"He was all the boy we had"
Paul Coffin, for whom the New Sharon American Legion Coffin-Miller Post claims part of its name, jumped the gun to join the United States Army with the declaration of war against the Central Powers at the onset of American involvement in the Great War (World War I). Exactly how he managed to get into the fray while but 17 years of age remains unknown. Waiting at home for his safe return was his father John W. Coffin (1852-1928), mother Anna C. Kent Coffin (1876-?) and two sisters, Hazel and Edith. An infant brother had preceded him in death.
Before joining up with the U.S. Army, Coffin attended school in Oskaloosa and worked on the family farm in Madison Township, Mahaska County. He was athletic and eager for chances not easily found on an Iowa farm. Beyond a few simple statistics, little can be garnered from the surviving materials on Paul’s life.
What is known, however, is that by mid-1918 he was serving France as a member of Company H., 168th Infantry, 42nd Division. Young and fit, he served as a “runner” for his company, taking messages and small items by hand across battlefields and trenches in an age before the institution of radios. His job was one of infinite danger as he was often exposed to the barrage of German shells. Indeed, he was performing his duties in such a role when a high-explosive shell met its mark. In a letter now lost, Chaplain Robb passed the news to John W. and Anna Kent Coffin, that their son had not been seen in the aftermath of the attack, nor could his body readily be identified. Rather, all victims of the explosive shell were buried near “Sunken Road” on Hill #212 close to a wooded area. And there Paul remained for the war’s duration.
According to a letter written to John W. Coffin, Paul’s father, in the aftermath of his death by a comrade—Lt. Andrew J. McKeon—“everyone who knew Paul and was with him over here, loved and admired him as a brother. For the sufferings and discomforts of war bring out the traits and qualities which, during the luxury of Peace have lain dormant. I liked Paul very much and he was always with me in the trenches. We shared the same dugout, and in open warfare the same fox hole dug by each of us.
“His duties were those of a runner and as such the most exposed and dangerous of all. A message to be carried through a barrage, through the trenches or back through terrain that is infested by the enemy is never taken by anyone but a runner and as such Paul Coffin displayed not only the utmost disregard for self, courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice, but also displayed unusual intelligence. In one of his letters to his mother he mentioned the fact that he was a runner. When censoring the letter I made a notation at the bottom that he was ‘the best runner in the battalion’ and he was.
“We had lain in a woods all night and had just started out to reinforce the 3rd battalion on the north of the Orique River. We had no supper the night before nor breakfast that morning and suddenly one of the runners stumbled over a pack full of German canned beef and he, Paul and I were eating it going along.
“Paul went over to Lieut. Hoar and was marching along in a file composed of Sargent Hart, two buglers and three runners. Suddenly shells began to fall on the slopes of the hills to our right and left but none in the valley where we were, but in a few minutes the Boche [Germans] changed the range and they began to drop among us. One killed Perry Newton, another hit Buff Huyler and then one hit among Sargent Hart and his group and when the smoke cleared away there was none standing there. Paul suffered nothing and did not know what hit him, and though that may seem hard to you, if you could see later in the day, other poor fellows crying for someone to shoot them and end their agony, others praying for ease from their pain and others alive but hoping their end would come soon and without pain to end the living Hell we were in.
“I was hit shortly after and in a hospital I was in such pain that I wished death and envied those who died so easy.
“In closing, let me extend to you the most sincere sympathy of not only H. Company but of all who knew Paul, and your loss is shared by us who have suffered many losses of those who were most dear to us.
Lieut. Andrew J. MeKeon”
Throughout the war, individuals who died on European soil were immediately interred there. If they perished in battle, their remains would be buried near the site of death. Those that died in the care of medical personnel generally found their resting places in existing French cemeteries. However, at the war’s conclusion, a decision remained to be made. Unlike any American war previous, the survivors of soldiers who died of disease, accident or battle in Europe had the choice of whether or not to repatriate the remains of their loved one. The question proved a difficult one. Former president Theodore Roosevelt and his wife Edith declared “that where the tree falls there let it lie,” urging that their son Quentin remain where he fell, among his comrades. Other parents (or wives if married) followed along with the president’s decision. Others feared that their son/husband would not be properly identified and chose to leave their patriot in France or Belgium, with a few resting in Britain. Still, some 70% of those who died abroad were brought back to the United States at the request of their family. Repatriation of soldiers continued through the early 1920s.
Paul Coffin was not one of those to be brought home. Anna Coffin writing to the Quartermaster General informed Colonel Charles Pierce, that after long consideration she and her husband had made the determination to leave their boy in France, given “that we have always been told that Paul had no grave, that his body was torn all to pieces . . . and I could never feel sure it was him.” Second Lt. Charles Wynne hastened to inform the Coffins that their son had been identified, and was temporarily resting in a concentration cemetery termed the American Cemetery of the Seringes-et-Nesles, Department of Aisnes. At a point soon to follow, he would be permanently interred, most probably at Belleau Wood. Once he had been permanently placed, the lieutenant assured Anna Coffin, she would receive a photograph of the gravesite, along with its permanent marker, a white cross.
The lieutenant prevaricated somewhat. At the time of his initial correspondence with the Coffins, Paul had not been identified with certainty. Indeed, given that the body disinterred from his presumed grave on Hill #212 carried no identifying marks—hair, teeth, jewelry, natural body deformities—there was some question as to who filled the grave to which the body had been transferred in the American Cemetery. With his lower jaw missing and only the chevrons of a private remaining to identify the grave as that of an American, a special inquiry was held in August 1921 to further explore a series of graves and contents in the region of Paul’s initial burial. Only in December 1921 did the Quartermaster General ultimately determine the remains to be those of Coffin. This occurred via a process of elimination; his neighbors on the hillside could all be definitively identified, leaving the absent Paul to be matched to the unknown soldier of Grave #92. Pvt. Paul R. Coffin eventually came to rest in the American Cemetery at Oisne-Aisne, not Belleau Wood as initially suggested.
Shortly after the decision had been made that parents/widows could choose to bring their soldier home or leave his remains in France, the federal government began receiving petitions from around the nation, but spurred along by the newly formed American Legion and the equally new Gold Star Mothers Association, as well as New York Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, to provide free pilgrimages for the widows and/or mothers of the deceased soldiers and sailors remaining abroad to visit their gravesites. This ultimately came to include the mothers/widows of those men lost at sea as well as those who had literally disintegrated in the horror of newly mechanized warfare. Oddly, it never seems to have been debated whether or not the fathers of said soldiers and sailors would have the opportunity to visit their son’s memorial.
In July 1929, Anna Coffin received her invitation to visit Paul’s grave and a question as to the potential of a widow also applying for travel. Replying on the 28th of July, she noted that as her son was only 17 ½ years of age at his death, “there is no widow”. That very morning marked the 11th anniversary of his death, “oh, we can never forget it,” she cried “he was all the boy we had.” She did not include in her reply that her husband had died the previous year. And while the cause of his death is not known, shortly after Paul’s death, Anna reported to the Quartermaster General that her husband had suffered a nervous breakdown and could “do no business at all”.
With no binding ties to keep her from traveling, Anna Coffin determined it was time to visit the grave of her beloved son. By the luck of the draw and in accordance with the desire bulk mothers/widows who would visit the same cemetery, Anna traveled to France on the fourth of the 30-plus voyages that would take mothers and widows to visit “the ground made holy” by the interment of their sons/husbands. With detailing the boggles the modern mind considering the absence of computer technology, spread sheets and other such mechanisms, the Quartermaster General planned every minute and every cent of the trips.
In the case of Anna Coffin, it was determined that she would leave New Sharon on the M. and St. L. Railway at 3:58 on the afternoon of May 17th, arriving in New York on the 19th at 3:45 in the afternoon. Her ticket was prepaid, as were all tips and gratuities. Moreover, the United States government provided $20 for her meals and incidentals en route to New York. The same courtesies would be offered for her return to New Sharon in late June 1929. Upon arrival in New York, a room at the Hotel Roosevelt awaited.
Then, on May 21, 1930, Anna Coffin departed for France aboard the S.S. George Washington. Life on ship served to familiarize the women with their cabin mates, the itinerary and to honor the men who lost their lives at sea. Entertainment, French history and religious services filled some of the hours at sea, as undoubtedly did reflection on the motivation for their sailing. As if more attention needed to be paid to the cause of the pilgrimage, the eldest mother aboard of a sailor/soldier lost at sea threw a wreath of carnations upon ocean approximately half way across the Atlantic.
Coffin and her sea mates arrived at Cherbourg, France, late on the evening of May 29. The next morning started with privileged entrance to the nation. Although all mothers were required to have passports, the process for entry was streamlined with the mothers allowed to use the entrance generally reserved for individuals of wealth, privilege and rank. The women were met by the mayor of Paris, as well as interpreters, nurses and guides, and escorted to the Hotel Lutetia. The next morning, the women exchanged their dollars for francs and attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe with the eldest mother present, excepting the one who had cast carnations on the ocean, laid an official red/white/blue bouquet. The Tomb of the French Unknown Soldier lies within the monument.
On June 1st, the mothers and widows set forth for the cemeteries of France. For two days, June 2nd and 3rd, Anna Coffin sat at her son’s grave in Oise-Aisne Cemetery. While there, she was provided a bouquet of live flowers to lay at the base of his cross of remembrance, as well as two small American flags, one to leave and one to take home. A photograph of her was also taken of her standing beside his grave, although this has not yet come to light. If, like the vast majority of other visitors, she took a token from home there was time to present it to her son. Some mothers scattered vials of home soil upon their sons, while others left photographs or religious mementoes. What, if anything, Anna Coffin left is unknown.
Following her two-day visit with Paul, Anna had the opportunity to visit other cemeteries in the region and the Reims Cathedral. Soon it was back to Paris to tour Notre Dame and Versailles. Other days provided the opportunity to visit the tomb of Napoleon, to take in Sunday services and to tour the city by bus, always escorted by American military aides or nurses. Then it was back to Cherbourg to board the S.S. President Roosevelt for her second crossing of the Atlantic. She and her shipmates arrived in New York on June 18. After a night at the McAlpin Hotel, she drew her tickets and traveling funds and headed back to New Sharon.
In what must be one of the saddest of ironies associated with the death of Paul R. Coffin, his nephew John W. Hatchitt, the son of his sister Hazel, served in the Korean War. Like his uncle, young John did not return to the United States. First Lieutenant Hatchitt was the pilot of an F-86E Sabrejet fighter bomber with the 25th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. On February 4, 1952, while on a combat mission, his aircraft developed engine trouble. He headed toward Cho-do Island, North Korea, and tried to bail out but was unsuccessful. His remains were not recovered.
Written by Kimberly K. Porter
Kimberly K Porter, Ph.D, University of North Dakota, conducted research for this article while at the National Archives. Quotations are from materials contained in Paul R. Coffin’s file.
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