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Saluting A Man of Faith and Courage

Jerry Coffee Sr. (far right) enjoys a cherished moment with his immediate family, which includes (from left) wife Susan Page-Coffee, stepbrother Kyle, stepsister Joy, and children Jerry Jr., Kim, David and Steven. PHOTOS COURTESY JERRY COFFEE JR.

By Jerry Coffee Jr.

The son of highly decorated and retired U.S. Navy Capt. Gerald “Jerry” Coffee fondly remembers the father who lived a life that honored his family, his community and his country.

On Nov. 12, former POW and retired Navy Capt. Gerald Coffee, 87, quietly passed away in his Virginia home surrounded by loved ones. Although a 45-year resident of Hawai‘i, he had been spending more time in Virginia, together with wife Susan Page-Coffee, to be closer to his specialty medical providers at Johns Hopkins.

As his family, we wish to offer this remembrance of Dad and share a very warm mahalo to all who heard his message, understood his mission and loved him. As a public speaker, his connection to audiences was a clear message and belief that all Americans were a part of his journey and the reason for him surviving seven years in the Hanoi Hilton.

Dad made it clear that during his captivity in Vietnam he promised himself that he would return home and share his experience for the purpose of reminding everyone that his courage was not distinguished or unique, but it was the kind of courage that was common to us all. Key to his message was the importance of keeping faith in self, faith in God and, most important, faith in our country.

Dad’s speaking engagements in Hawai‘i were “small kine” initially, but his message hit hard and deep and realized his ability to keep the promise made to himself in those dark prisons. To those hundreds in Hawai‘i who stood teary-eyed to offer applause and support, please know that it was each of you who made his homecoming complete.

Dad never declined invitations to speak and addressed thousands in the communities he found among Hawai‘i’s churches, public and private schools, scout troops, community and civic groups, corporations and nonprofit organizations and, of course, to veterans and the military community he loved so much. All who heard his message resonated with its simple validation for the strength of the human spirit, his belief in the goodness of others and the importance of unity as a nation.

Coffee’s distinguished career included flying low-level reconnaissance missions over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and receiving numerous military honors

Dad inspired many as a longtime columnist with MidWeek. Although his messages did not strike approval with every political stripe, he stood in the same conviction, as when he sacrificed for our nation, in the belief that it was stronger than self-serving and divisive politics.

Following his release, Dad’s life returned to naval aviation in Hawai‘i in 1976 and his duty station was Barbers Point Naval Air Station (a far cry from what is now Kalaeloa). In the years that followed, the Coffee family embraced Hawai‘i, and Hawai‘i would embrace us back. Dad would pound New Year’s mochi in old ‘Ewa town often, scuba dive Mākua reef regularly, pick puka shells on Mā‘ili Beach endlessly, grind “crackling” from the imu ‘up Nānākuli side’ with Uncle Ho‘ohuli Black, and comb Kahuku Beach at sunrise to build Mom and Dad’s Japanese glass ball collection. Dad loved Hawai‘i as much as he loved sucking fresh ‘Aiea mango seed over his kitchen sink. But mostly, he cherished the kind and generous “welcome home” that the people of Hawai‘i extended at every turn.

Receiving numerous military honors such as the Silver Star and POW medals, two awards for the Purple Heart and two awards for the Bronze Star.

As his family we were lucky, not only for his influence in our lives, but for the good fortune that Hawai‘i became our home as well. His legacy includes stepbrother Kyle, who became a Marine Corps pilot, and stepsister Joy, an accomplished CEO of a trade association. From his first marriage, Dad had four children. Sons David and Steven became schoolteachers, and Steven a nurse as well. Meanwhile, Kim Coffee-Isaak founded The ARTS at Marks Garage as a nonprofit advocate and artist, and I became a social worker and clinical therapist. Each of us understood the importance of service to others and how to make Hawai‘i and the world a better place.

Dad often closed his speeches using the POW tap code.Always in code, he’d tap on the podium, “G-B-A” — or God bless America.

On behalf of Dad, and with immense gratitude for helping him to come home, “G-B-H” everyone: God bless Hawai‘i for honoring Capt. Coffee, and God bless Capt. Coffee.

Jerry Coffee Jr. is the youngest of four children born to Jerry Coffee Sr.