Multiple Conflicts

Arthur A. Coppola

World War II / Vietnam / Cold War Oral History Interview
US Marine Corps, III Amphibious Corps
Date: May 7, 2015
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Colin Critchlow


Former U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Coppola spent most of his career developing devices that assisted in enhancing the strength and capabilities of the United States military. He began working on military projects early on. Following graduation from high school during World War II, Coppola participated in a two-month government-sponsored training course to prepare him for war industry work.

Mr. Coppola’s U.S. Marine Corps ID Card.

On completion of his training, Coppola was hired as a shipfitter’s helper at the Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company’s Port Newark, New Jersey, facility, where he worked on the construction of LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) vessels used in the Normandy and other invasions. The LCI construction crew initially laid down a keel on a 150 foot long “way” and then attached the remainder of the vessel’s parts to the keel. Coppola’s crew of five or six men was assigned the responsibility of installing the propeller shaft tubing, which extended from the engine room out the back of the craft. Coppola was also assigned to crawl into the area that the propeller shaft tubing ran through in order to weld collars onto the tubes. His crew subsequently moved on to the construction of destroyers, where they performed the same propeller shaft tubing work as they had on the LCIs.

After working at the shipyard for a while, Coppola finally asked how he could get into the service, and learned that he would have to get permission from his foreman. Coppola made good money then, working seven days a week with overtime. Having struggled as a family through the Depression, he gave his pay to his parents to pay the mortgage. Coppola decided that he wanted to see the world; and, since he preferred summer weather over winter, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. In December 1943, after Parris Island, South Carolina basic training and then advanced training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, he was promoted to corporal because of his technical ability and then shipped to Camp Linda Vista near San Diego, California, where he was assigned as a radar technician in the Pacific Theater with the 7th Field Depot’s Signal Company. Electronics was his calling since it came easy to him. Coppola had scored the highest marks in his class back at Camp Lejeune. {The Depot was an element of the Third Amphibious Corps, which was based in Hawaii as part of the 5th Fleet.}

A new idea then was to have supply companies up close with the front line troops. Coppola was issued a carbine – a smaller weapon than the M-1 rifle he had trained on. Also issued were backpacks and canteens. His unit left on an escort carrier for Oahu, Hawaii, where they stayed in a tent camp for two months, and then were in Kaui for one month.

The intent of the Saipan invasion was to gain its airport and to expand it, so that our B-29s could take off from there and bomb Japan. Coral was mined by our troops on Saipan for airfield construction. The coral made good roads and a runway. In mid-May 1944, Coppola’s convoy spent 35 days at sea. Five days after the initial Saipan landing, his unit arrived at the island. Shells over their heads were fired to soften up the beach and they sounded “like express trains.” They boarded trucks to go up to ‘the front.” Dead Japanese soldiers were unburied and the smell was traumatizing. Coppola described the landscape and the scars of battle. “It was a mess.”

One night, Japanese aircraft dropped bombs on a fuel dump that ‘went up in a ball of flame.” The Depot Marines were assigned to go on patrol to discover enemy soldiers in the rear of our front line troops. Coppola never saw any or shot anyone. Policy was to not expose the Signal troops to direct enemy fire, ‘so we lost very few men.” The whole Field Depot lost maybe a half a dozen men.

Coppola helped set up repair facilities. They moved around a lot with no chance to wash or change clothes for two weeks. The unit helped to establish a supply depot. A van was brought for repairing the radios. Coppola realized 24 volt DC supply was needed. He searched and found it and charged it up with a portable generator. This was how the radios got tested. Coppola was assigned to repair backpack radios, but he found most of them beyond help, due to corrosion and fungus from the hot and moist climate. Kits were sent to him out in the field to try to moisture and fungus proof the electronics panel boards, ‘but by then it was too late.” Coppola also charged batteries for jeeps and Amtracs, and tested new radios before they were assigned to the frontline troops. “I never saw radar out there.” He stayed in the ‘battery business” for the whole war. No walkie-talkies existed then. His pants became shredded from battery acid, and Coppola gained the nickname “Acid Dan the Battery Man.”

The worst part of being there was the food. C-rations were for more than a two to three week period. Fresh food could not reach them. He never got over the decaying smell. While at Saipan, Coppola caught dengue fever, “The flies and mosquitoes took their turns,” which took a week to recover from. “All day long the flies were feeding on the bodies.” Mosquito netting was required just to be able to eat. At dusk mosquitoes came and most got dengue fever, which is very debilitating. “I was in a hospital tent for about a week.” He could not move a muscle. Coppola was exposed to DDT from planes spraying the flies and mosquitoes.

Black troops unloaded ammunition. An enemy sniper shot one of them. The Japanese knew all the terrain and the caves, unlike our troops. Civilians were in the caves as well. Coppola searched a volcano rim, to no avail. Women were in there, and suicide soldiers too.

“Lots of fighting was going on in the air.” Kamikazes crashed on ships. The anti-aircraft fire sounded like fireworks. Our B-29s came in after the area was settled. Coppola remembered seeing them every morning taking off to bomb Japan.

By July of 1944 Saipan and the nearby island of Tinian were secured and Coppola’s unit began to prepare for the next campaign, Okinawa, a Japanese island that would provide a closer airfield to bomb Japan from and a good staging area for what was believed at the time to be an inevitable invasion of Japan. The 7th Depot Battalion shipped out for Okinawa in February 1945. Their D+1 landing was unopposed. Coppola’s ship landed the battalion on Okinawa, with its Signal Company to support the 6th Marine Division, heading north. The southern part of the island, where the US Army landed, was the worst. The US Marine Corps got through north and central Okinawa to help the Army’s efforts in the south.

Insignia of the III Amphibious Corps.

.Air combat was common over Okinawa, being that it is the closest island to mainland Japan. Coppola saw Kamikaze suicide planes crashing into our planes, and the skies were lit up by tracers every night. He heard the traffic being reported, and the Japanese could hear it, too. “We were supposed to invade Japan.” A lot more unexpected troops brought in from China, plus suicide jets, would have awaited Coppola. He was III Amphibious Corps. Coppola recalled his response to the news of the atomic bomb drops on Japan: “We didn’t celebrate. Instead, we went around congratulating each other on surviving the war.” Since his unit was not involved in front line fighting, morale was high. Technicians were considered too highly trained to be used as infantry. Coppola’s captain brought him an electronic chassis, “Make me a schematic of this.” It turned out to be a radio transmitter that the Japanese were using. “The anti-aircraft was not very effective.” The capability was not what it is today.

Coppola remained on Okinawa until the end of the war, and then he served with the Marine Corps force assigned to China for several months. The III Amphibious Corps was renamed “Marine Force China.” He returned home in early 1946 and was discharged at Bainbridge, Maryland, from where Coppola took a train to Newark, New Jersey. After dozens of patrols and half a dozen landings, Coppola never had to shoot anyone.

On his return to civilian life, Coppola attended engineering schools on the GI Bill. He earned a Bachelor’s Degree in electrical engineering from Newark College of Engineering (today’s New Jersey Institute of Technology), and then Coppola went to work for the federal government. Electronic research and development was too new then, and he learned hands-on with the equipment in his work. Coppola was initially assigned to Camp Evans, in Wall Township, New Jersey, a sub-station of Fort Monmouth, where he worked on developing meteorological equipment for the military for the next fifteen years. The first device Coppola helped create was the parachute radiosonde AMT6 (the dropsonde) which was used by the U.S. Air Force to gather atmospheric data in parts of the world where weather balloons could not be launched, as well as near the territories of Cold War enemies. Pressure, temperature and humidity levels were tested, even in the eye of a hurricane!

Coppola worked on and designed circuits for an all-transistor tape recorder for satellites. A meteorological rocket was designed that went higher than balloons could go. He designed it to fit in the nose cone. Ground tracking equipment Coppola reconfigured so it could track a rocket up. The Navy wanted a booster put on the rocket. They asked him to design the tracking system for it, which he did. Coppola used a tape recorder and played it back at a slower speed so to read the data.

Coppola switched to Avionics Lab, an air traffic monitor system using computer generated models – the first time using computers to generate systems. Cornell Lab had a program they handed to him and said, “Run with it.” “So, I did.”

In the 1960s, Coppola, who had continued in the Marine Corps as a reserve commissioned officer, assisted the Air Force in conducting flights of aircraft from Atlantic City to test parachute technology on prototype mockups of the B-28 nuclear bomb. The tests resulted in a dispute with the Navy over airspace control, and Coppola was sent to the Air Force Base in Pensacola, Florida, to continue his test flights over the Gulf of Mexico. After solving the B-28 problems, he wrote a report about the device, which remains classified to this day.

Coppola’s next project was a satellite launched by the Vanguard system. He spent six months developing a ground track system for the satellite, as well as a method to fulfill its power needs. Following that assignment, Coppola returned to the team that had developed the dropsonde. With funding from the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the group worked on developing an instrument nosecone that could be mounted on a six foot five inch tall rocket. After many modifications, Coppola’s team succeeded in creating sixty-eight of these radiosondes, which were successfully tested at various locations, including Cape Canaveral, White Sands Proving Grounds, Pensacola Naval Air Station and the Pacific Missile Range.

Coppola was subsequently involved in designing a “falling sphere” containing electronics small enough to fit into a nosecone to gather data used to measure air density, along with a tape recorder to record the acquired data. The sphere required the use of a modified version of the ground tracking equipment that had been used for the balloon-borne radiosonde. Those modifications were necessary because the sphere was installed on a rocket that flew up to 500,000 feet high, as opposed to the 110,000 feet of the balloon-borne radiosonde.

Coppola continued work at the Avionics Lab at Fort Monmouth, working on an air traffic/airspace regulation system for helicopter use by the Army, which needed it to support the growing involvement in the Vietnam War. He was assigned the mission of creating a course of study for private contractors to use in developing the system. To accomplish this task Coppola had to learn two computer languages, Fortran and GPSS, because one contractor wanted to use GPSS and another Fortran.

Coppola’s work on the regulation system led to his eventual deployment to Vietnam to diagnose the problems of a malfunctioning navigation beacon on one of the control towers responsible for assisting in-coming helicopters at army bases. He flew from Newark to San Francisco, then to Oahu, where he had been stationed during World War II then stopped at a few other Pacific islands before arriving at Tan Son Nhut Airfield at Saigon.

Once in Vietnam, Coppola used on-site tools and, with the assistance of a contractor, disassembled the malfunctioning beacon. Using a heat gun, he discovered that the device was not working properly due to Vietnam’s excessively hot climate, and Coppola repaired the damaged components. He had a technician construct a canopy to shield the beacon from the sun, while still allowing the wind to blow on it, keeping it cooler than before and thus mitigating future damage.

During his time in Vietnam, Coppola repaired eight of these beacons at various locations as well as addressed several other technological issues. While diagnosing and fixing the beacon problem, he also got the opportunity to assess a new navigation system. Coppola met with the officer in-charge of that system, and recorded his impressions as to its accuracy, including the tape in his report to the Defense Department. Coppola’s assessment of the new navigation system turned out to be the only one given to the DOD with useful information on how to improve accuracy.

While in Vietnam, Coppola also visited the First Cavalry Division headquarters at An Khe to check on some technical equipment that was not working properly. His conclusion was that the equipment, initially designed for infrequent use, was being used constantly and thus, various components were wearing out. He created a list of the failing parts for the contractors supplying the equipment, so they could modify the design they had initially been given, and it proved an effective remedy for the problem.

There was no shortage of danger in Vietnam, and Coppola’s helicopter was shot at a number of times when he was going from one camp to another. He did note, however, that flying in a helicopter was safer than traveling on roads in a vehicle. Viet Cong guerrillas would detonate roadside mines, today called “IEDs” and sometimes get close enough to roll grenades under vehicles. In addition, it was almost impossible to tell the difference between civilians and guerrillas. Coppola recalled that he suspected some of the local civilians working at military bases were undercover insurgents.

On completion of his inspection and repair tour, Coppola returned to Saigon to fly home. On the return trip he spent a weekend in Bangkok, as well as had a brief stay at an air base in Okinawa, where he had not been since World War II. After arriving in San Francisco, he flew back to Newark, New Jersey where he was reunited with his wife and daughter.