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Epilogue | Frank Coppins

Frank Coppins, a quiet warrior who survived Battle of Iwo Jima

ST. PETERSBURG — On Feb. 23, 1945, a battle-hardened Marine swept Mount Suribachi left and right with his eyes, looking for mines. Invading the fan-shaped island meant overpowering entrenched Japanese troops in the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of World War II's fiercest fights.

Since the invasion started four days earlier, every officer in Marine Master Sgt. Frank Coppins' company had been killed. He was now a lieutenant and a commanding officer of the Fifth Engineer Battalion.

Two hundred yards from the summit of the barren mountain, Mr. Coppins glanced up at 10:20 a.m. and saw soldiers raising an American flag on a 20-foot section of pipe. "You could hear all those Marines screaming, 'they made it,' " Mr. Coppins told the Times in 2006. "All the troops needed that."

The part everyone has heard about — the planting of a second, larger flag, captured in an immortal photograph by an Associated Press photographer — happened later that day. Mr. Coppins had already survived the Battle of Guadalcanal before Iwo Jima, and at 25 was so grizzled his fellow soldiers called him "Pappy."

He won a Bronze Star for his service. The Battle of Iwo Jima claimed the lives of 5,931 Marines and wounded 17,372, according to a Marine Corps report; and killed most of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers defending the island.

Mr. Coppins, who served 16 years as a traffic engineer for the city of St. Petersburg after retiring from the Marines, died Saturday. He was 89.

"He was ramrod straight, a big guy. My uncle was a poster boy for the Marine Corps," said Linda Varn of Colorado. "Loyalty. Suck it up. No slackers allowed, and he had your back."

His children remember Mr. Coppins as a quiet man who rarely talked about his wartime experiences.

As a boy in St. Petersburg, Mr. Coppins dreamed of a career in baseball. He shagged flies in the outfield at Al Lang Field each spring as the New York Yankees practiced — bantering with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, he told his family years later.

A 1945 photo taken before the Iwo Jima invasion shows a jut-jawed Mr. Coppins, taller than his fellow Marines. Arms folded, cap cocked slightly on his head. Later, aboard a Navy hospital ship, he caught the eye of a French Canadian nurse named Bernadette. They married, but the career Marine soon returned to battle in Korea.

Mr. Coppins was stationed in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., California and Hawaii. Sometimes, the family combined moves with cross-country camping trips, said his son, Michael Coppins.

Mr. Coppins retired in 1963 as a major. He joined St. Petersburg's Traffic Engineering Department, where he converted traffic lights from fixed intervals to times determined by the traffic.

"He was kind of reserved, I would say," said George Webb, 73, a retired chief of public works. "I knew he was retired military, but we never got into that."

Children saw his ribbons and medals, but thought better of it before asking for stories.

At home, Mr. Coppins fixed things. "He was incredibly talented," said Michael Coppins, 61. "Nothing ever broke in our house that he didn't try to fix."

He dabbled in photography and oil painting, and once attempted to duplicate a Picasso canvas.

Mr. Coppins watched a pair of movies directed by Clint Eastwood about Iwo Jima, his son said. He found Letters from Iwo Jima, which tells the story from the Japanese side, "a very thoughtful and interesting movie," but panned Flags of Our Fathers as too negative.

Both of Mr. Coppins' sons, Michael and Stephen, grew up to be naval officers who fought in Vietnam. As Michael became more interested in history, he asked his father more questions about Iwo Jima.

"Even then, you had to pry it out of him," he said.

Mr. Coppins did not join veterans groups, but attended reunions of Iwo Jima survivors. It is impossible to know how many of the 75,000 Marines who participated in the invasion are still alive.

"The living, breathing people who were that history are dying at such an exponential clip now," his son said, "I thought, 'Pretty soon we're not going to have anybody to ask what life was like back then.' "

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

>>Biography

Frank Burch Coppins

Born: July 7, 1920.

Died: Jan. 16, 2010.

Survivors: Daughter Jacqueline Martino and her husband, Lee; sons Michael Coppins and his wife, Martha, and Stephen Coppins and his wife, Mary Lynn; seven grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

Frank Coppins, a quiet warrior who survived Battle of Iwo Jima 01/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 23, 2010 7:13pm]

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