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Navy veteran who took decisive action at Pearl Harbor, dies at 93

By DENNIS HOEY | Portland Press Herald, Maine | Published: November 7, 2017

Robert Palmer Coles Jr., a veteran of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, died Saturday at his home in Machias. He was 93.

Born in New York City on Dec. 21, 1923, Coles, who suffered a heart attack a few days before his death, was surrounded by family and friends.

Former Chief Petty Officer Robert P. Coles Jr. was just 17 when he survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Dennis Boyd, who is writing Coles’ biography, said his friend was a true patriot and hero who loved his country, the flag and what it stood for.

“He was part of the greatest generation,” Boyd said by phone Monday night from his home in Cutler.

Boyd said Coles tricked his father into signing paperwork that would allow him to enlist in the U.S. Navy in February 1941 at age 17.

Coles left high school three months shy of graduation and, after undergoing training as a radioman, shipped out to the South Pacific.

Given his choice of serving on three Navy ships, Coles chose the USS Bagley, a destroyer. Though not trained as a gunner, Coles was a keen observer and learned by watching his crewmates load and fire guns. When Japanese torpedo bombers started to attack ships at the naval base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the teenager reacted without thinking, Boyd said.

Coles, who was on deck watch during the surprise attack, manned a machine gun and started firing at the enemy airplanes.

“He shot at and hit the first two bombers he saw,” Boyd said. “Whenever anyone would ask him if he destroyed the bombers, he would say, ‘I didn’t see them go down.’ ”

Boyd said Coles could never really explain why a 17-year-old radioman felt compelled to fire on Japanese pilots.

“My theory: He didn’t want anyone to hurt his Navy. He loved the Navy,” Boyd said.

The attack resulted in the deaths of 2,403 American servicemen. A total of 1,178 Americans were wounded, and 18 U.S. ships were sunk or run aground, including five battleships. Japanese losses were light.

Coles didn’t like to boast and would often tell people that “the only blood I saw during the war was when I nicked myself shaving,” Boyd said.

Coles retired from the Navy as a chief petty officer in 1970 after serving for three decades. He received eight medals and 17 battle stars during his Naval career.

“He never turned down an opportunity to enrich people with his gift of gab. He instilled ethics, a moral compass and patriotism,” Coles’ family wrote in his obituary.

Boyd said one of his friend’s favorite things to do was to visit local high schools and talk with students about the importance of completing their education. On his 93rd birthday in December, Coles received an honorable high school diploma from Machias Memorial High School.

Boyd said Coles’ fondest memory was of his visit to Pearl Harbor in December 2016 on the 75th anniversary of the attack. His trip back to Pearl Harbor, which was filmed and reported by WLBZ in Bangor, was funded with donations from Mainers.

When Coles left his home in Machias last December for Hawaii, wearing his full dress uniform, he gave a military salute to a crowd of people waiting outside. The crowd included state troopers, local police officers, firefighters and deputies from the Washington County Sheriff’s Department.

He was driven to the Hancock County Airport in Bar Harbor by a state trooper whose cruiser was followed by a caravan of vehicles.

“God bless you,” Coles told people who greeted him at the airport.

Friends are invited to a visitation Friday from 10 a.m. to noon at the Machias Memorial High School gymnasium. Interment with full military honors will follow at the Longfellow Cemetery in Machias.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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©2017 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)

Visit the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) at www.pressherald.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

The USS Bagley, tied up at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, late in 1945.
U.S. NAVY

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