(Host) Robert Cotey could have stayed home during World War Two. A motorcycle injury in high school gave him a draft deferment.
Instead, the Vergennes man enlisted. Small of stature, Cotey signed up for the dangerous job of turret gunner in a bomber that flew missions over Germany.
He was missing and presumed killed when his plane disappeared on July 7, 1944.
Now 63 years later, the Department of Defense says Cotey’s remains and those of his fellow crew members have finally been located and identified. The wreckage of the plane was discovered in 2001.
VPR’s Steve Zind has Cotey’s story.
(Zind) There aren’t many people alive today who knew the young man who went off to war and never returned. One person who did is Sylvia Casey.
(Casey) “He was a very gentle person. Kind. He would do anything for Ruth.”
(Zind) Ruth was Casey’s older sister. Ruth and Robert Cotey were high school sweethearts in the early 1930s.
Casey says the two were devoted to each other and planned to marry after graduating from Vergennes High School.
Casey recalls that her sister gave Cotey her class ring as a gift.
But the couples’ lives changed suddenly when
Ruth was 17.
(Casey) “We were in a very, very bad accident. And she was hurt worse than the rest of us.”
(Zind) The car accident left the entire family hospitalized. Ruth’s face was disfigured in the crash.
As she lay in the hospital recuperating, Cotey was at her side.
(Casey) “Bob was there the whole time. And the first time he saw her he passed out.”
(Zind) Casey says her sister was traumatized by her injured. She could no longer imagine the future she and Cotey had planned.
(Casey) “She wouldn’t marry him then because her face bothered her. She was very embarrassed with her face.”
(Zind) Eventually the couple drifted apart.
Cotey went to New York for a time where he worked at Macy’s Department Store. Then he moved on to the Midwest, married briefly and then divorced.
He was nearly 30 years old when he signed up to fight in the war.
(Joecks) “This is a photo that hung for many, many years in my grandparent’s living room in Vergennes. I have it now, and it sits on the mantelpiece of our home. My kids are familiar with Uncle Bob, although I never met him myself.”
(Zind) Carl Joecks of Essex is Cotey’s nephew. Joecks was born about a month after Cotey’s plane disappeared. His mother was Cotey’s sister. She kept her brother’s memory alive, collecting his letters, photos and other memorabilia. She spoke often of her lost brother while Joecks was growing up.
Cotey’s parents died long ago and his siblings are gone, too. Joecks says it’s unfortunate that those who loved Robert Cotey didn’t live to learn what had happened to him.
(Joecks) “I wish we had had this closure for her and even more so for my grandparents. My grandmother and grandfather, I remember going to church with them in Vergennes on Sunday and they would have their gold star pins on, the pins that were given to people that lost children in the war. Just one of those things that was very powerful, emotionally.”
(Zind) In his last letters home Cotey wrote that he’d fallen in love with member of the Women’s Army Corps and hoped to marry her when he returned from the war.
Among the items found at the crash site were Cotey’s dog tags, weathered and bent. There was one more thing on the chain with the tags: a woman’s ring. Military investigators describe it as a graduation-style ring. Sylvia Casey thinks it’s the ring her sister Ruth gave Cotey when the two were high school sweethearts 75 years ago.
Robert Cotey will be buried with full military honors in the Spring at Arlington National Cemetery.
For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.