The waning weeks of a young person's senior year of high school are generally filled with enthusiasm and awe as he or she anxiously seeks to embrace a world that is holding the keys to a bright future. But for Jefferson City, Mo., veteran Perry Coy, the deceptive hand of opportunity would find him embroiled in combat with unyielding Nazi forces not long after his graduation.
It was early 1943 - approximately a month prior to his high school graduation - when young Coy received word from his local draft board advising him to get his affairs in order. With World War II raging along both the Pacific and European fronts, scores of young men would find themselves drafted in support of the war effort.
"I was told that I had about two weeks after my graduation to get ready," said Coy during a 2010 interview.
The young draftee was first sent to in-process for the Army at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., prior to traveling to Camp Hood, Texas, for his basic training. A few weeks later, he found himself at Camp Carson, Colo., where he would complete a difficult regimen of mountain training and learn to cut trails on Mount Manitou, next to Pikes Peak. The soldier rounded out his training on Hunter Liggett Military Reservation (HLMR) in the state of California - a site possessing European-like characteristics that was used as a realistic training environment to prepare thousands of deploying soldiers for combat in France, Germany and Italy.
"It was rough terrain out there and the toughened us up for sure!" joked Coy. "Everybody smoked back then, and they cut us out of our cigarettes during training," he added. (According to Coy, smuggled cigarettes would sell for as much as a dollar a piece amongst the troops while at HLMR.)
From his training in California, he was then sent to Camp Kilmer, N.J., and soon boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth (an ocean liner converted to a troop ship) on June 21, 1944, bound for Liverpool, England. Upon arrival a few days later, Coy was equipped with about 90 pounds of combat gear and heading towards Normandy, France on an LCT (landing craft transport). Although arriving several days after the initial D-Day invasion, the LCTs delivering the troops to the French mainland were still targets for German mortar rounds.
"The Navy guys piloting our LCT were supposed to drop us next to the beach, but because of the shelling they had to stay out a ways. The dropped the back gate on the craft and told us to 'Get out!" Coy recalled.
Dropped into waters over his head and unable to support the weight of his combat gear, Coy was forced to dump his field pack for fear of drowning before ever reaching shore. When he finally clamored to the mainland, the infantryman was able to acquire gear from others who had not been so fortunate as to survive the invasion. Almost immediately finding himself in combat, Coy participated in the Battle of St. Lo and lucidly remembered the virtually impenetrable hedgerows and German tanks decimating the American tanks.
The young man from Bolivar, Mo., fought throughout Europe and received a shrapnel wound near the fortified city of Metz that would land him for a brief stay in a hospital in Nancy, France, earning him his first Purple Heart. On a separate occasion, Coy received a gunshot wound to his leg from a German rifleman, but considers himself fortunate that the bullet did not strike a bone or cause any serious damage.
"I just put some sulfadiazine powder on my leg and wrapped it in a gauze bandage," Coy said. "We were so short of troops that we really couldn't afford to have anyone gone." This injury would earn the soldier another Purple Heart.
A later occurrence near Dillinger, Germany would earn the soldier yet another venerable piece of recognition. A young medic, who had been shot and wounded by German forces, was lying exposed in a courtyard and in dire need of immediate medical attention. "We needed those guys (medics) badly and I knew that I had to go get him," said Coy. While under fire, Coy ran to the medic, grabbed him and pulled him to safety.
"I guess they thought I was pretty brave for going to get him," Coy remarked, as he lowered his head. "But the guy was shot in his stomach and died about a day-and-a-half late." Coy was awarded the Bronze Star for valor. However, heroic actions and accolades would not end for the soldier.
On another occasion - after having taken out a German machine gun nest - Coy jumped a wall in a small cemetery and discovered a group of German soldiers that were firing mortars at American soldiers from the safety of a tomb. Running to the door of the tomb, Coy yelled for the Germans to come out with their hands up or else he would fire a grenade toward them. Shockingly, more than a dozen Germans exited the tomb and were taken prisoner by the Americans. For his valor in the face of the enemy threat, Coy received the third-highest military award - the Silver Star.
After spending almost eleven months embroiled in combat and leaving his rural Missouri high school, Coy earned enough points to return stateside and was discharged from the Army in September 1945 at Jefferson Barracks, Mo. Working in several locations and industries throughout the state, Coy eventually relocated to Jefferson City and established Coy's Fire and Safety Equipment Company. In 1998, he sold the business to a company out of St. Louis and retired after thirty-five years in the business.
In 2010, Coy's legacy of accolades continued when he was selected to receive another esteemed recognition - the French Legion of Honor.
"It is my pleasure as Consul General of France in Chicago to inform you, on behalf of the people of France, that the President of the French Republic has named you Knight of the Legion of Honor for you valorous action during World War II," stated Sidy Diallo in a letter to Coy.
In his later years, the combat veteran remained active and enjoyed a good game of golf as much as three times a week. Additionally, he embraced opportunities to speak with others about his time in the military and the accomplishments of his generation.
Reflecting on his service with just a whisper of caution, Coy said, "I'm thankful for what we have today. Our freedom means a lot and we can't become a dictatorship; we can never let that happen."
Perry Eugene Coy passed away in Jefferson City, Mo., on October 14, 2013 and is interred at Hawthorn Memorial Gardens.
Jeremy P. Ämick is a military historian and author of the upcoming World War II novel "The Lucky Ones."
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.