A Walk Though WWII History with WNC Veterans

written by Bill Kopp

History comes alive when its stories are told by those who experienced it firsthand. And Western North Carolina is fortunate to have three honored veterans of the Second World War. As part of "A Walk Through WWII History," a two-day event hosted by the Veterans History Museum of the Carolinas in Brevard, visitors recently had a rare opportunity to hear some of those vivid stories, told by the men who lived them. Joined by author-historians who have written about WWII, they presented and took part in Q&As after their talks.

Ed Cottrell and the Battle of the Bulge
Ed Cottrell was called up in August 1942. Before that, he had taken part in College Pilot Training. That experience would serve him well as he joined the newly-created Army Air Forces. Cottrell would go on to fly 65 missions in the European theatre, but the one on December 17, 1944 was among the most dangerous and memorable.

"It was the first day of the Battle of the Bulge," Cottrell recalls. His mission was to fly over Koblenz -- miles inside Nazi-controlled Germany -- looking for Tiger (Panzer) tanks. His squadron found them and made bombing runs. "I noticed a Messerschmidt 109 firing at the plane in front of me," Cottrell recalls. "Then, all of a sudden, I saw the 20mm cannon blinking out of the nose of his plane."

Before he could make a defensive maneuver, Cottrell was hit. "There was a big pop, and black oil was all over my windshield," he recalls. "The engine started misfiring." Jettisoning his canopy and heading for Allied-controlled territory, he accepted that he would almost certainly have to crash land his aircraft.

Flying barely above stalling speed, Cottrell looked to his right and spied another Me 109. "Then I looked to my left, and saw another," he says. The two German fighters crisscrossed behind Cotrell's plane and then -- to his astonishment -- fell into close formation with him. As he sputtered toward Allied airspace, Cottrell saw one of the German pilots make a circle with his thumb and forefinger. "Then," he says with wonderment, "They both peeled off!" The American pilot dead-sticked his plane to a safe landing. "I got out and kissed the ground," he says.

Once the war was over, Cottrell re-enlisted in the Reserves; in the decades since, he has returned many times to the places in Europe that figure into his personal story. Today at age 101, he proudly shares his memories and perspective with present-day audiences. "It's important for people to work together for the cause of freedom," he says.

George Sarros and D-Day
Drafted months before he would have graduated from high school, George Sarros joined the U.S. Navy at age 18. After boot camp he was assigned to the Amphibious Forces in New Orleans.

From there he boarded a brand-new ship, LST-515. The LSTs (short for Landing Ship, Tank) would be instrumental in the Allied success storming the beaches of Normandy. And that's precisely where Sarros, his fellow 80-plus crewmates and a convoy of other LSTs were bound. "I was assigned to the engine room," he says.

But first the convoy landed in England, where they engaged in top-secret training ahead of the Normandy landing. Dubbed Exercise Tiger, the exercise simulated what the LST crews could expect on the French beach landing. "We were completely loaded with ammunition, tanks and infantry," Cottrell recalls.

And then things went terribly wrong. Breakdowns in communication resulted in ships coming under "friendly fire," and around midnight, several LSTs were attacked by German torpedo boats. LST-515 managed to avoid being hit, and the ship's captain went against orders and remained to attempt rescue of overboard crewmen.

Sarros and his mates were able to rescue more than 100 men. "We were out there until 7 a.m.," he recalls. All told, some 750 sailors lost their lives during the operation. "My ship was lucky," says Sarros, who remains proud of his Captain's decision to mount a rescue that saved one hundred lives. The details of Exercise Tiger would remain classified for decades thereafter.

Sarros would eventually take part in dozens of perilous wartime crossings of the English Channel aboard LST-515, so while Exercise Tiger is his most well-known war story, it's by no means the only one.

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