May 28, 2010

William Lawson Coffey, Jr.

William Lawson Coffey, Jr.
The Battle of Midway, a naval battle involving aircraft carriers USS Hornet, USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise, began on June 4, 1942 and ended on June 7.  Although the Yorktown was lost and American forces lost many men and aircraft, the American force destroyed a significant portion of the Japanese aircraft carrier fleet and sent a few hundred Japanese fighter planes and battle hardened carrier pilots to the bottom of the Pacific, a loss that Japan was never able to overcome.

William Lawson Coffey, Jr.* was a sailor on board the Hornet and assigned to Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8) comprised of some number of torpedo bomber.  The squadron was essentially wiped out when they were met by overwhelming opposition as they attempted to dive on the Japanese carrier fleet.  Only one pilot, Ensign George H. Gay survived.

Coffey was scheduled to fly with his squadron on the morning of the attack but, a friend and fellow torpedoman by the name of Lyonal J. Orgeron asked if he could take Coffey's seat.  William agreed and Lyonal became one of the days casualties.  Through the chaos of battle, the War Department reported to his family that he was missing.  It was not until 19 days later that the mistake was discovered, much to the relief of William's family.

William Lawson Coffey, Jr. survived the remainder of the war and later served during the Korean War.  He was born May 21, 1908 at Alanthus Grove, Gentry Co., MO and died Sep. 24, 1978 at Sun City in Riverside Co., CA.  He was not buried until Nov. 24, 1978 when the new Riverside National Cemetery began accepting burials.  He married Jeanette Louise Caroline Swore, born Nov. 27, 1917 in Polk Co., MN, died Sep. 2, 1996 in Van Nuys, Los Angeles Co., CA.  They were parents of two daughters: Susan Coffey Wooten who supplied the photograph and other documents on William's family and Donna Jean Coffey Bergmeister of Pollock Pines, CA.

If you visit the USS Yorktown** now anchored at Charleston, SC, you will find a plaque containing the names of 16 lost officers and radio-gunners of VT-8 on display.  The third name down in the left column is that of William.  The mistake has not been corrected.

Otto Marion Coffey
William's brother, Otto Marion Coffey also served his country in the US Navy during WW2.  Otto was born on Jun. 4, 1910 in Alanthus Grove and died on May 7, 1971 in San Francisco, CA.  He was buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, Los Angeles.

For the interested, the Midway battle action report to Admiral Nimitz is available here.

The Orgeron surname is one typically found in the southern part of Louisiana.  My curiosity about Lyonel was finally satisfied when I discovered that he was Lyonel Joseph Orgeron, the son of Clement and Melodia Orgeron of Donaldsonville in Ascension Parish, Louisiana.  He was born there in 1922 and was probably just 19 or 20 years old on the day he died at Midway.  His name appears in the World War II Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard Casualties, 1941-1945 in the summary of war casualties.  It reads that he was an "Aviation Ordnanceman 3c USN Mother: Mrs. Melodia G. Orgeron of 938 Felicity St., New Orleans, LA."  Lionel is listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial in Honolulu, HI.  Through his sacrifice, he earned the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.

*William added the Jr. suffix to his name while in High School to make others believe that his father was William, Sr.   His father was George Lafayette Coffey, a son of Lawson Howard and Eliza Ann Campbell Coffey and an abusive father and husband.  George died in St. Joseph, Buchanan Co., MO on Jul. 20, 1945.  George was married twice.  His first wife was Gertrude Derr and mother of Richard Earl Coffey.  His second wife was Elsie Jane Randleman, mother of William and Otto.
**This carrier was under construction at time of the sinking of the Yorktown.  It was to be commissioned as the USS Bon Homme Richard but was renamed Yorktown to honor the one lost at Midway.  This is the one you will see at Charleston.

No. 994

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