Copyright © 2016 John F. Oyler
December 15, 2016
A record crowd turned out for the Bridgeville Area Historical Society’s November program meeting, confirming Curtis Copeland. Jr.’s assertion that his father was indeed “Bridgeville’s Favorite Son”. Although his presentation focused on Curtis Copeland, Sr.’s experience in the Korean War and the influence it had on his later life, it necessarily covered the entire life of this remarkable man.
Curtis was a year ahead of me in high school, graduating in 1948 and entering an adult world that was not particularly welcoming to a young African American boy. The economy was weak and jobs were hard to come by. I remember playing softball behind the high school with a group of young men who sarcastically described it as “the Unemployment League”.
Although the rest of us weren’t especially aware of it, there were still many areas in which African Americans were not treated as equals in those days, even in Bridgeville. My brother has a vivid memory of our father coming home one evening and being visibly upset because he had just learned that “a black man can’t be served in a restaurant in Bridgeville!”
Another ominous occurrence in 1948 was the escalation of the Cold War and the growing realization that there might well be another “shooting war” in the near future. The Soviets had blockaded Berlin and we had responded with the Berlin Airlift and the resumption of the draft, requiring compulsory service in the Army.
Faced with this environment an eighteen year-old Curtis Copeland elected to enlist in the U. S. Navy. After the normal routine of basic training, he was trained as an Operating Room Technician and earned the rating of Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class. When the Korean War broke out, June 25, 1950, he was given a cram course in triage and assigned to the First Marine Division as a battlefield medic.
The First Marine Division had an exemplary record in World War II, especially in the Guadalcanal, Pelieu, and Okinawa campaigns. They continued this performance in Korea, initially in the Pusan Perimeter, then in the Inchon invasion and the drive north to the Chosin Reservoir, and ultimately in the heavy fighting around the 38th Parallel. In this conflict their casualties were 4004 dead, including 108 medics, and over 25,000 wounded.
Like most servicemen who have been involved in wartime combat, Curtis was reluctant to discuss his experiences with his family – only a few episodes were ever mentioned, but they were sufficient to clearly communicate the incredible horror of war.
The speaker began his presentation by recounting his father’s numerous accomplishments in the Bridgeville community after he came home, in an effort to justify the “Favorite Son” appellation, an un-necessary effort and a classic example of “preaching to the choir”. He then postulated that the character traits that his father consistently demonstrated were the consequence of three factors – his upbringing in a highly functional family, his Christian faith, and his Navy training and battlefield experience in Korea.
It is easy to agree with this proposition, but I would like to consider an additional factor. When his service was over and he was about to re-enter civilian life, he met a very special lady in New England and somehow managed to persuade her to marry him and return to Bridgeville with him.
When my wife was working in Bridgeville for the Greater Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind, she was responsible for identifying appropriate candidates for rehabilitation and facilitating their entry into the Guild’s program. At some point she established a relationship with an agency in the Virgin Islands which resulted in a series of young adventitiously blinded Virgin Islanders coming to Bridgeville.
There is a significant psychological component to rehabilitation of visually handicapped persons, and she was justifiably concerned about the additional complications of introducing young black persons into an unfamiliar environment dominated by white folks. Almost immediately she reported she had a solution – “I’ll just call the Copelands!”
Eventually I realized “the Copelands” were Curtis and his wife Betty and that her problem was indeed in good hands. As volunteers at the Guild they were a powerful resource, always ready to take on any assignment without question. Their ability to make these frightened young trainees feel at home in a foreign environment was a major factor in the success of their rehabilitation.
I suspect Curtis’ “better half” was another major factor in forging his character. Betty is equally well known for her service to the community, whether it be neighborhood, church, or the Library. I am a firm believer in the synergy of a true marriage, its ability to be much more effective than the sum of the two individuals in it. Curtis and Betty Copeland are a perfect example of this concept.
The audience was duly appreciative of Curtis Jr.’s presentation and grateful to him for his sharing his perceptions of his father, indeed Bridgeville’s Favorite Son.
The next program in the Society’s series will be presented at 1:30 pm on Sunday, January 29, 2017, in the Chartiers Room at the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department, on Commercial Street. Dr. Jack Aupperle will discuss World War II naval hero, Admiral William Halsey. The public is welcome, as always.