(Note: This is the first of a two-part series relating war-time memories as shared by Bob Coburn, a blind man who served as a medic during WWII).
“It’s something you can never forget,” remembers World War II veteran and longtime New Carlisle resident, Bob Coburn. The 95-year-old vet is sitting in his favorite chair as he readily relates his memories of the war that defined his generation. Betty, his wife of over 71 years, sits near him. Betty has heard her husband’s stories so many times, she knows them by heart. Today, she gently offers reminders for Bob when 70-year-old details come to mind a bit slowly for him once in a while.
Born in Kentucky, Coburn grew up as a farm boy on his family’s 40-acre chicken farm. He explains how, once he became a young man, he tried to get into military service as a volunteer, but to no avail.
“I went everywhere and tried to join, but no one would take me. I had been blind in my left eye since I was 2-years-old. Once they found that out, they would say, ‘You’re blind? Well then, we don’t want you!’ and they would send me away. So I had to go find other work because they wouldn’t let me in (the military).”
Coburn may have been frustrated from unsuccessfully volunteering for military service, but he ended up working for the government anyway. Soon after going home, he landed a job as a civilian at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Coburn had a specialized skill-set in his ability to work on two-way-type radios, an industry that was emerging at the time.
“See, when the Japanese bombed Hawaii, I had been up here trying to find a job, but there were no jobs...so I went back home to Lexington to raise chickens...But see, I knew a lot about working on radios. There weren’t that many around, but I could build a radio blindfolded. They weren’t really used much (in planes) yet, because back then, if a plane went to a certain height, their radio bulbs would blow up, so we had to figure out how to fix that...Well, not many people could work on radios, and I soon got a letter from Wright-Patt (telling me) I had a job if I wanted it...so I came back up to work there.”
Coburn was only 19 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and when he started working at the air force base. When the draft started for WWII, Coburn’s blind eye and government job at Wright-Patt should have exempted him from military service.
Uncle Sam had other ideas.
Like thousands of other young men, Coburn reported when he became 20-years-old and was eligible be drafted into military service. Stories are commonplace of the brave draftees who dutifully reported to the Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS) to see if they were fit for military service; but Coburn gives a glimpse into what really happened the day men reported for duty when their number came up.
“No matter what, when a man turned 20 you had to report. That’s all there was to it. These guys in there (at the MEPS)...a lot of them had really good jobs and made a lot of money. Some of those guys also had families...so what in the world would they want to be in the Army for? So when these guys got drafted they would go in (for processing) and pretend that they couldn’t hear, or they’d act like they couldn’t see...because they didn’t want to go into the Army!”
Coburn’s job and his earlier failed attempts to join the military due to blindness in his left eye obviously led him to expect to continue life as a working civilian, but a paperwork error and a frustrated MEPS worker conspired against him.
“Now, Wright-Patt was supposed to send paperwork from to cover me that said I was working for the government, that way they couldn’t draft me. Well, something happened and (the draft board) didn’t get the paperwork. When I went up to the (MEPS) counter to report, I saw the word ‘accepted’ (next to my name). I told the man taking care of everything that (the Army) couldn’t take me. ‘I’m blind!’ I explained. Well, you could tell the guy was already annoyed. He looked right at me and said, ‘Oh Yeah?! Well, all these other guys in here are blind too!”
In that moment, a perplexed Coburn learned he had two options as a freshly-minted U.S. Army draftee.
“The guy told me, ‘You’ve got two choices buddy-boy. You can either get on that train and you’ll be in Ft. Dix tomorrow morning...or do you want to take your 10-days’ leave?’ I started to explain, ‘But I don’t...’ He said, ‘What did I say?’ So I told him I would have to take the 10 days’ leave. The man said, ‘Alright, take your leave; but in 10 days, if you’re not here, and you’re trying to be a smart-aleck, don’t you worry...because I will find you...and when we find you, we will put you in prison for the rest of your life!”
Coburn quickly got his affairs in order before reporting back to the MEPS on the appointed day. There he received the Army’s version of a glowing reception.
“I got back after 10 days and the man saw me and said, ‘Well buddy-boy, I’m glad to see you came back. Now, get on that train down there and you’ll be in Ft. Dix in nothing flat.’”
And so Bob Coburn, a partially-blind, exempt government worker with no medical background, started the strange odyssey that would take him to both Europe and the Pacific Theater as a medic during WWII.