Last week: World War II veteran R.D. Cotten returns from the European Theater and ships to Camp Deven, Massachusetts, for his first real, hot meal and a bed with a mattress — something he hadn’t slept on in 14 months.

Robinson resident R.D. “Joe” Cotten had just returned home after World War II and had a decision to make: Stay in the military or go. Recruiters were pitching hot and heavy for soldiers to re-enlist, and he finally decided to sign up for another stint.

After Cotten’s 90-day leave, he returned to the Army and in 1946 made his first trip to Korea at Inchon on the western coast. Although things were simmering, war had not yet begun. He was there for under a year, serving with the Port Authority by directing ships in and out of tidal basins.

Returning stateside, Cotten attended school at Fort Knox, Kentucky, followed by a three-year assignment in Bowling Green, where he was an adviser to the civilian components of the Organized Reserve Duty Units, such as the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and the National Guard. While there, Cotten became a warrant officer.

Cotten returned to Korea for a second trip at the beginning of 1951. This time, it would be an entirely different experience, one that is safe to say he would rather forget. He served with the 24th Infantry Division in Pusan, Korea, but within a short time after his arrival, he discovered there was no need for warrant officers. Instead, he got a direct combat commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the infantry.

Cotten served as platoon leader and carried a carbine rifle he fired “regularly,” he said. “Anytime there was a target to shoot at. Anytime that anything moved in front of me,” he said. “When a flare went off, we hit the ground.”

One evening, Cotten went out on night patrol with his 12 men, where they captured two enemy prisoners, a lieutenant and a corporal; they took the prisoners to the 24th command post, where they were interrogated.

The two men were discovered in a type of “mud” hut when the platoon spotted a small light. The men of the 24th slipped around the hut and burst in the open door, disarming the men inside. “They didn’t fire their gun, and we didn’t fire, either,” Cotten said.

The entire event was harrowing, he recalled. One man was hit with shrapnel (or maybe bullets) and couldn’t walk. The man was temporarily left behind, but they came back for him.

There was more, but it was just too painful for him to talk about it. “There was constant artillery firing — us and them.” he said.

Another aspect he’d prefer not to discuss is the Silver Star he earned because of his actions during the mission (but was outvoted by his wife). Cotten stayed with the division all the way to the Chosin Reservoir, but returned to the states at the end of 1951.

Cotten once again went back to school at Fort Knox and returned to Korea in late 1952 for his third and final trip. Once again, he was assigned to the 24th Division. By now, things were winding down in Korea. It was quiet, so Cotten was transferred to Japan in April 1953 to the 24th’s 6th Tank Battalion at Camp Fuji, before going to Central Command in Tokyo. By this time, he was a captain.

Japan and Germany

He returned from Tokyo in 1956 for his next assignment at CONARC, or the Continental Army Command Headquarters, in Fort Monroe, Virginia. It was during this nearly three-year assignment that he married Mary Ann Bewley, whom he had met after more schooling at Fort Knox. They were joined on March 11, 1959.

Cotten’s final assignment was during the Cuban/Berlin crisis in Stuttgart, Germany, during which time he became a major. He retired from the military on Jan. 31, 1963, with many awards, citations and other medals.

Cotten went to work for the Texas Department of Transportation in the Waco area for 23-plus years, during which time he and his wife completed raising their children. The couple has been married for 58 years and have one son and two daughters.

During his retirement years, he and his wife traveled throughout the U.S., visiting every state in the country. In addition, he is a long-standing member of the VFW 2148 in Waco. The couple are geology hobbyists and have collected years’ worth of amazing rocks and sometimes dabbling in lapidary, polishing their rocks into beautiful creations.

Today, despite his reluctance to revisit the painful past, he’s a happy man.

“My family is the pride of my life,” Cotten said. “How could the life of an ex-soldier like mine be any better?”

“Veterans’ Voices,” featuring stories about Central Texas veterans, publishes every Sunday. To suggest a story about a Central Texas veteran, please email veteransvoices@wacotrib.com. “Veterans’ Voices” is proudly sponsored by Johnson Roofing.

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