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Seventy years later, Pasco couple remembers a day of infamy, and love

HUDSON

Millie Cox and Jim Coffey, sweethearts since age 14, joined hands before the priest in the rectory at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tampa. ¶ The date: Dec. 7, 1941. ¶ Millie's royal blue velvet dress matched her suede high heels and a wide-brimmed hat shaped like a heart. ¶ Jim, an Army buck sergeant, wore his uniform.

After the ceremony, everyone adjourned to Millie's house for finger sandwiches, punch and cake. Jim's brother stopped by his place on the way and a neighbor gave him the news: Japanese planes had bombed Pearl Harbor. The first radio reports had come in about the time the wedding party was gathering at the church.

Jim wrestled with how to tell Millie. They climbed into a borrowed '38 Buick and took off for Indian Rocks Beach, where they had booked a week in a gulf-front cottage.

Millie couldn't sit still, she was so excited. She had imagined driving down Franklin Street with shoes and cans tied to the bumper. But a few blocks from home, Jim got out and cut the ropes. Soldiers everywhere were being called to their units and Sgt. Jim Coffey was heading to the beach.

"He said he didn't want to attract attention,'' Millie recalled. "I didn't get it.''

He wouldn't talk, so Millie reached to turn on the car radio. Jim turned it off. She turned it on again. He turned it off.

Millie began to sob.

"My momma said they change after you get them,'' she snapped, "but I didn't think it would be this fast.''

Finally, Jim pulled over and shared the news.

In their beachfront room, Millie cried all night. The next morning, a Western Union man slipped a telegram under door.

"Report immediately.''

Millie, a bride for less than a day, suddenly was alone.

• • •

On Dec. 8, the United States declared war on Japan, which had also attacked Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Guam, Wake Island. The American body count at Pearl Harbor: 2,388 dead, 1,178 wounded.

Distraught, Millie caught a bus to Jacksonville to spend time with her grandparents. On Dec. 9, their phone rang.

"Guess where I am?'' Jim asked.

His unit had assembled to respond to reports of enemy submarines off Jacksonville Beach.

Millie had grown up relatively affluent, the daughter of a jeweler. Smart, pretty and confident, she was used to getting what she wanted, including the tall, quiet boy who delivered meat on his bike for his father, a butcher. By the time she and Jim graduated from Hillsborough High in 1939, they were inseparable. She was his first girlfriend. He was her first boyfriend.

Now she wanted to be with him and she wasn't going to give up easily. She caught a bus to Jacksonville Beach. It was cold and windy. Military police kept civilians at a distance.

Millie had spent much of her youth in the Jacksonville area. As she warmed with a cup of coffee, a police officer drove up. She knew him. "Can you take me to Jim?'' she asked. He put her in the cruiser, turned his lights on and delivered her to the commanding officer.

That night, on the commander's orders, she and Jim checked into a local hotel.

The "honeymoon'' didn't last long. The Army shipped Jim to Texas for combat training. Millie, once again, went after him. They enjoyed infrequent visits until Jim was sent to Virginia to prepare for deployment to the war. On Aug. 6, 1943, their daughter Suzanne arrived at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. The Army allowed Jim to see the baby briefly before he left for New Guinea as a howitzer team leader with the 116th Field Artillery.

Back in Tampa, Millie prayed for Jim's safe return. Late in 1944, soldiers came to her parents' door. Peering out the window, she could see the yellow envelope that held the telegram.

Lt. Douglas Cox, Millie's brother, had been killed in Metz, France.

Jim survived the war but almost died from malaria. He was sick for 18 months. When he finally recovered, they moved to Madeira Beach and Jim began a long career as a mechanic for Otis Elevator Co.

In 1947 they welcomed a son to the family and named him after Millie's brother. Millie ran a successful real estate business and on weekends they headed to a cabin in Aripeka to fish. Millie got in on the real estate boom in western Hernando County in the 1970s as Spring Hill and Hernando Beach developed. In 1982 they moved to an island in Hudson that bears their name.

• • •

For 70 years, Jim and Millie Coffey have shared their wedding anniversary with the day President Franklin Roosevelt said "will live in infamy.''

"We never forget what that means,'' said Millie. "Pearl Harbor Day has always been first for us, mainly because we use it as a day to honor my brother. He was such a good man. His death was such a waste. We pray for our soldiers every day, pray for the time when we no longer send them off to strange faraway places to get maimed and killed.''

The Coffeys are both 91 (Millie is 10 days older than Jim), and they draw comfort from having their son living next door. He owns an assisted living facility in Dunedin. The secret to seven decades of marriage: "We still make each other laugh, even through all the aches and pains.''

Jim depends on a cane and electric scooter to get around, but faithfully raises the flag each morning.

"I try not to miss a day,'' he said.

Today he'll stop at half-staff to honor those who died on Dec. 7, 1941.

Another solemn anniversary.

Contact Bill Stevens at bstevens @tampabay.com or (727) 869-6250.

Seventy years later, Pasco couple remembers a day of infamy, and love 12/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 4:02pm]

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