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Our War: Close brush with death: 40-pound radio saved life of Swansea soldier

Oscar Joffray stands near a shadow box that displays his medals.
Oscar Joffray stands near a shadow box that displays his medals.


A 40-pound radio likely saved Oscar "Ossie" Joffray's life when he was shot April 19, 1945, by a German sniper in Nuremberg.

"It was just like somebody stuck me with a big needle," Joffray, 83, said of being hit in his right shoulder. "The bullet probably ricocheted off the radio."

Joffray told the story with a steady matter-of-factness. He had photos, letters, a telegram and other mementos spread across the kitchen counter of the Swansea home he shares with wife, Corrine, 85.

Joffray and his unit were patrolling on foot. Tanks were too large to move through the narrow streets of Nuremberg.

At first his platoon sergeant didn't believe Joffray had been shot.

"I yelled 'Hey, Al, I got hit.' He said, 'Oh, it didn't knock you down," Joffray said.

He took cover and waited for medics.

"That guy got 13 of us before we got him," Joffray said. "They airlifted me to the hospital in Reims, France."

Joffray served with the U.S. Army's 180th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division during World War II. His unit was known as the Thunderbirds. He served 430 of the 511 days his unit was in combat.

First, he joined an anti-tank company. Then he was switched to L Company, the first group of American soldiers to set foot on German soil, where he was assigned to carry the radio for Capt. Leland Woods.

"Wherever he went, I went. If he slept in a house, I slept in a house. If he slept on the ground, I slept on the ground."

Members of the 180th used to meet in Oklahoma to reminisce. Woods saved the map Joffray was carrying when Joffray was shot and showed it to him at one reunion. There were reddish-brown splotches on the map.

"He said, 'That's your blood.'"

Joffray still bears the scar on his back. He is proud of the service it represents and the Purple Heart it earned him.

It also kept him from seeing a human horror.

"My unit liberated Dachau, but I wasn't with them. I was in the hospital."

Joffray grew up on South Virginia Avenue in Belleville and graduated from Cathedral High School in 1941. He started working for the NeHi bottling plant in Belleville.

In the spring of 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

"I got my greetings from Uncle Sam," Joffray said.

The phrase "I Want You" was personal for Joffray during his Army career.

"They said 'You, you and you' for anti-tank. I was one of the 'yous,'" Joffray said.

Troops shipped out across the Atlantic to Oran, Africa, then headed to Italy, where they battled at Salerno, Anzio and Monte Cassino.

Joffray spent Christmas of 1943 in foxholes in the cold, torrential rain.

"You wore a big slicker. It didn't help much. You'd get your mess kit and it would fill up with water and get cold."

On those cold, dark nights Joffray feared the worse.

"You worried about never getting back. The worst was at Anzio when they could shoot and hit any part of our unit."

He learned to be a mule skinner, as the mountains were too steep to move gear with trucks. They used mules.

The men rejoiced in small victories off the battlefield.

"We went looking for Germans and found a cow. One of the guys was a butcher, so we had fresh meat for a few days."

Entertainer Joe E. Brown and the Rockettes also entertained the troops in Italy, and Joffray's unit had an audience with Pope Pius XII after Rome fell to the Allies.

While in Italy, two Army buddies were killed. One died in his arms after stepping on a land mine during a routine patrol for Germans.

"You never forget something like that," Joffray said, deep in thought. "That could have been me."

Then, Joffray was given an assignment with L company.

"I was one of the 'yous' again."

He was intrigued by the large radios.

"I was curious, so I said 'What is that?' They said, 'Don't worry about it. We'll train you.'"

He headed into France, then Germany, where he helped with roadblocks for the Battle of the Bulge. It was another Christmas in the cold.

"That was the year 'I'll Be Home for Christmas' was so popular. All anyone could think about was going home."

Joffray was shot in Nuremberg and still has the original telegram sent to his mother, Sophie Joffray, on May 2, 1945.

It reads "The secretary of war desires me to express his deep regret that your son PFC Joffray Oscar J. was slightly wounded in Germany 19 Apr 45."

After receiving treatment at the hospital, it was back out into the field.

"They were going to send me to the Pacific Theater, but I had enough points. I could go home."

The first person waiting was his mother, who had taken the bus downtown to the Public Square.

"My bus from St. Louis pulled up, and I could hear her calling me before I ever saw her. She liked to have knocked everyone down when she saw me," Joffray said. "She gave me the biggest hug. We both started crying."

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