Rolland "Joe" Correll was a former Liberty High School basketball star working at Bethlehem Steel when he was drafted during World War II.
Several days after D-Day, June 6, 1944, he hit the Normandy beach as a 19-year-old Army corporal with the 9th Infantry Division, the "Go-Devils." They fought their way across the Cherbourg peninsula and turned toward Paris.
On this Memorial Day, Correll, now 80 and living in south Allentown, remembers his experiences in combat and as a prisoner of war. His story begins with what happened when American planes came to bomb the Germans as the GIs headed toward the town of St. Lo. It was July 25.
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When the bombing started, I was camped in an apple orchard. The ground vibrated and shook. More and more bombs dropped. Green apples fell from the trees.
Our planes were so high you had to strain your eyes to spot them. The lead plane had dropped smoke bombs to indicate to the other planes where to drop their bombs.
The bombing lasted for the better part of the morning. Then word came back to us that a lot of our troops had been caught up in it. A shift in the wind had blown the smoke target across our front lines, and the bombs fell on our own men. Those guys didn't stand a chance.
I guess a guardian angel was with me. The day before, I was up there on the front. We were relieved by another regiment and sent back about 1,000 yards to the rear.
Now our outfit, Company A of the 60th Infantry Regiment, was sent back up again. We had to walk through all the dead and wounded from our own bombings.
From a distance, they looked like mannequins. Up close, I saw blood coming out of their ears, eyes, noses and mouths. It was from the concussions.
Into the hedgerows
After we landed on Utah Beach, we were led single file toward the front. I was a rifleman, but a captain told me he didn't need riflemen, so I was given a .30-caliber machine gun and carried the 37-pound barrel. My assistant carried the tripod, plus I had two ammunition bearers. We got orders to advance to the next hedgerow and dig in.
A veteran of the African Campaign volunteered to be point man, even though he had just recovered from the wounds he'd received there. Here, as he slithered over the hedgerow, he got only a few yards and was cut down by a German burp gun, a machine pistol. He called for help. We put down all the firepower we had, and a medic along with myself and a few others crawled to him on our stomachs.
We managed to drag him back and over the hedgerow to safety. I saw his intestines, bluish-gray matter, oozing out of his stomach and pushed them back in. We got him bandaged well enough to be transported to the rear.
It was my first day of many small battles in the hedgerows.
On a night mission, our platoon of about 40 men moved silently up a small creek. We went onto a dirt road just wide enough for a horse wagon.
Eventually we stopped and dropped to the ground to rest. Quiet was the word. No smoking. As I lay back on my backpack, I noticed I was under a wooden gate. I could see the stars.
While I was looking up, I saw a German helmet appear. A German soldier leaned over the top of the gate and said, "Was ist los?"
I froze. The soldier opposite me fired. A lick of flame flew past me, and the German slumped over the gate. He was dead.
We got moving and reached our objective, a knoll on top of some high ground. After digging in and settling in our foxholes, I was on first guard watch.
As I looked out in the distance, I saw a rise in the ground. It appeared round, just like it might be a helmet. Nighttime and tiredness can play games with your mind. The more I looked, the more the mound seemed to be getting closer.
Since we knew the enemy was close, it was also possible they knew we were here. I thought the mound was a German crawling up toward us.
I opened fire. What a racket! Everyone woke up.
As light came upon us, I saw that we were in a pasture and what I thought was a helmet was nothing more than a large cow dung.
Some good may have come from this. During the night the enemy pulled out. Their tanks started up and drove away from us. Maybe they heard the machine gun and realized we were on top of them. Not prepared to engage us, they moved away.
When one GI snaps
The enemy was on three sides of us in the hedgerows once, and we were pinned down but good. Luckily, we had dug our foxholes pretty deep the night before. Come morning, we were in trouble. We couldn't raise our heads above ground. Snipers were all over the place.
I pushed my helmet up with my trench knife and immediately drew fire. It kicked up dirt.
The only soldier I knew by name was in a hole next to me -- Russell Craft. He was getting very jumpy and wanted out of this situation. Something happened, and he just snapped. He jumped out of his hole and started shooting wildly.
Bang! A sniper put a round into his back between the shoulder blades. He lay there.
When word came to us that the snipers were eliminated, we all rushed to Russ. Medics arrived. There was not much blood. We removed his shirt and saw that he was killed instantly.
After that, I didn't get too caught up in making friends. You couldn't, anyway. There were so many casualties, the replacements were coming in like they were on a conveyor belt.
It got to the point that you thought not if your time would come, but when -- and how.
Another day in the hedgerows, we halted toward dusk and got information that there were no friendly troops in front of us.
It got almost too dark to see down the road. We heard a jeep coming toward us from the front. Could it be that the Germans had captured it and were using it on a patrol? Should we shoot, or not?
Suddenly the jeep hit a mine and blew up, lifting into the air. Two of our troops were in it. One was killed outright, and the other had both legs blown off below the knees.
Just across the road was a barn, our command post. We got the wounded man into the barn, where the medics worked on him. He was calling for his mom.
I still wonder what I would have done if the mine hadn't blown up the jeep. Would I have fired on it? I don't know.
Mortars find a mark
On Aug. 5 at St. Lo, we crossed open terrain and heard the unmistakable sound of mortars firing ahead of us. We all made a dash for whatever cover we could find.
A shell hit the machine gun I was carrying. It knocked me to the ground, and the gun went flying. I saw the shell on the ground nearby. It was a dud.
Then more explosions sounded, and I went unconscious. Next thing I remember, I was being lifted from the hood of a jeep and carried by stretcher to the field hospital. Shrapnel had hit me in the right shoulder and the back.
My wounds were patched, and the next morning I got new clothing and rejoined my outfit at the front.
Soon after the fall of St. Lo, we had the Germans on the run and would not let up. We approached a building that looked like barracks and stormed it without resistance. Inside we found food, coffee and cots. The food was still warm.
It was almost dark, and a storm was coming. I set up the machine gun in a trench along the road leading into the compound and got down behind it. Soon it began to rain, with lots of thunder.
In no time at all, the trench filled with water. I sat on the edge with my blanket pulled over my head to ward off the rain.
Suddenly I heard the click of boot heels on the cobblestone road off in the distance, coming toward me louder and louder. I called, "Halt! Password!"
No response. More footsteps.
"Halt! Password!" I called again. All the while my hand was on the trigger.
A shot was fired at me. The German was close enough that the flame from the rifle barrel passed just in front of me. I could feel the heat.
I pulled the trigger and shots galore rang out, tracers all over the road. I heard him fall and groan. Thinking he might still be alive and could use grenades, I grabbed my gun and left to report to our sergeant.
In the morning we found the German dead, badly shot up in the belly.
I had come within a half-inch of being killed. I carried Sir Walter Raleigh cigarettes in my shirt breast pocket. When I went for my cigarettes, I saw that the German's bullet had cut the pack in half from the side.
"I think I see something'
We were advancing toward Paris when our outfit came to a French chateau, a fine-looking building with a stone wall all around it. It became our command post.
Most of our platoon was hunkered down behind the wall. In front of us was open ground that gradually sloped down to a line of trees about a mile away. Off to the right was another line of trees about 100 yards away.
Our sergeant was standing next to me with binoculars, looking in the trees to our right. I had my machine gun there. We were going to advance across open terrain, so we wanted to be sure there was no enemy to our right.
I asked him if I could help look. He was about to let me when he said, "Wait, I think I see something." He had pushed his helmet above his forehead.
A shot rang out. The bullet hit him in the center of the forehead.
He was killed by a sniper.
I had another close call when we made a wild dash through an opening in a hedgerow. We knew we would be shot at. Some guys didn't make it.
My turn came, and I headed out. Partway across, bullets from a burp gun struck my backpack, but I made it. The bullets had torn my knapsack apart and burst my cans of beans.
At one with a tree
After liberating Belgium, we crossed the Siegfried Line into Germany. It seemed so easy. No resistance at all.
But then we were in one of the fiercest battles of the war. We had thought the hedgerows were bad, but the Huertgen Forest was worse by far. I never saw such huge trees clustered together. It was dark in there even during daylight hours. Pillboxes with machine guns were everywhere. We could see the apertures and the fire coming out of them. And we always took artillery fire. But I could not see Germans.
One day near Aachen, Germany, we came upon a well-fortified concrete pillbox. We spent most of the day firing at it. We in turn were fired upon. Snipers hidden in the trees took a toll on us all day. One of them put a hole clean through the upper part of my helmet.
Toward dusk the Germans abandoned their pillbox, and we took command of it. Inside, I took off my harness and put my pack on the floor, along with my pistol and grenades. I expected to eat and rest -- we were always tired -- but was ordered to take my machine gun along with two men and situate ourselves out in front as an outpost. I didn't take my pack, so I was unarmed except for my machine gun.
Twilight quickly became darkness. The Germans shelled us. Our foxholes were not nearly finished, so I stood in the forest with my back pressed hard to a huge tree trunk, shrapnel flying all around. I almost felt as if I were in that tree.
When it stopped, I called to my buddies, "Hey, GIs," but got no response.
My yelling only directed the Germans to me. Two walked right up to me, but I didn't see or hear them in the dark. They said something to me in German.
I was scared. They easily could have killed me right there.
One put a bayonet to my back, and the other motioned for me to put my hands behind my head. They marched me back to the pillbox, where all of our company had been made prisoners -- 49 men.
It was Sept. 24, 1944. We were interrogated and stripped of our weapons. We all feared for our lives.
The officer in charge spoke English very well. Name, rank and serial number is all we told him. He told us he knew all about us, what division, battalion and company, also that we should be commended on our soldiering, saying he had captured some of America's finest.
A great struggle for air
We arrived at Stalag XII-A in Limburg, Germany, on Oct. 14, my 20th birthday.
After a hard thunderstorm that afternoon, we were issued our food for the day -- a piece of black bread, half a carrot and water. Somehow my meager ration dropped to the ground and was covered with mud, but I wiped it off as best I could and ate it. Some birthday, I thought.
Two weeks later we were marched to the railroad siding. The guards were mean, and we knew not what to expect. Not a word was given to us as to our destination. We were packed into a boxcar. Men were keeling over from lack of air. I pressed my face up against openings between the wooden slats.
We asked the Germans to mark the train as being a POW transport, but they only laughed at us.
This train ride lasted four days and four nights. The side door was opened only once a day so we could relieve ourselves and have our daily ration of black bread, cheese and water. Again we paired up and alternated standing and sitting. No one panicked. No one gave in.
In our boxcar was a single narrow-neck milk container. This was our toilet. It was inadequate, what with everyone having dysentery. We were like animals and smelled like them.
We came under air attacks by our own planes. The guards would abandon the train with us in it. At the all-clear siren, they would return.
Finally, on Nov. 5, 1944, we arrived at Stalag VII-A at Moosburg, Germany. From that time forward, I was nothing but a number, 076088. We were assigned to a barracks, 120 of us. Roll call was every morning at dawn, sick or not, in any and all kinds of weather.
Sick and weak in the snow
I developed some abscessed teeth. In severe pain, I was taken to some other building in the compound. There, they pulled the teeth. They gave me nothing to deaden the pain, and to this day I get very upset when I sit in a dental chair.
Our Red Cross parcels kept most of us alive. What food the Germans gave to us would not have let us survive. Soup was water- thin, with barley at times. Some black liquid they called coffee but tasted nothing like coffee. Bread was very coarse, and we even tried boiling grass. Eight men, sometimes 12, shared a loaf of bread.
Each day a work party of 103 men was expected to go out. That allowed 17 men on sick call or for camp duties. In my diary, I noted some of the happenings:
Jan. 31: Munich work party. I was sick, but many were sicker. I had to go. Chills, headache and fever. No medication.
Feb. 1: Munich work party. Very cold. Arrived back at camp at 7:20 p.m. Still sick and my feet became numb with cold. I had poor covering on my feet. Had to wrap burlap around them.
Feb. 2: Munich work party. Worked on building roofs, replacing tiles that were blown off from our bomber raids that went on during the night.
Feb. 3: Munich work party. Worked on the post office building. Seven stories high. Replacing tiles again.
Feb. 12: Munich work party. I was getting sick again. Rained hard all day. Cold and wet to the skin.
This last day was the one day I thought I would not make it.
Our group worked on the roof of a private home. I was so sick, I couldn't have done anything. Someone in the family that lived there told the German guard to let me alone.
The guard let us have a fire near a small bridge. I stood all day by the fire, turning like a rotisserie and stamping my feet to stay warm in the snow. I shivered all day and was very, very weak.
Somehow I managed to survive the day, and that night went into a semi-coma. I knew nothing around me for five days. Even my barracks buddies thought I wouldn't make it.
I was confined to barracks on sick call, and it wasn't until 16 days later that I was assigned to go out on another work party. Others were sicker than I, but I was jaundiced -- the whites of my eyes, my skin and my fingernails were yellow. I could not brave the elements with the clothing I had, which was a field jacket and ordinary trousers.
I was forced to march out of camp on the work detail. It was cold and snowing most of the day. We were not fed until 3 p.m. I had no strength, and the work was hard.
New Year's in April
On the final day in camp, all of our regular guards left and were replaced by the dreaded SS troops. They positioned themselves behind the railroad tracks, as though they were going to put up a stand against our advancing troops. Our planes flew over the POW compound and wagged their wings, which let us know they recognized us as friendly troops.
The South African soldiers who were the liaison between our group and the German command ordered us into our barracks for safety's sake. We worried that the Germans might shoot up the barracks, but that would not be the case. They left as quickly as they came.
We heard our tanks rumbling toward us. In moments, they appeared in front of the main gate. They never stopped, just rolled over the guard tower and gate. We cheered. The guys on the tanks threw cigarettes and D bars, which were chocolates.
It was April 29, 1945, but it was like New Year's Eve. We had survived and were again free men.
The 9th Infantry Division had 4,504 combat deaths and 17,416 wounded in action during World War II. Discharged in November 1945, Correll worked as an electrician at Bethlehem Steel, retiring after 40 years of service. He and his wife of 56 years, Florence, have two sons, Frederick and Geoffrey, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Liberty High School gave Correll an honorary degree in 2003. The war had interrupted his education. He has a Bronze Star medal for meritorious achievement in combat and a Purple Heart, as well as a Combat Infantryman Badge. He credits the "expert training" he got at Camp Shelby, Miss., for his survival and that of others. "People don't realize how lucky they are," the ex-POW says, "just to have a bed and clothing and food."Copyright © 2015, CT Now