This Day in History: Robert G. Cole’s bravery in World War II

During this month in 1944, a soldier is shot and killed by a German sniper. Just a few months earlier, Robert G. Cole had thrown himself into danger—and survived! He never knew that he would receive the Medal of Honor for that action. The sniper got to him first. How sad. If he’d lived just a few weeks more, then he could have received his Medal of Honor in person. Perhaps more importantly, he might have had the opportunity to meet his 2-year-old son, Bruce.

Cole never met Bruce in person, but the young boy attended Cole’s Medal of Honor ceremony in San Antonio, along with his mother and grandmother. More than 1,000 troops were also present for the occasion.

The action that earned Cole his Medal of Honor occurred in the immediate aftermath of D-Day.

Cole was a Lieutenant Colonel in the 101st Airborne Division, also known as the “Screaming Eagles.” As Allied forces invaded Normandy on D-Day, Cole was right in the thick of it. His unit was making its first combat jump that day—and Cole had the honor of being the first to jump out of the leading plane.

Unfortunately, the soldiers were badly dispersed during the drop. Cole initially found only four of his own men, but he finally managed to gather up 75 soldiers. His unit was supposed to destroy certain coastal defenses, helping to prepare Utah Beach for the Allied forces that would be landing soon. His mission accomplished, he met up with the U.S. 4th Infantry Division at the dune line.

The next task was tougher.

Allied commanders set their sights on the French city of Carentan, which sat centrally located on highways and rail lines. Capturing Carentan would enable Allied forces from Utah and Omaha Beaches to link up with each other.

The critical action came on the night of June 10-11. Cole was trying to get his men down a long, exposed causeway that ran above some marshes and flooded areas. Four bridges also had to be crossed. Unfortunately, Cole’s men began taking heavy enemy fire, and they became pinned down. The conflict that followed has been called the “bloodiest engagement in the Cotentin Peninsula.”

After a day and a night of this, Cole had had enough. He’d gotten a portion of his men past the last bridge, and it seemed that most of the enemy fire was coming from behind some hedgerows at a nearby farm house. He decided to order artillery smoke, then to lead his men in a bayonet charge on that position.

A fixed bayonet charge during World War II?! 😉 Reportedly, Cole was also firing his pistol as he ran. “I don’t know what I’m shooting at,” he yelled over his shoulder to his men, “but I gotta keep on.” The men laughed, breaking some of the tension. Amazingly, the charge was successful, although the casualties were high.

Cole survived that incident, but he would not survive another a few months later. During Operation Market Garden in September 1944, Cole’s men had accidentally come under friendly fire. Cole ran out to lay identification markers for air support, but a German sniper unfortunately spotted him. Cole was killed instantly.

“He died as he had lived,” a West Point Association of Graduates website concludes, “unafraid, with his first thoughts for his men.”

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