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WWII POW left for dead, then rescued; he survived, married, moved to River Falls

Nineteen year old Private First Class George Korbel shown in 1943 shortly after his enlistment in the U.S. Army. Korbel was captured during the Battle of the Bulge in Germany in late 1944 and held prisoner in Germany's Stalag 4B prison camp until his rescue months later. <i>Submitted photos</i>1 / 2
The late George Korbel and his wife Mary Ann attend a Minnesota state American Ex-Prisoners of War convention in 1989.2 / 2

By autumn 1944, German leader Adolf Hitler's options were numbered. The Allies continued their march east toward Berlin.

Hitler needed to try something to stop them. His plan turned out to be the last major German offensive of World War II -- and one of the bloodiest.

On a cold, overcast Dec. 16, 1944, Hitler ordered three powerful German regiments to hit the weakest portion of the Allies' line in the Ardennes region of eastern Belgium and northern Luxembourg.

Germany's goal was to encircle and destroy four Allied armies, cut supply lines, and force the western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty.

Bombing started at 5:30 a.m. and lasted some 90 minutes, followed by a massive 1,600-piece German artillery attack.

The Ardennes Offensive was on. At first it worked. The Germans had created a bulge in the Allied line.

Young George Korbel of Boyceville -- he moved to River Falls after the war -- was with the United States Army's 106th Infantry Division on the Allied front line when the Battle of The Bulge exploded.

Korbel's entire battalion, the 22nd, was caught off guard, eventually ran out of ammunition, and was captured by the Germans.

According to U.S. War Department records, the Army's 106th Infantry Division suffered 416 killed in action during the Battle of The Bulge, 1,246 wounded, and 7,001 missing in action -- most of these casualties within the first three days of fighting.

A Western Union telegraph message made its way to Korbel's parents on Jan. 11, 1945.

The run-on sentence from the acting adjutant general of the U.S. Army was to the point: "The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Private George Korbel has been reported missing in action since sixteen December in Germany if further details or other information are received you will be promptly notified."

When the news went public, a friend gave this grim assessment to Korbel's fiancée Mary Ann Barstad: "You might as well face it, he's dead."

During a recent interview in the kitchen of her home, Mary Ann admitted: "That really hurt. I had a friend whose brother went missing at the time -- he was never found."

But Korbel, who enlisted with the Army in October 1943, was indeed alive.

He and his captors were marched to a nearby railroad yard, processed, and loaded into boxcars to be carted off to the German's Stalag 4B prison camp.

Korbel was one of some 23,000 Americans captured during the Battle of The Bulge.

He was 20 years old and weighed about 180 pounds -- about twice the weight he was when the Germans left him for dead four months later.

Recalling his days in the German prison camp, Korbel was quoted as saying: "We were fed some black bread, some type of soup with potatoes, and sometimes meat --- horse meat ... I found a tooth once."

During this time, Mary Ann's letters to Korbel were being returned. But ironically, a German "Postkarte" from Korbel arrived in January 1945 -- a full two weeks before official word of Korbel's capture came down from the U.S. Secretary of War.

"Dear Mary Ann," wrote Korbel from prison. "I am fine, hope you're same. Getting along fine. Write often, cause I can't. So, just be patient. I'll see you soon. Pray. Tell 'em all hello from me. Check Red Cross about sending food. Please send some. Love George."

Korbel indicated he was "getting along fine," but things were about to go from bad to worse for Korbel and his fellow prisoners-of-war.

The Americans had held firm during the German's offensive in the Ardenesse region, repaired the bulge in the Allied's western line.

After about three days of the heaviest fighting during WWII, they started to close in again on the Germans.

The Germans decided to abandon their POW camps and move their prisoners, hoping to elude the Americans for as long as possible. Still, the Germans really had nowhere to go.

"They didn't tell you nothing," said Korbel during an interview with the River Falls Journal in 1993. "They just marched you."

Korbel actually kept a record of the daily marches.

According to his diary -- actually just a scrap of paper -- the marching started on Feb. 14, 1945, and continued for 12 straight days with stops only at night.

The march's first phase totaled 276 kilometers (just over 171 miles)!

According to Korbel, while on the move for over 45 days, prisoners were fed once a day and some days not at all.

Meals included a heavy black bread. Korbel speculated it was made with sawdust, and watery soup.

"We were losing a lot of men as we were marching," Korbel was quoted as saying. "They (the dead and dying) were just not with us the next day."

Korbel and other POWs had no medical treatment, a square meal nor a change of clothes for some four months.

Exhaustion and exposure contributed to pneumonia and diarrhea.

Mary Ann said Korbel's feet suffered frostbite during this period. He also contracted pneumonia and weighed less than 100 pounds.

Korbel was staring at death.

In Korbel's own words: "We had little or no food, it was very cold, and while marching a short time before the Americans came through, I and an English soldier collapsed and were left."

Presumably for dead.

After being provided shelter by a German who was hoping to be in good graces when the Americans arrived, Korbel was picked up by an American Red Cross ambulance and transported to a hospital in Paris.

Then it was on to a hospital in New York, and, finally, to the hospital at Fort Sheridan in Illinois.

When Korbel finally regained his strength he was granted a 90-day recuperation leave, then eventually another leave for re-enlisting in the Army.

It was during the last leave that Korbel and Mary Ann got married.

In December 1946 Korbel was honorably discharged from his service to the U.S. Army. He became a civilian.

But not all was well on the home front.

According to Mary Ann, some of Korbel's acquaintances -- fellows back home who had not enlisted for military service -- taunted Korbel regarding his status as a POW.

"If you had not been such a coward," one told Korbel, according to Mary Ann, "you would not have been captured."

After that incident, Korbel didn't admit to being a prisoner of war for several years -- not even to his children nor his medical doctors.

"He would just not talk about it," said Mary Ann, noting that his internalizing lead to a lifelong anxiety.

"It was sad because I think it would have been good for him to get it off his chest."

In the mid-1980s, an Ann Landers syndicated column caught Korbel's attention.

A WWII veteran who was held prisoner wrote Landers about a support group called American Ex-Prisoners of War.

Korbel checked into the group. Eventually he and Mary Ann became active members of the organization.

"It really helped him open up," said Mary Ann. "Through the years I learned more and more. Little things you didn't think about at the time make sense now."

Mary Ann eventually went on to serve as historian of the Indianhead chapter of the American Ex-POWs, even after Korbel's death in 1999.

But she's not attending many meetings these days, she conceded: "There's so many gone. It's mostly women at the meetings now."

    Editor's note: River Falls resident and financial advisor Nate Jackson's first job out of college in 1986 was as a daily newspaper reporter in northern Minnesota. His focus was writing human interest stories. Jackson, married to Linda, has two children: Nicholas and Larissa. He has volunteered to narrate the stories of area WWII veterans and share them with readers of the River Falls Journal. This is the first of that series.