Service Number: 353706
Birth and Early Life:
Donald Coffey was born in Lansing, Michigan, around the year 1920. He was raised by his parents John and Juanita Coffey.
Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Donald Coffey joined the Marines in Detroit on January 7, 1942. He was initially sent to Parris Island, but on January 31 was transferred to The Training Center at Quantico, Virginia.
Private Coffey was picked for the First Marine Raider Battalion; after demonstrating his prowess on the rifle range, he was rated as a Specialist 5th Class – a Raider sniper, one of only a handful in his Company A.
After training in Samoa, where he was promoted to Private First Class, Coffey and his company sailed for the island of Tulagi and waded ashore on August 7, 1942. It was their first experience in combat and the Japanese garrison, though small, was as determined as any the Marines were facing on the nearby island of Guadalcanal.
The Raiders would see Guadalcanal as a lump on the horizon, separated by Japanese-patrolled waters, until September. The Raider commander, “Red Mike” Edson, wanted to get his battalion back in the fight and proposed an amphibious landing near a major Japanese supply hub. Intelligence reports indicated that the enemy had an observation post on nearby Savo Island, so Coffey’s Able company, with their comrades in Baker Company, boarded to small transports to investigate. The tip turned out to be a dud – Savo was deserted, and the Raiders returned that afternoon.
In the early morning hours of September 8, the Raiders landed near the village of Tasimboko on Guadalcanal. Coffey and Company A had to wait until the first wave was landed and their boats returned; in the interval, a convoy was spotted in the gloom, which was at first believed to be an enemy fleet. Able Company couldn’t get ashore fast enough. Fortunately, the ships were American transports; their appearance frightened Japanese lookouts into reporting that a major landing was under way, the defenders scattered, and the Marines came ashore without a hitch.
As the sun rose and the Japanese began to react, Company A was ordered to swing into the jungle to the south and hook around the village from the rear. Coffey, trained as a scout as well as a sniper, was likely in the vanguard of this advance, led by a handful of native scouts. The trek took seven hours, most of which was spent out of contact with the battalion headquarters – but Company A finally reached their objective, completely surprising Japanese defenders who believed the fighting was happening elsewhere. The Raiders gleefully destroyed as many enemy supplies as they could, taking with them important documents, medical supplies, and as many delicacies and bottles of beer as they could carry.
Two days later, the Raiders were ordered to march inland. They took up positions near an anonymous ridge, which happened to be in a commanding location near the precious airfield. Any who hoped this would be a rest position had those hopes dashed as the order came to dig in. On the night of 12-13 September, Japanese infantry attacked and overran the Raider’s Company C, which fell back towards the ridge. After a night of desperate fighting, the Japanese finally withdrew to the jungle.
Date Of Loss:
As the Marines recovered their wounded and consolidated their positions in the stifling heat of September 13, Captain John “Tony” Antonelli – Able Company’s commander – was ordered to take his men forward on a combat patrol, with instructions to re-take Charlie Company’s abandoned positions and develop a counterattack should the opportunity arise. Edson wanted to keep the Japanese off balance, but for the grunts in Antonelli’s company, crossing over the previous night’s battlefield was like walking through Hell. As they stepped over the dead and entered the jungle, they saw small groups of figures stumbling towards them. The survivors of a Raider machine gun section – eleven out of thirty, all of them wounded at least once – staggered into the advancing men, who could spare only a few moments to help them on their way. One of the wounded gunners died just as he reached safety.
“We formed a skirmish line with two platoons on line and a platoon in support,” recalled Sergeant Frank Guidone.
As we moved slowly into the jungle, loud, shrill Japanese voices broke the stillness. The line froze. The voices continued – the Japanese officers or NCOs were placing their men in position to halt our attack….
We were moving forward slowly – we only had about thirty feet of visibility ahead of us. It was difficult to maintain silence. We were constantly brushing aside long stems and branches and the thorny ones would cause one to curse aloud.
The Japanese were now quiet. This was a bad omen because it meant they were all in position and awaiting our attack. Finally, it came…. We could actually see the jungle foliage just above our position being moved by the Japanese bullets. You could not move to any upright position – you would be cut down quickly. (2)
Antonelli had fire support from a section of mortars, but was worried about hitting his own men. He ordered a quick withdrawal to a nearby riverbed, and the Marines kept up the fight for about an hour. Finally realizing that he did not have the strength to take back the position, Antonelli told his men to fall back to the ridge. Able Company had lost one man – 23-year-old Donald Coffey, whose body they could not reach.
Leaving Coffey behind had a strong impact on many of his comrades, particularly Clyde F. “Beaver” Wilson, who said simply “Coffey’s death was a terrible loss to me.” (1)
Next Of Kin:
Mother, Mrs. Juanita Coffey
Status Of Remains:
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
(1) Alexander, Joseph H. Edson’s Raiders: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion in World War II. page 167
(2) Smith, George W. The Do Or Die Men: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion at Guadalcanal. page 246