COLE, ROBERT GEORGE
COLE, ROBERT GEORGE (1915–1944). Robert George Cole, Medal of Honor recipient, was born on March 19, 1915. He was the son of Clarence Leroy Cole, an army doctor, and Clara Cole, an elementary school teacher, at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. As a youngster, Cole spent much time playing on the post’s parade ground and observing the activities of cavalrymen. He graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio in 1933. Inspired by his military environment, Cole joined the United States Army in 1934 as a means to attend the West Point preparatory school at Fort Sam Houston. In 1935 he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. Referred to as “Coley,” the Texan played on the “B” squad football team for four years. After graduating from West Point in 1939, Cole was assigned to Fifteenth Infantry Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington. In this assignment, he became acquainted with Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower who served as a battalion commander and an executive officer in the regiment. By 1940 Cole married longtime Texas sweetheart Allie May Wilson. They had one child, Bruce.
While at Fort Lewis, Cole volunteered for the airborne infantry. From 1941 into 1944, he underwent intense paratrooper training. In 1942 Cole joined the 101st Airborne Division—“the Screaming Eagles.” For much of 1943 he trained with the 101st in England and excelled and quickly moved up in rank. In England, on June 5, 1944, General Eisenhower (the Supreme Allied Commander) spoke with Lt. Col. Robert Cole, the commander of the Third Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) of the 101st Airborne Division, and other paratroopers as they waited to take part in Operation Overlord (the code name for the Allied invasion of German-occupied France), one of the greatest military operations of World War II.
On D-Day (June 6, 1944), Lieutenant Colonel Cole parachuted into Normandy in the dark as part of the 101st Airborne Division. Around 1:00 A.M., he landed near Ste-Mère-Èglise and was for a time confused about his location. In fact, he was located in the Eighty-second Airborne Division’s drop zone instead of his own near St. Martin. At about 4:00 A.M, he rounded up about fifty men from both airborne divisions and began to move them toward their objective—the two northern exits (Causeway 3 and 4) at Utah Beach. As they proceeded to their destination, the Cole force destroyed a convoy of German reinforcements moving toward the beach. With the aid of other Americans joining the force, Cole’s group arrived in the flooded lands behind Utah Beach after sunrise in time to secure it and then welcomed elements of the Fourth Infantry Division ashore.
Beginning on June 7, Cole directed his attention to the objective of taking the city of Carentan and thus linking up the Omaha and Utah beachheads. On June 11, Cole found himself in a difficult situation. He had led his unit of about 250 men toward German positions on an exposed causeway through a marsh when they encountered hostile rifle, machine-gun, mortar, and artillery fire from a hedgerow near a farmhouse. Cole’s force suffered about two dozen casualties, and the survivors were forced to take cover along the bank along the causeway. For about an hour, the Americans remained pinned down as the Germans inflicted additional casualties by means of mortars and machine-gun fire.
At this point, Cole decided to take decisive action. He ordered his men: “Fix bayonets. Load your guns; we’re going to charge.” The order was passed down the line. Cole then pulled his pistol, jumped in the causeway, and in a loud voice yelled “Charge!” as he turned and moved in the direction of the hedgerow through the marshes. In the noise of battle, some men failed to hear the message. At first, only a few figures followed their leader. Other men—inspired by Cole—then rose and started running toward the German positions and shouted and fired their weapons. Although the enemy inflicted heavy casualties during the charge, these paratroopers reached the enemy lines where they engaged the Germans in hand-to-hand combat—inflicting death and causing others to flee in panic. A German taken prisoner told a Reuter’s correspondent that “They charged like wild animals” and “screamed and shouted when they charged into our fire. It was unbelievable.” Cole then ordered his men to secure the bridge down the causeway over the Douve River. The following day American forces from Omaha and Utah beaches linked. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, recommended the Medal of Honor for Cole for his actions at Carentan.
To those that knew him, Robert Cole appeared as a larger-than-life colorful, charismatic, and courageous leader. As a graduate of West Point, he proved quite demanding as a battalion commander. For any of his men who failed to live up to his responsibilities, Cole could be quite brutal in chewing out a soldier. He also liked to use profanity with his men and appears to have perfected it as an art form. On the other hand, to the soldiers of the Third Battalion PIR, Cole’s major concern was their welfare. As their commander, Cole was also known for his acts of kindness, such as sharing his rations with his men and using humor sometimes laced with profanity. In his late twenties, he could relate to his men since he was only a few years older than most of them. In short, the tough-talking Texan was held in high esteem by those that served under him.
After Normandy, Eisenhower ordered airborne divisions back to England to regroup as plans were made for their next campaign. For several weeks, they trained and waited for their next jump. In a daylight drop, Lt. Col. Robert Cole and his battalion parachuted into Holland as part of Operation Market Garden on September 17. Unlike Normandy, Cole’s unit landed in their designated drop zone. A few hours later, elements of the 502nd PIR took control of the bridges at Sint-Oedenrode. In Cole’s Third Battalion, H Company moved away from the landing area through the Zonche Forest and toward their assigned mission—the railroad bridges at Best. Near Best, H Company encountered a well-trained, full-strength German force. After making radio contact with H Company, Cole realized they faced a desperate situation and decided to move his battalion through the night toward Best.
On the morning of September 18, 1944, Cole’s battalion found itself dug in and facing fierce German opposition near Best in the Zonche Forest. For the next several hours, the Third Battalion took a pounding from artillery fire as well as small arms fire from Germans who moved through the forest. To make matters worse, Cole found it difficult making radio contact with other elements within the 502nd PIR. Frustrated, he ordered his radio operator to ask for air support, minutes before his own death from enemy fire. The request was granted, and orange smoke was popped and orange panels were placed on the ground to identify the battalion’s location. The P-47s flew low, and some of their fire hit battalion positions. Before the fighters returned for a second round, Cole decided to make sure the orange panels were firmly placed in the ground. The second round proved to be more effective than the first round as enemy fire slackened. As he had before, Cole moved again to securely position the orange panels in place for another aircraft run. After he placed the final panel, Cole stood up in an open field beyond the woods. The Texan held up his hand to shield his eyes from the sun for a few moments as he looked to the sky for the aircraft. About 200 yards away, a German sniper, hidden in a farmhouse, shot and killed Cole. A reporter for United Press, Walter Cronkite, wrote that Cole “knew the woods were filled with German snipers…so rather than order a man into the field to place the panels, Cole carried them himself.”
On October 30, 1944, a medal presentation ceremony was held at Fort Sam Houston on the same parade ground Robert Cole played on as a child. His mother, Clara, was presented the Medal of Honor for her son’s leadership in Carentan, as Cole’s widow and eighteen-month-old son looked on. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, in a handwritten letter to Cole’s widow, wrote, “Bob was our ideal Airborne soldier. His courage was legendary and his hold on his rugged parachutists is an example which few other commanders ever attained.” In his condolence note, General Eisenhower wrote that Cole was “one of our ablest and certainly one of our most gallant officers.”
Lt. Col. Robert Cole is buried at Margraten, Holland, in the Netherlands American Cemetery which is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Robert G. Cole High School in San Antonio is named after the Medal of Honor recipient.
Stephen E. Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944–May 7, 1945 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997). Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994). Joseph Balkoski, Utah Beach: The Amphibious Landing and Airborne Operations on D-Day, June 6, 1944 (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2005). David G. Chandler and James Lawton Colllins, Jr., eds., The D-Day Encyclopedia (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993). John C. McManus, September Hope: The American Side of a Bridge Too Far (New York: NAL Caliber, 2012). Edward F. Murphy, Heroes of World War II (New York: Presidio Press, 1990). Cornelius Ryan, A Bridge Too Far (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974). San Antonio Express-News, June 5, 1994. United States Military Academy West Point, The Howitzer for 1939 (West Point, New York, 1939).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Henry Franklin Tribe, "COLE, ROBERT GEORGE," accessed May 25, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcoez.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on September 14, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.