BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Every time Air Force veteran Lawson Corley hears the sacred Christmas carol “Silent Night,” he remembers the day 56 years ago when a German soldier spared his life because of Corley’s solo serenade on a snowy Christmas Eve. The year was 1944, World War II was ravaging Europe and Lt. Lawson Corley was serving his country as a lead bombardier in the 705th bomb squadron in the United States Air Force. His 10-member crew had just launched a successful bombing raid — which included an unexpected bonus of annihilating an enemy ammunition site — when their plane was hit by enemy fire.
The only alternative for the crew was to bail out and hope they would not be captured. Anti-aircraft flak had penetrated the walls of the plane and lodged in Corley’s backpack where his parachute was located. Corley jumped, hoping that his chute would open. He futilely pulled his ripcord, which detached in his hand. As he saw the earth spinning closer to him he knew death was imminent. He said a quick prayer to God pledging to serve Him if He would spare his life.
God answered Corley’s plea. Miraculously his parachute opened at treetop level. The hard jolt to the ground knocked the 20-year-old Birmingham native unconscious. He was discovered by the Belgian underground and hidden in a ditch with the promise of being retrieved under the cover of darkness. The help never arrived. The fugitive was awakened to the sound of German shepherd dogs snarling above him as he hid in his refuge.
Corley’s battered body was dragged by uncaring German soldiers and dumped into a cubicle-size dungeon with only a wooden board for a bed. His most serious injuries included a broken back and a ruptured kidney and spleen that went unattended for a number of days while Corley was being interrogated.
At one point Corley was taken to a castle in Belgium where he was deposited on a marble floor in front of a Nazi Gestapo commandant. “He demanded that I give him information on the Normandy invasion but I pleaded ignorance. He tried to entice me with the promise of medical care.”
Corley refused to cooperate, asking his enemy if he would reveal crucial information if he were captured. Indignant, the officer replied in perfect English that of course he would not. “I’m just as good a soldier as you are, Sir,” Corley replied. The German’s fist flying toward his face was the last thing Corley remembered before passing out. The beating resulted in the loss of 11 teeth, a broken nose and a ruptured eardrum.
Corley remembers regaining consciousness in a Nazi hospital in Belgium. His ruptured kidney would continually fill with blood and the German hospital attendants refused to drain it. Instead they ordered a 15-year-old Belgian boy to do the unpleasant task.
Once again God was keeping watch over Corley. The boy, a member of the Belgian underground, returned one day with German identification papers he had retrieved from a soldier he had killed. The soldier’s features were identical to Corley’s. His young accomplice wrapped the identification in Corley’s bandages on his back so that he could use them if he was ever able to escape.
Before long Corley was taken to the first of three prisoner of war camps where he would spend the next 11 months and five days of his life trying to survive.
His first Christmas as a prisoner of war was at Stalag Luft III in Poland. On Christmas Eve the guards had promised the Americans they could visit with some of their buddies in other barracks. Corley, an avid singer, went from barrack to barrack visiting his fellow prisoners and singing Christmas carols to them. Walking through the snow to his barrack he saw a guard standing sentry in the moonlight. Having taught himself German, Corley spontaneously stopped and sang the carol “Silent Night” to the guard in German. The soldier listened to the American sing in his rich baritone voice, “Stille nacht, heilige nacht.”
At the song’s conclusion, the Nazi replied twice in German, “Yes, I understand.” Corley went on to his destination, not realizing that this innocent act would prove to be another way God was encasing him in His protective arms.
Time marched on for the 10,000 captured Air Force officers housed at Stalag Luft III. Throughout the months that Corley spent there he was aware that many prisoners were digging escape tunnels in the compound. He points out that the movie “The Great Escape” was based on an actual occurrence that took place at Stalag Luft III. Corley was consulted as a resource for the movie.
By January 1945 the Germans knew the war was turning on them. In an effort to use the prisoners of war as negotiating tools, the command was given to relocate them to different camps. During January and February, when temperatures were well below zero, the men were forcibly marched from Poland to Nuremburg in central Germany.
“I can remember how cold it was as we marched through seven inches of snow. The moon was shining down on us and we could hear the noise of the Russians during their drive to Berlin. We would march for 55 minutes at a time and were given a five-minute break. At one point we saw an airplane dropping altitude and heading toward us. Our instinct was to dive for safety. I dove into a frozen ditch, the ice cracked and I went under water.”
Corley had only a wet blanket to try to keep dry. At one point he passed out from the cold during the allotted break period. He awoke to the ferocious bite of a German shepherd dog penetrating his arm as he staggered back into the procession. At another point when he could go no farther a German soldier came up to him and twice jammed his bayonet into Corley’s back and demanded that he “walk or die.”
The prisoners were housed in Nuremburg for only a short time before they were forced to march to another location in Moosburg. Corley decided to escape. The prisoners were being kept in a large barnyard area close to the drainage ditches used for cattle excrement.
The-six-foot-two American trudged through the vile ditch until he was out of the camp knowing that the impending chaos among the Germans would be to his advantage. A civilian aided him with food but warned him he was in imminent danger and would be safer back in the camp.
Weighing the odds, he made the decision to return. He had almost completed his goal when he came upon an unexpected sight at the top of the ditch – a German soldier pointing his gun at him. “The guard said the Fuhrer had ordered to shoot any prisoners trying to escape. I started to reason with him asking him if he wanted to see his family after the war was over. Hearing my voice he asked me if I was the prisoner who had sung ‘Stille Nacht’ to him. I said ‘yes’ I was the one and he let me pass.” Shortly after this episode General George Patton and his troops came through Moosburg and liberated the imprisoned heroes. Corley recalls being summoned to the general and quizzed about his treatment. When Corley shared the inhumane treatment he had been subjected to, Patton ordered the Nazi soldier to be brought to him. “The soldier who had stabbed me was brought to General Patton.
He pulled out his gun, pointed it at the Nazi and asked if I wanted him shot for what he had done to me. I asked the general to spare his life, telling him there had been enough killing in this war.”
Every Christmas season Corley, a member of South Roebuck Baptist, Birmingham, is asked to sing at holiday functions. “Silent Night” is always on his repertoire. He sings the verses in German and then shares his long-ago story of how God saved his life on a snowy Christmas Eve.