1950 Cosmopolitan Magazine article "I Married West Point"

Here is the original article by by Will Coates' widow Nancy that appeared in a 1950 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine.

"I Married West Point"

To those who never knew Willard Coates but who, with me and his parents, now share the shock of his untimely end in a command post in the bleak hills of Korea, I feel it important that I tell his story, our story


A double date can be the beginning and the end of the world. It was for me. In 1948, two weeks before school closed for the summer vacation, I met Cadet Willard Holbrook Coates on a double date. He was then a "yearling" - a second-year student in the United States Military Academy at West Point. I was nineteen, just finishing my first year at Edgewood Park, a girls' school at Briarcliff Manor on the Hudson, a few miles above New York City and about twenty-five miles below West Point.

By the following October, I was "pinned" to Will. In February, we were engaged. On June 7, 1950, the day after his graduation, we were married in the beautiful Catholic chapel at West Point and fled under an arch of swords to a honeymoon in the Poconos. In September, Will shipped out to the Pacific. On November twenty-eighth, he was killed by a direct hit from a Chinese mortar in the Hamhung sector of Korea. In March of this year, our daughter Anita was born.

It is now only three and a half years since I first met Will. We were married less than six months when he died. We had less than four months together. Our generation, raised in a depression and a war; has always known that there would be too little time. But Will and I never suspected that there would be so desperately little - that for Will at twenty-four there would be a distant grave as a result of a war that is but half a war.

For me there are memories and dreams of what might have been. For Anita, a Purple Heart and a Silver Star to treasure.

When you add it up, it comes to very little. Yet, if it is meaningful, that little looms large. What, I often ask myself, makes a soldier's death more meaningful than that of a man who falls under a train? Not the tears of his family - these are shed freely for all who die young and loved. The meaning, it seems to me, comes from the thoughts and words and acts of strangers who did not know the soldier in life but who are committed to him by his death because he died for them.

These strangers can make of his death either sacrifice or mockery. The choice is up to them. He can do no more. To those who never knew Willard Coates but who, with me and his parents, now share the shock of his untimely end in a command post in the bleak hills of Korea, I feel it important that I tell his story, our story.

Will was born at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1926, the fifth of eight children, the son of a soldier, and named for a soldier. His boyhood was like any other youngster's, except that he was brought up on Army posts. He went to high school in San Antonio, Texas, and in June, 1944, when he was eighteen, he enlisted in the Army. That month the Allies landed in Normandy. Will asked to be sent to West Point. He went to a West Point prep school at Amherst, took an examination for the military academy and was appointed through Senator Theodore F. Green of Rhode Island.

I met Will at a West Point dance in May, 1948. One of my friends at Edge-wood Park was Teresa Coates, a pretty blonde girl who had an older brother at West Point. Teresa often went up to the Point for weekends. My petite roommate, Betty Ray Ruthven, usually went along, and before long Betty Ray was wearing Teresa's brother's pin.

Teresa and Betty Ray invited me to the Point several times, but all that winter I was too busy to accept. One weekend I went to the fall house party at Williams. Another time it was a football game at Princeton. Or a dance at Yale. Or a weekend in New York City. I was lead-ing the storybook life of a college girl on a mad whirl, and I had no time to risk on a blind date.

Two weeks before summer vacation, I finally went with Betty Ray to a dance at the Point. Her date was Willard Coates. My escort was Phil Donahue from Illinois. I was thrilled by my first glimpse of the weathered academy buildings, the famous walks and fields, and the breath-taking view of the Hudson. Phil was nice, but I found Willard Coates uncommonly attractive. He was blond and blue-eyed and very straight in his gray uniform with black trim. He stood about an inch and a half taller than my generous height of five feet nine and a half. In addition to his good looks, he had the easy, friendly manner of a boy who enjoys getting along with people.

Three days later I got a letter from Willard inviting me up for the next weekend. I declined because he was pinned to Betty Ray. The following weekend, Betty Ray returned Willard's pin. But by then it was summer vacation, and so I went home to Connecticut without seeing Will again.

That July I worked in the Hospital for Crippled Children in Newington, Connecticut, where I learned physiotherapy techniques for treatment of polio and meningitis. In the fall, back at Edgewood, I followed school protocol and got Betty Ray's consent to date Will. Soon I knew that this was not just another date. With Will I was relaxed and exhilarated and happier than I'd ever been. By the end of October, he had given me his pin. The presentation was characteristic of him. We were at a dance at Cullum Hall, and had stepped out onto a balcony into the moonlight. Will fished his gold-and-pearl "A" pin out of his pocket and said, "You ought to start wearing this."

Despite his offhand manner, Will had his moments of sentiment. For my birth-day that year he went to great pains to have an elaborate cake baked with a birthday message written in colored icing. The gesture at least was wonderfully sweet, and it wasn't his fault that the cake was terrible. I cheerfully ate several pieces and went home and took bicarbonate.

Each weekend at least a dozen of us from Edgewood rushed up to West Point. We went by car and bus and stayed, for a dollar seventy-five a night, at Thayer Hall, the Government-run hotel. On weekends Thayer was thronged with college girls from the entire East, as well as high-school sweethearts, New York models, and mothers and sisters of the hard-working cadets. We watched the parade at one P.M. on Saturdays. We met our men at two, and they were free until six o'clock Sunday evening.

Every Saturday afternoon there were spectator sports - basketball, volleyball, tennis, and, in the winter, ice skating for all of us. Rarely did the boys have enough money to take us out to dinner, so we girls caught a hamburger together, zipped each other into our gowns, and met our dates for an early movie. Then we all went to the hall next to the theatre for the underclass hop.

Sundays there were chapel services. Later we took strolls by the river, along Flirtation Walk, and gave the traditional kiss under Kissing Rock, which overhangs the walk and which will, according to legend, fall on the couple who fail to kiss. Will and I had a favorite rock jutting out into the Hudson, and on winter afternoons we sat bundled in mittens and scarves, watching the boats go by.

Whenever we were on the post, the boys were continually running off to report for some duty. The slightest failure to perform or obey meant restriction to quarters and precious leave time canceled. And behind the distress over lost time was always the realization, seldom mentioned but always understood, that the boys we were falling in love with and planning to marry were training to be soldiers in a world in which real peace was only a faded hope.

That New Year's I flew down to Suffolk, Virginia, to meet Will's folks. For a girl from a small family - I have only my mother and one married sister - it was a staggering experience. I already knew Will's sister Teresa and his brother Charles, Jr., an instructor in mechanics at West Point. Now I met his father, Charles Elting Coates, a retired colonel, who had received his commission from Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 and served in more than a dozen different Army posts in this country and abroad, and his mother, a calm, delightful woman, who had imperturbably brought up her brood all over the map, often transporting her huge household across the continent in a caravan of three cars. Two younger sisters, Sheila and Buddha (given name, Blanche, generally addressed as Pest, then Budapest, then Buddha), romped in and out of the house with a steady change of dates. There was a married sister, Margaret, and a brother, Edwin, married to a former Army nurse. Another brother, Howell, a fighter pilot, had been killed in North Africa in 1943.

On that first visit I began to realize that if I married Will, I would be marrying not only the West Point class of '50, but the entire United States Army. For generations back, the men of Will's family had followed the profession of soldiering with unique devotion. Colonel Coates, Will's father, showed me his father's commission as a second lieutenant in the Second Regiment of Dragoons, dated August, 1861, and signed by Abraham Lincoln. Grandfather Coates fought in the Battle of the Wilderness, was wounded at Chancellorsville, and after the Civil War took the field against hostile Sioux Indians. He retired as a brigadier general in 1900.

Will's grandfather on his mother's side, Colonel Hoel S. Bishop, graduated from West Point in 1873. He served in the cavalry in Puerto Rico, in the Philippines, and in Indian wars out West. When he was stationed at Fort Apache in the Arizona territory he sent his daughter, Will's mother, to school in St. Louis. To get home for vacations, she rode the railroad to the end of the line and then covered the remaining ninety miles to the fort on horseback. Her brother, Hoel S. Bishop, Jr., attended West Point, class of 1918 and is now a colonel in Engineers, stationed in the Pentagon.

From this strict military tradition, you might easily expect the Coates family to have developed a rigidly formal and for-bidding manner. But instead, they were a merry, spirited, fun-loving group.

Will and I became engaged in February, 1949. His parents had come up to the Point for his birthday. There was a dance Saturday night, and in the early hours of Sunday morning, down by the shore of the Hudson, in a freezing wind, he gave me my ring, a miniature version of his class ring set with his grandmother's diamond. I was so giddy with happiness and excitement that nothing would do but that I wake Will's folks at two in the morning to show them the ring. They groped for their glasses, couldn't find them, exclaimed, "It's lovely!" and didn't tell me until a year later that they hadn't seen the ring at all that night.

My life became a merry-go-round that spun faster and faster. I studied until all hours during the week to keep my week-ends free for Will. Each weekend was a breathless, exhausting whirl of activity.

Then Will was a "firstie" - a fourth-year cadet. He was studying harder than ever, but he had more privileges and free time. I lived for weekends, and each weekend was Christmas.

At the Point they were filming "The West Point Story," and in addition to the native glamour of the academy, there was the imported variety from Hollywood, provided by anonymous starlets and characters in lemon-colored sports jackets, sunglasses, and polka-dot scarves.

Some weekends I met Will in New York. There he usually changed his gray uniform for a gray civilian suit I particularly liked. We saw "Red Shoes" that winter and "A Streetcar Named Desire," and we went to Nick's in the Village" Wherever we danced, the orchestra sooner or later played "Stardust," which came to be our song.

At Thanksgiving we went down to the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia, and Will's folks came up from Virginia. I was still busy impressing my future in-laws, and for the occasion I had made a princess-style dress in shiny red. I thought it indescribably beautiful. I put it on after the game when we all gathered for dinner and dancing at Wanamaker's store; two floors of the store are cleared for this gala event. During the first dance with Will, a side seam on the dress gave way. A few minutes later another seam pulled out. Before long, every seam in the dress had come apart. There I stood in the middle of a department store full of clothes with my dress falling off my back. By the time Will brought my coat, I had dissolved into tears.

Spring came and flew by in a daze of shopping for both of us. I was busy buying clothes and furniture. New York stores filled the West Point gym with officers' uniforms and accessories, and we spent hours getting Will outfitted. And then, at last, it was June Week.

The excitement and color and ceremony and joy of those crowded days are something I will never forget. There was dancing every night, the Superintendent's Tea, Parents' Dinner, frantic farewells and exchanges of addresses and, on June sixth, the unforgettable graduation exercises that transformed struggling cadets into full-fledged second lieutenants.

The next day, June seventh, Will and I were married by the Reverend Joseph P. Moore in the Catholic Chapel of the Most Holy Trinity. I stood in the lovely gold-and-blue chapel in my white-satin dress and fingertip veil, with Will next to me in his summer uniform with buttons and insignia so bright they hurt your eyes, surrounded by family and friends and loved ones, and I was so happy I could have died. My sister was my matron of honor. Teresa and two of my friends were bridesmaids. Will's brother Charles was his best man, and four of his classmates, wearing borrowed swords, were his ushers. We left the Gothic chapel under the ushers' crossed swords. At a reception at the officers' club, we sliced a three-story wedding cake with a sword, and then we were off on a sixty-day leave, after which Will had to report to Fort Benning.

We climbed into our tan Ford - Will was so proud of that car, the first he'd ever owned - drove to the Poconos, back to the Point, home to Hartford, down to the Connecticut shore, and on to Florida where the Coateses had moved into a large old house in Clearwater. We were in Connecticut on June twenty-fifth when the North Koreans struck south-ward, but it was a remote event that we never dreamed would shatter our lives.

At Fort Benning, we set up house-keeping in a lovely four-room apartment right outside the gates of the post. We assembled our furniture, and I made curtains. Will dug up some lead soldiers and marched his squadrons across the dining-room table, down onto the floor, and into the living room. I carefully vacuumed around these adult toys to avoid disrupting their precise ranks. We visited back and forth with several of Will's classmates from West Point who had been assigned with him to Benning. We all danced and swam at the officers' club, talked about where we'd like our next move to take us, and lived in a carefree, buoyant present.

One night toward the end of September, Will went back to the post after supper. He came home with his orders in his hand. He was to leave the country on September twenty-third, via San Francisco. We were stunned. He had never expected to ship out so soon. We agreed that I would store our brand-new furniture and go home to my mother's in Hartford to await my authorization to go to Japan. We hoped it would come through quickly so I could be settled out there by March, when the baby was due.

Like a good Army wife, I did not shed a single tear. Teresa and I took Will to the train, and said our farewells. After the train pulled out, Teresa and I drove furiously back to the apartment from which we would have a final glimpse of the train. I stood by our front door and waved to Will on the back platform of the speeding train. That was the last time I saw him.

He phoned from San Francisco. Then there were letters, first from Japan, soon from Korea. He wrote every day, but the letters came in bunches. He was working hard training a ROK outfit. Then he moved up to the front. He was in combat with Company B, Seventh In-fantry Regiment, Third Division. He was constantly under fire.

I moved back to Hartford and went to work for my next-door neighbor, Peter Boon, who was selling an intercommunication system, using his home as his office. On Tuesday, November twenty-eighth I went to church. I never went in the middle of the week, but some force compelled me that morning. Early in December, Will's letters stopped coming. I said nothing to anyone.

On December nineteenth, after I'd gone next door, a letter came for me from a Captain John J. Powers, bearing the same APO as Will's letters. My mother phoned Sue, my sister. My sister told Mother to open the letter. Then Mother phoned Sue back. Sue and her husband went immediately to Mother's. My brother-in-law phoned Pete to send me home. I saw Pete turn chalk-white, and I knew.

Captain Powers' letter was written on the assumption that I had already been notified by the Army and would welcome a few details.

On the evening of November twenty-eighth at about ten-thirty [he wrote], I was talking with Willie on the sound power phone, as I had heard some firing in his sector of the line. He said he didn't think it was much of anything but would keep me posted. About ten forty-five, the Chinese started their attack and I lost contact with Willie. The next morning, after we had repulsed the attack, I found out from Willie's platoon sergeant that at about ten forty-five one of the enemy mortar rounds had scored a direct hit on Willie's command post. I know that when the round hit he was killed immediately and did not suffer any pain.

The official notification of Will's death did not come from the Army until January fifteenth, almost a month later - a month that was like death to me, too, as I waited, uncertain in my grief. After the terse telegram, there was a flood of mes-sages. There was a note of condolence from President Truman, a moving mes-sage from General MacArthur, letters from hundreds of friends and classmates. In February I was notified that Will had been given the Purple Heart posthu-mously. In April, I was told a Silver Star had been awarded Will for action near Sach'ang-ni.

Teresa came to Hartford in February. On March twenty-third the baby arrived, a whopping ten pounds two ounces. I named her Anita, a name Will and I had selected together, and took her up to West Point so Father Moore could baptize her. When Anita was a month old, Teresa, Anita, and I drove south to spend the summer with the Coateses in Florida. As I write this, we are still luxuriating in the warm Florida sunshine. Later on, I will return to Hartford and take an apartment near my mother.

Now, in the lovely new home the Coateses built last winter, I have come to understand how much of life is built on anticipation. The anticipation of a departure, or a return, or a letter. When there is no longer a return to anticipate, no hope of a letter tomorrow or the day after, the days take on a lethargy and a sameness.

Here among those who loved Will all his life [text missing] happy business of daily living. In the evening, we may have a picnic supper on the beach - Colonel and Mrs. Coates, Teresa, Sheila, Buddha, Ed and Adele Coates who live down the street with their three little boys, and even Anita in her tiny plaid car-bed. We throw potato chips to the gulls circling under an extravagant sunset.

Often in the afternoon I take two of my nephews for a swim. The seven-year-old nearly bursts with excitement when two soldiers invite him aboard the grand-daddy of all swimming tubes, the inner tube of the wheel of a B-29. One of Sheila's young men sets fire to some palm trees, and the phone rings more fran-tically than ever as her crowd debates how far police interest will go in this fascinating new episode. Buddha puckers her pretty forehead as we confer over a skirt she is making, which seems to have the contours of a slipcover.

I am not allowed for a moment to brood in solitude. But neither can I for-get for an instant that for me there is no real tomorrow because Will is not coming back. He is not ever coming back. Is there meaning in his death? I wonder. It is for others to determine. The best I can do is remember General MacArthur's message to me: "While the loss of your beloved one will be a hardship, we know that no life is really lost for those who have faith in God."


Cosmopolitan Magazine 1950