His Friend, Ernie, and the 70-Year War
Hostilities simmered from the start.
The combatants were Ladd Alexander, the short-tempered Southerner with the funny accent, and Ernest Coblentz, the slightly arrogant immigrant Northerner with an even funnier one.
Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia was the site of their introduction. It was a meeting made in hell.
"Hiya doin' boy, what's uuuuup," Coblentz would taunt, mocking Alexander's speech in an elongated drawl.
"Your momma let you out of the house, did she?" Alexander would shoot back. "Well, tell her she made a mistake. They don't want weak sisters in here."
And so it went, days into weeks, until tensions grew hotter, and then boiled over. An altercation ensued. Blows were exchanged. It is not known if disciplinary action was taken against either man.
"We cleared the air," Alexander said years later. "I began to love him like a brother. I've missed him all my life."
Coblentz, German-born, was from a family that fled soon to be Nazi-occupied Europe. He had been in the country only fifteen years, settling in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Fate pressed him into manhood earlier than most. Fate would take him hard and fast.
Still in his teens, Coblentz enlisted in the Marine Corps, serving three years as a sergeant during World War II. He commanded a platoon in the jungles of Guam. Later, he became an officer.
Korea, still in the distance, was taking shape like a black, disfigured cloud.
While Coblentz was in Guam, Alexander was on the other side of the world, a cadet at Kemper Military School in Boonville, Missouri. Outgoing by nature, he hailed from the quiet town of Nachitoches, Louisiana, a place where magnolias bloomed and porch swings creaked. Where fireflies lit up summer nights, and a boy could kiss a girl without asking and she wouldn't mind at all.
And where Alexander saw a buddy pass in front of the house, asked him where he was going, and heard, "To join the Marine Corps," to which Alexander replied, "Wait a minute. I'm coming, too."
There is something in the nature of a man that requires a claim on the space around him before his essence will be revealed. The territory thus identified, the perimeter marked, the Alexander-Coblentz friendship became solid as granite.
There was talk of the future-women, jobs, families. Good-natured ribbing abounded. Close quarters and long hours bridged the divide of culture and experience. Cigars were shared after hours, smoke wafting into the night air. The ghosts of war and fear, ever-present, were kept at bay. The men developed a regard for one another that occurs when two people realize they almost missed each other completely.
Coblentz's lengthy visit to the deep south deepened the connection. Alexander's family embraced him in a uniquely southern fashion. He began dating a girl there. Plans were made to return.
And so it was that two outsiders-a son of Dixie maligned for his regional loyalties, and a dispossessed son of Germany yearning for acceptance-had arrived at an unlikely destination.
They had looked on each other, and found themselves.
Coblentz was called to Korea. Alexander was not called, missing the selection by one letter of the alphabet.
In a letter dated August 30 of 1951, Coblentz wrote from South Korea where his platoon was in a holding pattern. He hadn't heard from his friend, Sally, who was to have stored his car away safely. "How's about you, ole buddy, phoning down there and checking?" he asked Alexander. "For the past three days, we've been sitting here, near Inje, waiting for the rain to quit...Let me hear from you soon, ole buddy. I'll try to write more next time. Maybe by then I'll have found a comfortable position for it."
Less than one month later, Coblentz was dead. He was 25.
He had never seen it coming. Thomas Suttles, who was under Coblentz's command, remembered the night: "He was our platoon leader. He had me, a corpsman, go out on outpost the night he was killed. They were hit suddenly. Lt. Coblentz was killed along with Private Halbert McGaffigan…Lt. Coblentz was by far, the best platoon leader and officer I had ever served under. I remember him vividly even after all these years."(Korean War Project Remembrance, www.koreanwar.org)
Alexander, too, spoke often of his friend, "Ernie," throughout the next forty years. Sometimes his lip trembled as he remembered. He lamented that he and Ernie never got to say goodbye. How the end of a life can come so quickly and ruthlessly. And how, in the face of heroic valor, there has never been a resolution or official end to the Korean conflict. No line of demarcation. No final assessment that it was worth it, that we did what we set out to do.
There was only a friend who would never return.
In 1994, I welcomed my father as a visitor to Arlington, Virginia. A former heart patient, he had never completely regained his vigor. He walked unsteadily as we entered Arlington National Cemetery, seeking the plot for one Ernest Arthur Coblentz, USMC.
Just up the hill, among the masses of white crosses, was Ernie's resting place. Under a muted, late afternoon sun, my father stood straight and saluted his friend. And then he wept.
My father died in 1996, having made his peace with life as it is, with all that he did, and all that he couldn't do. He went to his eternity like an old Marine who did his best, even if his best wasn't quite good enough for him.
In 2018, there are murmurings of peace, signs that the 70-year Korean conflict may finally reach a resolution. And that an official end to hostilities will include a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
If that occurs, the 70-year war will not have been in vain. The souls of the fallen, forever young, will rejoice. Their vindication will be complete, an ancient grief transformed.
And hope will rise, just up the hill.
"Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.
Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours."
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- Ernest Arthur Coblentz | American Battle Monuments Commission
Second Lieutenant Coblentz was awarded the Purple Heart. (Link incorrectly lists place of birth as Silver Spring, MD. Coblentz was born in Hannover, Germany.)
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