George Edward Chappell's recent death closed the final chapter of one of the most storied military units of World War II. Chappell, 91, died Aug. 2 in the Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia.
Chappell served as a gunner with the Army's famed 178th Field Artillery Unit.
Sumter historian Sammy Way said Chappell was the last surviving member of the 178th Field Artillery Unit.
"That's significant because it truly is the end of an era," Way said. "He was the last survivor."
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The 178th Field Artillery Unit is recognized as the first American unit to have fired rounds into Europe.
Chappell, known to his friends simply as "Mr. Ed," participated in many battles, including combat in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. Fellow soldiers regarded Chappell as the best gunner in the unit.
The unit received many decorations, medals and honors. It still holds the record for serving more than 600 days of continuous combat.
"When you think about that, it's mind-boggling," Way said. "There are units that have more days of combat, but continuous days? These guys went to war and stayed on the front lines for almost two straight years. It's hard to imagine what they must have endured."
The 178th had originally been a South Carolina National Guard Unit.
The unit is significant locally because at the time, Sumter's then-Maj. Hugh F. Knight commanded the unit that comprised more than 100 Sumter men.
Wedgefield's retired Army Brig. Gen. John Duffie later commanded the unit stateside from 1980-85."By the time I assumed command, the history of the 178th was already well known," he said. "I was a lieutenant colonel at the time. That was the highlight of my career to lead the Swampfox Squadron."
Duffie said Chappell didn't openly volunteer information about his time in service but would open up when someone asked him about it.
"Mr. Ed was generally quiet," he said. "He wasn't one to brag, although there was plenty he could have bragged about."
Duffie said four decades after Chappell retired, he took him to meet up with the four surviving members of the unit.
"When they got together to reminisce, it was fascinating to hear them talk about the time they served," Duffie said. "Their memories were just as sharp as if it had happened yesterday. And these guys respected and loved each other. It was an honor to be able to do that."
Duffie said Gen. George S. Patton specifically requested for the unit to support his troops from March until May 1943.
"He told them to leave their kitchens at home. He said they wouldn't need them," Duffie said. "Those boys were out there so long, many of them about died after having to eat so many C-rations." In September 1943, the unit traded its "Long Toms" for the then-new 155 mm howitzer.
"Those guys were deadly with the 155 millimeter," Duffie said. "They knew how to shoot and were near-perfect with their aim. The enemy knew it was in trouble when the 178th showed up." Chappell's nephew, Denny Chappell, said his uncle had been the hero of the family.
"He was a hero in our eyes," Denny Chappell said. "He was proud of his time in service, and we were proud of him."