1st Lt. Clarence E. Coggins: Oklahoma’s Own War Hero
Clarence Coggins was born on July 3, 1920 in Poteau, Oklahoma. Growing up, he probably would have never dreamed that he would go on to become one of the nation's most celebrated heroes. During World War II, he did exactly that.
Before joining the war effort, Coggins dream was to own a dairy business and to establish a Coggins brand of butter and ice cream.
After graduating from Poteau High in 1937, he attended college at Oklahoma A&M and was active in ROTC. It was there that he met his future wife, Ethel Mae Castiller.
In his early 20's, Coggins joined the United States Army to help with the war efforts. He joined the 45th Division and served in the 179th Infantry. He was shuffled around several different bases before finally arriving at Camp Pickett in Virginia. It was there that he married Ethel Mae.
When the war broke out in Europe, his company received orders to move to the European Front. Before leaving, each man was given a full medical evaluation. During the evaluation, it was discovered that Coggins was completely deaf in his left ear. This caused him to be left behind while the rest of the company was sent overseas.
This was something that Coggins was not satisfied with. Wanting to help serve his country, he sent several requests to rejoin the rest of his company in Europe. Along with other requests from the men he trained with, this request was granted. By this time, his young wife was pregnant with their first child. Despite this, Coggins believed that he belonged with his company and was soon sent off to Europe.
In early 1944, 1st Lt. Clarence Coggins was captured by German Forces on a Wednesday night while on reconnaissance northeast of Grenoble. He convinced the German major that escape from Allied troops was impossible. Their surrender happened on August 25, 1944.
In His Words: Coggins Describes How He Seized 946 Prisoners
The tall, blond German engineer major paced back and forth under the schoolyard trees, holding a cigarette in his black-gloved hand.
"I tell you," he told the squat, stocky American infantry lieutenant, "If you get me an officer of equal rank we shall surrender, all of us."
And that's how Lt. Clarence E. Coggins, Poteau, Okla., an infantry company commander came to bring in 946 German prisoners and strip the Isere Valley of the force which was to have defended it.
The story began August 23 when enemy reconnaissance units attacked a road block, killing or capturing most of the men in Lt. Coggin's company who manned it. The lieutenant, an Oklahoma A and M reserve officer, went out to learn what had happened.
"We went up the road and suddenly the captain with me said, "What is that French truck doing here?"
"I looked and yelled that it was full of Germans. Then two krauts jumped us. Mine wrestled me behind the truck but the captain broke away and escaped. Two more Germans hopped on me and one stuck a gun in my stomach.
"The captain got back to our lines and in a few minutes they (the Americans) began to fire at us so the Germans walked me to Domene where I found ten of my men who had been at the road block. The Krauts had plenty of equipment hidden in the grape vines and trees back there - three 155 mm. guns, 88s, trucks and horse drawn vehicles.
"Two of the boys were wounded and a French woman brought them hot milk. Later, a French doctor and a French Red Cross nurse came with food and took care of them.
"They'd questioned me a little after they took me. Now they took me to battalion headquarters and questioned me again. I sat there smoking and eating fruit while they tried to get me to talk.
"Late that afternoon they called me back and questioned me again. I began to suspect something was cooking. Then that night they called me in a third time. That was when the German major took me out and said he'd surrender if I'd make arrangements.
"They got a patriot, a German lieutenant, and a woman nurse, placed them in a car and stuck a white and red flag on the vehicle. We got through a road block the Germans had set up and ran into the Maquis. The patriot explained our mission and the Maquis took us to the Americans. I got out, fixed things up and we went to the battalion CO. He sent me back in a jeep to tell the Germans to come on in.
"The German major was making a speech to his men behind the school when I got there. All his papers and maps had been burned. I told him the terms - surrender of their arms. He agreed and asked for a minute to finish explaining his surrender to the men.
"Then the major got in the jeep and we started back. At first the Germans walked and rode horses. Then they started driving in their own vehicles. I brought them in batches of 200 or 300 at first, then smaller groups. I made 10 or 11 trips. I'm not sure how many. It took all night and I hadn't slept the night before. I was pretty tired."
The book shows there were 946 - part of a regimental bag which now tops 1,726. Pfc. Walter S. Boracci, Bayside, L.I. figures that the lieutenant was really responsible for 1,322 prisoners because they kept drifting in all the next day.
Lt. Coggins received his reward, though. They let him sleep all the next day before he went back to work.
The official terms showed that he had captured 942 enlisted men, 17 officers, and vast amounts of equipment were turned over to authorities at Grenoble, France. Because of this, at only 24 years old, he was immediately promoted to the rank of Captain.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
It was at a small white church in France during the Battle of the Bulge where Clarence Coggins gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
In 1945, their company was trapped in a church with heavy shelling all around them. The men decided that they needed to escape during one of the lulls in battle. They came up with a plan where Coggins would send up a signal flare to show they were ready. When the other American forces in the area saw the flare, they would cease fire until the church was evacuated. Afterwards, they would renew their efforts to drive the German forces out from the area.
Coggins lit the flare and his company began their escape. He waited until the last soldier was out before setting off at a mad dash through the church doorway. German gunfire stopped him on the church steps, where Coggins was shot to death.
Clarance Coggins passed away on January 7, 1945. He received 2 Silver Stars, 1 Bronze Star, 4 Oak Leaf Clusters, 2 Purple Hearts and the Gold Star. More important than the medals he received was the lives he saved. Lt. Coggins is remembered as one of the finest men who have ever served.
To learn more about Poteau's history, visit the Passport to the Mountain Gateway.
© 2017 Eric Standridge