CORAL — George Voytek, 95, was only 6 years old when he and his family moved to the small community of Coral, but he would come to call the town home for a majority of his life.
Born in Latrobe in 1917, Voytek attended Homer City High School during his teenage years, but had to drop out after only one and a half years.
“There used to be a streetcar that would take us to school,” he said, “but when that stopped running, I had to drop out.”
A trolley system once ran along the path of the current Hoodlebug trail near the beginning of the 1900s and provided transit to workers and pedestrians moving between Indiana, Homer City, Blairsville and other towns.
Without a school to go to, Voytek needed a job, and he found work as a heavy-truck driver for the Coral Coke Company, and later working as a freight truck driver in Cleveland. It was during his time in Ohio that he received his draft notice.
Voytek entered the Army in October 1942 and completed his boot camp training in Tennessee. He was assigned to work with the artillery and was trained as a survey and instrument man.
“If somebody shoots, we had to go and find where the shell landed,” he said. “We took that grid information back to headquarters, and they can pinpoint where the gun shoots.”
Voytek traveled with the 88th Division to England in July 1944. Within a week, he found himself in France in support of the military’s Battle of Hedgerows.
The terrain of France was initially not easy for the Allied forces to traverse. Numerous hedgerows blocked their paths, preventing the quick movement of tanks and troops and allowing an easy hiding place for German troops. Artillery fire was important during the initial attack on France to dislodge German troops from their encampments. Eventually, cutting devices were created that allowed tanks to travel through the hedgerows and the military could advance.
Voytek moved throughout northern France, the Rhineland, the Ardennes and through central Europe in support of the Army’s attack on enemy troops. While typically fighting from the back, Voytek did find himself on the front lines every now and then.
He and his men would occasionally need to scout ahead and report on where the artillery fire was hitting and where they would be attacking next.
“We always worked the outer perimeter,” Voytek said, “then reported to headquarters. Sometimes we even beat the infantry guys. A lot of times we would be the infantry, and we lost a couple men that way.”
The survey work paid off, however, and while in Luxembourg, he earned a bronze star. The award described how Voytek “proceeded into the impact area, as a member of a survey shell report team, to secure valuable information.” His “accurate reporting contributed greatly to the successful counter battery fire upon the enemy artillery.”
During Voytek’s travels, he said he saw many beautiful rivers and many dead bodies. His men were always looking for souvenirs, and would often get hurt doing so.
“One place, we were going down a valley, and we came across a house that was three stories high, and it had a porch right around,” he said. “There were men standing all around it with their guns pointed up, but everyone around it was dead.
“What I was trying to figure out was what happened, how they got all those men in a standing position with their guns pointed up. They were placed by somebody that way.
“We said, ‘Don’t touch them. They’re liable to be hooked up to explosives.’”
He and his men also guarded a recently liberated concentration camp in Austria. He remembered the people in the camp being “packed in like a turkey farm.”
But Voytek’s tour was marked with happy moments. While camping at the farm of a German family, he and his men befriended the small boy who lived at the farm, giving him candy and taking pictures with him.
The boy, named Jakob Baur, recently reached out to Voytek in the early 2000s, sending him a letter written completely in German.
“We never had any trouble with the German people,” Voytek said.
He returned to the U.S. in October 1945 and was discharged shortly thereafter. On his return, he married Frances Canton, to whom he had been engaged for a year prior to his departure.
Voytek returned to Cleveland to work after his return, but a week later his father died, so he returned to Coral to help his family. He worked as a truck driver for Otto Milk Company until its closure, then worked in the janitorial service at Indiana University of Pennsylvania until his retirement in 1981.
Since then, he has been keeping himself busy with occasional gardening. He enjoys watching the Pirates play on television.
Frances passed away in December.
Voytek will be celebrating his 96th birthday on Friday.
“I never really thought about the war when I came back,” he said. “It never even entered my mind. But lately I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”