Lt-Col. Robert G. Cole 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment - 101st Airborne Division
Robert G. Cole was born on 19 March 1915 at Fort Sam Houston in Houston, Texas. As a son of an army Colonel, Robert decided to join the army to become a career soldier. So that’s what he did on 1 July 1934. A year later he was honorably discharged to join the military academy of Westpoint where he graduated in 1939. After graduation he got home to marry the love of his life Allie Mae Wilson.
He then moved to Fort Lewis, where he was appointed to the 15th Infantry Division as a Second-Lieutenant. He served in the 15 infantry division together with Dwight D. Eisenhouwer, who would later become the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Western Europe. Robert Cole and Dwight Eisenhouwer became good friends during their time in the division. Robert Cole worked as an officer in the 15th infantry division until he joined the paratroops in 1941. He was assigned to the 501 Parachute Infantry Battalion to earn his jump wings.
In the early ‘40’s, the American army changed its command structure. The parachute battalions changed into regiments, and Robert Cole transferred to 3rd battalion of the 502 Parachute Infantry Regiment (3-502 PIR) to take command. Ranking up in the army from a Second-Lieutenant to a Lieutenant-Colonel.
In 1943 the 101st Airborne Division was sent to England to prepare for the invasion of fortress Europe. A year later, 6 June 1944, the invasion started and the paratroopers went to war.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Cole Commander 3rd Battalion 502 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division Place and date: Carentan, France, 11 June 1944
For gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life, above and beyond the call of duty on 11 June 1944, in France. Lt-Col. Cole was personally leading his battalion in forcing the last 4 bridges on the road to Carentan when his entire unit was suddenly pinned to the ground by intense and withering enemy rifle, machine gun, mortar, and artillery fire placed upon them from well-prepared and heavily fortified positions within 150 yards of the foremost elements. After the devastating and unceasing enemy fire had for over 1 hour prevented any move and inflicted numerous casualties, Lt-Col. Cole, observing this almost hopeless situation, courageously issued orders to assault the enemy positions with fixed bayonets. With utter disregard for his own safety and completely ignoring the enemy fire, he rose to his feet in front of his battalion and with drawn pistol shouted to his men to follow him in the assault. Catching up a fallen man's rifle and bayonet, he charged on and led the remnants of his battalion across the bullet-swept open ground and into the enemy position. His heroic and valiant action in so inspiring his men resulted in the complete establishment of our bridgehead across the Douve River. The cool fearlessness, personal bravery, and outstanding leadership displayed by Lt-Col. Cole reflect great credit upon himself and are worthy of the highest praise in the military service.
CITATION FOR THE CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR
After Normandy, the 101 Airborne Division returned to England to prepare for the next operation. Robert Cole is known within the 502 PIR to rule his battalion with an iron fist and after receiving replacements for his battalion, his troops were soon ready for a new challenge. It wouldn’t take a long time before the next challenge was presented. The 101st Airborne Division was soon to be deployed in the Netherlands, in an operation called ‘Market Garden’. The goal for the airborne troops during Market Garden was to seize every bridge over rivers and canals from Eindhoven all the way up to Arnhem. The 502 PIR jumped over drop zone B in Son on 17 September 1944 at around 13.30 hours. Cole’s battalion was supposed to have an easy mission. Their task was to secure the drop zones for the entire division so the rest of the division could safely land by glider or parachute in the days after the 17th.
After landing on the drop zone Robert Cole was able to quickly organize and assemble his battalion. One company of Cole’s third battalion, H-502 PIR, strengthened by a platoon from the 326 thAirborne Engineers Battalion and a machine gun section from headquarters, was sent to seize the bridge over the Wilhelmina canal in Best. While these troops were heading for the Best bridge, Cole ordered his other company commanders to put their men in positions all across the drop and landing zones. Within hours everything was organized and the men believed this mission would turn out as a success.
Soon radio messages reached battalion HQ and Cole received news that H company was in trouble at Best and that they had serious German opposition. Cole immediately swung the rest of third battalion into action and made his way towards Best. Upon arrival third battalion walked into enemy opposition and Robert Cole had great difficulty putting his battalion in place. Enemy artillery now hit their lines which made movement even more difficult. Cole hadn’t linked up with H-502 PIR yet and sent runners to see where the company was. The battalion dug in and was pinned down by enemy forces, the Germans seemed to have the upper hand for now. At 13.00 hours a glider landing was planned on landing zone W in Son, carrying elements of the 327th GIR and supporting elements of the 101st Airborne Division. The glider landings were supported by P47 Thunderbolts fighter planes and Cole ordered his radio man and friend Robert Doran to call for air support. The call was answered and the airplanes circled over third battalions positions. At the moment the fighter planes were about to attack, enemy artillery intensified and one of the shells landed on the edge of Robert Doran’s foxhole killing him instantly. Robert Cole was shocked. Just like Normandy, his battalion was stuck at Best, the Germans had the upper hand and his best friend died in front of his eyes. To make matters even worse the airplanes circling over head started to fire into American lines. Cole was outraged and ordered some of his men to place airplane recognition panels. The men around call didn’t respond quickly enough so Cole ran into the field in front of him and placed the panels there himself. The airplanes saw the panels and now started firing into the German lines, with full effect. The Germans stopped firing. For a moment Robert Cole placed his hand over his eyes, shielding them from the sun, while he looked for the planes with his eyes. While looking up a single shot rang out across the field, the bullet hit Cole in his temple. He died on the spot.
Losing Robert Cole was the biggest blow for the third battalion of the 502 PIR during the war. Robert Cole was seemed to be invincible, a great battalion commander and a great military leader. Two weeks after his death on a field in Best, the medal of honor was awarded to Cole for his actions at causeway number 4 near Carentan. The medal was awarded posthumously to his wife and two-year-old son on the parade grounds at Fort Sam in Houston Texas.
The 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were the first to jump into occupied France and cease certain important areas. An important part of the invasion, was to capture Carentan. Carentan the link between Utah and Omaha beach.
On 10 June Cole and his 3-502 PIR were moving up the causeway in between St. Come-du-Mont and Carentan. Trying to capture territory over the Germans. Close to the outskirts of Carentan, the Germans had a well defended position in the hedgerows near the Ingouf farm. While moving up the causeway, Cole’s men had to move through intense enemy fire, causing a lot of casualties in their ranks. The causeway is now nicknamed ‘Purple heart lane’.
At the end of the causeway, the Germans placed some obstacles, which acted as a bottleneck for Cole’s paratroopers. Slowly advancing, the paratroopers finally got into positions at the last bridge over the Madeleine river leading up to Carentan. Only 265 men of the initial 400 from third battalion were left and prepared for an assault on the farm. With the Germans in well defended positions and their fire still suppressing the paratroopers, Robert Cole had to make a difficult decision. He ordered his men to fix bayonets and prepare for a bayonet charge.
Robert Cole, like many other Airborne commanders, led from the front and ran with his men towards the hedgerows. The attack didn’t start out to well, but some of the men from H-502 PIR started running to the German positions together with Cole, getting more men from other companies moving too. More and more men got motivated to participate in the push. While Cole kept firing his .45 pistol in the direction of the German defenders, the attacking force reached the German lines and got into hand-to-hand combat, finally overpowering the enemy. Cole’s charge proved costly, leaving him with 130 of the 265 men. Cole set up defensive positions at the Ingouf farm and called for 1-502 PIR to support his exhausted troops. For the bayonet charge and his efforts that day Cole was to receive the Medal of Honor, the highest American medal a soldier can earn. Sadly, Cole did not live to see it.
Photo: The officers of 3rd battalion 502nd Parachute infantry regiment during their training in the United States of America. In the middle of the bottom row Robert G. Cole, CO of the battalion. At his left Major John P. Stopka. He is Cole’s successor after his death during the Battle at Best. Stopka was hit by friendly fire when an American fighter plane strafed the 502nd PIR lines close to Bastogne. Captain Cecil Simmons (bottom row, 2nd from the right) then became the last battalion commander of third battalion until the deactivation of the 101 Airborne Division in late 1945.