Darrell Cope. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

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“Legacy Ozarkers” is a series where we learn about — and from — residents with deep roots in the region. Individuals featured in this column are either 80 years old or greater or have lived in the Ozarks for generations. Stories have been condensed for length and continuity, and are presented primarily in the interviewee’s own words. Please send an email to Kaitlyn@OzarksAlive.com if you know of someone who would be good to consider as a feature.

HARTVILLE - Darrell Cope moved a world away — and back — during his years of service during World War II. He grew up in rural Wright County before being drafted; he fought at the Battle of the Bulge, and in other parts of Europe, and was eventually wounded. He still carries those experiences with him today, including shrapnel that remains in his body.

After the war, he came back to the Ozarks, where he became involved in the community, worked as a rural mail carrier for more than 30 years, raised a family, and outlived two wives. He now lives in Hartville, a small town located around 55 miles east of Springfield. All of these experiences began nearly 97 years ago on a farm where he lived with his family.

“I was born on the last day of May in 19-and-25, nine miles north of Hartville, on a farm.

“Every little farm had some cows, and they milked by hand. They had laying chickens — hens. And sold their eggs and the cream to buy coffee and sugar and stuff. Just the necessities.

Did he ever go to Hartville?

“No. It was nine mile and we didn’t even have a car.

“I had three brothers and a sister. They’re all dead. I’m the only one left in the whole family.

“In March, before I was two years old in May, mother had made a cast-iron kettle full of lye soap. She set it on some sticks of wood, and said, ‘Now Darrell, stay away from that, it’s hot.’ I backed up to turn around and fell right in that kettle of soap. Hot soap — I still got the scar. It’s a wonder I survived that because I didn't have penicillin or anything.

“I don't think we even had a doctor. My Grandma Cope, she was kind of inclined medically, and Daddy went and got her. They had to try to stop that lye from eating the flesh, so they put pure vinegar on my back. I was lucky to live. I think the meat all fell off. They said my shoulder blade was exposed.”

When Darrell was 16 years old, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Two years later, in 1943, he was graduated from Hartville High School and knew that Uncle Sam would soon call for his service. That came in January 1944.

“I was I was just waiting for a call, and an interesting thing happened. There was a school north of where I was raised, and the teacher got sick and she had to resign. Two men come to my grandma's house one night and said, ‘Darrell, would you would you finish up that school year for us?’ And I said, ‘Well, I would if I could, but I'm just waiting to go to the Army; to go to service.’ One said, ‘If we go to talk to the draft board and they agree to let you stay until school’s out, will you finish up the school year for us?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’

“I taught two weeks and got my notice to go down. So we had to find another teacher to finish up the year.”

Darrell went to Europe, a huge shift for a boy turned man who had hardly ever left Wright County. He didn’t fight during D-Day, but was on Omaha Beach a few days later, and shares memories of the Battle of the Bulge.

“I always spent 90, probably 99 percent, of my time with my folks down there on the farm. I got pretty homesick. I get the idea of people just going AWOL. And I’d say, ‘Well, I'll wait till tomorrow. Maybe I'll feel better.’ I toughed it out but it wasn't good. I'd just never been away from home. It was quite a shock.

“We was getting thumped. Hitler's weather people furnished him a good forecast for him. The fog grounded the Air Force — we couldn't even get up in the air. Them Germans were just running over us with their tanks, big guns and stuff, and our Air Force couldn't take them out. It went on about three days.

“The Germans had threatened to go into Holland and blow those dams and flood all of that country up there. I was in the Second Infantry Division, and they contacted with them and wanted us to go up there and prevent them German from blowing those dams.

“Well, 106 took our place in the front line. And when the Germans jumped off on the Battle of the Bulge, and they started to battle, they come a yell and holler and they knew they had never been in combat. Scared them boys to death. They threw their guns down and run. They liked to have killed all them boys. So they stopped us from going to Holland and told us to fall in behind the 106; stop that Battle of the Bulge. They were just having their own way.

“My company was in reserve for the first day that we were back in combat. Of evening real late, we went to relieve B Company. They had taken quite a beating and they didn't have many men left. They’d been wounded and killed. We went to their company headquarters; it was after dark. A little barn beside the road and it was determined two German soldiers were in the loft of that barn. I don't know what they was thinking about. They shot one of our men. When they did, why, their life was short.

“We weren’t getting any rest. We were fighting day and night. The nights were short and we had full guard duty. All of us were giving out. I went across the road to a ditch, lay down over on the bank, and I told some of the boys, ‘If they move out, you wake me up.’ They said, ‘OK, OK.’ But they never thought it when they left. They left me there. I woke up about two o'clock in the morning and I was by myself.

“I knew where B Company's headquarters was, and I figured my company would take the same house for their headquarters. I went over to that house. I went to the barn; the house and barn were built together. And I went in the barn door, walked in there, and I knew I’d walked right in on something. I figured I’d walked right into a German nest. I stopped real still.

“‘I said, ‘Comrades, surrender.’ I stood there what seemed like 30 minutes, probably wasn’t 30 seconds. I said ‘Comrades, surrender.’ Still nothing. I eased my hand out real slow and easy, and I was standing right up against a cow. I tried to surrender to a cow.”

Darrell continued searching for his company. The efforts took him through risky situations, including traveling with a number of German civilians who ultimately were shot by their own forces. He had to interact with those who claimed to be Allied troops and ultimately were imposters. Aided by a German woman, he finally found friendly faces but was shot during the sequence of events.

“I got to battalion headquarters and the company runner was there to send my folks a telegram that I was missing in action. Instead of saying ‘missing in action,’ he sent one saying ‘wounded in action.’

“They started to operate on me in Belgium, about 4 o’clock in the evening. They were going to take that shrapnel out. Put me on the operating table. Some nurse got a bulb of gas to put under my nose. She said, ‘Now, start counting.’ And then I woke up about midnight 50 miles from there. The Germans got so close they didn’t operate. They were giving us a rough time.

“Clouds started breaking away. And one of them P-47s. broke through that cloud. I could have kissed him if I got of hold of him. Because I knew we had help.

“The best explanation I can say is that war is hell on earth. It's just unbelievable what people have to go through, and a lot of it is kids and women. You just don't realize what you can endure.”

When the war in Europe was finished, Darrell became a First Sergeant and headed to Japan. On the way to Asia, though, he stopped off to surprise his parents in Idaho during a “delay in route,” where they had moved while he was away.

“I've never been to the house in Idaho and I had no idea where that house was. Got into the bus station, which was downstairs in a hotel in Buhl, Idaho, and I was standing there wondering how to go and find that house.

“A young guy, he said, ‘Could I help you?’ I told him the circumstances and he said, ‘Come with me. I'll take you down there.’ I got my duffel bag and climbed in his car, and he took me down there. And I walked up on the porch and heard Mother say, ‘That’s Darrell!’

They didn’t know he was coming, providing a surprise for his parents. But another one came that would change life forever.

“Then they dropped the atomic bomb. Both of them while I was in Idaho. And I was in Twin Falls that night. It was full of people. I mean, they were celebrating. I had my cap probably cockeyed and my tie wasn’t quite tied right. A Highway Patrolman pulled up beside me as I was walking up the sidewalk. I figured he tell me to straighten up my uniform. He said, ‘Have fun. Sarge. The war's over!’

“Went up there, going to a big dance. I walked in the door, and I was the only serviceman there, and women liked to smother me. All of them was wanting to dance — and there wasn’t room to dance.”

Instead of Japan, he was redirected to Camp Swift, Texas, to help with war wind-down. There, he was given a chance to change the direction of his life.

“Major come to me. I’d listened to him a couple of days before really give the captain thunder for something that really wasn’t the captain’s fault, but he took the blame. That major asked if he could talk to me and try to get me to stay in the service.

“He said, ‘I'll see that you get a permanent rating and you live in hotel in New York and serve as a recruiter.’ I said, ‘Nah, don't think so.’ He said, ‘Why?’ And that was what I was hoping he would say. So I said, ‘Sir, when I talk back to somebody, I want to talk to him in any way that I feel is right. I don't want to be run over roughshod by some officer.’

“And I could tell by the way he’s reacting, he knew what I was talking about. He never did ask me again to stay in the service.”

Instead, he came back to the Ozarks. Eventually, he began taking classes on the GI Bill at today’s Missouri State University, where he eventually began studying to become a teacher. But when a job came open as a rural mail delivery driver, he took it.

“I delivered where I grew up. I was privileged to get that route. It was 47 mile long in 1949, and I had one mile of paved road. The rest of it was all pig trail. You couldn’t get over that road now with a car. Then I retired in 1980: June the 13th, 19-and-80 was when I retired. When I retired, I had 106 miles of route.

“The amazing thing: When I started carrying, my salary was $2,710 a year plus six cents (per mile) car expense. That was my salary. When I retired, I was getting about $18,000 a year and probably 30 cents for car expense. So it's a different world now.

“I still go to the post office, usually go about 9:30, to get my mail.”

He also spent time involved in community affairs, such as by helping launch the local volunteer fire department, representing a Democrat voice in a largely Republican area, and in leadership with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows — a fraternal organization that once was common in the Ozarks but today has nearly disappeared.

“I'd never even heard of the Odd Fellows. Junior Arne was here in town. He comes to my house, and he says, ‘We decided we'd like to have you join the Odd Fellows.’ I say, ‘Junior, I’ve never heard of the Odd Fellows.’ He said, ‘I think you’ll like it.’ So he kept pestering me and I finally just joined.

“It’s based on fraternity. Actually, our doctrine is based on: To visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead, and educate the orphan. That's the four things that the Odd Fellows lodge is based on. And, you know, the government has taken over most all of this. So that's hurt the Odd Fellows.”

“When I was Grand Master of the State of Missouri in 1968-69, there was 206 lodges then.

“Today, there’s one on West Chestnut Expressway. That's the only one in Springfield now. And we got one here at Hartville. And then the next one is Poplar Bluff.

“We didn't even have a fire department in Hartville when I started carrying the mail. We organized the fire department, bought a new truck, so we got the two trucks now. I was fire chief for 35 years. (My first wife) said I never knew how to say no to anything. If somebody come along and wanted something, why, I’d try to help them.

“They gave me a rough time in politics. I used to threaten them around here that I was going to sell out and move to Texas County because it was it was about as Democratic as Wright County was Republican.

“I got to be a real good friend of Claire McCaskill. I had a little bit of pull with her. I went to a Jackson Day banquet in Springfield a few years ago. And I was a little late a getting there. The guy at the door said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m Darrell Cope.’ He said, ‘You come with me. I have special instructions for you.’ So he took me right up to the stage and sat me right next to Claire. She looked at me and bounced up like a rubber ball and hugged me. I think kissed me on the cheek. She said, ‘It's been a while since I've seen you, Darrell.’ I said, ‘Yeah, really too long.’ She was the main speaker for the night, but they put me right up beside her up there.

“Politics is something. You know, anymore it don't matter what it is, or which party introduces something, the other party's against it before they ever even read the bill. Just because the opposing party is for it, the other party's gonna be against it.”

Life has brought great change through Darrell’s near century of life, but he is grounded in key beliefs.

“I've dedicated my life to the Lord. I think that's the most important thing — to be ready when he calls us. I look at life as really being a dressing room, just getting prepared.

“But second thing I'd probably consider is treat people good. Treat people like you'd like to be treated. You'll never lose anything by being good to people.”

Kaitlyn McConnell

Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project through which she has documented the region's people, places and defining features since 2015. Contact her at: kaitlyn@ozarksalive.com More by Kaitlyn McConnell