Share this article

print logo

Since age 16, a life of public service

Editor's Note: Richard F. Cotter died Thursday, before this story in the Saluting Our War Heroes series could be published.


Richard F. Cotter had three older brothers already serving in the Army Air Forces in World War II when he gave his father an ultimatum.

Either Edward M. Cotter would sign papers to allow him to join up with the Merchant Marine early or Richard would run away from home.

It was a big demand coming from a 16-year-old ablaze with patriotic fervor, but his firefighter father agreed, and his youngest son was off to become part of the wartime world.

When he boarded his first supply ship, the SS Sparrows Point, Cotter informed the first mate that he lacked proper gear: a knife, a flashlight and a life preserver.

"The first mate told me, 'Don't worry, you won't need a life preserver. You're going to need a parachute because that's where you'll be going,' " Cotter recalled.

There was good reason for the first mate's aerial allusion. The Merchant Marine often delivered high-test gasoline for warplanes and boats.

"We transported 165,000 barrels of this fuel per boatload," Cotter said.

And during his maiden voyage to England, Cotter found out just how dangerous it was to be in the Merchant Marine.

"I happened to be on deck watching as a German submarine came up beside us. An American destroyer came behind the sub and shot its tower off, and I watched it sink," Cotter said. "I pray for those German sailors every day. They never had a chance."

He also gives thanks that he and his shipmates were spared.

After that first fuel delivery, Cotter and his mates picked up another load of fuel from Aruba in the Caribbean Sea and then passed through the Panama Canal to the Pacific.

"We went to the Philippines and built a dock at one of the islands for a gasoline station to fuel PT boats. A PT captain who was a brother of one of those I was with in the Merchant Marine asked if any of us wanted to go up to Manila.

"I volunteered, and as we went into the harbor, a Japanese troop ship had just been sunk, and the bodies of Japanese soldiers were floating all over the harbor. The captain maneuvered his boat through the bodies. He had great respect for the bodies," Cotter said.

When the war ended, he returned home to Buffalo for a vacation, intending to make a career out of the Merchant Marine. Romance intervened. He met Kathleen O'Donnell and promptly tossed overboard his plans for a life on the high seas.

"I met my sweetie, and we've been married 64 years," Cotter said.

To support his wife and the six children, he enlisted in another form of public service, the Buffalo Police Department, where he worked for 23 years, retiring as a detective sergeant.

Cotter then worked for 20 more years in private security in downtown Buffalo and elsewhere.

If the name Cotter sounds familiar, its because the Buffalo Fire Department's fireboat is named for Richard's father, Edward M. Cotter. His father established Local 282, Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association, the union representing city firefighters.

Richard's son Edward M. Cotter, namesake of his grandfather, is a Buffalo police detective.

Two other sons also are in police work, West Seneca Lt. Richard F. Cotter Jr. and Erie County Sheriff's Deputy Brian J. Cotter.

As for his wartime service, Cotter said he took pride in knowing that Congress in 1993 designated anyone who served in the Merchant Marine in World War II as a veteran of that war.

"We deserved it," he said.


Richard F. Cotter, 83

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: West Seneca

Branch: Merchant Marine

Rank: Engineer 2nd Class

War zones: Atlantic, Pacific

Years of service: 1944-45

Most prominent honors: Atlantic War Zone Medal, Pacific War Zone Medal, Mediterranean-Middle East War Zone Medal, combat bar with two stars, Victory Medal

Specialty: Engine room