BLEVINS: A little tour of western Europe in wartime
By Vivian Blevins
Harlan County has a World War II hero who recently passed, and I think it’s time to rewrite a column I wrote years ago. I knew Alfred “Al” Cornett because I interviewed him about his war experiences, and I have several of his dulcimers on my wall in my living room. Before he passed, he received the French Medal of Honor with the following inscription, “You saved us.”
Cornett’s extensive study for his service in the U.S. Army during World War II prepared him well to be one of the members of an elite team charged with the responsibility of radio communications in the European Theater. General George S. Patton was the chief choreographer of troop movement in that location.
Cornett shared several stories from his experience which began in 1942 when he enlisted.
Phantom Army: From Camp Shank N.Y. , Cornett traveled to Liverpool, England, and on to Dudley, England, where his unit was split into teams of eight to ten men to operate radio equipment in the British Isles. The work they did was “so top secret that they didn’t tell us at first what we were doing. We put on a show, transmitting back and forth, pretending to be a full-fledged army. It didn’t take us long to figure out it was some kind of hoax – referred to as a Phantom Army. Hitler had his eye on England, and Patton had to pretend until he could get a real army put together.”
Beaches of Normandy June 1944: It was on to France and D Day. “We were on a Liberty ship, and the stress of the rough waters in the English Channel had created a crack across the deck. They welded metal strips across the deck to hold it together ‘til we reached Omaha Beach for the beachhead landing. Our job as a team of eight men in a shop truck was to test equipment, repair it, and provide the link from combat zones to Patton’s headquarters in London and later in Paris.”
A Side Trip to France: Cornett and a driver were ordered to go to France to pick up supplies. While there, a commanding officer addressed Cornett, “I need a machine gunner, and you’re it.”
Cornett responded, “Sir, I have no experience on a machine gun.”
The officer said, ”Your records say you do.”
Cornett relied, “Sir, in basic training we were short of supplies, and I fired three bullets. I am in no way prepared to be a machine gunner.”
On the return from that trip, the driver stopped in a ravine and shot a rabbit. A short time later and about a mile down the road, they were approached by MPs who asked, “Did you hear a machine gun?”
Cornett answered ,”About a mile back someone was laying it on pretty heavy.”
The MPs seemed to be satisfied, and Cornett said to the driver, “It’s a good thing they didn’t feel our gun barrel.”
Battle of the Bulge December 1944: In Luxembourg, Cornett was attached to the 12th Army and he reports that on December 16th he got caught up in the Battle of the Bulge. His unit had written a play which focused on basic training and all the hijinks that were involved: “We were making fun of ourselves.” The “actors” had given one performance , and a general sent word that he wanted the play to be performed at a rest area in Liege, Belgium. The players were ordered to get packed and get ready for a second show.
As they traveled to the new location, they went down a country road that would take them through the Ardennes to Bastogne. As they drove along the road, they observed a big gun barrel and Cornett said, “I hope it’s one of ours.”
The response of the soldier behind the big barrel was, “What the hell you guys doing coming up this way? We are expecting Germans.” He thought they were Germans in American uniforms and asked for the password. Cornett’s group didn’t know the password but were able to answer questions about sports, movie stars, and pin ups, so they were allowed to pass.
They got through Bastogne an hour before it was surrounded by Germans and Cornett reports, “There were a few stragglers, and it was everyone for themselves. We found our way back to Luxembourg, our last fixed station.
“The war was going to be over on May 8th. We had to cross a pontoon bridge, and I wasn’t a good swimmer. I got an empty gasoline can to use as a flotation device in case the bridge collapsed with the weight of that oversized jeep , a weapons carrier, we were in.”
After they safely crossed the bridge, they commandeered a German house and settled in. Orders were not to fraternize with the Germans. On guard duty one evening, Cornett was approached by a rather hysterical woman who said, “Someone is trying to steal my baby.”
He decided that he should look into the matter and followed her to her house where an American soldier, either drunk or asleep, was sitting on the bottom steps leading to the upstairs of her house. After Cornett roused the soldier and sent him on his way, the German woman called up the stairwell, “Gretchen, you can come down now.” Cornett reports that her baby was a good-looking girl of about 19 or 20.
The war in the European Theater was over, so Cornett was sent back to the states aboard a banana boat from South America that had been turned into a troop ship. At Fort Monmouth, N.J., he instructed radio operators on how to protect their equipment in tropical climates. With the bombing of Japan, however, the war ended in the Pacific Theater and Cornett went home to Letcher County, Ky.
Of General Patton, Cornett says, “General Patton was in command from North Africa to England, and he had fought the Desert Fox, Rommel. Sometimes, I felt that he exposed men unnecessarily as he bulldozed ahead and lost a lot of men that way. I did not love him, but I sure respected him.”
May you rest in peace, Mr. Cornett, and thank you for your service.