Montana Boy Leaves Lasting Legacy

Sue Coyner Reeve

Note: Today’s post is an article I wrote several years ago. I’ve had this posted in previous Listening on the Journey… Memorial Day blogs. It is longer than usual, but I think my memories might interest you, and may even resurrect some of your own.

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My paratrooper father during WW II, home on leave

     Wednesday, May 12, 1943, as world war raged, four young boys graduated from Chinook High School. The next day the high school buddies enlisted.

     Two days later, Al Coyner, whom I would later call “Dad,” left Chinook for basic training in North Carolina. Dad was like many WW II veterans who served their country honorably and then returned home determined to put the horrors of war behind them, focusing instead on building a prosperous, peaceful nation for the next generation. Dad rarely discussed details of his war experience. Our family is indebted to Lois, Dad’s classmate, neighbor and future sister-in-law, who gave us the service records she maintained meticulously for her friend, Al.

     One story Dad proudly told us 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. Al was assigned to the newly established 517th Parachute Combat Team. The regimental commander, Colonel Louis A. Walsh, Jr., laid a solid foundation for the young men he called 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, Al was promoted to Corporal, and he received his wings on September 25. He returned to his beloved hometown for brief furloughs in November 1943 and March 1944. On one of those visits the local newspaper editor asked Al how many times he had jumped from a plane, and reported, “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!’”

     One year after the local Chinook boy graduated from high school, he was carried on a former luxury liner across the churning waters of the Atlantic along with fellow Troopers and three detachments of WAC’S. 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 Dad’s response when I asked about his wartime friends, “I had one friend,” he said, “and when we lost him, I never had another.” When my dad joined the Army, he was acquainted with loss. He remembered the deaths of an older brother and sister, and his much-loved father passed away when he was the tender age of 13. I can only imagine the loss of his buddy, with whom he shared the bond of war. This emotional trauma was like no other, and after his friend’s death, the young soldier steeled his heart against the angst of another loss.

     Following this battlefield initiation, the young men were told they passed their tests “Magna Cum Laude,” and they were taken to Rome to rest and get ready for the next round of war. The order soon came. The Men of 517 readied for combat. Sprayed with camouflage hoses, loaded into trucks and dispersed to airfields scattered along Italy’s boot, final preparations were made. 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 young men to Southern France. Before the dawn of day, 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. The U. S. soldiers adorned captured vehicles with crude white stars and strips of multi-colored silk.

     Bitter battles were fought on French soil. One such battle liberated the village of Sospel. Dad never mentioned Sospel. It wasn’t until after his death in 2006 that we learned about this French village. While some family friends were visiting France, they strolled across a stone bridge into the quaint village, lingering to look at a memorial plaque on the bridge. Our friends, with a basic understanding of French, understood 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. Our friends were pleasantly surprised to see a familiar name among those listed, “Al Coyner.” They wrote on the picture sent to our family: “The people here still honor and appreciate the men of F Company for saving them from horrific torture from the Germans.” 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. Al arrived in New York City on December 13. Staff Sgt. Coyner was discharged at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, on December 18, 1945. Within two years a small town boy had transitioned into a brave, honorable soldier. He was awarded numerous medals including Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart.

     Al traveled across the ocean and fought in Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. His travels also took him to Switzerland and Denmark. During his time in Rome, he toured sites in the Eternal City and saw Pope Pius XII. The small town boy enjoyed seeing 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 spoke warmly of Chinook, the supportive community that embraced their family following his father’s death. Dad credited hard work on local farms, in the sugar beet fields and later at the local Safeway store for keeping him out of trouble. He adored his loving mother, Carrie, the glue holding together her big, boisterous German/Irish clan through grief, loss, the Great Depression and a world war in which three of her young sons served.

     In 1946, Dad met and married my mother, Olivia Kathryn, a pretty brunette from a small neighboring town. I was their firstborn. Two more daughters and a son followed. Dad managed Safeway stores in Montana. 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. Dad 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.

We Paratroopers

Bobbing low and flying high, Motors thunder through the sky! Prop blast over strut and wing… Maddened demons howl and sing And out of this we’re set to fall With a handful of silk and God…that’s all.

A small red light gleams at the door…. Throws blood-red pools on metal floor. Beyond is space, vast, dark and deep. Awake, ye screaming ones from sleep! For out of this you’ve got to fall With a handful of silk and God…that’s all.

A match is struck to a cigarette… Grim young faces in silhouette. No figment of a fear-struck brain. These the shadows that line the plane. They, too, into the void must fall With a handful of silk and God…that’s all.

But our hearts beat high for the land we love And our courage comes from the One above. When down from the clouds with our weapons of Hell We drop to avenge our friends who fell… Thus, all we need when we get the call Is a handful of silk…and God, that’s all.

Point of Liberation – Sospel, France

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Author’s Footnote:

     After telling the story of Sospel to my cousin who still resides in Montana, he asked if I would write a narrative to accompany the photographs our family friend shared with us. He promised to take it to the local museum and hometown newspaper.

     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. 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 often complicated.

     The story of Sospel and of the young, brave paratrooper who helped liberate a nation from potential brutal tyranny has allowed me to connect some emotional dots. For that I am grateful. The realities of war often inflict wounds on not only the bodies but also the souls of brave young soldiers. For most, the wounds eventually become scars, but in the process of healing, the wounded may wound those they love and for whom they fought willingly and valiantly.

     This may be Dad’s story, but 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 many adults from my childhood who bore the scars of WWII. My young husband and other childhood friends served their country in Viet Nam. Children of my friends serve today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

     And throughout the generations, moms and dads, sons and daughters, wives and husbands, friends and lovers have prayed:

with a heart full of faith…and God that’s all!

© February 2011

Blessings to each of you this Memorial Day, and special thanks to all who served their country…

Sue Reeve

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