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In a segregated Army during WWII, veteran recalls reaching Iwo Jima and beyond

James L. Coleman, 91

Hometown: Weir, Miss.

Residence: Buffalo and Sacramento, Calif.

Branch: Army

Rank: Sergeant

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1943-65

Most prominent honors: Asiatic- Pacific Campaign Medal, Marksman Badge

Specialty: Quartermaster unit, Signal Corps

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Before Uncle Sam drafted James L. Coleman for service in World War II, the Seneca High School student had put together an impressive résumé. One summer, he worked at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna making sure steel bars were properly loaded into the rolling mill for stretching.

Another summer, he worked at Bell Aircraft in Cheektowaga.

He also spent time at Pratt Electric in Buffalo, cleaning molds used to cast various materials.

So when he was called up for military duty at age 19, Coleman knew about hard work and was ready to serve.

On a Navy transport ship, the teenager arrived at Iwo Jima as the major battle for that strategic Pacific island was subsiding. Little did he know that this tropical spit of earth would be his home for months.

“They didn’t tell us where we were going until we were just about there. By the time I got there, they had been shelling for about a month and most of the island was pretty well secured, but it wasn’t over,” says Coleman, who served with an all-black unit, the 264th Quartermaster Company. “It was all segregated back then, but it didn’t bother me. We were all trying to survive.”

Recalling that the company landed just after daybreak, he says that it was nerve-racking. Japanese forces were still occupying caves and could shoot at will.

“It was a frightening situation,” he says. “You wanted to get your feet on the ground and out of the landing craft.”

Besides enemy gunfire, other signs of danger abounded.

“When we landed,” he says, “vehicles were scattered about that had been so damaged that they couldn’t be used anymore.”

And then there was the welcoming party, which hadn’t exactly rolled out the red carpet for the 200-member company.

“A colonel told us that the Marines we were attached to did not know that we had just landed and that we shouldn’t be stirring things up,” Coleman says. “We had three men to a foxhole, really a ditch, and we had to lay low.”

Over the next few days, he says, the Japanese launched a final assault.

“The Marines hadn’t taken too many prisoners, and there weren’t many of the enemy left,” he says. “But they started an assault, and we were about a quarter-mile away from the last of the Japanese who were shooting. They didn’t have any heavy artillery left. But you didn’t make a move out of your position. You’d be a sitting duck.”

Though the enemy was fully subdued, Coleman says, he still practiced caution: “You didn’t know if there were booby traps or what.”

For nine months, he was stationed on the island, including when the war ended in August 1945. His ticket off the barren island came when he re-enlisted for three more years.

“I couldn’t make up my mind if I wanted to return to Bethlehem Steel or go to school,” he says, “so I figured I’d re-enlist and figure things out.”

His next stop was Saipan, another of the conquered Pacific islands where he was briefly stationed before he returned stateside and spent a month back in Buffalo with his family.

“My family lived on Spring Street,” he says, “but the house is gone now.”

After his leave, Coleman says, he was still trying to decide what he wanted to do in life and recalled how, inadvertently, the Army helped guide him when he was sent to Fort Monmouth, N.J.

“When I’d been at Seneca High School, I had studied electronics and now the Army was training me in radio, microwave and radar skills,” Coleman says of how he made a career out of the Army.

During the Korean War, he served in Europe attached to an armored unit stationed in Germany, and during the Vietnam War, Coleman served at the Sacramento Army Depot in California. He also served for a time at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Following 22½ years of service, Coleman retired and went to work as a civilian at McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento. He installed radar equipment throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.

“I did that for 26 years,” says Coleman, who has been married to the former Gloria DeVane for the last 29 years.

And while his military and civil service have taken him around the world, he says, Buffalo has always been his home:

“My family is still there, and we get together every year.”