By Derek Maul
Some veterans served between wars; some served a short while then returned to civilian life. Then there’s Florida native Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Coggins, who graduated West Point just 12 days after Pearl Harbor and stayed around in the Marine Corps through 1963.
“I wanted to be an officer since I was a kid,” Coggins said. “I wanted something as tough and hard as I could find, as rough as they made it. Toughness was good for me. I wanted it and I got it.”
The young officer went directly to Samoa, where he was put in charge of an artillery gun overlooking the harbor. “We tied a rope and pulled it up the mountain by hand,” he said. “It never stopped raining. The Japanese lobbed a few rounds but they didn’t come.”
Coggins trained other marines and then became an unloading officer with LST Landing Craft. “We landed at Guadalcanal, hauling supplies, and building airstrips.”
“We went island to island building strips,” Coggins said. “The Japanese didn’t care for that. They were well dug in and we took a lot of fire. It was interesting to say the least. But I never got hit, never once. I was lucky and I realized I was lucky. In my career I went through a lot of fire.”
By 1945 he was Detachment Captain in charge on board the USS Shangri-La. He stayed four years and vividly remembers the day they took up position within easy viewing distance of the Bikini Atoll nuclear test.
Next up was Korea, where Coggins found himself in charge of a forward observer team. “We’d call in planes, gunfire, long-range bombardment from ships,” he said.
In late 1950, Coggins’ team got cut off during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. “One night all we could do was lay flat on the ground. Our tent was full of holes.”
Coggins and his men dealt with overwhelming odds. “Life meant nothing to the Chinese,” he said. “They came in waves. We’d mow them down and pile them up in front of our position but they kept coming. Eventually we managed to fight our way out.”
Later, during the Berlin Air Lift crisis, Coggins was senior aid to Marine General Butler. Together they travelled Europe, assessing intelligence resources. During one tense train ride to Berlin, the Russians required blacked out windows.
“It was like riding through a tunnel,” he said. “It was a bad situation.”
After retiring, Coggins returned to Panama City, where he worked as a teacher and engineer with the Navy Research facility, developing underwater vehicles and communication devices.
But the Marine Corp was the definitive aspect of his life.
“I can face any new day with the attitude that, no matter what, I can overcome,” he said. “I can live with it, whatever it takes. I feel that there’s nothing happens to me that I can’t face. It’s a lifetime deal.”
It’s a disposition that also leaves the 94-year-old optimistic. “I think we as a people are strong enough we can come out of anything,” he said. “I know the type of people we have. We’re still Americans and we’ll fight through no matter what.”