Tom Coberly, 77, of Perry, volunteered to join the service in 1950 at 17. He came from a poor background and lived in the Ozarks. He had a sixth-grade education and had no chance of advancing. He knew he needed to do something with his life and saw the Army as his only option.
“The United States Army was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
He did his basic training at Camp Chaffee, Ark., and was trained in combat infantry.
When he went to Korea, they were replacing all of the men who had been lost in November and December 1950.
“They gave us a 50 to 1 chance of coming home. For every one who came home, 50 wouldn’t. Odds were much greater than that, turned out much improved. Ninety-six hundred of us went over on the ship and 1,300 of us came back. I don’t know how many of those were someplace else,” he said.
Coberly was selected for the 2nd Combat Engineers, which was an infantry based unit. The engineers laid and cleared mine fields and built roads in front of the infantry. His unit was responsible for 30 wheeled vehicles.
The extreme cold posed some challenges to maintaining them. One winter night, they backed the vehicles in a u-shape near the mess hall. Two men would start up the trucks, go in the mess hall and drink coffee, go back out and shut them off and repeat. By 2 a.m. only three vehicles started. Somehow the men managed to keep enough equipment running, so they didn’t run into problems.
“I’ve always maintained that anybody that served in those first two winters in Korea will go to heaven, regardless of what their belief is, because they spent their time in hell,” he said.
Riding with a musician
While in basic training, Coberly met a musician named Gentry who had the option of being on the line or going into special services. He chose the latter. The disadvantage of special services was it provided fewer points which meant it took longer to get out.
Coberly met back up with Gentry in Korea. Coberly was within a month of returning home, while Gentry had been earning about a half a point a month.
They were in a stalemate in early 1952. Coberly’s unit was building an access road for a possible push and were hauling gravel. They would drive up the main supply route and turn right. An 8-inch Long Tom was at the end of the road. About three times an hour, it was fired shooting at a pretty flat trajectory with a distance of about 30 feet. Before it was fired, the men would wave a big flag.
Gentry was driving and Coberly noticed the flag. He asked him to pull off the road. Gentry said OK, but he wasn’t in a big hurry to move over.
“Pull off the road,” Coberly said, “they’re getting pretty frantic with that thing down there.”
Gentry was still in a daze, so Coberly grabbed the steering wheel and jerked it to the right. When he did, the entire road erupted.
“I don’t think it would have hit that truck ... I was pretty shook up over this deal. I wanted to kill me a musician,” he said with a smile on his face.
Gentry later made the same mistake again.
“I often wonder if he made it. I hope he did, but he had no business in a line company,” Coberly said.
He returned to the States and was discharged. His son served for seven years during Desert Storm and he has a grandson who will be deployed to Afghanistan at the first of the year.
“Would I do it again? My son and I both volunteered to go in Jake’s (my grandson’s) place, but he said we were too old,” he said. “I’m not a war hero. I’m not anything great. I’m just a man, a boy, that had the privilege of serving this nation.”