TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Given the choice, World War II veteran Phillip Coon probably wouldn’t want the formality and fuss of being honored on a military base with men and women standing at attention, dressed in full regalia — even if it was with a fistful of long-overdue medals he waited decades to receive.
So it’s fitting that the awards were presented to the humble Tulsa-area man Monday evening in an informal ceremony at the Tulsa International Airport, with family and fellow veterans in attendance and little pomp and circumstance.
The 94-year-old survivor of a POW labor camp and the Bataan Death March received the Prisoner of War Medal, Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman Badge after he and his son, Michael, returned from a trip to Japan to promote understanding and healing with the U.S.
A couple of dozen people applauded wildly after the medals were presented to Coon, who was seated in a wheelchair. He lifted his ball cap in recognition, exposing a shock of silver hair.
“I’ve been blessed to come this far in life,” he said, a tear streaming down one cheek. “I thank the Lord for watching over me.”
Japan’s Foreign Ministry said Coon visited the site of the former POW camp in Kosaka next to a now defunct copper mine where he was put to forced labor. The veteran also met the mayor and other officials in Kosaka, in Japan’s northern prefecture of Akita.
Coon, who lives in Sapulpa in northeastern Oklahoma, served as an infantry machine gunner in the Army. He is also a survivor of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines in 1942, when the Japanese military forced tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers to trek for 65 miles with little food or water in blazing heat. As many as 11,000 died along the way.
After he came home from the war, Coon locked away the horrors he saw and endured.
“When I was growing up, he didn’t talk too much about the military, and I didn’t know what he did until I was in elementary school,” recalled Coons’ son, Michael. “All my mother would say is, ‘your father’s famous,’ and that’s it.”
It wasn’t until 40 years later in 1985 — after watching dozens of John Wayne and Audie Murphy war flicks with Hollywood endings and growing tired of the numerous inaccuracies — that Coon decided it was long past time he told his account of how he and vets like him were really treated in captivity.
“He said he had to let others know about what he endured,” Michael Coon said Tuesday during an interview at his father’s home in Sapulpa. “He said, ‘I just want to give the true facts, not the Hollywood version.'”
The elder Coon was too tired from the long flight home from Japan to talk and was still resting late Tuesday, his son said.
It’s not clear why Coon didn’t get his medals before now, but such occurrences with awards are not uncommon in the military.
“It continues to trouble me that there are instances where service members do not receive the service medals they have earned through the course of their careers,” said U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, whose office contacted the military three weeks ago about the missing medals. “But It is extremely rewarding for me and my staff to be able to help veterans and active-duty members receive the honors they have fought for.”
Retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, Oklahoma’s secretary of military and veterans’ affairs, said most veterans were — rightly — more focused on reuniting with their families than chasing after military ribbons when they returned after the war. Aragon presented the medals to Coon during the airport ceremony.