Medic, 221st Medical Company attached to 511 PIR
July 17, 1917 - June 28, 2008. (Age 90) - gravesite
511th PIR “A Walk With God”
The Bernard “Bernie” Coon Story
Occurred March 13-15, 1945
Original Copy Courtesy of Andy and Jane Carrico
Note: Every Angel that I ever spoke with said that medics were indeed the bravest of them all. The sacrifices and courage of medic Bernie Coon of the 221st Medical Company who was attached to Company I proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt. I have kept edits to a minimum. – Jeremy C. Holm
As all stories must have a beginning, we will start ours in the hills of Southern Luzon, P.I. It is March 13, 1945, just a little after dawn. I am a member of the Medical (Detachment) of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division. We have been in combat now for some time and for the last week I have had it very easy. In fact, I have been a little bored with the sudden let down. A runner is headed towards our aid-station. Let’s see what he has to offer. A special patrol has been picked to go on a suicide mission, and it seems the men would feel better if they had a medic along. The Major, who has proven himself as a very brave and capable surgeon, turned to me and asked me if I would care to go with the patrol. I answered in the affirmative and set about getting my gear together. Little did I know at the time that this was my last day of action in World War II.
It was a beautiful clear and bright day as we walked on our way through thick underbrush and in sugar cane fields, up hill and down. It was a long and tiresome trip, even so early in the day. Finally, we neared what we believed to be enemy territory. So, we paused to rest and send our scouts well out in advance. All seemed well, so we proceeded on our way up a hill (Mt. Bijang) which offered no cover or concealment; this is the way we must go regardless of this fact.
We were very near the top, when all hell broke loose. Then came that well-known call, “Medic”. I proceeded to crawl forward to see what was what. The first person I contacted was the Lieutenant in charge of the patrol. He pointed to a wounded scout several yards forward. Mortar shells were bursting all around us and I had an idea my chances of getting to him were slim, but duty is duty, and no one would neglect a man wounded, so off I go. I proceeded in a crouching position as crawling is too slow at a time like this. There is now just about five feet between myself and the scout. He is dead from all appearances. Wham! What has happened to my arm? My rifle is shattered, and I have fallen on my face. No pain. There should be as my arm has a hole big enough to look through, and I can’t move it. The shells are landing very near me now, and a machine gunner is setting his gun right along side me, but he just received orders to move as the enemy seems to be zeroed in on me. I asked the gunner to help me to my feet as I believed that I could walk, but right at this moment another shell found me and caught me in the other shoulder. Now I have both arms out of commission. Someone just yelled that orders came by radio to retreat and leave the dead and wounded. If you have never lain wounded in enemy territory and watched your fellow men pull back and leave you, then you cannot appreciate my feelings at this time.
Now what to do. Here I am bleeding very freely and helpless. Around me for companions are four of my buddies, dead. The war is over for them. It’s their families who need the sympathy at this time, not them. They have found eternal peace.
In my kit I have tourniquets, morphine, and everything necessary to treat the wounded. Yet to me it is all so very useless as both arms are fractured and so numb, I cannot move them. Because of the continued bleeding I decided my end was rather near so I spent several minutes in thought with my mother and family, and prayed they would not take it too hard as I was tired anyhow and needed a rest after many long hours of combat, death, and torn and wrecked bodies. A medic’s lot is not an easy one. I finally decided that if I could go to sleep it would slow my pulse and thereby give my blood a better chance to coagulate. It didn’t prove very hard to fall asleep as I was completely exhausted and weak.
Listen, “Did you hear a rustle in the grass?” I must be dreaming. No, I’m awake and it is just growing dark. I have slept several hours as it was 1100 hours when I was wounded. There is that noise again and look what we have creeping in my direction. Two little sons of Nippon wearing the latest in individual camouflage. I awakened to find myself alive with death crawling towards me. More fun. It seemed as though a thousand years had passed while they slinked their way nearer and nearer. Well, I always wanted to be an actor, and here is the chance to do the performance of life. I mean for my life if I wish to keep it.
They came to me first; my pack being the largest, no doubt made this decision for them. They proceeded to turn me over on my back to get at my pack belt. This had slipped well up on me as the pack was so heavy, and this brought their hands directly over my heart. It was pounding so I was sure they would realize that there was life in the old boy yet. They didn’t and finding the fastener too hard to open they turned me on my face and none too gently. From a scabbard they drew a bayonet, and this looked like the end. No, they are using it to cut my pack off. Next, one of them removed my wristwatch, and I decided this was going to far but common sense said for me to keep quiet, so that I did. Now they have completely pilfered my earthly possessions, and for what reason God only knows, one Jap reached down and pulled my hair; perhaps he was intrigued by the fact that it was thinning. Then they walked away from me and proceeded to look over the rest of my companions. Thank the Lord they are dead and don’t have to go through the anxiety that I just had to. Either from weakness or fright, I feel asleep.
I awakened at dawn dreaming that I was having a warm cup of coffee with my pals back at the aid station only to find myself lying on a hill, cold, hungry, and very much alone. In the distance I can hear the chattering of my friends, the Japs. This helped me to decide to lay where I am and hope some of my outfit will come and get me. Also, the fact I can’t get up helped to affirm my decision.
The chilly night is over, and the warm sun is creeping over the hills once again. My right arm appears to have stopped bleeding so that is something, but otherwise I am a sad sight. They say misfortune comes in multiples, and it is about to be true once again, for as I look up at the sky, I see four of our B-25’s approaching. This should be a pleasant occasion except that one ship just peeled off and seems to be diving right at me. I can see the flash from is four machine guns, and that thump, thump I hear hitting the ground isn’t rain drops. Something just raised me about a foot off the ground. It really wasn’t much. They just dropped a bomb on the enemy a few feet in front of me. Here comes plane number two plane. I hope he also will miss me with his bullets. Well, that’s over, and I have survived all four planes’ machine gun fire and bombs, but I can tell you now that if this goes on much longer I’ll get up if I have to call a Jap over to help me. Ha, ha.
More trouble. No, I should say this would be called a blessing from heaven. Flies and more flies. One has decided to lay a nice batch of eggs on my arm. At least it passes the time away to watch him or her as the eggs are neatly piled side by side. Should I attempt to brush the eggs off before they hatch? No! Remember maggots an ugly word, eat away dead tissue; thus, gangrene is prevented. I will admit it is not a pleasant thought but what are a few maggots crawling on you compared to losing an arm. Well they finally hatched now so I am not alone. Also, overhead are a few vultures sailing around trying to decide which body down there looks the best for lunch. What a situation.
Well, the day has dragged on and nothing else of interest has taken place. I have decided that as soon as darkness comes I shall try to get to my feet and head for home. Well night came, and it was spent trying to get up, but with no success. Our planes are back again to strike and bomb. This is getting monotonous as well as dangerous, so tonight I shall get up or else.
There I lay – sunburned, thirsty, weak, and keeping company with my maggots all day. Finally night came and after spending several hours trying to get up without much success, with the aid of my forehead and toes and much agony, I moved myself to the edge of the hill, and as I rolled, I got myself to the edge of the hill, and as I rolled, I got myself into a sitting position. Hallelujah! I turned my back toward the enemy, and after pulling the bones back into my right arm with the aid of my left, which I find I can use a little now, I started to walk, and none too steady. Dawn is very near and already I can see where to step. This calls to mind the proverb, “a step in the right direction is indeed a great step.”
My gait is very slow, and I am in need of water and how. In the distance I can hear chickens so that is my course. Where there is life so must there be H20, better known as water. There in the distance is a bamboo hut. Will it be occupied by friendly or hostile people? Should I circle it and bypass it? No. I must have water at all costs. My worries were in vain. It was uninhabited. The chickens squawked and ran. I don’t see any well or other signs of water, so I looked into the hut and found nothing. Wait a minute. Let’s look in that big iron jar. Eureka, that’s my reflection I see. Water, water, oh you beautiful sight. By using my feet, I tipped it on its side and resting my right arm on my leg, I used the left hand and a piece of coconut shell to drink from, and I drank until I thought I would drown. Should I stay near the water and wait to be found or proceed on?
On was the decision. So I left the water jar that God had led me to, and I am sure he was the one who decided for me to move on. It seemed as though he had me by the hand, for later as I think back about my walk back to my outfit, I never felt really alone for some great urge or power kept me going when all my own physical powers rebelled and wanted to lie down and await death.
The going is getting tougher and practically impossible. The terrain is uneven; more hills and valleys and they are covered with underbrush. The vines entangle me and those I can’t break with my feet I bite through with quite a bit of effort and patience. There appeared an old creek bed which is all cracked and dry, but at least it offers a little better walking so I followed it. Every time I came to a big rock, I would sit down, promising myself never to get up as I am getting weaker and that awful thirst has returned again. Water, oh how I need thee. I can’t go on any further. Oh Lord, strike me dead. I can’t go on. Well, perhaps I will move to the next stone but no further. Saints be praised. It can’t be true. Yes, it is. A spring behind this rock. Tell me it’s a coincidence, and I will tell you that I walked with God, and a better navigator there never was.
By cupping my hand, I drank until my shoulder said take it easy. Then I rested, and after that I splashed water over my poor sunburned head. This gave me a new outlook on life, so I said, “Let’s press forward my lad. You may make it yet. You’ll show them they can’t leave you in the field to die.”
Forward I went, but the going got tougher every foot. Weakness forces me to stop every few feet and rest, and I don’t dare lie down as I wouldn’t be able to get up again. What the, voices down in that deep ravine? A Jap patrol. I had better hide for a while. So, in the bushes I park myself to let them pass. I guess I must have dozed off, for when I awoke, I was covered from head to foot with big black ants. Millions of them and my neck and chest are bitten raw.
Wasn’t I suffering enough without this? Well, grin and bear it. With the aid of the bushes, I brushed the most of the stubborn ones off and some jumped off but a chosen few stayed with me. On my way once again and night is nearing so I had better find shelter. At just about the right moment, another abandoned hut leaped into view.
Into this I crawled and laid down on the floor, which was a big mistake for when morning came, I found I couldn’t get up. By now I am getting to be a veteran at hardships and predicaments, so by pushing with the back of my head and pulling with my heels, I made my way to the door and worked my legs and hips out until the weight of my lower half of me pulled my shoulders up to a sitting position.
We’re off again. What’s this a plowed field? Let’s look it over. Yes, believe it or not there is a tomato plant with one lonely tomato on it. I hate the things, but it has juice and I sure am thirsty. At this point I recalled Scarlet O’hara, in Gone With the Wind, when she found the lonely carrot in the garden and promised herself she would never be hungry again. That is when I promised myself. I would never be thirsty again if I lived to get back to the States. The tomato gave me new courage, so off I started. I think this was the hardest day of all as I found I could go only a limited number of steps before I needed to stop and rest.
The sun is so beastly hot. Oh, why doesn’t it rain? Why did it have to be the dry season? And all those bananas, did you ever see so many, and the trees are just about a foot too high for me to reach any of them. If I only had my hands, I would eat a thousand of them. These and a million other torturous thoughts passed through my fevered mind.
On and on I trudged each step feeling like the last. My maggots are still with me, and the dry blood smells like the city dump, and when I think of the picture I must make gimping along, I find myself amused even though I am shaking hands with death. If my family could only see me now, they would never recognize me. Of that I am sure. Look at the size of that hill in front of me. I’ll never make it, or will I?
I slipped and climbed, and slipped some more, but halfway up there was a little platform built out of bamboo either by children or as a lookout for someone. Nevertheless, it offered me a temporary rest from the steep climb. As I sat there looking around wondering if I could ever make the top, I saw a big boulder in the side of the bank, and it seemed to be shining. This I decided would bear investigation. So, with a great deal of effort, I made my way to the boulder. Water, that golden fluid of life was seeping through the rock, and there was a hollow apron at the base of the boulder that formed a little basin. A shrine if there ever was one. Once again, God my guide, had brought me to water.
Further investigation proved the water was full of wigglers, but this did not phase me. I drank it as though it was pure as crystal.
When I finally reached the summit of the hill much to my surprise and joy, I could see the two twin smokestacks that marked the sugar mill where my outfit was dug in. After several more hours of torture from heat, weakness, hunger and blood loss, I finally reached the outskirts of camp. I called to the first soldier I saw and he came running and offered to help me walk the rest of the way to the Medics, which was only about two city blocks further away. I said, “I can’t make it. Please get me an ambulance.” My strength was gone because I was back. I had walked with God, and His job was done. I was going home.
Note: Bernie’s recovery would require two years in the hospital and seven operations with two bone grafts. He was born on July 17, 1917 in New York to Orlow Franklin Coon and Ora Louisa "Louise" Gloyd. On October 13, 1935 he married Anna M Fetterly and they had two children, Bernard E. and Joan Louise. After registering for the draft on October 13, 1940, it is no wonder Bernie served as a medic as his pre-war job was working as a nurse in the Oswego Hospital. He officially enlisted on December 1, 1942 and was medically discharged on January 1, 1945.
When Bernie arrived back stateside in March of 1945 and was admitted to the hospital (he was released in November of 1946), the official diagnosis reads, “Diagnosis: Fracture, compound, comminuted with nerve involvement only; Location: Radius & ulna, both; CausativeAgent: Artillery Shell, Fragments, Afoot or unspecified; Diagnosis: Paralysis, nerve, other and unspecified, not elsewhere classified; Diagnosis: Fracture, compound, comminuted with no nerve or artery involvement.”
Bernie died in Stuart, Florida on June 28, 2008 at age 90. Bernie is buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Oswego, New York. – Jeremy C. Holm
If you would like to learn more about Bernie's exploits within and the history of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment in World War II, please consider purchasing a copy of the book WHEN ANGEL'S FALL: FROM TOCCOA TO TOKYO, THE 511TH PARACHUTE INFANTRY REGIMENT IN WORLD WAR II, available in the regimental online store, on Amazon or wherever military history books are sold.