Mural of Valor
The Freedom Rock painter works this week to memorialize a famous Carroll County soldier
October 18, 2013
Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II, commonly known for the military murals he paints on boulders, brushes the likeness of one of Carroll County’s most famous soldiers at the Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic this week in Carroll.
The newspaper headlines from 1945 gushed about Carroll County's Congressional Medal of Honor recipient:
"Heroic Glidden machine-gunner killed 20 Germans, fought off tank after leg blown off by artillery shell."
Sgt. Ralph Neppel was the fifth Iowa soldier to earn the military's highest honor for valor in that December 1944 battle. He subsequently received other honors, and part of a veterans' hospital in Iowa City bears his name.
This week, a new memorial in Carroll for Neppel took shape. Ray "Bubba" Sorensen II, the Greenfield artist known for his Freedom Rocks, began brushing Neppel's likeness on a wall of the Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic at St. Anthony Regional Hospital.
The mural, which Sorensen hopes to finish this weekend, depicts three scenes: Neppel with his then-fiancee, U.S. President Harry Truman's presentation of the Medal of Honor, and a lone soldier on his belly with a machine gun, a nod to that December gun fight.
Neppel led a squad of U.S. Army machine-gunners who defended the road to a German village on Dec. 14, 1944, according to newspaper accounts at the time. A German tank with 20 infantrymen marched within 100 yards of Neppel, and he opened fire, killing some of the men.
The tank pressed on and eventually fired at the U.S. soldiers. The blast knocked Neppel 10 yards from his gun and severed one of his legs. He crawled back to the gun and helped kill the remaining German foot soldiers.
The tank commander - before he retreated - fired a handgun at Neppel. The bullet struck Neppel's helmet.
Neppel eventually returned to Carroll County, where he was a farmer and sold General Electric appliances. He wore two prosthetics to replace the part of his leg that was blown off in the tank blast and the other leg that was badly maimed and amputated.
He used a cane to walk.
A Daily Times Herald article from November 1948, nearly four years after the battle, said Neppel preferred to forget about the gun fight. At the time, he had helped harvest the 220 acres of his mother's farm northeast of Carroll.
"Ralph drove the tractor on the farm during the five weeks it took to harvest the corn," the article said. "He gets along exceptionally well on his new limbs. He handles odd jobs around their Carroll home much the same as other men."
Neppel died of liver cancer in 1987.
Sorensen, the artist, started the mural in Carroll on Monday. He said a memorial fund established by Neppel's family will pay for the work.
The American flag that is a backdrop to the scenes of Neppel has 50 stars, two more than the flag had at the time of his gun battle.
"I wanted this to represent all veterans in the county," Sorensen explained.
He brushed a separate pane that has the emblems of each branch of the military.
Sorensen finished his 13th Freedom Rock in Sac City last month. The first Freedom Rock, which is north of Greenfield, he repaints each year for Memorial Day. It is an attraction for military veterans and patriotic folk and is spreading to other counties, mainly in western Iowa. Manning is expected to get one next year.
Veterans who sought medical treatment at the Carroll clinic this week watched Sorensen paint the wall near the clinic's lobby and offered their thanks.
"You're doing good work," one said as he passed by.
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