerge about Carroll County's most famous soldier – and folks began to believe that Joe Farinholt deserved even more honors. They learned how Joe's Lieutenant had recommended him for a battlefield commission after he'd won his third Silver Star but the recommendation had gotten lost in military bureaucracy. Joe had assumed the Commission would come even though his military career ended after earning his fourth Silver Star. The Commission never came and Joe didn't know he could pursue it after so much time had passed. But somebody else did, and not long after, Lightning Joe Farinholt attended his granddaughter's wedding wearing officer's bars. Joe laughed off the issue of back pay, saying that the bars were enough.

Then another story began to emerge. Admiral Kimmel had been touring the European Theater at the time Joe was wounded. The Admiral came to the hospital to award Joe his record setting Silver Star. The Admiral had said that Joe could have a Congressional Medal of Honor instead. Joe, no doubt suffering from his many wounds said he'd just keep the Silver Star – a decision he would regret. A campaign began immediately to get Joe that Medal of Honor.

In 1997, the Twenty Ninth Division was deployed in Bosnia, the first time since World War Two the Blue and the Grey had been deployed overseas. Lightning Joe was invited to join a visiting delegation. Though in frail health and now walking with two canes, Joe Farinholt welcomed the opportunity. Those members on the trip marvelled at how the old soldier became an instant hit with today's 29ers. They crowded around him, clasping his hand and asking that he tell them the stories of his four Silver Stars. He glowed with appreciation as he patiently talked of his exploits on those long ago battlefields.

In June of 2002, Lightning Joe was approaching his eightieth birthday. He suddenly became ill and was rushed to the hospital. The great heart that the German Army could not silence had been silenced by the siege of advancing age. After Joe's death, Reds worried that Joe might now be forgotten. She needn't have worried. Joe Farinholt will live forever in the hearts of Carroll countians.

The campaign to get Joe that Medal of Honor lives on, led by Congressman Roscoe Bartlett. Many believe that Joe Farinholt will win that battle too – that someday, Reds will stand for her hero husband and receive the congressional Medal of Honor. After all – who would want to bet against – Lightning Joe!

by Don Haines
... who is a U.S. Army Cold War veteran, American Legion Post 191 chaplain, a retired Registered Nurse, and freelance writer; whose work has previously appeared in this magazine as well as in World War Two History, and many other publications.

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