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WW2 vet shares his story at Darien event

Updated 12:36 pm, Saturday, August 18, 2012
  • WWII Merchant Marine veteran Dr. Frank Couglin, of New Canaan, speaks with WWII Army veteran John Rikert, of Darien, during the observation of the 67th anniversary of the end of WWII at Atria Senior Living in Darien on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012. Photo: Amy Mortensen / Connecticut Post Freelance
    WWII Merchant Marine veteran Dr. Frank Couglin, of New Canaan, speaks with WWII Army veteran John Rikert, of Darien, during the observation of the 67th anniversary of the end of WWII at Atria Senior Living in Darien on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012. Photo: Amy Mortensen

 

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World War II veterans were honored at the Darien Atria for the 67th anniversary of V-J Day (Victory over Japan Day) on Sunday in an event featuring speeches by local and national politicians.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, along with Congressman Jim Himes (D-4), state Sens. Bob Duff (D-25) and Carlo Leone (D-27), State Rep. Terrie Wood (R-141) made speeches. Darien Selectman John Lundeen read a proclamation.

The New Canaan News sat down with one of the veterans in attendance to hear his story as a member of the "Greatest Generation" which shaped our country not only in war, but in the decades that followed.

New Canaan resident Francis Coughlin was born in New York City on Feb. 22, 1927. In that year, Prohibition was in full swing, Ford debuted the Model A and Babe Ruth hit 60 homeruns as a part of perhaps the greatest baseball team ever assembled to this day, featuring Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri and Earl Combs.

Coughlin grew up in Long Island as the Long Island Expressway was being built, the first part of which opened when he was 13. He attended high school at Fordham Prep, during which time the news was filled with the events of World War II. When he graduated, he decided to join the military.

"Some of my friends were getting killed. I couldn't join [the Army or Navy] on account of my eyes. I'm very near-sighted. The only thing I could get into was Merchant Marines. I enlisted in April of 1945, the day that Franklin Delano Roosevelt died [April 12]."

He was sent to boot camp for the U.S. Maritime Service in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, where along with 10,000 other men he was taught what he'd have to know aboard ship, including how to use the guns, how to swim and how to keep fit.

Although he had signed up in the lowest physical category as mess man, due to his intelligence and background, officers assigned Coughlin to the Purser-Pharmacist school, where he completed an abbreviated training. When he departed on the SS Gideon Welles in December of 1945, he was, at 18, one of the more experienced health care providers onboard.

The 441-foot Liberty ship, loaded with tons of coal, set sail from Baltimore, traveled through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, and then up the west coast of the Adriatic Sea, along the Italian coastline, where it deposited the coal to the island-city of Venice. Although in December of 1945 the shooting war had finished, the Adriatic and Mediterranean remained loaded with active mines the Germans had laid in 1941 in an attempt to close off the ports from the world. Just eight months prior to Coughlin's voyage, the HMS Coriolanus had hit a mine and sunk off the coast of Croatia, just 75 miles from Venice.

The return trip proved to be perilous as well. Although it was January, the ship ran into a hurricane in the North Atlantic, an unusual event that only occurs a few times a century. The ship was tossed around during the storm, encountering mammoth 60-foot waves.

"The ship rolled 45 degrees. If we had rolled 48 degrees we would have capsized," Coughlin said. When asked what the water temperature of the North Atlantic would have been like in January, Coughlin responded, "Cold."

The ship made it through the storm, however, and returned to Baltimore where it was re-outfitted. Plans to go to Japan were scrapped following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which led to V-J Day, the anniversary of which the event celebrated. The SS Gideon Welles was eventually sold by the United States government in 1947 to a private buyer. It was scrapped in 1969.

When Coughlin returned, he enrolled as a pre-med student at Fordham University. He was accepted to the Yale Medical School in 1948, and graduated in 1952, joining the millions of American men entering or re-entering the professional world at that time.

After stints in New York, McGill University, and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Coughlin settled down in Stamford as its first heart surgeon, performing the hospital's first thoracic surgery, in 1960.

In the 1980s Coughlin became an advocate on the issue of medical malpractice and TORT reform after he was sued in 1981 in a case where he did not believe he had done anything wrong. He opened a legal practice dedicated to the issue of medical malpractice and went on to become the President of the Society of Medical Jurisprudence in New York. From 2003 to 2006, he served as president of the Yale Medical School Alumni Association. He retired Dec. 31, 2011, at the age of 84.

Coughlin said he found the ceremony Sunday to be very meaningful.

"During this time [the war years], we saw a lot of generosity and loyalty to our country. I think the attitude of people in the country these days needs an improvement," he said. "When I visited Auschwitz, and saw where so many people had been killed, I realized that there was a real purpose in World War II. That inhumanity in man could not be tolerated."

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; www.twitter.com/woods_NCNews