Life lessons of a Warrior
We all make choices daily that determines how we lead our lives in what we value. John T. Corley is an example of a man who took tenacious action to support what he valued. His vigorous performance of duty over a lifetime to defeat fascism and defend freedom led him to be one of the most decorated soldiers in American history. His life offers some lessons that we can apply today.
Before Theodore Roosevelt became a military officer, a Governor or even President he always sought out an active lifestyle. In 1895 he wrote, “A soft, easy life is not worth living, if it impairs the fibre of brain and heart and muscle. We must dare to be great; and we must realize that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage… For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.”
John T. Corley was a man who aimed to wear out rather than rust out.
A Life of Selfless Service
John T. Corley grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1938 and commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and attended the U.S. Air Corps Primary Flying School. He allegedly he flew a military aircraft under the Brooklyn Bridge and was reassigned to the Infantry.
The reassignment did not deter him. His drive and action led to him being one of the most decorated soldiers in U.S. history. He earned a Distinguished Service Cross in both World War II and Korea, and a total of eight Silver Stars during his 28 years of service. He was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame and retired as a Brigadier General. His career from Lieutenant to General took him across the globe in many pivotal roles. Most notable were his actions once America entered World War II.
Seizing the Initiative in North Africa
A short four years after Corley graduated from West Point, John T. Corley was in North Africa. The Army expanded in size and needed officers to lead the swelled ranks and promoted Corley to Major. Corley landed in North Africa on Nov. 8, 1942, as part of Operation Torch. Two days after landing, he earned his first Silver Star in close-quarters combat near Oran, Algeria.
While serving as the Executive Officer of the 3d Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, in the vicinity of Ferme Combier, Algeria, on 10 November 1942. His unit was taking casualties from direct small arms fire, and Corley jumped into action. He made extensive reconnaissance at great risk to himself to locate observation points for artillery observers to call for fire. His keen tactical judgment and fearlessness resulted in the defeat of the enemy.
Four months later, in March 1943, Corley earned his first Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor in the U.S. Military, during fighting at El Guettar, Tunisia. Corley was serving with the same unit while in action against enemy forces with the objective, Hill 482, the highest in a series of hills making up Djebel Mcheltat range.
Despite heavy artillery, mortar, machine gun, and automatic rifle fire, this Battalion steadily forged ahead. After fierce fighting, the Battalion finally reached the foothills of the hill where the accurate fire of a well-placed machine gun nest stopped the advance and caused everyone to seek whatever shelter he could find. Detecting the position of the enemy machine gun nest, Major Corley, on his own volition, with utter disregard for his personal safety, worked himself around the hills and crawled up to a position directly in its rear. From close range, with hand grenades, he silenced the gun; killing one man, wounding two, putting four to flight and taking two as prisoners. By this heroic deed, the Battalion was permitted to advance an appreciable distance without casualties.
After driving the Nazis from Northern Africa, the Army promoted Corley to Lieutenant Colonel and Commanding Officer of the 3d Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. His unit became part of the invasion of Sicily. The Allied invasion of the island of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky. The operations took control of the island from the Axis powers. It began with a large amphibious and airborne operation, followed by a six-week land campaign. It created the toehold needed to initiate the Italian Campaign.
Toehold in the Boot of Italy
The campaign to take Sicily is where John T. Corley took action again and earned his second Silver Star. Corley was leading his men in the vicinity of Bompietro, Sicily, on 22 July 1943. He was given the mission of supporting a tank attack upon an important objective.
Colonel Corley skillfully coordinated his battalion elements and, although fierce enemy resistance compelled other attacking units to withdraw, moved into the offensive at the designated hour. Remaining in the vanguard of the assault force and repeatedly risking his life to more effectively maneuver troops and weapons, select targets, and adjust fire, he inspired his men to supreme heights of courage and determination and drove relentlessly forward until the objective was taken.
Actions on D-Day
By June 1944, The 1st Infantry Division was refit and was deployed in Operation Overlord, the main assault to drive the Nazis from Western Europe. It was here where Corley took action on the shores of Normandy 3 days after the D-Day landing earning his third Silver Star in the vicinity of Ste. Anne, Normandy, France, on 9 June 1944.
When an element of his battalion was overrun by German infantry and armor, Colonel Corley fearlessly proceeded to the vulnerable area and, by his personal bravery and determination, encouraged the troops to resist further penetration of our lines. After resisting the enemy onslaught, Colonel Corley seized the offensive and, repeatedly risking his life to more advantageously maneuver personnel and weapons, assaulted and routed the hostile forces. Colonel Corley’s gallantry and adroit leadership contributed immeasurably to the success of the invasion.
By the Fall Of 1944, the 1st Infantry Division saw action on German soil. It was here where Corley earned his fourth Silver Star and accepted the first unconditional surrender of a German city.
Corley led his Battalion in the vicinity of Aachen, Germany, on 18 October 1944. Given the important mission of neutralizing several enemy strongpoints, Colonel Corley personally reconnoitered the designated structures, guided self-propelled artillery and tanks to strategic locations and, from a position vulnerable to intense fire, directed systematic and complete destruction of the objectives.
As result of his leadership, he accepted the surrender of Aachen by German Colonel Gerhard Wilck who forfeited his personal sidearm in the exchange, a 7.65mm Model 1937 Frommer Pistol and Holster made in Hungary.
A month later, Corley earned his fifth Silver Star in the vicinity of Jungersdorf, Germany, on 27 November 1944. Repeatedly moving to the head of his attacking forces during a fierce engagement with the enemy, Colonel Corley, despite intense machine gun and small arms fire, aggressively led his battalion against a numerically superior and strongly entrenched foe and compelled the Germans to abandon a strategically important objective.
By the war’s end, Corley served at the Nuremberg trials before returning to the U.S. Military Academy as an instructor and resumed his military career in a peacetime Army.
Action on the Korean Peninsula
Peace did not last long for Corley. General Douglas MacArthur requested him personally to serve in Korea at the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. There he served as Commander of 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division from August 1950 to February 1951.
Shortly after assuming command, Corley earned his sixth Silver Star on 11 August 1950, near Wonson, Korea. Colonel Corley was leading his Battalion in an attack when the advance elements were subjected to devastating small arms and mortar fire. Despite exposure to the deadly barrage, he calmly deployed his men to maximum advantage and directed the forward observer to a favorable position. When one of the radio men was wounded by hostile fire, he went to the aid of the injured man, administered first aid and carried him back for evacuation.
Second Distinguished Service Cross
Corley earned his second Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in action near Haman, Korea, during the period 21 through 23 August 1950. Two of Colonel Corley’s companies had as their objective the key hill to the regimental sector, Battle Mountain. Company L led the attack, gained the objective and while attempting to secure the position was driven back by a counterattack.
Quickly estimating the situation, Colonel Corley moved from his forward command post under small-arms, machine-gun and mortar fire to a position about two hundred yards from the summit of Battle Mountain to reorganize Company L. He stopped the retreat and reorganized the position. The counterattack was checked, Colonel Corley stayed on this position until the enemy attack had been repelled. He called for artillery fire, but the liaison officer was unable to communicate with his guns.
Colonel Corley returned to his command post and obtained communications through Regiment to the guns. He then directed fire on the right flank of Battle Mountain where the enemy was in the process of regrouping. This fire was effective.
He then ordered Company L to retake Battle Mountain. Colonel Corley moved from his command post to Company L, where he coordinated small-arms, mortar, and artillery fire. When the attack of Company L was stopped, he directed Company I to move through Company L. Company I gained the approach ridge but later was forced to withdraw. Again Colonel Corley reorganized the men and placed Company I in reserve behind Company L. On 23 August 1950; the companies completed the mission of capturing Battle Mountain.
Another Silver Star
A few weeks later, Corley earned his seventh Silver star near Haman, Korea on 16 September 1950. Colonel Corley’s regiment launched a series of attacks against strong hostile positions. As his exhausted men organized for a final assault, he advanced to the forward lines to take personal command. Despite constant exposure to intense hostile fire, he rallied his men around him, led them in their successful assault and remained with the lead elements until recalled by the Division Commander.
Corley was not done in Korea. He earned his final and eighth Silver star near Pugwon, Korea, on 30 November 1950. A strong hostile force penetrated friendly lines on the right flank of Colonel Corley’s Regiment. Advancing on foot to clarify the situation, he reorganized adjacent Infantry elements in specifically assigned sectors and then proceeded to an important river crossing to ascertain if it was still in friendly hands. After reconnoitering the area without encountering hostile forces, he dispatched a platoon of tanks to reinforce his forward Battalion and remained at the crossing until assured that all friendly lines were finally re-secured.
A Career of Service
After Korea, Corley continued his career by serving as Chief of the Infantry Branch before graduating from the U.S. Army War College in 1954. He served with 7th Army in Europe from 1954 to 1957 and then served as director of the Infantry School’s Ranger Department at Fort Benning, Georgia, from 1957 to 1960. He next served as Deputy Chief of Staff, Allied Land Forces, with Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Denmark from 1960 to 1962.
The Army promoted Corley to Brigadier General, and he became Assistant Division Commander of the 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1962. In 1964, he was assigned as Chief of Staff, 1st Army in New York. His final assignment began in 1966 as the Deputy Commanding General at the U.S. Army’s Infantry Training Center, Fort Jackson, South Carolina until his retirement from the Army on September 30, 1966. John T. Corley would retire as one of the most highly decorated officers in the United States Army with 8 Silver Stars and 2 Distinguished Service Crosses.
Corley and his wife, Mrs. Mary Buckley Corley, would have 4 sons and 3 daughters. One son, First Lieutenant John Thomas Corley, Jr., a graduate of West Point, would be killed in Vietnam. Another son and a daughter continued the family legacy and earned the rank of Colonel in the U.S. Army.
Wear Out Rather Than Rust Out
The life of John T. Corley offers some lessons for us today. It is not to glamorize war or to make light of the ultimate sacrifices made by others on our behalf. It is about reflecting on the past in how we may live today.
My own combat experience offers a perspective of how short life can be. It provides me with a sense of urgency to embrace life to its fullest. Not everyone must serve in the military to live a full and meaning life. Our daily decisions have significant impacts on our lives and the world around us. The takeaway is not to play small. People like John T. Corley remind us that a life of vigorous action in the pursuit excellence is one worth living.
John T. Corley did not choose a soft, easy life. He faced the challenges before him head on and took action. Throughout all his life, John T. Corley led from the front with those he served. He lived the words that Theodore Roosevelt wrote years prior. He aimed to wear out rather than rust out.
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