17th Airborne Division vets reunite - LancasterOnline: Lifestyle

17th Airborne Division vets reunite

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Posted: Friday, March 23, 2012 10:38 pm | Updated: 2:52 pm, Tue Sep 24, 2013.

One minute John Kormann was a private in the 17th Airborne Division and the next minute, he was assigned to counterintelligence and sent to arrest Nazi war criminals.

Kormann got the job because of a desperate need for German-speaking Americans. He proved to be good at it and "ended up with a field commission," the retired Army Reserve colonel said.

Kormann is one of about 20 aging paratroopers congregating this week at the Fulton Steamboat Inn in East Lampeter Township.

"It's a mini reunion," said Michele Smith, daughter of deceased veteran Bill Smith.

Smith said the veterans stopped their large annual reunions several years ago, due to age and travel difficulties. Now, smaller reunions are held around the country. This is the third straight year that the Steamboat has hosted one. Some of the men have come from as far away as Florida and Missouri.

For the veterans, it's another opportunity to gather and remember the most defining period of their lives.

Kormann, 88, of Chevy Chase, Md., proved to be a successful catcher of war criminals, which landed him a juicy assignment; arrest Martin Bormann, Hitler's private secretary and the most wanted Nazi alive.

It was 1946, the war was over, and Bormann was rumored to have been sighted in Berlin. Disguised in the battered clothing of a refugee, and with fake identity papers and a small pistol, Kormann entered Berlin's subterranean world, where wandering souls from the bombed-out city above sought shelter.

At one point, Kormann thought he'd found Bormann when he heard hushed voices coming from a corridor sealed off with an iron gate. But a raid by U.S. troops netted only more refugees.

Finally, after interviewing a number of Germans, Kormann deduced that Bormann died in April 1945, shortly after fleeing Hitler's bunker after the German dictator committed suicide.

"For years after the war, he was reported to have been seen in Argentina and everywhere else," Kormann said. "But in 1946 I wrote a report - that's still in the National Archives - saying he'd been killed in a firefight with Russian soldiers."

Kormann was correct. During excavation in 1972, skeletal remains of a man in a high-ranking Nazi uniform were unearthed. In 1998, DNA testing showed the remains were Bormann's.

While the 17th Airborne fought in several battles, the division made just one combat parachute jump, Operation Varsity, an airborne jump east of the Rhine River. It was a costly mission. Of the more than 9,000 men who jumped, 1,070 were killed and about 4,000 were wounded.

"The Germans knew exactly where we were going to land and we were dropped right on top of them," Kormann said. "It was a slaughter."

Mike Rock, 88, now of Mays Landing, N.J., and Thomas P. Cogal were boyhood friends in Nesquehoning. Both were artillerymen in the 17th Airborne, though they were in separate gliders during the airdrop. When Rock's glider landed, he immediately went in search of his comrades.

"The first thing I see is my friend, laying there dead," Rock said, holding a photo of Cogal's grave in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, Holland. "I thought 'How am I going to tell his mother?' It was heartbreaking."

John F. Magill, 88, of Millerstown was a forward artillery observer who moved with the infantry and called in artillery fire as needed.

"We were up front with infantry, and sometimes in front of them, observing the enemy with binoculars," he said.

Near Muenster, Germany, the group he was with met more than 100 entrenched Nazi SS soldiers, who also had a captured American tank.

"I had to move up into the wooded area and call in fire," Magill said.

He was successful, despite being wounded by the Germans.

"Our artillery obliterated much of the SS position," Magill said.

The reunion ends Sunday.

lalexander@lnpnews.com

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