Harlan County, Kentucky, has a World War II hero who recently passed. I knew Alfred “Al” Cornett (August 1923-July 2021) because I interviewed him about his war experiences, and I have several of the dulcimers he made hanging on the wall in my living room.
Before he passed, he received the French Medal of Honor with the following inscription, “You saved us.” My giving voice through my writing to the veterans I know who saved us has given my life an important dimension while forcing me to acknowledge regularly that our lives on earth are but for a short time.
Cornett was in the U.S. Army during World War II as a member of an elite team charged with the responsibility of radio communications in the European Theater, and General George S. Patton was the chief choreographer of troop movement in that location.
Cornett shared several stories with me from his experiences after basic training 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, as Cornett told me, “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 until 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.”
With his ready wit, Cornett was, thus, not commandeered 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 layin’ 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 doin’ comin’ up this way? We are expectin’ 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 gonna 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 tryin’ 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 southeastern Kentucky to begin other chapters of his life.
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.”
After the war, Cornett worked as an electrician at U.S. Steel’s coal mining operation in Lynch, Kentucky, and was a proud member of the UMWA. Additionally, he was one of the 200 residents of the Tri-City area (Cumberland, Benham, and Lynch) who formed a caravan of 50 vehicles in May of 1957 and traveled to Frankfort to meet with then Governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler to petition him to establish a college in Cumberland.
The political action was successful and in 1960 Southeast Center, now Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, was established.
In his retirement Cornett, recognized for his skills in making dulcimers by a resolution from the Kentucky House of Representatives, taught dulcimer-making workshops at the college.
Dr. William Bruce Ayers, president of SKCTC from 1987 until 2013, says of Cornett, “Al saw great potential for the Tri-City, and I had a special relationship with him. I enrolled in one of the first classes in dulcimer making that he taught at the college. Made a wormy chestnut dulcimer. He was an excellent instructor, an artist who embraced the utility of an instrument but also the beauty.
“He outlined every step of the process and worked patiently with us, never raising his voice although some of us were not very good.
“Al made well over 500 dulcimers, and his dulcimers became a sort of logo for the college. We gave them to state and federal officials who, in turn, gifted them to foreign diplomats.”
Rest in peace, Alfred Cornett, for your service to this nation and for turning the wood of Kentucky forests into beautiful musical instruments.