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World War II veteran finally collects his war medals, 74 years later

The Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals hang from U.S. Army Private 1st Class (Sep.) Lynn Aas’ jacket during an interview at the Dakota Territory Air Museum in Minot, N.D., Feb. 18, 2016. (Senior Airman Apryl Hall/U.S. Air Force)

Pearl Harbor veteran George Coburn has waited nearly 75 years for the service medals he earned during World War II. On Tuesday, a grateful nation finally paid its debt to the 99-year-old Oceanside retiree.

In a brief ceremony before more than 60 residents of Fairwinds Ivey Ranch retirement community, U.S. Rep. Mike Levin paid tribute to Coburn’s service and bravery while awarding him eight medals, a combat action ribbon and two other commendations for his service in the Navy from 1938 to 1946.

Coburn said that when the war ended 74 years ago, “things got a little screwy because everyone was so busy celebrating.” The Navy did present him with a Purple Heart medal in 1945 for injuries sustained during the Battle of Okinawa, but none of the paperwork for his other service honors was ever processed.

While he joked that he’s not sentimental about anything but “girls,” he seemed to enjoy all the hoopla on Tuesday and plans to make a special place in his apartment to display his new military hardware.

“People always say to me ‘thank you for your service.’ I tell them I did it willingly, but I can’t say it was enjoyable and don’t ask me to do it again,” he said, to laughter from his fellow residents at Fairwinds.

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Levin’s staff spent the past few months working with the U.S. Navy to obtain Coburn’s long-overdue medals. His office learned about the oversight from Linda Dudik, a local World War II historian who discovered in March that Coburn had never received his medals. Levin has participated in a handful of these medal ceremonies since taking office earlier this year, but said Tuesday’s was “extraordinary” because of the sheer number of honors Coburn was due.

“This is the best thing I get to do in my job,” Levin said. “There is a common humility among these men who gave so much to their country, so if there’s a way I can give back to them, it’s an honor to do that.”

Coburn was aboard the USS Oklahoma battleship when the Pearl Harbor attack began on Dec. 7, 1941. Just 10 minutes after the first torpedo struck the ship, it capsized, taking 492 sailors trapped inside its hull to a watery grave. He escaped the ship and spent the next five years aboard the heavy cruiser USS Louisville, which was involved in several major battles in the Pacific Theater.

Coburn’s granddaughter, Laura Coburn of University Heights, said her grandfather would share his stories about the horrors he experienced during the war, but he didn’t dwell on them.

“He had some terrible experiences, but they inspired him to make a better life for himself,” she said. “He’s an excellent ambassador for coming back and turning a bad experience around into something positive.”

Coburn was a baby when his family moved to San Diego in 1920. After graduating from Hoover High, he got a job selling used cars for 25 cents an hour. But the pay wasn’t steady, so he enlisted in the Navy on Feb. 11, 1938. The war in Europe began in September 1939 and the U.S. entered the fight two years later following Japan’s surprise attack on the Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Coburn was serving as a fire controlman first class on the Oklahoma, making final preparations for an inspection the next day, when the ship’s P.A. system crackled to life at 7:53 that December morning. He remembers a frantic announcement: “All hands man your battle stations …. real planes, real bombs, no sh___!” He thought some joker was playing with the microphone until the ship’s general alarm sounded.

As he and dozens of other men struggled to climb several floors to the main deck, a series of six torpedoes hit the ship. The men became trapped under a sealed hatch as the ship quickly listed 45 degrees to its port side. Oil tanks were ruptured in the blasts and a large pool of oil began collecting on the floor, causing men to slip and slide in the fast-rising pool. The lights went out and Coburn could hear water pouring into the ship. Men on the ladder frantically tried to open the hatch to the deck above and one of the anchors holding the ladder in place broke, so it began to swing wildly.

“Panic was growing,” Coburn wrote about his memories from that day. “Some were screaming, some were cursing and one called repeatedly for help from Mommy.”

Eventually the hatch was opened and the ladder held long enough for the men to climb up to the second, and finally, the main deck. The ship was beginning to roll upside down, so Coburn and a handful of men pulled themselves up through a side porthole, which was now overhead, to stand on the bottom of the inverted ship.

To avoid being shot by Japanese airplane gunners, he leapt into the bay in the 75-foot gap between the Oklahoma and the USS Maryland. Bullets continued to rain down in the water and Coburn now faced an approaching slick of flaming oil from the USS Arizona explosion. He grabbed a mooring line hanging from the Maryland’s side, hauled himself up the rope to its deck and spent the rest of the raid handling ammunition for anti-aircraft guns.

Ten days later, Coburn was assigned to the Louisville, on which he served until the end of the war. One of his last major conflicts was during the Battle of Okinawa, when a Japanese kamikaze pilot dive-bombed the Louisville. Coburn doesn’t remember the impact because was knocked out in the blast and injured by shrapnel.

“I remember that as I stepped out on the weather deck to go to my battle station I saw a plane heading toward us,” he recalled. “Our guys were all firing at him and they were hitting him. Pieces (of the plane) were falling off into the water. I thought, ‘Well, he’s not going to make it.’ But he did.”

Most of the honors Coburn received Tuesday were for his service in the Pacific from 1942 to 1946. They include the American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, China Service Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal with Asia clasp and World War II Victory Medal. The Navy also sent him a duplicate Purple Heart medal.

Coburn met his wife, Jeanette, at a Thanksgiving dinner, while on shore leave in Vallejo in 1945. They married in May 1946, five days after he was discharged from the Navy at the rank of lieutenant junior grade. They had two children, Charles and Marie, and enjoyed 60 years together before she died in December 2005. He moved into Fairwinds two years ago, where he enjoys dancing and karaoke with his new girlfriend, fellow resident Nancy Belknap.

After the war, Coburn said he got busy living his life in San Diego, and later Vista, as a civilian Navy contractor and an electrician. He didn’t attend Pearl Harbor reunions or participate in veterans service organizations because he wasn’t “a joiner” and he was sometimes irked by the undying hatred some veterans harbored for the Japanese. But that doesn’t mean his war experiences weren’t an important part of his life.

“Of course I remember everything about the war. But I just try not to think about it anymore. I preferred to move on and go my own way,” he said.

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© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.