The men on the Liberty ship vowed to raise a ruckus when they spotted the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
The statue meant no more trudging through France and Germany, sleeping under mortar shells. No more ducking bullets or eating Army rations. The statue meant Mom’s cooking and dating girls, back to friends who would stay in one piece.
But when the ship sailed under Lady Liberty, you could have heard a pin drop to the deck, Carl Collea remembers.
None of the 15,000 soldiers made a sound.
“It bothers you, it’s not something you want to talk about,” Collea said. “If you’re asked, you will give some information. But as a rule ...”
Sometimes, even now, the Army is still in him, Collea said. That’s why he’ll tell you his job was reconnoitering — military speak for reconnaissance.
Collea grew up in Utica, N.Y. During his senior year in high school, he moved to Rochester and was drafted in 1943, six months after graduation. He joined the 3rd Cavalry Group, Mechanized. Collea was in a headquarters group, trained to use machine guns and leaders in light, reconn tanks.
Collea landed in Saint-Lo, France, in August 1944.
It was three months after the Normandy invasion, but right in the middle of the battle of the Falaise Gap. The Germans were fighting to keep the escape route open, even as Allied forces surrounded them.
“We had the first smell of killing and war. We found tanks burning,” Collea said. “Germans in their tanks. Americans in their tanks. And we would get the smell of burning bodies.
“If you never prayed in your life, you started praying then because you said, ‘Boy. What if that was me?’”
One of Collea’s duties was as a machine gunner on gasoline and ammunition trucks delivering supplies to other companies. As the Americans started breaking through the German lines, he did more reconn missions for the Third Army’s 7th, 10th and 12th Armored Divisions and 15th Infantry Division.
Two or three soldiers patrolled in trucks or light tanks, tracking German units from far away. The heaviest gun they had was a 37 mm, and that was on the tank. That was when Collea did most of his praying, he said.
As a father, Collea always taught his children to clean their plates, a lesson he learned in France.
A group of Americans was heckling a young French girl. Collea told the men to be quiet. And he apologized to the girl in Italian, a language she spoke.
The girl took Collea home and introduced him to her family. They offered to wash his clothes, if he had any that needed washing. A chance to wear a clean uniform was one a soldier couldn’t pass up. So Collea rounded up a few oranges to take to the family with his laundry.
When she saw the oranges, the mother started crying, Collea said. Her 5-year-old granddaughter had never before seen an orange.
Food, Collea learned then, was not for wasting.
Because he was on a reconn team, Collea encountered territory before the infantry and armored divisions behind him.
So, at least a couple of times, Collea was among the first to enter prisoner of war camps the Germans had abandoned — leaving prisoners with no food for days.
You’re free now. You can leave, Collea remembers telling the prisoners at the first camp. But —
“Where were they going?” he said. Most were prisoners from other countries, starving and far from home.
He met one prisoner from Utica. Collea’s brother used to go to school with the prisoner’s brother. The prisoner cried. He thought he’d be in the camp a lot longer. (After the war, the prisoner ended up marrying the girl Collea dated before he was drafted. But that’s another story.)
Some of the prisoners were pot-bellied, but Collea could almost see the bones in their arms and legs.
“Especially if they were Jews. Oh, God,” Collea said. “The Germans would build these deep trenches all the way around the camp. And they’d have the Jews march along the ditch and then they’d shoot them and they’d fall right into the ditch.
“We saw a lot of it.”
Collea wondered: What if the Germans had come to the United States. What if they had brought the war here?
But Collea and his team had no food or help to give. The divisions following would later arrive with food and supplies. Collea, though, had to finish his reconn missions. The enemy still needed tracking.
“It’d thrill you to know that the Germans were running. You’d think, ‘Boy, if I could run as fast, I’d catch them.’”
Collea came home on Oct. 25, 1945. The Army offered him a promotion to first sergeant to stay, but he wanted to get married, raise a family and get back to life.
His favorite story from the war happened on Christmas. Well, two of them actually.
Though he belonged to a mission church in Utica, he got along better with the Catholic chaplain, Father Brennan. On Christmas Eve 1943, while still training at Camp Gordon, Ga., Brennan asked Collea to sing at the evening Mass.
Father, I’m not Catholic. I don’t know what you’d want me to sing, Collea said.
Oh, yes you do, Brennan answered. How about ‘O Holy Night?’
So Collea did, singing in front of the biggest crowd of his life.
On the next Christmas Eve, this time on the Siegfried Line in Germany, Father Brennan asked Collea the same question.
But Father Brennan, I don’t know any Catholic hymns. I don’t know what to sing, Collea said again.
How about ‘O Holy Night?’
So Collea did, this time before 800 soldiers standing in an open field, all a world away from home. A few of the men started singing with him.
Collea still gets emotional thinking of the moment, of how much they all wished to be on American soil then, of how grateful they were to be standing anywhere at all.
“For one thing, you were thankful to God that, up to that day, you were alive.”