All that stuff you DON’T know about JD Coleman
By SP4 Charlie Petit, ret.
Who is that big guy with the booming voice, anyway? That is, beyond being our Jolly Green Giant, the man who transformed what most of US—I for one—expected to be a tough, scary, and perhaps dismal (or worse) tour in Vietnam into a tough, not-quite-so-scary, unforgettably exhilarating adventure among some of the best men many of us have ever known?
There have been clues for some of us, but I doubt any of the 1st Cav PIO veterans fully know what a wild and rollicking life our old boss has led. JD Coleman has been a radio man (both journalism, and combat commo), newspaper man, construction boss, author, decorated combat hero, PR guy, forest service honcho, and federal emergency management team officer. He’s an expert on forest fires and hurricanes. With the big reunion coming up in August, I’ll save some valuable conversation time in Kalispell and skim a few of JD’s highlights, so far, from the years before and after Phuoc Vinh.
To start with the present, JD let on last year that he’d love a reunion with the 1st Cav Public Information Office gang. We have enjoyed JD’s enthusiastic participation in the planning (he scouted hotels, local events, and laid out the basic schedule), while former PIO photographer Leonard Fallscheer, now a university professor at Chico State, did most of the tracking of dozens of former PIO members whose whereabouts JD no longer had on his lists.
Kalispell and Montana are and always have been JD’s turf. He is one eighth Blackfeet Indian, and a member of that tribe. JD spent much of his boyhood on the tribal reservation, where his mother was a school teacher, in the northwestern part of the state. The family later moved to nearby Kalispell, where JD went to high school. He confesses he “didn’t go to school much” and when he did his scholastic endeavors were “less than impressive.” As a teenager he had happy feet, even running off to San Francisco to join the merchant marine. He couldn’t get in, and lived in a YMCA while shining shoes and getting by on other odd jobs. At 17, back in Kalispell, he dropped in on the Army recruiting office and signed up for the Montana National Guard, drilling in civvies because the unit lacked uniforms his size. That lasted until 1948 when he learned that the best military pay went to paratroopers. He got himself transferred to the regular army, trained at Fort Ord, and mustered into the 11th Airborne. In Sendai, Japan, with the 188th Parachute Infantry Regiment he became a “rice paddy jumper.”
A short rotation back to the US, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, ended with the start of the Korean War. JD served there with the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team, made two combat jumps, and humped a radio for a rifle company. After four years in Korea, in March 1952, JD was discharged as a Sergeant E-5.
Back in Kalispell, he met and married Madeline Young (who herself had been raised with Indians—her folks were farmers on the Crow reservation), and took a job as a concrete pour crew foreman in the spillway tunnel of Hungry Horse Dam. That’s when the writing itch struck. He signed up for journalism school at the University of Montana in Missoula and spent part of his senior year as a sports reporter for a local radio station covering the Class C Missoula Timberjacks. His stints after graduation included a spell with a small paper in eastern Washington. It was then that a straitlaced sports editor forever changed young Mr. Coleman’s moniker from his given name, Jean Duane, to just plain JD. It seems the man couldn’t countenance a “Jean Coleman” byline on a sports yarn, lest readers suspect he had sent a woman to report from the men’s locker room (the Jean stems from a French-Canadian branch on his family tree). JD also spent a year as the sports information director at the University of Montana. He had by then rejoined the Army Reserve mainly because the reserves paid better than the GI bill. With his obvious brains and a college education, JD received a direct commission as a second lieutenant in 1958.
That same year JD was writing editorials for radio station KBTK in Kalispell. He says the station just went broke. Madeline explains that JD’s outspoken epistles, read by the station manager, so infuriated local bankers they led an advertiser boycott. The family’s next stop, with four kids, was a radio station in Illinois. Among other things, he won an Associated Press award for his coverage of a Montana prison riot in 1959, but overall, it couldn’t compete for excitement with the Cuban missile crisis and a JFK speech he covered in Springfield in 1963. He tried to sign on with a wire service, just to get to what he saw as sure war. Rebuffed, he signed up for active duty in the Army. “I was mortally certain we were going to make a parachute jump into Cuba.” No such luck with Cuba, but at Fort Benning, Ga., the army sent him to the 11th Air Assault Division, a unit soon rechristened the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Generals and other top brass discovered they had a journalist among them and put JD to work on speeches and magazine articles about the airmobile concept. When the 1st Cav shipped to Vietnam in 1965, Captain Coleman was its assistant information officer. He wrote the battle history of the militarily historic Pleiku Campaign. In May 1966 he left the security of the information office to take command of Company B, 2d Battalion, Airborne, 8th Cavalry. He and his men led the defense of a special forces camp against a furious assault by several battalions of NVA regulars. The 18 hours of intense combat won his unit the first Valorous Unit Citation ever awarded to a rifle company in Vietnam. JD received a Silver Star. In September of 1966, JD returned to the states for a series of army public information jobs.
His second Vietnam tour started in April, 1969, again with the 1st Cav as information officer but this time from a headquarters in Phuoc Vinh and a division area of operations between Saigon and the Cambodian border starting. This stint, of course, is what triggered the devotion of a certain fortunate band of several score army photographers, writers, editors, and owners of other assorted skills. We all owe deep gratitude to JD for having been plucked by his long arms from far less fascinating, and often bang-bang-dangerous, assignments. It is why they all are gathering on the first weekend of August in Kalispell to honor JD. Our commanding officer was not only a bona fide combat hero, but a gentleman wise enough to protect his rag tag band from the full strictures of an army at war. He was a wise, just, and demanding leader while we brought to print and broadcast media the proper and true story of the First Cavalry Division, Airmobile (within, of course, the limits of Army censors!).
Back in the states again, in April of 1970, JD was PIO for the Combat Development Command at Fort Belvoir, Va. -- a colonel’s slot he filled as a major -- and went on to be PIO at Fort Ord in California and chief of command information at Fort McPherson, GA. He retired from the army as a Lt. Col in 1979. In addition to the Silver Star he wore three Legions of Merit, four Bronze Stars, two Combat Infantry Badges, and a Meritorious Service Medal.
Since then he has been communications director for the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce helping lure Fortune 500 companies to the area (a campaign that won a national award) and PIO for the Georgia Department of Public Safety (highway patrol). In 1980, he signed on for some strenuous part-time work, as a Disaster Assistance Employee at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). His assignments included hurricanes in Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama, a tornado, and floods in Wisconsin.
In 1989 his first book on Vietnam was published – Pleiku: The Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, covering events of his first tour with the 1st Cav in Vietnam. He followed up with his second book in 1991 – Incursion: From America’s Chokehold on the NVA Lifelines to the Sacking of the Cambodian Sanctuaries.
In 1991 he finally got back to Montana, as public affairs officer at the Flathead National Forest where he picked up expertise in wildfire management. After retirement from the forest service in 1997 he authored Choppers: The Heroic Birth of Helicopter Warfare in 1998 and he signed back on with FEMA with outings that included the immense Hayman Fire in Colorado in 2002. That same year he published his latest book, WONJU, The Gettysburg of the Korean War. In 2003 the forest service called him back to the Flathead National Forest to help run a wildfire information office there.
He and Madeline have three sons, Darrell, Roger, and Joseph, and two daughters, Kathleen and Michelle, ten grandchildren, and two great grandchildren so far.