John Coons, a former U.S. Army private first class and World War II veteran, puts together a jigsaw puzzle at the community center near his Hampton, Va. home, June 6, 2012. The puzzles offer Coons a mental reprieve from the post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms he still experiences from his time as a soldier. Photo by USAF Senior Airman Jarad Denton
| ||HAMPTON, Va. (6/6/2012) — The old man's hands shook when he spoke, as raw, un-tempered emotion fought to free itself from his unassuming demeanor.|
John Coons was 21 years old when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was 21 when they assigned him to the Third Army, 4th Armored Division, 22nd Infantry, as a rifleman. He was 21 when the Nazis captured and tortured him for 47 days in a dark cave.
Now, Coons, a 90-year-old World War II veteran, sits restlessly in his chair, recalling the details surrounding his experience as a prisoner-of-war.
“I was underground for 47 days in Algiers, Africa,” he said, softly. “They beat me with a stick and hit me with switches across my legs. All they wanted was information.”
Coons paused, his eyes welling up. His wife of 17 years, Janice Coons, continued for
“They blindfolded him when they captured him,” she said. “He was the only person in the cave, aside from the Germans.”
Prior to his capture, Coons had attended Army basic training before he and his unit received orders to ship out. For 13 days, he and the other soldiers waited in the bowels of the ship they were on – with no idea where they were headed. After dodging underwater minefields, the vessel finally reached its destination – Algiers.
“We went ashore on landing crafts,” Coons began. “A lot of guys were killed when they jumped off the boats and tried to run ashore.”
As soon as Coons and the other soldiers reached shore, they hurried to dig foxholes deep enough to provide a barrier, to cover them from enemy fire. That was when Coons came face to face with “Bouncing Betty.”
Betty was a very special land mine. It was set underneath a board and covered with dirt. When it blew, the explosion would act as a blade – slicing a soldier in half. Coons, unfortunately, stepped on one.
“I yelled for everyone to get down when I realized I'd stepped on a Bouncing Betty,” he said. “I was told to fall flat on my face, as fast as I could, which would blow the mine away from me. The blast went right over my head.”
But there was no time to pause and collect his bearings, enemy fire was still raining down on the beach. After several days of fighting, Coons went out on a night patrol – and was captured by the Nazis.
“They took his dog tags, his wallet and whatever else they wanted,” Janice said. “The only thing they didn't take were his shoes.”
Leaving Coons' shoes turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Hidden inside one shoe was a 1921 silver dollar his mother gave him for good luck. It was significant because 1921 was also the year Coons was born, and to this day, he still has the silver dollar. That good luck charm, coupled with an indomitable spirit, kept Coons going those 47 horrific days.
“You've just got to do it,” he said. “Think about living to the next day. I kept telling myself ‘I have to make it, I have to make it.'”
Janice smiled at her husband.
“He's like that today,” she said, proudly. “He just doesn't want to give up on anything.”
She said to this day, Coons will still pull his shirt on as fast as possible. He can't stand having his eyes covered, and he can't forget the cave he was held in either.
“It was all dirt,” he said. “There were candles for light and rooms had been dug out by the Germans. It looked like they had prepared it beforehand.”
When he wasn't being beaten and tortured for information, Coons said they kept him in a small room with a pile of dirt in the corner that served as his toilet.
“If you had to go to the bathroom, you just went right there in the room,” he said. “They made you cover it up with dirt. It smelled horrible in there.”
After 47 days of hell on Earth, American forces came across the cave. They used a flame thrower to force the Germans out. Since Coons was in the back of the cave, the flames didn't reach him. When he was discovered, the Americans thought he was a Nazi.
“I kept shouting, ‘I'm American, I'm American,'” he said. “They didn't believe me. The Germans had been taking our uniforms, wearing them and trying to pass off as U.S. soldiers.”
Coons was recaptured, and taken to an American-run POW camp. It took two weeks for them to verify his identity, and free him.
“They had sent my mom a letter saying I was missing and presumed dead,” Coons said. “After they found out who I was, they had to contact her again, and let her know I was alright.”
The Army sent him to the rest area for soldiers coming off the battlefield. It was there Coons was finally able to bathe, shave, receive a clean uniform and eat real food for the first time in more than two months.
“I barely ate when I was in the cave,” Coons said. “Every once in a while they would give me a cold potato.”
Despite surviving such a harrowing ordeal, the war marched on. After 10 days of rest, Coons was sent to the front lines again, fighting throughout Italy. Then, Dec. 16, 1944, Coons and the rest of the Third Army were asked to counter the last major German offensive of World War II at the Battle of the Bulge.
As the largest and bloodiest battle of the war, the Battle of the Bulge saw roughly 610,000 U.S. soldiers march into the fire. Of those who went to fight, 19,000 were killed, and about 89,000 were injured. For Coons, his lucky silver dollar worked its magic, and he came back unharmed. It was after the battle that Coons and the rest of the soldiers, who were still dirty, sweaty and hungry, lined up for an inspection by Gen. George S. Patton, who at the time commanded the Third Army.
“Old blood and guts was there,” Coons exclaimed, with a smile on his face. “We had come back from the front, from the Battle of the Bulge, and had to stand for a full field inspection. He walked up and down, looking us over. When he got to me he stopped and said, ‘good work, soldier, you all did a hell of a job, anything I can do for you?'”
As a brash, young private first class who had just survived torture, starvation and the bloodiest battle of the war, Coons said he swallowed hard, and thought carefully before answering Patton.
“Yes, Sir,” Coons said. “Before I leave this man's Army, I would like a star from your uniform.”
Coons said that Patton paused, and looked him up and down before walking away. However, something made Patton stop a few paces past Coons. He looked back at the young private, turned around and ripped a Silver Star from his uniform. Patton walked back to Coons and thrust the star into his hand.
“Boy, you guys got a lot of balls,” Patton said before turning around and walking away again.
Tearing up again, Coons smiled, remembering the times he experienced, and the soldiers he knew. In an age where at least one World War II veteran dies every day, Coons has carries on, while others he knew and served with have passed away.
“There's not too many of us left anymore,” he said. “But, after everything I've seen and done, I'd go back and do it again in a heartbeat – for the country.”
Coons' patriotism has helped sustain him throughout the years. He still sees America as a pillar of strength and opportunity; and he still sees himself as just another American who went to war when his nation called on him.
“The United States of America means everything to me,” Coons said, the tears falling freely. “Everything.”
By USAF Senior Airman Jarad Denton
Provided through DVIDS
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