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World War II veteran's experience is valuable history lesson as 9/11 anniversary approaches

Veterans AffairsDefenseAttack on Pearl Harbor (1941)World War II (1939-1945)Armed Conflicts

Warren Coligny, husband, father, Navy seaman and Pearl Harbor survivor, died Aug. 13 at an assisted-living facility in Bowie. His passing is notable not just because he belonged to the fragile and rapidly shrinking population of World War II veterans, who are dying at a rate of 1000 per month. Mr. Coligny's death — and life — should be remembered as we approach the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11, this generation's Pearl Harbor, because he embodied what we all hope to find in ourselves if ever we are confronted with the unimaginable: courage in the face of calamity.

I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Coligny in 2006 for an article I wrote for the Laurel Leader coinciding with the 65th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 85 then, but his recollections were still sharp, even if his ability to express them, despite years of retelling them, was shaky at times.

So, I dutifully fact-checked the details of his story and found them to be right on the money.

He was indeed, as he put it, "There when it all started," onboard the DMS Zane at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

As often happened that awful day, Mr. Coligny was thrust into the hero's role. With many of his ship's personnel on weekend leave that Sunday morning, the 20-year-old maintenance and support seaman had to man an anti-aircraft gun for the first time.

Still, during our chats, he scoffed at the "hero" label. Instead, he preferred the words of the Zane's Lt. Cmdr. L.M. LeHardy, who, in his report of that tragic day wrote that, "Every man did his duty."

Like other World War II vets I've spoken with, Mr. Coligny was torn between a reluctance to talk about the tragic events he witnessed, and a desire to set the record straight and make sure it is remembered by future generations. I was reminded of the importance of that by some of the research material that Mr. Coligny's daughter, Florence Strawser, sent me. It included a letter from David Hoffert, a history teacher in Warsaw, Ind., who had started a project to honor our nation's veterans; and a letter from one of his students, thanking Mr. Coligny for his service.

Hoffert wrote in his letter, "There is nothing as powerful in history as personal accounts."

He had it right. We are all fortunate that Mr. Coligny shared his personal account with us.

At the end of his letter, Hoffert included a quote from Abraham Lincoln that is worth remembering as the anniversary of 9/11 approaches: "Poor is the nation that has no heros, but beggard is the nation that has them and forgets them." For the veterans we've lost like Mr. Coligny and for those still with us whose memories are cloudy, it is up to us to remember now.

Mike McLaughlin is a former columnist and free-lance writer for the Laurel Leader.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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