WWII Vet: J.B. Coon

JB Coon, WWI; JB Coon 2012

(Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II in 2011-12.  Most of those 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).

J.B. Coon was born on a one-horse farm in Jonesville on November 27, 1924.  “That’s a family farm where the horse and the family did all the work.  Little farms like that don’t exist anymore.”

He explained that his father raised mostly cotton and corn with some peas, as that was a time before soybeans were a popular crop.  Much of the grain went to maintain the horse.

“I thought that’s what I wanted to do, farming,” said Coon who attended Block High School.  Transportation was simple.  “You walked or you rode a horse.  My grades?  I got by by the skin of my teeth.  I didn’t have enough credit to graduate in 1941 so I took the subjects I needed the next year.  By midterm, I went home and made a crop.  1942 was my best school year.  Me and my wife were in the same class, though we hardly knew each other.”

Coon recalls where he was when he heard the U.S. was at war.  “I was on a horse by somebody’s house when they yelled, ‘Pearl Harbor was bombed.’  It was in the news afterwards.  Before then, we’d never heard of Pearl Harbor.”

Coon didn’t rush out and sign up for the military.  He got a job instead at a grocery store.  He received free room and board, plus $35 a month.  But the hours were long (until 2 a.m. Saturdays during cotton-picking time) and it only took him a couple of months to decide this wasn’t for him.

“I left there and went to work for the REA Electrical Cooperative.  We worked on lines and dug postholes for poles.  We did the line from Harrisonburg to Manifest.  It was tough.  You might go down 3 or 4 feet and hit a big rock—then we’d have to get it out.”

He was “rescued” from that work by the draft, reporting to Fort Humbug in Shreveport for standard processing.  Asked his branch choice, Coon replied he had no preference.  Recruiters sized up the young man’s impressive physique and pointed him to the Marine Corps.

“They sent me to New Orleans to volunteer.  That’s the only way to get in…you volunteer.  I’m glad I did.  I figure I got better training than most.  But they didn’t give you a lot of encouragement.  They told us what to do ‘when’ we get shot, not ‘if’ we get shot.  They let us go home for two weeks, then shipped us to San Diego.”

That was boot camp.  When they got out, they were all riflemen, even the cooks.  “Contrary to popular belief, those like me who’d grown up hunting had learned bad habits.  Some of the best marksmen after training had never held a rifle in their lives.”

Then Coon went to telephone school.  Then artillery school.  While there, they went up in the mountains surrounding Fort Pendleton, practiced their telephone skills and hiked the 23 miles back to camp at the end of the day.  Skills were rounded out with training in amphibious landings.

“When we completed our training in January of 1944, we boarded a ship…if you could call it a ship.  It was a merchant marine with some Army, some Marines aboard.  They didn’t feed us very good—we were sick a lot—but we survived.  We sailed to New Caledonia and put the soldiers off there.  The Marines went on to Guadalcanal.  It had already been secured by then.  They put us off in a coconut grove—no building, no nothing.  We put up pup tents to sleep and put out guards.  Well, they were pretty nervous and you could hear shots going off all night.  But if there were really any Japs left on the island, they weren’t in danger.”

Coon’s outfit would be attached to the 3rd Marine division.  “They’d suffered fairly heavy losses.  They’d taken Guadalcanal, then been given R & R time in Australia and New Zealand.  They returned about the time we arrived.  They were organized into the 2nd Marine Brigade—two regiments and a supporting cast—and headed to Guam.  But the Allied Offensive was not going too well.  They hit Saipan about the same time.  So we held off about 30 days aboard the troop ship.”

Once ashore at Guam, Coon’s responsibility was to keep the telephone lines up to the front lines so that forward observers could communicate with the artillery.

“We couldn’t put lines on the ground because tanks would run over and break them.  But there were plenty of coconut trees.  You didn’t use a safety belt because you didn’t want to get hung up in a tree for snipers.  I carried a rifle but when I went up, I’d leave it with the man on the ground.  Guam was mostly jungle where we were at.  I grew up in the woods so it wasn’t all that foreign to me.”

Food in the field was mostly K-rations or C-rations.  At battalion headquarters, they had kitchens and hot food.  “We ate a lot of Spam and mutton during the whole campaign.”

Once Guam was secured, the Marines headed back to Guadalcanal and trained for their next assault—Okinawa.  “We always trained before an offensive, including maps showing the terrain.  We hit Okinawa on Easter Sunday, 1945.  The plan was to hit the airstrip in the middle of the island, figuring we’d have it captured by the second day.  It was ours by 10 a.m. the first day without a shot being fired.  They had big naval guns set up but no one manned them.  One Jap plane tried to land when we arrived, but we shot it down.  What had happened, the 2nd Marines made a fake landing on the south end of the island, where the only city was.  The Japanese pulled all their troops there.

“We divided the island in two.  We went north.  Everyone else went south.  We met a little resistance and lost a couple of men who were souvenir hunting to snipers.  We made it pretty easily to the north end and were just playing tag football until we were finally called to the south with the rest to join in the action.”

One of the nightmares of the Pacific campaigns was the hills and tunnels that honeycombed many of the islands.  Okinawa was one, said Coon.  “Initially, we’d steer clear of the caves.  But the Japanese would hide there in the daytime and come out and attack at night.  Finally, we’d go to the caves and blow up the entrances.  There’s no telling how many men were trapped inside.”

As the campaign wound down, the Marines came upon a Navy Seabee (construction battalion) camp.  These were ‘permanent’ sites where supplies were brought in and the food was much better.  “Talk about good,” Coon recalls.  “They even had fresh bread.”

The Marines dropped back to Guam for more training, this time for the ultimate attack on Japan itself.  But it wouldn’t happen.  “When we heard the A-bomb was dropped and the Japanese surrendered, there was a great feeling of relief. We knew if we went into Japan, it would have been terrible.  Every man, woman and child would have fought us.  They were that fanatic.  They didn’t surrender.”

The Marines went instead to China to facilitate the surrender of thousands of Japanese troops.  Coon saw the ceremonial turning over of their swords by the Japanese officers.  It was winter and this north Louisiana man recalled this was the coldest place he’d ever been. 

The Communist Chinese were getting stronger at the time but Coon says “it didn’t bother us any.  We wound up being the 6th Marine Division, the most divisions the Marines had in a long time.”

Coon finally left China in January 1946 and in February he was discharged from service where his training began, in San Diego.  He came home to Jonesville and tried his hand at farming once more.  But by July, he saw that wasn’t going anywhere.  When he was growing up, he said, he’d always had to cut wood from the laying by of the crop until cotton picking time, so he tried that again.

Then six friends went to Mississippi where they found a job at a recycling plant.  “I got a welder’s helper job.  After a while, they asked me if I wanted to learn to weld.  I did that and after the job was over, I came to the trade school here in Winnfield.  I had kinfolks here so I’d been here a good bit.”

Good with his hands and not afraid to work, when he finished his study in 1948, Coon welded in the oilfield for a while, then got on at the American Creosote mill in Winnfield for five years.  But it would be at a crosstie plant that he’d work 31 years before retiring.  “I got busy after retirement and never had to find a part time job.”

The veteran says he didn’t like crowds and didn’t go on liberty like so many of his fellow Marines.  Even though Claudine Godwin was in the same Class of ’42 with him at Block High School, they hadn’t really known each other.  But they became reacquainted after the war and married in 1950.  She was a school teacher for a year at Calvin.

Then children Margaret, Bill and Mary Lou came along.  There are no grandchildren.  Mrs. Coon served as secretary of Laurel Heights Baptist Church for 29 years before her own retirement.