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  • A copied photo of James E. Coffey taken in 1917, before he shipped out to Europe in World War I.
  • Courtesy photo

    One of the many granite or marble memorials that stand at the St. Mihiel World War I American Cemetery and Memorial in France was photographed by Nashua High South teacher Catherine Poulin on a recent visit to the grave of Nashua veteran James E. Coffey.
  • Courtesy photo

    The main gates of the St. Mihiel World War I American Cemetery and Memorial in France.
  • Courtesy photo

    The marker at the grave of Nashua World War I casualty James E. Coffey is among 4,153 at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery and Memorial in France.
  • Courtesy photo

    Some of the hundreds of neat rows of memorial markers at St. Mihiel World War I American Cemetery and Memorial in France.
  • Courtesy photo

    Some of the memorials surrounding that of Nashua's first World War I casualty, James E. Coffey.
  • Courtesy photo

    Another view of James E. Coffey's grave marker
Saturday, December 4, 2010

Revisiting last days of a Nashua war hero

Dean Shalhoup

Imagine grabbing your coffee one morning, letting the dog out, plopping into your chair with a big yawn and clicking open your inbox as you always do, and something like this pops up:

“Deeply regret to inform you that your son is officially reported as killed in action May tenth.

“Signed, McCain, the adjutant general.”

That’s it. That fast, that simple, that straightforward and pointed.

No one there to catch you when you buckle. No shoulder to cry on. No one to field your tearful, knee-jerk questions: “Are you sure?” “How?” “What happened?” “Where?” “Maybe it’s someone else.”

I envision Catherine Coffey standing, sobbing, in her doorway at 51 Broad St., watching the messenger pedal away after delivering, with somber condolences, the 1918 version of that e-mail: The Western Union Telegram every military family dreaded then, and again a quarter-century later.

Thanks to the diligence of Roland Caron, one of the local American Legion post’s most senior members, as well as its meticulous archivist and historian, I’m able to sit here and stare at this heartbreaking, but nevertheless significant, piece of Nashua history that brought Coffey and her family the painful news that her son, James Edward Coffey, had died on a World War I battlefield half a world away just weeks after his 21st birthday.

That and other paperwork Caron recently sent our way offers a compelling glimpse into the young Coffey, Nashua’s first World War I casualty and the man for whom the city’s American Legion Post 3 stands in tribute for going on a century now.

Another communication confirms Daniel and Catherine Coffey’s wishes to have their son buried where he was killed – on a hilly farmland-turned-battlefield in north-central France, where a permanent American cemetery and memorial was to be built at war’s end.

There’s also a copy of what Caron says is Coffey’s last letter home. Dated April 14, it shows the young Coffey had something of a sense of humor; he describes his location as “Someburg by chance in France.”

“Well, old pal, here is a few lines to let you know that I have not forgotten you and your sister,” he began.

The recipient was Pearl McDermott; the sister he mentions was Irene McDermott.

Read the entire letter and other documents online with this column.

Today, the St. Mihiel American Cemetery and Memorial is the final resting place for some 4,153 American soldiers, including Coffey, a fellow Nashuan and several others from New Hampshire, who gave their lives in the war that was supposed to end all wars.

“It’s a beautiful place; it’s out in the middle of nowhere,” said Catherine Poulin, a Nashua High School South social studies and AP history teacher who toured the 40-acre memorial this summer and visited Coffey’s grave, set in a quiet farming village called Thiaucourt, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Verdun, according to Caron’s research.

Poulin’s vast array of photographs depicts a lush, emerald-green expanse that rivals America’s best baseball fields for its pristine landscaping. The rich green contrasts handsomely with the endless rows of white marble crosses standing in somber tribute at the head of each grave.

Poulin’s St. Mihiel visit was part of a weeklong, whirlwind tour of assorted French historical sites she took with her mom, Elaine, just before the start of the school year. Their late husband and father, Victor Poulin, was a Coffey Post member who played drums in its band for decades.

“It was phenomenal experience. We brought six cameras and took more than 2,000 pictures,” Poulin said of the trip that involved driving many miles on the “wrong” side of the road, deciphering French maps and trying to get their bearings in the virtually unpopulated countryside.

Indeed, it took the women two tries to find the memorial to begin with.

“The first day, it was late and starting to get dark,” she said. “We figured we’d better try again in the morning.”

Poulin said they spoke with the caretaker, a woman who has held the post for more than 20 years. She demonstrated how they temporarily enhance the markers’ lettering, primarily to make for better pictures: They rub sand across the surface. What stays behind fills the etched letters and numbers, highlighting them at least until the next rain.

And they don’t use just any sand, Poulin pointed out; it’s trucked in from the hallowed shores of Normandy Beach, a roughly five-hour drive from St. Mihiel and, not surprisingly, another must-stop on the duo’s itinerary.

While the actual Battle of St. Mihiel was fought closer to war’s end, in September 1918, Coffey died in the Battle of Apremont, one of many nearby skirmishes over the spring and summer that led up to the larger St. Mihiel battle, according to Caron’s research.

Just after midnight on May 10, German forces “put down a heavy barrage, which included gas shells,” Caron wrote.

Felled by deadly mustard gas around 1 a.m., Coffey succumbed later in the day.

His regimental commander, Caron wrote, reported Coffey’s “gallant action and devotion to duty in the field.” He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre, Purple Heart and citations from Gen. John Pershing, Maj. Gen. Clarence Edwards and President Woodrow Wilson.

As for the adjutant general who signed the telegram to Coffey’s mother: We know that decorated veteran and Vietnam POW Sen. John McCain’s father and grandfather served in the military, but is it possible one of them happened to sign that Nashua-bound telegram?

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 31, or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.