ESCANABA - When he was a mere 19 years old, Fred Coates left home to join the Army and engage in battle with the enemy in the midst of World War II. Coates may have turned in his service rifle many years ago, but since then, he has been engaged for the past 60 years in what he considers even more serious warfare - the battle as a pastor for the souls of men, women and children wherever he can find them.
A native of the Newberry area, Coates was born in 1923 and grew up on the family farm near McMillan. He left home at the age of 16 and worked in garages in Detroit and Pontiac. He returned to the Upper Peninsula and went to work in Munising at Atlas Plywood before being drafted in 1942, the same year he married his wife, Irene. Within a short time, Coates entered military service on Jan. 21, 1943, in Marquette, and completed basic training at Camp Davis in North Carolina.
"We were married and I went into the service a month later," he said. "We never did have a honeymoon."
Dorothy McKnight | Daily Press
While returning from an Honor Flight visit to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., World War II veteran and retired pastor Fred Coates shares an encouraging word with a young soldier at the airport in Baltimore, Md. The soldier, along with his unit, was being deployed to Afghanistan.
After training, Coates said his unit "got their guns equipped" and shipped out to Europe where he served in England, France, and eventually landed on Omaha Beach three weeks after D-Day on June 6, 1944.
"We weren't part of all that horrific stuff, that went on just before we arrived," he said. But the battle was only beginning in northern France as the U.S. military was engaged in battle in the Normandy Province.
"I spent my 21st birthday at St. LOO," Coates said. "We saw a lot of 'Jerrys' coming in and out all the time but the artillery was mainly engaged with them. My unit dealt with airplanes that were flying overhead. But there was a lot of fighting going on before Patton's army came though. I think that's what saved us. After that, we could see truck-loads of dead bodies. That was our introduction to the real horrors of war."
As Patton's Third Army went on into Belgium, Coates said his unit followed them and it was their mission to guard the German prisoners of war as they were captured. A hotel in Luxembourg was converted into a stockade to house the prisoners.
"There were gun mounts all around the stockade and we held the prisoners inside," Coates said. "We had about 60 prisoners in there." While in the stockade, the prisoners underwent intense interrogation before being sent on to Nuremberg where many of them later went on trial.
"Once we had an SS officer we were guarding," Coates recalled. "We knew he was SS because he had a tattoo on his arm. We were told not to tell anyone that he was SS because other prisoners would have killed him, so they took him out of the stockade."
He distinctly recalls personally guarding Nazi leader Hermann Goering, one of Hitler's inner circle. "I remember standing behind him with a gun on him," Coates said. "One day he gave one of our soldiers a handkerchief with his initials on it. I have no idea whatever became of that handkerchief."
Despite their status as prisoners, the men interred in the stockade did not appear to be angry or bitter against their captors.
"We were good to them," Coates said. "None of them ever attempted to escape. I think they were eating better as prisoners than they were when they were fighting."
After the Germans' surrender, Coates was discharged from the service in the fall of 1945 and he returned to the United States where he was reunited with his wife in Portsmouth, Ohio, where she had stayed near her parents during his absence.
"I remember my wife thought she would surprise me and prepared a meal with salami as a treat," Coates said, grinning at the memory. "I guess salami was hard to get here at home because of the rationing and all, but I hated to tell her that I had been eating salami almost every day for the 22 months I was over there."
Coates then attempted to attend automotive school under the GI Bill, but his family only had $90 a month to live on. It wasn't long before he returned to the U.P. where he went back to work for Atlas Plywood, this time in Newberry.
"I remember wanting to work second shift along with my brother," Coates said. "Neither of us had a car so we walked five miles to work, worked all day and then walked five miles back home."
In 1952, after working an assortment of job, Coates moved his growing family back to Ohio where he obtained a job with Frigidaire. It was while he was living in Ohio that Coates became a born-again Christian in 1953 and felt God calling him into the ministry a year later.
Still working at his regular job, Coates attended night classes at a Bible college in Dayton.
"That went on for three years," he recalled. "It was tough because as part of our schooling, we had to memorize five scriptures a week."
Coates was ordained into the ministry and joined the Church of God in 1957. By then his family had expanded to include four children - two boys and two girls. Over the years, Coates served churches in Lower Michigan and Ohio before accepting the call to serve the Church of God in Gladstone in 1978.
After retiring from the Gladstone church, Coates returned to active ministry in Traverse City in Lower Michigan where he built a new church for the congregation. After retiring the second time, he accepted a call yet again, this time to a church in Pennsylvania where he built a parsonage for the congregation over the next two years.
"I guess you could say that I've always liked building," he explained.
But God wasn't finished with the busy pastor. He later returned to Michigan where he served an assortment of church in Lower Michigan before returning to the U.P. in 1997.
"We were living in White Cloud and we came up to Brampton to visit our son who was living in Brampton and we've been here ever since," he said. "I think I actually retired four times," he added with a laugh.
The kindly pastor has not hung up his pastoral garb even yet. He can still be found filling in for area ministers who are on vacation or in cases of emergency. When not involved in direct ministry, he volunteers as a Senior Companion for the MDS Community Action Agency - particularly at the Christian Park Center in Escanaba where his enthusiasm, quick smile and words of encouragement are poured out on both the residents and personnel alike. He is also a member of the VFW and American Legion.
After his wife, Irene, died of cancer in 2005, Coates settled into senior housing in Gladstone. It was just a little over a year ago that he and his second wife, the former Hope Hanson, were married.
Coates was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1993 and given only four months to live. That was 20 years ago and, like the Energizer Bunny, he's not only refused to die, but refuses to live out his life in his recliner.
One of his most recent honors was being part of the Upper Peninsula Honor Flight's first trip to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 2011.
It was while the group of veterans and chaperones were preparing for the return home that Coates's pastoral feelings were put into action at the airport in Baltimore, Md., where a large contingency of servicemen and women were being shipped out to Afghanistan. Hustling over to a small group of men, he grasped their arms as he shook hands and wished them all God-speed with instructions to "stay safe."
Coates was particularly drawn to one young soldier who grasped his outstretched hand tightly.
"I remember him looking at me with such intensity in his face and he said, 'Sir, I've never been there.' I told him, 'If I could only trade places with you, I would be glad to do it.' How I wish I had gotten his name and address. I would have loved to have written him and encouraged him. I can only hope he's gotten back home safely by now. I really wish I could know."