Last Sunday was Memorial Day when we give tribute to those who provided for us our freedom and privileges.
In over 50 years of ministry, I have met many renowned people. Great writers, preachers, governors, even presidents, and Pope Paul VI; to mention a few that I have seen or conversed with. However, one such man has contributed more than most in helping me to become the man I know the Lord wanted me to be. His name is Lawnie Coffman.
I first met him when I was 14 years of age when he visited my home. He was a hero then to me, but more today after all these years. He is only 15 years older than me, but the experiences he had before our first meeting overwhelmed me. He was a war hero and probably the first I had ever met. At the time, I did not know he was Arkansas‘ most wounded soldier in World War II having fought with the famed 35th Infantry Division in Europe.
He took a liking to me and introduced me to a new youth camp he was helping to promote and build. We had many meetings during the next few years.
However, the second most notable meeting was when I was 17, when he invited me to preach my first sermon at his church. It lasted all of 5 minutes, but he kept encouraging me with future invitations until he finally said you are now ready to face the enemy!
When my friend entered World War II, there were 30 men from Arkansas and Kansas making up his platoon. The men took their basic training in San Louis Obisco, CA, and completed their advanced training in Alabama, Tennessee, W. Virginia, N. Carolina, New Jersey, and Bodmin, England.
Throughout WWII, he and the rest of his company traveled across the English Channel to Germany. During this time, he saw two-thirds of his men die, including his company sergeant. This, in turn, led him to become sergeant a few days later.
“I was 21 years old when I entered the service. Now at almost 84, I am the last man of the 30 that started with the first platoon, Company L. Twenty out of thirty (men), I saw them die,” he said, adding that of the others that were left, eight to 10 of those were captured and killed. Four men from a platoon of thirty were the only ones to make it back home alive; my friend said, adding that all of those four have died - “except me.” I always sense his sadness when he talks of these days.
On October 8, 1944, he received a Bronze Star for heroic service and military operations in destroying an enemy stronghold. When the advance of his platoon was killed by intense fire from an enemy machine gun, Lawnie, a member of the rocket-launcher team, and another soldier volunteered to go forward and flank the enemy’s position, while other members of the platoon fired shots.
He and his comrade, in the face of heavy machine gun fire and sniper activity, went toward the German emplacement and fired the rocket-launcher, destroying the stronghold and enabling his company to continue its mission. “I did not mean to be a hero, I just did what had to be done,” he explained.
Perhaps the most unforgettable event of the war for him occurred on November 18, 1944, as the U.S. troops were going toward the Rual Valley of Germany. The tanks were stuck in a marshland about one-half mile from the town, he wrote in one of his books, “The Promise.” Machine guns and other ammunition were firing all around them, he added.
In his most recent autobiography, “My leg of the Race,” he wrote that suddenly something struck him from his right. He recalled his left hand hanging around his neck over his right shoulder. He had been hit by a 37mm shell that was being used to shoot tanks. It had gone through his left shoulder and then exploded 50 yards away. As the blood ran down, it soaked a New Testament Bible that was in his shirt pocket which he had found near where a young military replacement had been killed. This wound left him without any use of his left arm.
“I made God a promise that if he would make it possible for me to get back to a hospital and live, I would spend the balance of my life in the Lord’s work,” This he continues to do to this date.
He keeps on his desk the Purple Heart that is accompanied by two oak leaf clusters, signifying the three times he was wounded in battle, the Bronze Star medal he received for destroying the enemy’s stronghold, and the New Testament Bible that was in his pocket the day he was shot in the shoulder, its pages still stuck together by blood.
Other awards and medals he received while in the Army included a Campaign medal; a European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal (with four stars on it to stand for the four major battles in which he fought); four Battle Stars; two Combat Bronze Stars; The Silver Star; a Good Conduct medal; an Honorable Discharge Eagle; and two awards naming him an Expert Rifle Man and an Expert Carbine. (The Silver Star is the third highest military award designated solely for heroism in combat. The Bronze Star is the fourth highest medal given to an honoree for combat battle.)
An article that appeared in The Lorain Republican (France) on October 8, 2002 contained the prominent mentioning of Sergeant Lawnie B. Coffman concerning his leadership in attacking the enemy which helped free the city.
On the 58th anniversary of the battle, Paul Colombies, mayor of Fossieux, France; invited this remembrance: “We must think of those who by their courage and tenacity made history. When future generations ask about the historic consequences of our time, they must never forget those who were heroes. To those, we are forever grateful for our liberty.”
In September of 2004, he was invited to Fossieux and was escorted by the French Ambassador to America, where he was honored by the city as “the liberator of Fossieux,” in the Lorraine region of France.
He has always been a humble man and not one to share much of his military life. His promise to the Lord made that day back in 1944 in the midst of battle, has always been his driving force in fulfilling what he had promised the Lord for saving his life.
He has always been my hero as my mentor and encourager, but most of all, by remaining my friend all these years. In 1997 he honored me again by asking me to write the introduction in his last book, “My Leg of the Race.”
Just as he has been recently rewarded by a city for their liberation, he will also be rewarded as a minister for the hundreds he saw liberated because of his promise to God.
“For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood;”-Isaiah 9:5.