World War II Vet Awarded Medals 67 Years Later
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
It took 67 years, but World War II veteran Phillip Coon of Oklahoma has finally been honored by the Army for his service. Coon is 94. He survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines and then a POW camp in Japan. Well, on Monday, he received his Prisoner of War Medal, a Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
PHILLIP COON: Well, I wasn't expecting anything, to tell you the truth. That conflict's been over a long time, you know, and we lost many, many men in the conflict.
BLOCK: Phillip Coon received the awards after returning from a POW friendship trip to Japan sponsored by the Japanese government. It was his first trip to Japan since the war. And the invitation came first to his son, Michael Coon.
MICHAEL COON: I asked my father, would you like to go to Japan? And he said, just me and you? And I said, yes. He goes, let's go.
BLOCK: Let's go.
COON: So we decided to pack our bags and get ready and get our passports and go to Japan.
BLOCK: Now at 94, Phillip Coon is a man of few words. But his son, Michael, told us about one stop on their visit, to the site of the camp where his father had been held. There was also a copper mine where he'd been forced to work. Michael says soon after they got to the site, they came across a map.
COON: It was traced. It was sketched into the floor of what it looked like back in 1941. And my father looked at that map and then he just started pointing out different areas there and said, this is where we got off the train. And then we walked up this trail, which is paved now. But it wasn't paved. It was rocky going up there. And then the vegetation and everything had covered it up.
He said, stop. We stopped. He goes, this is where the elementary was right there. And then the mayor said, you are correct. That is where that elementary school was because my father said, well, I remember us marching by it every day when we come by, when we go by that school. He would always say, the schoolchildren were out there.
BLOCK: How much do you know, Michael, about your dad's time as a POW in Japan, working, doing forced labor in that copper mine?
COON: Well, growing up, he did not elaborate what he did in the military. All me and my sister knew back when we was going through grade school and junior high and high school was that he was just in the Army. And that was as far as he told. He didn't say that, I was a POW, or that I was captured and I went on, all this stuff. He didn't elaborate anything like that.
We had to kind of more or less check the history and look it up for our self and then ask him questions. And then he would slowly figure that we was of age that we could better understand and the ordeal and the torture and everything to go on there.
In his mind, he'd always say, that's in the past. I don't want to elaborate it all anymore. But as he got older and he was watching movies and books, he goes, that's not right. That's the Hollywood version, the movies that came out with John Wayne, "Back to Bataan" and stuff like that. He goes, that's not the real story. He goes, this is what happened.
BLOCK: And he would start to tell you the stories.
BLOCK: Well, how do you explain that it's taken this long for your dad to receive these honors, these military honors?
COON: Well, my father is a humble man. And when the war was over, to him, the medals didn't mean nothing to him. It was like, get back to family, find my mother, which he married after he got back. After that, that was pretty much the end of him talking about the war and everything.
Of course, he had the nightmares and everything, as my mother would say, waking up screaming and hollering and stuff. But eventually, they went away. And so, if you listen to him talk sometime, he tells about being a Christian and being saved, that's what got him through.
BLOCK: I gather, Mr. Coon, that you and your dad are both full-blooded tribe members of the Muscogee Creek Nation. And I wonder if your father's military service and now these awards that he's been given are a special source of pride to the tribe.
COON: Yes, they are. Our chief - our principal chief George Tiger calls my father the national - as our national treasure of our nation, of our tribe.
BLOCK: Well, that's got to feel great.
COON: It does. It feels good that they honor my father like that.
BLOCK: Michael, is it important to you that your dad now has these medals, these military honors?
COON: Well, I think all - not only him, but I think there's a few more veterans out there that has fallen through the cracks, that the administration needs to look at these World War II records and see where they were at and if they have these medals. They're a different breed.
They don't go looking for the glory, for the medals, you know? They just say, I'm glad it's over with. It's behind me. I'm done. But for the second generations that want to know about their fathers and stuff, then that's our turn. It's the children that has to go step up and get the medals for their fathers, and their mothers, the ones - if they were women that served in the war. They'll never be forgotten.
BLOCK: Well, Michael and Phillip Coon, welcome home and thank you so much.
COON: Thank you.
BLOCK: Thank you, Mr. Coon.
COON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.