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Wednesday, February 11, 2004
One Set of Dress Blues, Two Marines
February 22, 2004
Joseph P. Cope, 66, of Wantagh, grew up in a neighborhood called the Baisley Park section of Queens, near what then was Idlewild Airport. It later expanded exponentially and was renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport.
A freshly minted graduate of the High School of Graphic Arts in Manhattan, Cope enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1955. He was 17. Other friends and acquaintances from the neighborhood had served in the Marine Corps, among them Owen South, now 72, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Schenectady.
South had served in the 1st Marine Division from 1949 until 1953, much of his tour spent in the Korean War. "He was a forward observer at the Chosin Reservoir," Cope said. "They took a lot of casualties. Theirs was the first big battle where the Chinese came into it."
Last year, in an interview with the capital region's Sunday Gazette newspaper, South recalled the Nov. 27, 1950, battle over "Hill 1240," a mountain to the north of Yudam-ni, where the Marines were outnumbered 5-to-1.
"Our first platoon got halfway up that hill," South was quoted as saying, "and there were at least 1,000 Chinese dug in on the ridge. They [the Marines] got kind of massacred. We all got our wounded out, we got a lot of the dead, and we went back to our position," the Gazette story reads. "Right behind us there was a whole regiment of artillery. We could not let that fall into the hands of the enemy." They had to continue fighting, he said.
Eventually surrounded, the company of 200 men fought all night. The newspaper story continues: "When a platoon from the 5th Marines arrived to relieve, only 16 Marines were still able to fight."
South returned to Queens and married a sister of Joe Cope's close friend Ed Visser, who had enlisted in the Navy. In 1956, having heard that Cope planned to finish his active duty and remain in the Marine Corps Reserves for as long as he could, South gave his Marine issue Dress Blue uniform to Cope.
"In the mid-1950s," Cope recalled, "the Marine Corps only issued dress uniforms to ship detachments, recruiters, embassy guards and special units. You could buy a set, and all Marines always wanted a set, but they were expensive. They could cost a month's pay or more.
"I served weekends once a month at Floyd Bennett Field," said Cope, "over on Flatbush Avenue by the naval base. Actually, when it got hot, during Vietnam, we were flying every week, because we originally thought we were going to get called up, but we didn't."
Cope retired from the reserves in 1983, as a first sergeant. Meanwhile, having started out as a Local 157 carpenter's union member, he eventually became a construction superintendent "for one of the largest finishers of interiors in the city of New York," he said, proudly. "We worked on everything from the World Trade Center to the Jacob Javits Center.
"During my years in the reserves," he said, I got quite a lot of use out of Owen's dress blues, since I stayed so long. There always were color guards, Toys for Tots parties, the annual Marine Corps Birthday Ball every November, some funerals, of course, and many parades and ceremonies over the years."
Cope finally retired from his job in 2001 after 42 years. His wife, Angela, needled him to jettison some of the clutter he had accumulated in the storage room upstairs, things he never would use again, like the military paraphernalia.
Cope reviewed the uniform items in his closet. "One was a summer service tan, a staff NCO uniform," he said, "no longer used by the Corps. We used to call them 'tropical' uniforms. They're now obsolete. So, I donated it to a uniform display they were setting up at the 1st Marine Corps District Headquarters in Garden City. The other was a set of Marine, herringbone dungarees that are in demand by collectors. I gave them to a friend in the Sunrise Detachment of the Marine Corps League in Massapequa.
"Then, I came across the old dress blues. In 1966, the Marine Corps had come out with a new, gabardine dress blue uniform, and since Owen's was getting to be a tight fit on me, I bought a new set. But somehow, I could never bring myself to throw his out. One time, I even removed all the brass buttons to get it ready for discard, but I still didn't throw it out. In the back of my mind, it was a connection with my younger years, and a time when the world was a much calmer place to live in.
"'Now,' I thought to myself, 'it would be a kick to return them to Owen after all these years and let him determine what should be done,'" Cope said.
Cope had no notion where he might find Owen South, but he knew that Ed Visser still lived in Roslyn, though he, too, had retired from his job with the Transit Authority. They had not seen each other in 10 years. Cope called Visser to find out if South was still alive, and, if so, where he lived. Visser, having sold his house, was in the process of packing to move to Pennsylvania. He said it was amazing that Cope should be calling about Owen, because Owen had just undergone a triple bypass surgery. He told Cope that South lived in Schenectady and gave him South's address. Now, Cope was stunned. His son, Kevin, was a family practice doctor in Broadalbin, not 20 miles from where South lived.
Cope procured a new set of buttons for the old uniform, had them sewn on and had the uniform dry-cleaned, then packed it carefully and sent it Owen South, without any warning.
"He called me right away, when he received it," Cope said. "He couldn't believe his eyes. When he checked inside the coat, there was his name stamped in the right sleeve, where he had put it when he got it 50 years earlier. He said what a terrific lift it had given him. When he tried it on, it fit perfectly. We were on the phone almost an hour, and we've talked pretty often since then and exchanged letters.
"In August, he surprised me," Cope said. "He sent me a copy of the July 27 Schenectady newspaper with a picture of him on the front page in his dress blue uniform. They were paying tribute to the local veterans who had fought in Korea, for the 50th anniversary of the truce signing, with stories of each of their war experiences. Since then, he's told me that getting the uniform back, that old 'Marine Spirit' had awakened in him so much that he has even joined the local Marine Corp League detachment where he lives. Once a Marine, always a Marine."
Illustration by Janet Hamlin
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.
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By R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)