Military couple met in service, continued family traditions
MINNEHAHA SPRINGS — For a Pocahontas County couple who met in the 1960s while serving in the U.S. Army, military service was a longtime family tradition.
Both Del and Laronia Cohrs enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from high school, following the footsteps of their fathers, uncles and grandfathers.
A Minnesota boy born in 1942, Del Cohrs said he knew from the time he was very small that he wanted to serve in the military. He said he lost an uncle in Normandy during World War II, and several other family members also served.
He enlisted in July 1960, while Laronia Cohrs, whose maiden name was Yaraborough, was a South Carolina teenager when she enlisted in 1963.
She said her father served in the Philippines during WWII, and her paternal grandfather was a Confederate soldier in South Carolina.
Her military service took her first to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and then to clerical training school at Fort McClellan, Alabama, as part of the Women’s Army Corps.
“They put you in the clerical field; you never shot a gun,” Laronia Cohrs said during an interview at the couple’s home near Minnehaha Springs. “It was different back then when women were in the Army — completely different.”
She recalled that she and other members of the WAC were watched very closely, had strict curfews and rarely, if ever, were allowed off base.
She ended up serving at Fort Meade, Maryland, where she would meet her future husband through mutual friends on base.
By that time, Del Cohrs had trained in California, had been a “guinea pig” soldier sent to watch an atomic bomb test in Nevada, had served all over Europe, including Germany, and finally had been sent to Fort Meade to serve as a lifeguard.
“Vietnam was looming and they just did everything to keep us busy,” he said, explaining he was in charge of all the pools and lifeguards at Fort Meade except for the officers’ pool.
“I could blow the whistle and get everyone out of the pool and go flirt with her,” he said with a grin.
The couple got married in November 1964, eventually settling in the Fort Meade area.
“I have no regrets whatsoever,” he said. “I got an education, got to see the world. … I got to meet my wife.”
Laronia Cohrs served in the military for two years, becoming a specialist E-4.
Meanwhile, Del Cohrs served six years, saying the first few months were spent in training, and he ended up at Ford Ord, California. That’s when he and the other young soldiers were loaded up on buses and sent to an atomic bomb testing site in the Nevada desert.
“They said, ‘Boy, you guys are lucky.’ Yeah, right. … Little did we know, we were just guinea pigs,” he said.
He and his fellow soldiers were located just 6 miles from the blast, which came from a bomb the exact size of the one that obliterated the Japanese city of Hiroshima during WWII.
“In terms of an atomic bomb, that’s nothing,” he said of the distance between the bomb and the rows of trenches for the soldiers. He recalled the bomb creating a massive vacuum, the powerful sound wave of the explosion and the tremendous amount of debris falling from the sky afterward. They were instructed to duck down into the trenches and cover up with plastic military ponchos to avoid the direct blast impact, and were allowed to stand back up and see the mushroom cloud.
He said they were provided with goggles and ear protection, but he wonders how much radiation exposure they had.
Del Cohrs then completed combat engineering training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, before being sent overseas in 1961. Initially stationed at a military base in Bad Kissingen, Germany, he and his fellow soldiers built bridges “all over the place.”
Since he already had learned how to speak some German thanks to his grandparents, he enjoyed traveling through the country and met a lot of “really nice people.”
“It makes a big difference if you attempt to speak their language,” he said.
He served with the 10th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, and had two instances during that time when he thought he was going to be sent into combat situations. The first time, he was loaded onto a plane and sat on standby on a tarmac for hours.
He said they were told, “Here’s live ammo for your guns, you’re going to Cuba.”
That was during the planned Bay of Pigs Invasion, and he said they eventually were told to stand down.
He also was expecting to be called into combat in Berlin, during the time when Cold War tensions were escalating. He recalled there were chain link fences between the East and the West.
“When I left, they were taking down the chain link fences and putting up the actual wall.”
He was then sent to other parts of Europe, working as part of an atomic demolition munitions team that would inspect bridges and confirm the exact locations to use small bombs to quickly demolish key bridges in case of a Soviet attack.
“I got to see a lot of Europe,” he said, adding he eventually became a sergeant E-5 and then a specialist E-5.
After meeting Laronia and getting married, Del Cohrs had one more close call.
He received orders to go to Vietnam when he had just about 30 days of military service left. He was prepared to go, even though the couple was expecting their first child in just a few weeks.
“Just days, hours before we were actually supposed to leave, I hear my name,” he recalled, explaining a commanding officer called him over and asked him what he was doing.
“He said, ‘You’re a short-timer, your wife is 8 months pregnant, so you’re granted a waiver.’ And I didn’t argue,” Del Cohrs said.
Following his military service, he landed a job with UPS, which turned into a career of nearly 35 years. He said he ended up driving into New York City every day, five days per week.
Driving always has been part of his life, he added, both in the military, when he had a license to haul nuclear waste, and when he was in high school and drove a big truck hauling cattle up to St. Paul, Minnesota.
Laronia Cohrs had a career with a telephone company, and when she retired in 1998, the couple moved to Pocahontas County — as far from heavy traffic as possible.
Still, Del Cohrs ended up driving some more, when he spent a few years occasionally working on movie sets in Maryland.
Some of the films he worked on included “xXx” (2002) starring Vin Diesel; “Tuck Everlasting” (2002) with Alexis Bledel, Jonathan Jackson and Sissy Spacek; “Gods and Generals” (2003) with Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall and Jeff Daniels; “Ladder 49” (2004) starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix; “xXx: State of the Union” (2005) starring Ice Cube; and “The Invasion” (2007) starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.
He said he did everything from driving trucks to limosines and anything else needed on set, except for having “face time” on screen.
He said he enjoyed working with some of the stars, and he described Kidman as nice, kind of quiet and very tall.
“I did get a little smooch on the cheek from Nicole,” he said. “Of course, she gave everyone a kiss.”
Two of his other most memorable experiences were driving a ladder truck 80 miles per hour down the closed-off streets of Baltimore for “Ladder 49,” and driving a Shelby Cobra concept car, one of only two in the world, for “xXx: State of the Union.”
“It’s just another chapter in my life,” he said of his experience on the movie sets.
These days, the Cohrs are active in the Marlinton Lions Club and other community groups, attend New Hope Lutheran Church in Minnehaha Springs and enjoy traveling to Mexico each year. Laronia Cohrs also has a small business making “memory bears” for people who’ve lost loved ones.
The couple has one son, Matthew, who lives in Florida with his wife, Shann; and one daughter, Elizabeth Weston, who lives in Maryland with her husband, Ray.
They also have three grandsons, Jesse, Tyler and Dylan.