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 2, 1971 in San Francisco, CA.  He was buried at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, CA.

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.

Update Jun 2, 2016

I was recently contacted by Gerry Lawton, retired Navy Commander and self-described historian who wrote that he had read my report about the Coffey brothers,  Lawton wrote that William Lawson Coffey was not a torpedoman; he was and Aviation Machinist Mate (aircraft engine mechanic) and was one of "several... in the entire US Navy who had been trained on the Navy's newest torpedo plane, the TBF-1..."

Coffey was not aboard the Hornet during the battle of Midway but was on the island of Midway with six of the new planes. Orgeron was a torpedoman and was scheduled to fly. Some info indicates that he overslept that morning and Coffey was going to take his place, but that never happened. Orgeron flew and his plane was shot down like all the others with the exception of Ensign Bert Earnest. [other reports names the surviving pilot as Ensign George H. Gay.]

There is some confusion here that has not been satisfactorily explained to me.  Lawton wrote that Coffey and Orgeron wouldn't have known one another and provided a couple of reasons.  But, in his book, Torpedo 8, published in 1943 Ira Wolfert wrote that Orgeron had been difficult to arouse that morning and had been scheduled to fly "as tunnel gunner in one of the planes."  Coffey was quoted as saying "Let him sleep, I'll go."  But, Orgeron stirred and ran to his plane with "shoes and socks and shirt and ran barefoot to the airfield..."

Readers will find Lawton's full report to me in Vol. 139 of the Coffey Cousins' newsletter to be released near the end of June. Hopefully by then I will have been able to clear some of my confusion and/or misconceptions and provide a clearer picture of what happened that day in WW2 history.

If you are one of my Google+ followers you will receive notification when it is released.

Update Jun 3, 2016

There were two flights of Torpedo planes that day; one that flew from Midway island and one that flew from the Hornet.  Ensign George H. Gay, Jr was the sole survivor of the 15 pilots that took off from the Hornet. He crashed landed his plane in the ocean and was later rescued. He was taken back to the US where he was able to give eye witness testimony to the sinking of several of the Japanese carriers. He later flew against the Japanese at Guadalcanal and retired as a Lieutenant Commander.

Ensign Bert K. Ernest was the only survivor of the group that flew from Midway.  In spite of losing all hydraulic power, he was able to steer his plane using the rudder.  When he landed, the cround crew counted "64 machine gun holes and nine 20 millimeter cannon holes in it." Ernest retired as a Navy Captain in 1972.

There is likely some misunderstanding of the idea that Orgeron and Coffey did not know one another. "I believe that they did not know one another" to me means they did not know each other previous to their assignment on Midway. In a later note, Lawton writes that Orgeron was assigned to Coffey's plane; e.g., the one that Coffey took care of as an aircraft engine mechanic.

Update Jun 4, 2016

This update provided by Susan Coffey Wooten, daughter of William Lawson Coffey and niece of Otto Marion,

"Otto Marion Coffey was attached to the following:

"After formation at Norfolk on June 6, 1942, the Ninth NCB was divided, with Section One going to Davisville and Section Two to New Orleans.  Section One embarked for Iceland Aug. 5, arriving Aug. 18.  The First Section  returned to Davisville, Sept. 6, 1943.  The activities of Section Two were unreported.  For its second tour of duty, the Ninth transferred to Hueneme May 9, 1944, and sailed for Pearl Harbor June 25.  At Pearl, the Ninth worked at Moanalua Ridge, NASD, Pearl City, Molokai, NASD Personnel Camp and Pearl City Junction.  The Battalion moved on to Tinian, arriving Dec. 1. After several months' duty at Tinian, the Ninth was ordered to Okinawa, where it was stationed at the close of the war.

"FYI: Otto was part of the crew that built the runways for the Enola Gay, the B29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the atomic bomb."

*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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