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The guy who everybody thought was dead

For a half century, the men Jim Coffey fought alongside in Vietnam thought he was dead. When he walked into a golf club in Myrtle Beach over the weekend, his Army buddies were never more happy to see a ghost.

Jim Coffey, second from right, with members of his Army unit in Myrtle Beach. For 50 years, they thought he had died on the battlefield in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Jim Coffey
Jim Coffey, second from right, with members of his Army unit in Myrtle Beach. For 50 years, they thought he had died on the battlefield in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Jim CoffeyJim Coffey

Jim Coffey grew up in the Faneuil section of Brighton in the 1950s, graduated from St. Columbkille High School in 1962, then from Bentley College.

By 1967, he had a college degree in one hand, and, after enlisting in the Army, an M-16 in the other. The Vietnam War was ramping up.

He was assigned to A Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry of the 4th Infantry Division. He was part of First Platoon, and by 1969 he and his unit were fighting their way around Chu Phong Mountain.

Don Woodruff, an earnest 19-year-old grunt from Akron, Ohio, joined the platoon in January 1969. Everybody called him Woody, and everybody, including Coffey, liked him immediately. He was just a kid.

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In March 1969, Woody, Coffey and a few other guys from First Platoon were on patrol, looking for the enemy, when they came under heavy fire in an ambush. Coffey was shot in the head.

“I just went down and I was out,” Coffey recalled.

A medic wriggled over and took one look at Coffey and told Woody, “He’s dead. Let’s go.”

They moved on to tend to another guy whose leg had been blown off.

But Woody kept looking back at his fallen friend. He couldn’t just leave him there.

Even as the firing continued, Woody picked up the unconscious Coffey, and zigzagged toward a clearing where US helicopters were landing.

“He carried me on his shoulder,” Coffey said.

As Woody gingerly placed Coffey in the chopper, he thought his buddy was dead, that he’d never see him again. Woody ran back to the battle.

Against the odds, Coffey survived. They put a plate in his head and he spent nine months at various hospitals until he was well enough to leave. When he did, in January 1970, he stood 6 feet tall and weighed all of 92 pounds. He spent another year in rehabilitation.

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Wars end and lives move on. Coffey got better, got married, bought a house in Westwood, raised four kids, and retired after 38 years as an IRS agent.

Until two years ago, he had no idea that guys from his old Army unit had been holding annual reunions for more than a decade. One of them, Bob Reinhardt, finally tracked Coffey down, amazed to learn he was alive.

“I was the guy who everybody thought was dead,” Coffey said. “So they weren’t looking for me.”

Coffey asked Reinhardt for Woody’s phone number.

When Woody answered the phone, Coffey asked, “Is this Woody, from Vietnam?”

“Who’s this?” Woody Woodruff asked.

“It’s Jim Coffey.”

Woody dropped the phone and had to sit down.

“His wife said he turned as white as a ghost,” Coffey said.

Woody composed himself, picked up the phone and told Coffey, “You just made my day, my week and the rest of my life.”

Two years ago, 50 years after the battle that joined them forever, Woody and Coffey reunited in Florida. Coffey’s old St. Columbkille’s classmate, Jim Downey, drove him to Woody’s house in Bradenton from his place in Naples. Woody was standing there in his driveway, waiting. The two old soldiers grasped each other’s hand firmly and the energy between them felt like electricity.

Coffey and Woody were supposed to meet up with other guys in their unit in Myrtle Beach last year, but COVID got in the way. Instead, they all met up at a golf club last Friday and spent the weekend together.

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Pat Martin, who has organized the reunion for 16 years now, was never more happy to see a ghost.

Woody couldn’t make it, but plans to be there next year. The rest of the guys crowded around, anxious to embrace the brother they thought they lost 52 years ago.

“I broke down,” Coffey admitted.

But, like Woody two years ago, he quickly composed himself, and savored the feeling, the rush, the joy, because when the fog of war finally lifts, it’s a beautiful sight to behold.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.