Montana Boy Leaves Lasting Legacy
by Sue Reeve
Wednesday, May 12, 1943, while world war raged in Europe and the South Pacific, four young boys graduated from a small town Montana high school. The following day, all enlisted in the Army. Two days later, one of those boys, whom I would later call “Dad,” left for basic training in North Carolina.
Dad was like many veterans who served their country honorably, returning home determined to put the horrors of war behind them. Instead, they focused on building a prosperous, peaceful nation for the next generation. Like my father, many rarely discussed details of the war experience.
One story Dad told us proudly was how he entered the U.S. Army as a skinny 5’9,” 140 pound kid and emerged from grueling paratrooper training a few months later 175 pounds of solid muscle. He was assigned to the newly established 517th Parachute Combat Team. The regimental commander, Colonel Louis A. Walsh, Jr., called the young men his “True-As-Steel Troopers.” A booklet describing the history of the 517th says the team was, “…too small for the headlines, but big enough for battle. These men fought wherever, whenever and with whomever they were cast. Their eon of history is short; their chapters are long.”
By August 1943, the 517th had broken all records for the Paratroop School at Fort Benning, Georgia. On September 23, Dad was promoted to Corporal, and he received his wings two days later. During one of two brief furloughs home, a local newspaper reporter said, “When asked how many times he had jumped from a plane, The hero thought for a moment, then replied, ‘Well, to tell you the truth, sir, I never have jumped. But I was pushed 449 times!’” (Dad confided many years later, like me, he’d always been afraid of heights!)
One year from graduation, Dad, along with fellow Troopers and three detachments of WAC’S, were carried on a former luxury liner across the churning waters of the Atlantic. They landed in Naples, Italy, on May 31. For two weeks the soldiers were introduced to the culture and then resumed training—this time in the rugged Italian terrain. On Sunday, June 18, the boys encountered their first taste of “real war.” Over one hundred German prisoners were taken, and the 517th experienced their first casualties.
I wonder if it was at this time Dad lost a special friend. I recall his response when I asked about his wartime friends, “I had one friend,” he told me, “and when we lost him, I never had another.” When my dad joined the Army, he was acquainted with loss. Two older brothers and a sister had died. His much loved father passed away when he was 13 years. I can only imagine the impact of the loss of my young father’s comrade in arms—a trauma like no other. After his friend’s death, the soldier steeled his heart against anguish of another loss.
Following the battlefield initiation, the young men were told they passed their tests “Magna Cum Laude,” and were taken to Rome to rest and get ready for the next round of battle. The order soon came. The men of 517 readied for combat. Sprayed with camouflage hoses, the Troopers were given scraps of paper on which messages were written in French…”I am an American;” “I am wounded;” “I am hungry;” as well as questions that would help the soldiers determine details about their German enemy. Big C-47’s carried the men to Southern France. Before dawn, young troopers were dropped into an inky pre-dawn sky. My father was among the brave soldiers who attacked enemy convoys and severed vital communication lines.
Bitter battles were fought on French soil. One encounter liberated the village of Sospel. Dad never mentioned Sospel. A few months after his death, we learned about this French village. Family friends visiting France strolled across a stone bridge into the quaint township, lingering to look at a memorial plaque on the bridge. The memorial was dedicated to a regiment of American soldiers who freed their village. A plaque at the “Point of Liberation” in Sospel listed soldiers from the 517th PRCT F Company. “Al Coyner,” my father, was among those listed. This story seemed a fitting benediction to the life of a fine, hard-working, honorable man who always showed unwavering loyalty to country and family.
Victory in Europe was declared May 8, 1945. Dad arrived in New York City on December 13 and was discharged on December 18. Within two short years a small town boy had transitioned into a brave, honorable soldier. He’d been awarded numerous medals including Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. He’d traveled across the ocean and fought in Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. He’d spent time in Switzerland and Denmark. He’d toured the Eternal City and had seen Pope Pius XII, Bob Hope, several U.S. Generals and the impressive French General Charles DeGaulle. A highlight of his military career was participating in a parade of four nations honoring General Patton and a Russian general. Dad marched proudly with the victorious troops down De Linden Strause, a famous street in Berlin.
My dad never lost his love for the wide open plains and “Big Sky” of Montana. He adored his loving mother, my Grandma Carrie, the glue holding together her big, boisterous German/Irish clan through grief, loss, the Great Depression and a world war in which three young sons served.
In 1946, Dad met and married my mother, a pretty brunette from a nearby town. I was their firstborn. Two more daughters and a son followed. Dad managed Safeway stores along the Montana highline. Eventually, the family moved to Washington, and Dad fulfilled a lifelong dream to own a successful grocery store. His tired heart stopped beating on July 6, 2006. He died peacefully while napping in his favorite blue Lazy Boy recliner. A few months later Mom and Dad’s four children, ten grandchildren and seven great grandchildren gathered to honor Al and Kathryn’s legacy on what would have been their 60th wedding anniversary.
While researching for this article, I discovered a poem. The words, penned by an anonymous author, gripped my imagination and provided a glimpse into the life of my dad as a young paratrooper.
This story is my father’s, but after researching and writing Dad’s story, I realized it is but a microcosm of a million soldiers’ stories. In its telling, I honor men and women throughout history who were willing to leave the comfort of the familiar to serve their nation. I learned recently one of my forefathers fought in the Revolutionary War—another in the Civil War. I remember adults from my childhood who bore the visible wounds of war. My young husband and childhood friends served their country in Viet Nam. Children of friends fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My father was a good man, an honorable man, a man of deep commitment. But, he was also a complicated man, and my relationship with him was complicated. The story of Sospel and of the young, brave paratrooper who helped liberate a village from potential brutal tyranny allowed me to connect some critical emotional dots. For that I am grateful. The realities of war often inflict ugly wounds on not only the bodies but also the souls of brave young men and women. For most, the wounds become scars in time, but in the process of healing, the wounded may wound those they love and for whom they fought willingly and valiantly.
This Memorial Day, I’d like to dedicate these words about my father to those throughout the generations—moms and dads, sons and daughters, wives and husbands, friends and lovers
who have waited
who have prayed
with a heart full of faith…and God that’s all!
Sue Coyner Reeve