Ex-POW on Japan trip: 'I had a lot more to eat this time'
Sonja Gilmore, right, of the Blue Star Mothers Chapter 5 (Broken Arrow), chats with Phillip Coon, of Sapulpa, Okla., a 94-year-old World War II veteran who was a prisoner of war in Japan and survived the Bataan Death March, moments after Coon's arrival from Japan at the Tulsa International Airport, on Monday, Oct. 21, 2013.
Tulsa World, Okla.
TULSA, Okla. — Despite stiff knees, sore from a series of connecting flights from Japan to Tulsa, 94-year-old Phillip Coon still had his sense of humor.
When Coon, a survivor of the Bataan Death March who spent the last week in Japan as part of that nation’s POW Friendship Program, was asked how his trip was, he replied, “I had a lot more to eat this time.”
Coon, a Sapulpa native and member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and a group of other POWs left Oct. 12 and landed in Japan as guests of the nation where they were held captive more than 70 years ago.
Michael Coon, Phillip’s son accompanied him on the trip, and said his father surprised everyone with how strong his memories were.
“They were amazed when they saw him,” Michael Coon said. “They were amazed at how sharp he is. You know, he may not be able to tell you what he had for breakfast, but when he got there, and he was on the tour, he remembered every single thing about where we were and where he had been.”
Coon spent a week in Japan, and upon his return was greeted by Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, Oklahoma’s Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs and about 30 members of the “Rolling Thunder,” a Coweta chapter of a national veterans organization whose mission is to promote POW/MIA awareness. Many members of Coon’s flight stopped when they saw the commotion, and applauded him as he was wheeled through Tulsa International Airport.
Aragon and David Rule, a veterans activist, presented Coon with a Combat Infantry Badge, Bronze Star and, most importantly, his Prisoner of War medal, which he had never received.
Rule said it’s not rare for a veteran to not receive medals owed to them, so Rule has made it his mission to unite the two.
“I found out about three weeks ago while having dinner (with Coon) that he didn’t have his medal,” Rule said. “Talking to his son, he said, if you get it, I’d really like to have that pinned on my father when we return from Japan.”
Rule said he had some brief discussions with Sen. Jim Inhofe’s office, and it wasn’t long until he had Coon’s medal.
“These medals came out during the Reagan administration,” Rule said. “And unfortunately, a lot of these men fell through the cracks. It’s not unusual to hear this, so the first thing I do when I meet a POW is ask them ‘Do you have your medal?’”
Aragon called Coon an “American hero,” and said many soldiers have not received medals they deserve.
“When these guys came home, they wanted to see momma, sweetheart and the kids,” she said.
Michael Coon said his father is a shy, private man.
“This is the way he would have wanted to get his medal anyway, surrounded by other veterans, just a quiet ceremony,” Coon said.
While prisoner, Philip Coon was forced to work in a copper mine in Kosaka, his son said. The current Kosaka mayor was so impressed with Coon’s memories that he put him in his private van and drove him to the mine he was enslaved in.
“It was good for him,” Michael Coon said. “It was kind of like closing a chapter of his story.
“It was not only for him, but it was for the Japanese. Many of them, particularly the younger generation, don’t know what happened there.”
Michael Coon said they took two blankets with them to Japan, one of which they presented to the Kyoto World Peace Museum.
“We told them about our culture, which they were very interested in,” he said. “We told them we fought a war (in America) too, and we had to rebuild our nation like they did.”
Phillip Coon said the trip was a blessing, and said his favorite part was seeing other POWs.
“I was very surprised to see some of my comrades,” Coon said. “I’m very blessed and happy to be home.”