Marine veteran’s career spanned times of being spit on – and being thanked
From his peaceful home on Bryant Creek, Marine Corps veteran H. J. Coble looks back on his storied career and sees the truth of two key pieces of advice that strongly impacted his life.
First, he now recognizes those times in his 26 years in the Marine Corps and 18 years with Lockheed-Martin that his dad, the late M. L. Coble, would describe as "pinpoints of destiny" – moments when something happens that directs the next part of one's life.
Second, he sees how his life proved the truth of something a Mizzou professor said while Coble was completing his bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics. Kenneth Boggs told his Ag Econ students, “If you’re the best in what you do, you lose less money in bad times and make more money in good times.”
"So that's what I strived to do, in life and in the Marine Corps," Coble said last week. "I tried to be the best."
He and his family – his dad and mother, Glenna, and younger siblings Judy, Gary and Jill – moved to Ozark County in 1963 from Texas, settling near Warren Bridge on Bryant Creek. "I was a 12-year-old boy who liked to be outside. I thought moving here was a dream could true. We lived in town in Texas, but here, I could go get my rifle off the rack and go hunting anytime I wanted to."
Coble enrolled in the Gainesville School as a seventh grader and continued most, but not all, of the rest of his school years here. He goes by H.J. these days, but his hometown school friends still know him as Joe, or Henry Joe.
Prior to his senior year in Gainesville, his dad, who farmed and worked in livestock businesses, took a job in Marshall while his family stayed in their home on the Bryant. The plan was that the whole family would move to Marshall at the end of his senior year so Joe could graduate with the schoolmates he'd known since seventh grade. Instead, Joe insisted that his family go ahead and move then, the summer prior to his senior year, so that his sister Judy, a year younger, wouldn't have to change schools right before her own senior year.
Joe graduated from Marshall High School in 1969 and enrolled at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
A dream of flying 'high and fast'
As a boy, he was very close to his dad, and during their time together, his dad told him about the six years he had served with the Navy in the Pacific, including during World War II. "He was on boats that put Marines ashore, and he had the utmost respect for those Marines. He talked about that a lot," Joe said. "So, for a guy who follows his dad around everywhere and idolizes his dad, if he talks about Marines like that, then that's what you want to do."
Specifically, Joe dreamed of becoming a Marine Corps pilot. He wanted to "fly high and fast."
At Mizzou, he joined Navy ROTC. While he enjoyed the academic side of college, NROTC membership wasn't ‘fun.’ NROTC students were required to wear their uniforms on campus all day on Wednesdays, when they would also practice marching on the parade ground near the Mizzou fieldhouse.
During that freshman year, 1969-70, many college campuses were torn by protests against the Vietnam War. Wearing his Navy uniform, Joe was "spit on, cursed at and had things thrown at me," he said.
He dropped out of NROTC at the end of his freshman year, pushing his dream of becoming a Marine pilot a little further away. During college weekends and summers, he helped his dad with his hog operation in Marshall or returned to his dad's Ozark County property to build fence or help with the cattle.
He graduated with honors in 1973 and worked with his dad in the cattle in Ozark County, and then as a Kansas City meatpacking product manager and next as a Texas feedlot office manager and grain buyer in Wheeler, Texas. "I really loved it, but in Wheeler, Texas, there's nothing between you and the North Pole but barbed wire and cattle," he said. "I was a college grad with no wife, no family. I didn't have the kind of adventures of that 12-year-old boy who could go out anytime he wanted, hunting or fishing."
Top of his class
His dream of becoming a Marine Corps pilot had reignited. On July 25, 1975, he enlisted "with an aviation guarantee, which meant I would go to Officer Candidate School, and if I passed that, I would go to Basic School and then on to Flight School," he said.
That's what he did. There were challenges, of course, beginning with something Joe couldn't change. The Navy and Marines require pilots to be at least 5' 6" tall, and Joe stands a quarter-inch shy of that. "But luckily they measure seating height, and I have short legs but a long torso," he said.
He was at the top of his class in jet school, seeing the truth of his Ag Econ professor's advice that being best made things easier.
His call sign became Hobbit, based on his own short stature and on the character in J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 book about a character (a hobbit) who is taken on an unexpected journey. Joe described the book as a story "about being a person who loved adventure without bringing a lot of attention to oneself – while being a diminutive creature."
Next stop was Naval Air Station Kingsville, Texas, where the Marine pilots learned to fly in formation, practiced air-to-air combat and also learned to fly from aircraft carriers.
"It was fun," Joe said. "It's all stuff you've never done before, and there's always something new. It was a wonderful life."
And again, Joe was the top Marine in his class.
He earned his wings in 1978 and continued on what he calls "an unbelievable career," earning repeated "head-swelling honors" as he strove to be the best at whatever he did.
He was the first Marine lieutenant fresh out of the training command (all other trainees were majors and above) to train in the Marine Corps' new AV-8 Harrier, a unique fixed-wing "jump jet" that has the ability to hover and to take off and land vertically on runways and carriers that are too short for regular jet aircraft. A "tremendously fun, very dangerous aircraft," he said.
He was selected to teach at the Corps' prestigious Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactic Squadron One in Yuma, Arizona, where he was the only aviator asked to stay on for an unprecedented fourth year of teaching.
There were also some setbacks along the way. The hardest was a difficult divorce in which Joe fought for, and won, custody of his two young children.
His next step was as operations officer of the Marine Corps’ 331 Attack Squadron, nicknamed the Bumblebees, in Cherry Hill, North Carolina. That’s where he had met Janice Barnes, who had always said she would never marry a Marine, remembering all the time her Marine Corps dad had spent away from his family. But on May 18, 1990, she did just that, becoming Joe’s wife.
‘Off we went to war’
Then, less than three months later, on Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and President George H. W. Bush launched Operation Desert Shield, a massive coalition of military power representing more than 30 allied countries.
Joe said he “just wanted to be home with my family, but off we went to war.” Making his departure harder was the fact that Janice was pregnant.
He was deployed as operations officer of a Harrier squadron aboard the USS Nassau in the Persian Gulf, part of the largest flotilla the Marine Corps and Navy had put together since Korea. As tensions increased and war seemed inevitable, Marine Gen. Al Gray came aboard the Nassau to address the warriors, telling them to “come back victorious, or come back on your shield.”
On Jan. 17, 1991, Operation Storm began with an air assault by hundreds of aircraft launched by Coalition forces, including the American Army, Air Force, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
The Harriers launched into the “goo” – a sky full of clouds mixed with the smoke from the oil refineries Saddam had set afire. Visibility was terrible when Joe took off with his four-plane mission, but they succeeded in hitting their target, an air defense emplacement east of Kuwait City. Joe, as the leader, was first to release two 1,000-pound bombs on the target. The three other Harriers behind him did the same.
As the war continued, a “flash message” from the admiral came one morning. The Iraqis were running, and Joe’s squadron was ordered to fly “maximum sorties” all day.
Shortly after that, the war ended.
Joe and Janice’s son Kent was 10 days old when Joe held him for the first time.
A pinpoint of destiny
His next assignment was to the Naval War College in Washington, D.C. Then he served as commanding officer of Marine Air Group 214, the legendary Black Sheep Squadron that had been led by Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipient Pappy Boyington during World War II and had been the subject of a popular 1970s TV series. Joe, a major, was the youngest pilot ever to command the squadron. Previous commanders had all been Lieutenant Colonels, a rank Joe earned 13 months later.
Next, back in D.C., he studied at the National War College and then served on the Joint Staff, which assists the chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. While there, he earned an MBA from George Washington University.
Next, as “only” a colonel, he was appointed deputy director of the Marines’ Staff Training Program, which teaches three-star generals and their staffs how to direct the fighting of a 50,000-member Marine Expeditionary Force. That post was followed by Joe being given command of the Marines’ largest air group, MAG 14, which consisted of 116 aircraft and 4,300 Marines and sailors.
By then he and Janice had five children – the two from Joe’s first marriage plus three more of their own. He was in line for “general officer selection,” which could mean someday being promoted to general. It was one of those “pinpoints of destiny” when Joe turned down the offer. Their oldest child was graduating from high school, and they faced a future of putting five children through college. The hard-fought divorce had left him in a difficult financial position. He was broke, he said, and he knew he could make more money as a civilian.
On the same day of his Marine Corps retirement ceremony in 2001, he was hired by Black Ram Engineering to work on developing the F-35 fighter jet at Lockheed Martin. The Cobles moved to Weatherford, Texas, near Fort Worth, and Joe began a 18-year adventure that began with him overseeing 118 mathematicians running simulations and making adjustments in the early design of the F-35 aircraft, building a jet that would later be used by the Air Force, Navy and Marines. Ultimately, he became a deputy director in the F-35 program, overseeing more than 1,000 engineers, 18 test aircraft and a Boeing 737.
He retired again in August 31, 2018. Earlier, he and Janice had bought property on Bryant Creek, and in May 2020, they made that Ozark County property their permanent home. It’s a place where they enjoy showing their five children and four grandchildren, when they visit, the adventures Joe first had here as a boy.
Keeping a promise
Back in the winter of 1973-74, as Joe was sadly leaving his Ozark County job working cattle with his dad and moving to the feedlot job in West Texas, he sensed the Holy Ghost giving him a message: “He said, ‘You’re going to go away because I’ve got something to teach you. Then you’ll bring it back here and share it with the people,’” Joe recalled.
Two years later, when he was leaving Texas to join the Marine Corps, a colleague told him who would bring him that “something” he was to learn: He told him that, sometime, somewhere, two young men wearing white shirts and ties would come to me with a message. Would he promise to listen to them?
Joe promised. Then, years later, when he was stationed in Yuma, Arizona, those two young men – Mormon missionaries – showed up and talked to him about the church.
“I made good on my promise,” Joe said. “Best thing I ever did.”
Today, he and Janice are devoted members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, assigned to the Ava ward. They consider their time here a “self-declared service mission, . . . doing service for people who can’t or don’t have the means to do for themselves,” he said.
Janice is in her third term as a Relief Society president, this time in the Ava congregation. Joe is service coordinator, which means, “when we have families who need help, I’m given the project.” As an example, he said, he just finished the “fall wood-cutting project.” He also serves in church leadership.
And, of course, when they’re not helping others, they’re often out on the Bryant, enjoying the float-fishing that brought them back here.
The goodwill that counteracts bitterness
As Veterans Day approaches, Joe looks back on his own military career and feels a range of emotions, including pride, thankfulness – and a little bitterness.
He feels “so happy I was born when I was and so thankful I got to live in America when I have.” His bitterness comes when he thinks that “we could lose this democracy because we have people who don’t want other people to have freedom of choice. They say, ‘My way or the highway.’”
The other part of his bitterness comes because “I know what’s it’s like to provide service,” he said, “and I see so many people who don’t.”
But counteracting that bitterness is the goodwill that surrounds him when he’s out in a store somewhere and asks for the military discount. “People thank me all the time. They’re good about it,” he said. It’s so much better than the harsh treatment he and his fellow NROTC students received 50-plus years ago when they wore their Navy uniforms on campus.
He’s enjoying retirement, in charge of his schedule and no longer tasked with handling a day full of demanding phone calls and emails. Not that there aren’t decisions to be made. Most of the time, they aren’t pinpoints of destiny, but they still determine what comes next.
For example, “When it’s 95 and above, I can decide I won’t go fishing that day,” Joe said. And now that the weather is turning cooler, he can decide to “wear waders” and go anyway.