Barbecues, fireworks and patriotic décor. There are plenty of celebrations planned across the Parkland and the nation on the Fourth of July because many of the workforce will enjoy a day off to have fun in the sun with their families and friends — but it is more than a day of celebration.
This day has much more significance than simply being the first official holiday of the summer. It’s America’s Independence Day. It’s the day Americans celebrate the birth of this great nation and take the time to honor those who fought for the freedoms we have today.
One of those men who fought for our freedom is 72-year-old Alfred Coffey who lives in the small community of Womack, just south of Farmington. He joined the military on his 17th birthday — Sept. 19, 1963.
He took the oath at the Army headquarters in St. Louis before traveling with eight other young men on a two-and-a-half-day journey by train to San Antonio, Texas. Once they arrived, the new recruits were assigned to their barracks, given uniforms and began basic training that would last for the next five weeks.
“I wanted to fly,” said Coffey, so he joined the Air Force to become an aircraft mechanic.
The airmen were also required to learn the Articles of War word for word. Coffey said he learned them all by about the third week of basic training.
“You had to know them word for word because you could be asked at any time to recite them, and if you didn’t get them right, your technical instructor or drill sergeant punished you with push-ups or whatever else he came up with.”
They also had to know these Articles of War in case they were captured at any point. “If they captured you, you just had to give them your name, rank, and serial number. You didn’t have to tell anyone anything else.”
Once he completed basic training, Coffey was transported by bus to Amarillo, Texas, to attend aircraft mechanic school. There, he and others did KP — kitchen police or kitchen patrol — duties such as washing dishes and cleaning the mess hall. They also did yard cleanup and whatever else needed to be done. They attended tech school for four hours a day to learn how to become aircraft mechanics and trained on an F-86.
“Basic training wasn’t fun,” said Coffey. “You learned to keep your mouth shut. You did what you were told.”
Coffey graduated from mechanic school in February 1964 and went home for less than 30 days. After his short time home, Coffey was sent to France in March 1964. Once there, he was transported to Lyon, France, by train.
Once he was situated at the base, Coffey was assigned to the A Flightline where he worked on the F101 jet fighter plane. The other group was the B Flightline. Flightline was where the planes were set up for refueling and maintenance when they weren’t being flown. Others worked in the hangar. Coffey went through about six more months of training before he was assigned the F101.
Stationed there for nearly three years, he recalled a point where planes were going to be changed to all F-4s which were being shipped straight from McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis. Mechanics trained for about three months on that particular aircraft. Once the planes arrived, it took another six to seven months to get everything set up.
Then France’s President Charles de Gaulle demanded all U.S. troops leave French soil, so the squadron was sent to Vietnam.
Coffey said anyone who had one year in the Air Force was sent to Vietnam and that included him because he had served exactly a year and a month at that point.
He arrived in Vietnam in September 1966.
“In the military, when you’re there, you have a lot of ‘dead time,’” said Coffey. “That’s when you don’t do anything. It’s a lot of barracks time. It’s a very lonely time. It’s not fun and games.”
He said most of the enlisted men didn’t have much money, so they didn’t really have an option of doing anything. They didn’t make much money by being in the service and everything they did cost money. So they went to the library to listen to audiobooks and music cassettes. Some drank or smoked cigarettes. These could be purchased for about $1.10 at the PX, or post exchange.
Some wrote letters or sent cards.
“I didn’t like to write so I didn’t write too much,” said Coffey. “I’d write just enough to say I was still alive. I guess my family wrote about the same amount as I did. I got a letter from Mom about once a week or once every other week.”
Occasionally he received a care package from Chestnut Ridge Baptist Church. These contained treats like cookies, cakes and other things.
“That was neat to get,” he says, “because when anyone got a care package, we all shared. Nobody kept their care packages to themselves. We all enjoyed them together.”
There were no celebrations of holidays. The most the airmen received was a special meal in the mess hall, such as an occasional barbecue or Thanksgiving meal.
Coffey missed enjoying holidays at home with family and friends for four years. And during those four years — 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967 — he was not on American soil to celebrate July 4.
Although there were no fireworks or big celebrations, he recalled still being thankful and proud of his freedom and the freedom that he and others were working hard to secure for the American people.
“It was a rough time,” said Coffey. “It was definitely no picnic, but we knew we were there because we needed to be there.”
He remembered several instances of attacks. One time was on Dec. 4, 1966, when 25 Vietnamese attacked. Coffey said the AP (air police) cop opened fire with his M16 and shot 70 rounds down the taxi but never hit anyone. They were on foot. The cop then got a Jeep and a case of ammunition which he belted into a 50-caliber gun and took the enemy down. Only two Vietnamese retreated unscathed.
Coffey and the other airmen were less than 100 yards away from the fire. They heard all this action from a sand bunker. His plane had just landed and it had been backed into the revetment area, a type of retaining wall that separated the planes. Coffey had just coated his hand with baby powder to put it in the drag chute so it would glide smoother when the shooting started around 1 a.m.
Six men quickly took cover in the darkened bunker. They had been in there nearly an hour when Coffey said he needed a cigarette. One of the men turned on a flashlight and saw that his hand was white and he was still holding the baby powder.
“That’s how scared I was,” said Coffey.
He remembered about six bullets ricocheting near them.
“They also mortared us,” he said. “They went right down the middle of the taxi and hit in the middle of every plane and mortared, which was very loud explosions. The last one they shot was right behind the sand bunker where we were.”
Coffey said they thought they were going to die but thankfully all survived. Afterward, they found all kinds of pieces of sharp metal afterward leftover from the explosions. There were even small holes in the concrete.
“We could hear all the shooting and banging while we were in the bunker,” he said. “We didn’t know who was doing it and if we were going to get out alive.”
Of the Vietnamese who attacked them that day, six were barbers who had worked on base. This created other problems because the Vietnamese planted Claymore mines in things like transistor radios in hopes an airman would pick it up. They also planted hand grenades in various places.
“It was a place where you had to be very careful at all times,” said Coffey.
And just about every day was a close call. There was regular fighting and shooting in the area. The airmen sat on the barracks at night, often watching an outdoor movie or relaxing. They could see fighting in the distance. “WE just got used to it.”
Coffey recalled an occasional bit of humor on base. Sometimes they just happened to catch a second lieutenant with an arm full of groceries or on a bicycle and would salute them. This meant that the commissioned officer had to immediately stop whatever they were doing and return the salute.
After nearly a year in Vietnam, Coffey returned home to Farmington in August 1967 to his parents, Hubert and Lillian Coffey and siblings Danny, Billy, Lindell, Jack, Martha, Doris and Donna. His brother Gary was already married.
Coffey met a Womack teenager, Monica Williams, on the second day after he returned from the service and they were married March 16, 1968. He was 21 and she was 16.
“It was love at first sight,” said Coffey.
Looking back, he said he would enlist and do everything all over again. He made great friends while in the military. He still keeps in touch with fellow airman Barney Snyder from Ohio, whom he first met while stationed in Lyon, France.
Those four Independence Days he spent away from home stationed overseas are at the forefront of his mind this year. It’s been 56 years since he spent the first one away from home.
“July 4th means freedom for everybody, and there’s a lot of guys who died for it,” said Coffey. “The flag means this is the country you can basically do anything you want. In other countries, you’re restricted. You don’t have the same freedoms there as you do here. People don’t know what they have at all. They don’t understand. Some poor guy died in a foxhole in World War II for our freedoms. You didn’t know him, and I didn’t know him, but he died for you and me.”
This year, Coffey plans to celebrate Independence Day with his family with food, festivities and fireworks. But he’ll also be thinking of those serving overseas and the ones who came before him.
“But remember why we’re celebrating on July 4,” he said. “We’re celebrating our freedom. People have fought and died for these freedoms. We should never take them for granted.”