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Youthful Scouting skills vital in war

Oniel "Cozzie" Cozzolino's experiences as a Boy Scout in Lancaster's Troop 52, known as "Guy Bradley's Braves," gave him an edge when he was drafted into the Army for service in World War II.

In boot camp at age 18, he knew all the moves for close-order drills when marching. His assistant scoutmaster, John Kenyon, was a former Marine and ran the troop like a military unit.

Troop camp-outs in cold weather helped toughen up Cozzolino for the Battle of the Bulge during one of Europe's coldest winters.

"We slept right out in the snow in Belgium. We had no choice. We tried to take houses from the Germans, but sometimes we couldn't," said the retired 85-year-old meat market manager and deli executive.

But one thing that the Boy Scouts did not prepare him for were his nocturnal excursions out on patrol.

His job was to lead patrols to collect information on what American forces would face the coming day as they ventured farther east into German-held territory.

The enemy knew that American reconnaissance units preferred to stay in the woods undercover rather than walk in the open on snow-covered roads that shone brightly in the reflections of moonbeams.

In order to keep the patrols on their toes, the Germans set up tripwires attached to small bombs and planted land mines in the woods paralleling the roads.

Cozzolino said he had a knack for detecting danger underfoot.

"I could feel them and spot them," he said, "but you had to walk real slow to do that."

Hiking through the woods had another downside. It required a lot more energy than simply walking on a road. The forest floor was uneven, and there were forests and brush to navigate.

"On one mission, it took us about 45 minutes to get through the woods, and then we saw these guys on the road," Cozzolino said. "They were Americans. They'd taken a German pillbox.

"I went to the officer in charge and asked if he knew what was at the crossroads up ahead. He said there were Germans," Cozzolino said. "So we set off again. But we were so tired from going through the woods that I said, 'Let's take the road.' I knew it was a gamble, and we were taking a chance."

Cozzolino's roll of the dice nearly cost him his life.

"I spotted a German behind a tree," he said. "He was peeking and looking at me, and he didn't say a word. I said, 'Halt, who goes there?' Then I hear his machine gun -- dit, dit, dit. The bullets were flying all around me, and I don't how he missed me. I went into a ditch on the side of the road. I was protected, and I said to myself, 'I think I'm going to be a prisoner tonight.' "

To make matters worse, when Cozzolino attempted to return fire, he found that his weapon had frozen. It was an M3 submachine gun that was made at Buffalo Arms Co. on Kennedy Road, Cheektowaga.

"I laid in the ditch awhile, then started backing up, and when I was 20 yards away, I jumped out of the ditch and rejoined the patrol," he said. "I asked the guys where they were. Didn't they hear the shooting? They said they didn't know what was going on. I could see one of the men was missing."

In an instant, Cozzolino made a decision. Rather than go through the rest of his life wondering what had happened to the missing soldier, he informed the patrol that they were going after him.

"I told the patrol that we were going to find him and bring him back," he said. "We started moving up the road, and about 30 or 40 yards away, I saw the guy. He was struggling. He fell down, and I ran over, and we picked him up and brought him back to the pillbox. He was wounded with a shot that went right through his right shoulder."

Cozzolino says he has never regretted that decision.

At the pillbox, another sergeant with the patrol told him to stay with the wounded man until he could be treated and removed to a field hospital:

"The sergeant said, 'Cozzie, you've had a tough night. You stay, and I'll take the patrol and report to the captain.' "

Cozzolino said he was glad to catch the break.

For his efforts there and in numerous other firefights and full battles, he was awarded the Bronze Star.

But one of Cozzolino's greatest honors came years later when he noticed his former assistant scoutmaster at church:

"After Mass, I ran out and went up to him and said, 'John Kenyon, I want to thank you for all the things you taught me in Scouting.' He got tears in his eyes. It was an honor to see him."

***

Oneil "Cozzie" Cozzolino, 85

Hometown, residence: Lancaster

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant first class

War zone: Europe

Years of service: November 1943 to April 1946

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Liberation Medals from Luxembourg and Belgium

Specialty: Squad leader, Company A, 1st Battalion, 345th Regiment

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