A fitting and lasting tribute was paid recently to Pfc. Donald Coffey, son of Mr. and Mrs. James K. Coffey, 730 Westmoreland Avenue, one of Lansing’s first Marines to die in action against the Japs, by Jim White, of Detroit, discharged veteran and employee of Michigan Bell Telephone Company.
The story of Coffey’s life, as told by White, appeared in a recent issue of the Michigan Bell Telephone Company publication, “The Michigan Bell,” after White had visited Private Coffey’s lonely burial place, and had learned a first-hand account of his death.
The following excerpts were taken from this article:
“Marine Pfc. Donald J. Coffey was born in Lansing, and didn’t expect to die far away from home. His youth was lived in the natural, wholesome way of the average American youngster. He had his share of hurts, his personal hours of triumph, and his own secret sorrows, too great to share with anyone but himself and his dogs. Highlights of his youth were the hunting trips he took with his dad. He was confused by the mixed emotions he felt when he killed his first game. His father told me about that—how Don had sighted a rabbit at 50 yards and dropped it with a single shot. How wonder-eyed he had been in his excitement as he knelt beside his kill; how quietly his boy heart gave way to the natural kindness of his nature and he cried over his act, vowing never to kill again. His young heart cried itself out, and he was a man again, being able to bear home his own first kill.
“Donald was the average American boy. He worried his mother, confused his father, angered his sisters, and plotted with his brother. The family said he was the ‘spark plug’ of the home. He had jobs, several of them, during school, and vacations. Then he began to install telephones for the telephone company.
“Don’s room today is very much the way it was when he left it. Sporting pictures, his .22 rifle, his .30 deer rifle, and his 10 gauge shotguns—all exactly wrapped and put away in their showcases as he left them when he joined the Marines. Surely he didn’t know when closing those doors that he would never open them again. He must have thought about the possibility, for no man goes off to war without such tremors. But Don’s dreams were of victory and glory; not of death and burial on some distant island. The last time his mother and father saw him, was when he swung aboard the train that took him to Parris Island. He never returned.
“Don gave everything he had to mastering the use and mechanism of his gun. He learned the Marine Corps rifle creed until he would lie awake at night with the intonation of the passages sounding through his mind. He learned the complicated and beautifully-executed Marine Corps marching manual, and was as proud of his surety in handling the weapon as he was of his excellent marksmanship.
“In May, 1942, he transferred voluntarily to the Marine Raider battalion. Who knows what fears passed through the boy’s mind as Colonel Carlson used strong words to dissuade those not sure of themselves. Don was accustomed to taking on jobs involving odds against himself, but with a sporting average permitted. He had counted on the enemy. He hadn’t counted on fighting a people who didn’t know a thing about sport; whose only sport was killing those who fought back, murdering the helpless and humiliating the defenseless.
“When the Raiders moved off for their first strike, Don was with them. Gavutu Island was the first to feel the fury of the groups. They went ashore in the half-light of dawn, crouched in open landing boats—30 men to a plywood splinter. The most noticeable thing was their pride and complete confidence in that they were going to win. Don wasn’t one of the dead at Gavutu. He was saved for a greater day, for a lonelier death.
“A month later, the enemy made a desperate drive to force the Marines from the area commanding Henderson Field. The Marines were tired; worn out from the constant fighting. The Japs moved below Bloody Ridge in preparation for the assault. With their superior power and surprise, they could cut through the buzz saws unless it could be determined where they would hit. And that could only be determined by patrols. The First Battalion Raiders were called. Don was in A Company. They penetrated deeply, cutting behind the lines, and so completely disorganized the enemy that he tipped his hand and disclosed his concentrations. The Raiders sent running attacks far in the rear of the Japs, risking lives to find the concentrations, to disrupt the plan of attack. The Raiders were ambushed. After 10 minutes, they extricated themselves from the trap which had so cleverly been laid for them. They buried their dead, and lifted their wounded, preparing to fight their way out. The men were staggering under fatigue, never dry, never a change of clothing for a month. Never without expectation of sudden death.
“The Jap is a spying person, he noticed the route of the Americans took them closer and closer to the safety of their lines. He sought to drive a knife into the backs of the weary Raiders. But the Japs hadn’t counted on the rear guard hidden off the trails. The Jap sought to drive them back, but the rear guard moved homeward another hundred yards. Wars are not fought all at once in a crescendo; they are made up of little bits of action here and there. Each action may be small and seemingly unimportant. But to the man who is fighting for his life, it is the biggest battle in history. That must have been how Don Coffey felt. We can’t imagine how tired the boy must have been, or how terrified he might have been. That’s only for a soldier to know. But Don had been trained to do such jobs as he was called upon to meet. He wouldn’t give in to running, he was a Marine—a Raider! The gang would send back reinforcements soon. In the meantime, his job was to pick them off like rabbits until that help did come.
“They brought Don Coffey out of the jungle and laid him to rest in a simple grave. He had been that close to American lines before a burst of fire had wiped away his life, September , 1942. In true Japanese fashion they hit him from behind. That night the wary Raiders ate food and laughed nervously and felt like tightened fiddle-strings with the joy of being alive. And beside them in the firelight were the images of their comrades whom they had buried in the hills.”