Unit: 645th Tank Destroyer Battalion, Recon Co., attached to the Army's 45th Division
War fronts: Served 1942 to 1944, first in North Africa and then landing on Salerno Beach during the invasion of Italy.
His words: After shrapnel shot through his shoulder, gangrene set in. Doctors thought he would lose his arm. “I didn’t give a damn because I thought I wouldn’t have to go back to the front again. That’s a hell of a way to think, isn’t it?”
On the Web: Watch more of Goryl's story and see profiles of more veterans at www.trib.com/honor
Next week's profile: He made it through the Battle of the Bulge, a car crash, a train crash and a march that came too close to enemy lines. But it was the Russians who almost ended it for Richard Bostwick.
In 11 months of direct combat, Joseph P. Goryl fought a hard war, in his mind and his body. Doctors removed the shrapnel that almost took his right arm, and they saved the use of his thumb and little finger.
But the Buffalo man found it more difficult to leave behind the memories of what he had seen.
“That’s what gets you,” he said. “Every day, when you see someone close to you get killed, you wonder if you’re going to be next. It works on your brain.”
Goryl grew up outside Sheridan in Kooi, a coal mining town now gone like half a dozen others.
He was listening to the radio when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was drafted in the Army soon after and shipped out of Staten Island, the first and only time in his life he saw the Statue of Liberty.
“You’re geared up. You naturally want to get over there,” he said.
“But you don’t really know what you are getting into. You have no idea. You’re practicing with guns, but you don’t realize until it comes.”
He spent the first two months in Oran, Algeria, North Africa, protecting fuel reserves from the Germans who had taken control of the area from the French.
Goryl landed on Salerno Beach, Italy, in September 1943. One of the first things he saw was a body in the sand, missing its head.
“I’ll never forget that as long as I live. After that, you get used to seeing all sorts of stuff like that.”
The German artillery had the beaches zeroed in on their targets. Soldiers fought hard to gain every inch of ground. The 36th Division, which landed on a nearby beach, lost many of its men.
As they pushed forward -- nearly five months of fighting -- life fell into a new rhythm: Ducking into a foxhole or slip trench. Waiting for a break. Running to the next one. Sleeping too little. Getting up too soon to do it again.
Goryl, a Jeep driver, remembers being so tired that he once fell asleep on the steering wheel.
Once, the famous war reporter Ernie Pyle came to hang around and talk with them. It made the men feel better to know he was writing about them, that their story might be published in Stars and Stripes. Maybe the words would make it home, Goryl remembers thinking.
But he never got to see the story, if it indeed was published. Stars and Stripes didn’t make it to the front lines.
The Germans had cut Italy in half. The Allies wanted to connect it from the other side and cut the Germans off.
Luck smiled on Goryl’s battalion as it landed on the Anzio Beachhead under the cover of darkness. The Germans were having some kind of celebration, Goryl remembers, so they never fired a shot that night.
“But, oh, when they found us,” he said.
“When daylight came, they knew we had landed. All hell broke loose.”
Leaflets dropped from airplanes warned the Americans to leave or the Germans would push them back into the water and shoot them. A woman on the radio told Americans to give it up. It was hopeless. They would be defeated. And then she played a snappy American tune.
“Eventually, some of it does work on you. You know what you’re in for,” Goryl said.
The battalion pushed forward, to Naples and toward Rome.
They made it to within 6 kilometers of the Italian capital, but were ordered not to shoot. Officials wanted to save Rome from the devastation suffered by so many other European cities. Through binoculars, the Americans watched the Germans pull their tanks from out behind the city's buildings and shoot at them.
At one point, the Americans and Germans were trading foxholes. The Germans would push the Americans back and jump in the holes the Americans had dug. The Americans would gain back some ground, and jump back in their holes.
On Feb. 20, 1944, Goryl climbed out of his foxhole to relieve himself.
When the bombers flew over, he couldn’t get back. A bomb landed so close, it blew off his helmet. He tried to stay on the ground, covering his head with his hands, but the impacts sent him bouncing across the ground.
When he tried to push himself up, his arm wouldn't support him. It had gone limp. It didn't feel right.
At the first aid station, he asked for a cigarette. He got a shot of morphine instead. The next thing he remembers is two German prisoners packing him into a hospital tent.
The shrapnel, about an inch long, entered his shoulder, traveled down the length of his arm and lodged into his wrist. It severed two nerves. If it had been World War I, they would have amputated. There would have been no way to splice those nerves. But, more than 60 years ago in a field hospital, splicing is just what a doctor did. He pulled out a dumbbell-shaped piece of metal from Goryl’s wrist. It had been so hot that when it entered his shoulder and bounced around inside his arm, the ends became rounded.
Goryl sailed home on a hospital boat with men who had lost their hands, tongue depressors stuck into the ends of their casts. Holes had been drilled in the wood so the men could hold their cigarettes.
He married the girl he had been dating before the war and worked as a car mechanic for 37 years in the shop he opened. Though the couple wanted children, it just never happened.
He spent the years playing in the Big Horn Mountains, hunting, fishing, hiking. In 1948, he survived a small-engine plane crash near Soldier Park in the mountains.
At 91, this is the first year he hasn’t gone elk hunting.
When he first returned home, he couldn’t talk about the war. He’d break down thinking about it. He remembers picking up the pieces of a man blown apart on a hillside. He and the captain put the pieces in a rubber bag, some not bigger than Goryl's thumb.
"I do think of the guys once in a while. I'll look to see if there's some still alive. Not many of them are."