Joseph Patrick McDonnell was 21 when he graduated from Pittston Township High School in 1947. He wasn't a bad student. He was a good soldier. McDonnell, 86, spent what should have been his senior year in high school fighting in World War II in Europe.
The fifth of 13 children of Joe and Martha McDonnell, of Browntown, the younger Joe, or Josey as he was called, was drafted into the Army when he turned 18 in 1944 near the end of his junior year. His father was the coal miner son of Irish immigrants and his mother was Pennsylvania Dutch.
After basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas, McDonnell went to Camp Shanks, New York, from where he shipped out to Glasgow, Scotland aboard the Queen Mary. After a train ride to Southampton, England he was shipped by boat to Le Havre, France, arriving after the D-Day invasion.
He was assigned to 101st Calvary Reconnaissance Squadron, Troop C attached to the 5th Armored, a tank division. Assigned to Reconnaissance, or recon in Army parlance, McDonnell was a scout. This meant going ahead of the tanks and infantry, sometimes as far as 10 miles, to evaluate enemy strength and identify targets. They would do the shooting for us, McDonnell said. We would do the scouting for them. Sometimes we'd get in a predicament where you'd have to shoot.
Troop C found itself in that predicament for three months. We fought for 92 days, non-stop, McDonnell said.
Among the legendary battles his troop fought in was the Battle of the Bulge, a German surprise attack in December 1944. In the Bulge, we were behind the 28th division. They got slaughtered and we were right behind them.
McDonnell said the human carnage he witnessed is hard to describe. You look around and there's one of your buddies, he's froze and he don't have no head. I seen a guy get blown out of a tank. He was a friend of mine. This is what you see. This is the way life is. When you get home, you get jumpy. It takes a long time to wear off.
Some of what McDonnell saw - judging by the look on his face and the way he hesitated to describe scenes - never wore off. The 101st Calvary was among the first units to reach the concentration camps near Landsberg, Bavaria after it had been liberated by the 12th Armored.
We saw piles of bodies as high as houses. They weren't all dead; you could hear them moaning, but you couldn't pull them out because you'd pull their arms off.
With that, McDonnell hesitated. He lowered his eyes and said, I saw the furnaces.
Though McDonnell made it through with no more harm than a case of trench foot, he had close calls. As recon soldiers were ahead of the main units, they often had to find their own places to rest. I went in this wine cellar where they had these big wine barrels. I went inside to rest. I could hear Krauts talking outside. I could hear their tanks. I fell asleep and didn't even hear them leave.
McDonnell took fire crossing the Rhine River. We had a big hole in the ground and we had timber on top of it. And they'd call you out, you know, ‘McDonnell' and you have to go across the Rhine in a jeep and they'd be firing at you. They started cutting our heads off with wires. We had to put hooks on front of the Jeep to catch the wires. The windshields were down and covered to cut reflections for the airplanes.
As they advanced, the Americans liberated their own prisoners of war and captured Germans. We had 10,000 prisoners. If you come to his town, you let him go because what were you going to do with them?
As the desperate Germans retreated, their soldiers appeared younger and younger. Some kids were throwing grenades at us and you have to turn the machine guns on them and get rid of them, you know, but everybody did that.
Once across the Rhine, the advance quickened. We kept moving, moving, moving.
When they reached the German autobahn - the first limited-access, high-speed road network in the world - they found a section which had been converted into an airstrip, with aircraft out of gas, camouflaged in nearby woods
By then it was April 1945 and McDonnell and the men of the 101st Troop C were hearing rumors that the war was over and Hitler was dead. I got enough points to go home. I shipped out to camp Lucky Strike in France and then home.
He was assigned to Indiantown Gap, where he processed discharges, including those for his two older brothers, Paul and Leo. Five of the McDonnell brothers served in WWII.
Discharged with four Battle Stars in 1946, McDonnell came back to Browntown. He went back to high school and flight school at the Forty Fort airport - because he wanted to fly.
He earned certificates in drafting, machining, foundry and tin-smithing at the GI school.
He had a varied working life where he made caskets for 11 years at Monarch in West Pittston for Frank Gubbiotti and Warren Strubeck, supervised a $4.5 million sewage disposal project at RCA in Mountaintop, ran his own roofing business, supervised maintenance at Wilkeswood Apartments and finally retired in 1988 as grounds superintendent from The University of Scranton.
Always handy, McDonnell remodeled four homes and did a huge amount of woodworking, carving hundreds of pieces such as dolls, antique cars, a three-foot long full train, a horse-drawn funeral coach and mine scenes.
Some of his mine carvings are in the Anthracite Museum. An aid to former Governor Robert Casey once bought a mule pulling mine cars for the governor's office.
But McDonnell's favorite creation is his scale model carving of Browntown circa WWII. I was in every house in Browntown, McDonnell said. Name a street in Browntown and I'll mention every house, everybody in those houses, every kid that was in the service, every kid that came back and every kid that got killed.
McDonnell lives in Scranton with his second wife, the former Joan Tomillo. His first wife, the former Josephine Laverdi, passed away. She was the mother of McDonnell's only son, Joe, an Air Force veteran.
Joe, who was due to be drafted during the Vietnam War, said his father talked him into joining the Air Force. He said, ‘you ain't going in the Army.'