In the United States, National POW/MIA Recognition Day honors those who were prisoners of war and those who are still missing, as well as their families. Observed on the third Friday in September, this year it falls on Sept. 19.
Southern Tier resident Leo Cornett, a 1941 graduate of Owego Free Academy, is believed to be the last remaining World War II veteran, originally from Tioga County, N.Y., who was a POW. Now 91, Leo resides in Union Center with his wife of seventy years, Jean.
Living with Alzheimer’s and the effects of a fall about two years ago, Leo is unable to verbally communicate most days, yet is alert and knows his family, and remains mobile with help. Jean Cornett and her son, Dean, recently shared Leo’s story.
Drafted by the U.S. Army in 1943 and appointed to officer candidate school, Leo arrived in Europe in October 1944, and had additional training in England. Promoted to rank of second Lieutenant, Leo led a platoon of about twenty of 200 men, in the 106th infantry division, 423rd regiment, 3rd Battalion, Company K. After about two weeks in action, Leo and others were captured in Schoenberg, Belgium on Dec. 21, 1944, at the “Battle of the Bulge.”
Jean learned that Leo was missing in action by a Western Union telegram sent via the Red Cross, several weeks after his capture. Another telegram followed in March 1945, stating that Leo was “a prisoner of war of the German government.”
Christmas 1944 was spent in a crowded train boxcar with hundreds of other soldiers, with little or no food or water. Add to that the danger of being strafed by the British, who were dropping explosives all around them during air raids.
Cornett soon found himself in the overcrowded camp of Bad Orb, and then in January 1945 was sent to Stalag 13 at Hammelburg with other officer prisoners. Hammelburg, where Leo lost 30 pounds or more, had dreadful conditions, with little heat in the dead of winter, and minimal food.
Food was a main topic of conversation amongst the prisoners. Not so worried about the threat of strikes during one untimely air raid, Leo told his family, “I missed my soup.”
While imprisoned, Leo wrote letters, which Jean has kept since 1945. Jean shared Leo’s words, “This experience, in certain ways, is proving very heartening. So many men are beginning to realize that God is real.”
Other than starvation, Leo’s family explained that he did not suffer much other cruel treatment from the Germans. Red Cross care packages were scarce, and the generosity of Serbian prisoners who shared their packages was welcomed.
Cornett befriended a Serbian named Slavko and taught the four-year prisoner some English through a barbed wire fence. After the war, Slavko settled stateside sponsored by family living here and kept in touch with Leo.
A task force raid ordered by General Patton to liberate prisoners at Hammelburg, with sights on freeing his son-in-law there, gave Leo the opportunity to escape. U.S. tanks overtook the camp, but were unable to take all the prisoners back 60 miles to American lines. Reports differ regarding how many made it out, although Leo’s good friend, Bob Lozon, was one. For Leo Cornett, he escaped, and then made the decision to stay with an ill and wounded comrade, and was recaptured.
Cornett also spent time in the Nurnberg camp, and was eventually liberated at Moosburg in April 1945. Moosburg, designed for 10,000, housed nearly 130,000 POWs, of which 30,000 were Americans.
Family friend and retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Becky Halstead, originally from Willseyville, N.Y., is helping the Cornett’s with the process of acquiring the POW medal for Leo. Halstead, who has known the Cornett’s since childhood, first learned that Leo was a POW while she was in active service. Like many WWII veterans, Leo hadn’t shared every detail about his war experience.
Halstead commented, “Mr. Cornett is a humble man and asked for nothing in return when he came home.” When Leo came home, he returned to a series of managerial positions at IBM. The fact that Leo saved original paperwork is vital, and Halstead is confident that there is enough documentation to prove his POW status, and ultimately receive his POW medal.
When Cornett was first captured, German soldiers took nearly everything Leo had, except for a few possessions in his pockets. Because he and Jean had only been married a short time, Leo told his family he made a request to a German guard, “I’ve only been married a few months and we promised to never take off our rings.” Surprisingly, the Germans let Leo keep the ring.
Cornett’s son, Dean, added, “And neither has ever had them off since the night they were married, July 14, 1944.”