“I joined to fight and was put blowing a bugle. There is a right way, and Marine Corps Way, naturally it’s easy to see which way we go,” said USMC Sgt. Darrell Cole.
In his formative years, Darrell Cole was a Sunday school leader, choir boy, and vagabond. But his actions in the moments that would ultimately end his life made him an American hero and Medal of Honor recipient.
Cole’s Early Life
Darrell Cole was born on 20 July 1920 in Flat River, Missouri. According to his diary, he had “blond hair, blue eyes and was fair of complexion.” His hobbies included “photography, swimming, roller-skating, bowling, reading, and music.” He enjoyed songs of the time such as Wait for Me Mary, Moonlight Becomes You, Stardust, White Cliffs of Dover, and Intermezzo.
According to the Daily Journal Online, which did an incredible story on Cole’s life and his journal entries, on 10 May 1943, Cole began putting to paper his account of the Battle of Guadalcanal and the events leading up to it. Cole’s own words are highlighted in this excerpt from his diary:
“I am going to try and set down as many of the events that happened to me, from boot camp up to the present. Of course, hundreds of things will have to be left out due to loss of memory, and other unavoidable circumstances.
To start with, I was a foot-loose vagabond before enlisting in the Marine Corps. I have tried my hand at doing nearly every thing, and succeeded at nothing. Simply because it never held any interest enough for me to continue it. Following is the things I’ve did and tried… All interesting while it lasted.
Ran away from home at 10 years of age. Burned a barn down at three years of age, with brother Stanley. Held janitor job in the eighth grade, 14 years old. In high school was on track team (mile), vice president of Dramatics Club, Editor-in-Chief of high school annual. In senior play, in band, Boys Glee Club, Mixed Chorus, Boys Quartet, Pep Squad, French Horn Trio, and was on NYA. Graduated out of 12th grade in three years, age 17.
Joined C.C.C.’s [(Civilian Conservation Corps)] for 14 months, served as Assistant Educational Advisor, Forest Service Clerk, Drove caterpillars and operated jackhammer. Did timber work, planted pine trees, studied map reading, blue-prints, organized a revolt in camp and a Forest Service Foreman. Learned photography and developed enlarged and printed for the camp. Was noted as assistant leader. Got honorable discharge to accept outside employment.
Was superintendent of Sunday School, and was president of B.Y.P.W., sang in choir, quartet of the church. Was salesman for Kansas City Brokers. Sold house hold items, everything from fly spray to cosmetics.
Drove tractors one summer long. All night work in Kansas. I’ve been over nearly all states in Union by riding freights.
Went to Detroit and worked as a truck driver, store room clerk, worked for Fordson Hotel in Dearborne, Mich., as bellboy and trouble shooter. Worked for Woolverine, Mfg., and Fabricating Co. Left there to enter service. Becoming too fond of wine, women, and song made good money, but night clubs got most of it. Wasn’t getting anywhere, so enlisted.”
Long before the Corps came calling, Darrell Cole was already quite a character. His story isn’t unlike other veterans’ who enlisted following, what others would consider, a whirlwind lifestyle. There seems to be something that just draws those types to the military. Maybe it is the experiences or structure they’ll gain, or maybe they’re just led to serve their country. Regardless, a fair number of vets have stories similar to Cole’s. After all, given his upbringing, enlisting into the Marine Corps might’ve felt like just another average day in Cole’s life.
Darrell Cole’s Marine Corps Service
Darell Cole enlisted in the Marine Corps with Raymond Rion a friend of his. Cole joined the Marines on August 25, 1941. Cole remarks in his diary that he enjoyed boot camp. Yet, he was disappointed, because he had joined the military to fight and instead they handled him a bugle. The needs of the Corps always come first. He would complete boot camp just a few days before the U.S. entered WWII.
Even though he wasn’t happy with his assigned MOS, Cole was proud to be a Marine. He wrote,
“As the Marine Corps as a whole, I’m pretty damn proud of it. I think no other service equals it, but not because I’m a member. But there are some stupid pig-headed officers who would rather regard their bars as tin Gods, rather than one-half of the Marine Corps they are. I’m glad they are in the minority. But just one can be enough hell.”
His comments make me believe that some things in the Marine Corps have changed very little he joined up in 1941 and when I served in 2000.
Darrell Cole was sent to the Field Music School, and following his training in the bugle was transferred to the 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, Calif. Then, in August 1942, Bugler Cole joined the 1st MARDIV in the Guadalcanal Campaign. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, Cole found the opportunity to fight, “more like a machine gunner than a bugler.”
About the Guadalcanal campaign, Cole wrote in his diary,
“We had every type of warfare known on Guadalcanal. Including tanks, flame throwers, submarines shelling us, also Jap battleships, bombing continuously during the day and night, We had to fight snipers everywhere among us. We had Jap land based artillery shelling us, as well as strafing from their Zero planes.”
“One day I had a 500 lb. bomb hit in the back of my fox hole, and two anti personnel bombs in front about 65 feet away. It caved the dirt in on my legs and arms. I got out OK. Picked up a chunk of shrapnel big as my head out of the hole with me… I didn’t believe there is a man who can tell 1/10 of what happened down there. Something was happening every minute. And no one will ever know the thoughts, ideas that a man gets in a hell like Guadalcanal was.”
Cole finished this diary entry by writing, “After all that, get in the states, and have some guy ask you if you knew there was a war on, cause you asked for two packs of gum, not knowing anything about rationing and dozens of other cases! Some people appreciate it all, most just take it all for granted.”
The Importance of a Bugler
Following that campaign, Cole immediately began trying to transfer his MOS to machine gunner, but his request was denied, “due to a shortage of field musics.” In March 1943, Cole was transferred to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina where he joined the 1st Battalion, 23d Marines, 4th Marine Division. Upon arrival to his new unit, Cole requested a change of MOS from Bugler to Machine Gunner. But his request was again denied.
Reading this you might be wondering why was it so hard for Cole to get out of being a bugler. That’s because a bugler was a pretty important job in the WWII military. The voice field radio was a pretty recent invention in the world’s militaries. Many ran on heavy and unreliable single-cell lead-acid batteries. Bugles used for communications went back thousands of years and were extensively relied on for communicating with the troop. The U.S. Navy had over 100 designated bugle calls for different orders being sent about a ship. A bugler would stand at the microphone on the bridge and blow his horn with calls to do everything from waking in the morning to going to bed at night. There was even a bugle call allowing men to smoke.
On land, a Marine and his bugle could be heard everywhere in the camp. Buglers were assigned to HQ and their calls could assemble officers for a meeting, call troops to man gun batteries, radars, searchlights, or call them to chow. In battle, a bugle call to fix bayonets or cease-fire could be heard well over the din of the battlefield.
Despite the Marine Corps’ seeming aversion to providing Cole an official change of MOS, the Corps had no qualms with handing Cole a machine gun in battle. It even assigned him to be a “machine gun leader” during the assaults on Saipan and Tinian in June and July 1944. When his squad leader was killed during a battle, Cole assumed command of the squad. For his combat performance on Saipan, he was awarded the Bronze Star.
The Greatest Sacrifice
Bugler Cole was racking up an amazing war record. In less than three years he’d made amphibious landings with his Marines at Guadacanal, Kwajalein, Saipan, and Tinian. This, more than anything, probably affected his being able to switch over to a combat rating with the infantry. Marines who’d survived four battles were in short supply. The Marines finally approved his request to be a Machine Gunner in November 1944. He was also promoted to the rank of sergeant.
Sgt. Cole not only got his wish to be a true combat Marine and machine gunner, but he was also the leader of an entire machine section. With just three years of service in the Corps, Cole was an “Old Salt” to the young Marines joining his section out of boot camp.
And as Darrell Cole and his men of the 4th Marine Division were on their way to Iwo Jima the young Marines would be looking to him for guidance and leadership in combat.
Cole and his Marines went ashore with the initial waves on February 19, 1944. Dunes of soft volcanic ash covered the landing beaches. Men would sink to their calves in trying to move. At first, the Japanese stayed quiet and did not oppose the landings.
Believing that it had caught the Japanese unprepared, or that the pre-invasion bombardment had suppressed them, the Navy rushed everything ashore to exploit this opportunity. Soon the beaches were packed with men and material. It was then that the Japanese opened fire upon them. And it was a slaughter.
It was in the midst of this that Cole led his men into the fight that would see him awarded the Medal of Honor.
His Medal of Honor citation very eloquently describes what then transpired:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as Leader of a Machine-gun Section of Company B, First Battalion, Twenty-third Marines, FOURTH Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces during the assault on Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands, 19 February 1945. Assailed by a tremendous volume of small-arms, mortar and artillery fire as he advanced with one squad of his section in the initial assault wave, Sergeant Cole boldly led his men up the sloping beach toward Airfield No. 1 despite the blanketing curtain of flying shrapnel and, personally destroying with hand grenades two hostile emplacements which menaced the progress of his unit, continued to move forward until a merciless barrage of fire emanating from three Japanese pillboxes halted the advance. Instantly placing his one remaining machine[gun] in action, he delivered a shattering fusillade and succeeded in silencing the nearest and most threatening emplacement before his weapon jammed and the enemy, reopening fire with knee mortars and grenades, pinned down his unit for the second time.”
“Shrewdly gauging the tactical situation and evolving a daring plan of counterattack, Sergeant Cole, armed solely with a pistol and one grenade, coolly advanced alone to the hostile pillboxes. Hurling his one grenade at the enemy in sudden, swift attack, he quickly withdrew, returned to his own lines for additional grenades and again advanced, attacked, and withdrew. With enemy guns still active, he ran the gantlet of slashing fire a third time to complete the total destruction of the Japanese strong point and the annihilation of the defending garrison in this final assault. Although instantly killed by an enemy grenade as he returned to his squad, Sergeant Cole had eliminated a formidable Japanese position, thereby enabling his company to storm the remaining fortifications, continue the advance, and seize the objective. By his dauntless initiative, unfaltering courage and indomitable determination during a critical period of action, Sergeant Cole served as an inspiration to his comrades, and his stouthearted leadership in the face of almost certain death sustained and enhanced the highest tradition of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”
The Medal of Honor was posthumously awarded to Sgt. Darrell Cole on April 17, 1947. It was presented to his widow, Mrs. Margaret B. Cole by Lt. Col. Whitaker at the naval armory in Detroit, Michigan.
You would expect that the family would hold on to Sgt. Cole’s Medal of Honor as a treasured and honored heirloom. Yet, this is not what happened.
The USS Darrell S. Cole
The USS Darrell S. Cole, a Burke class-guided missile destroyer was named in his honor on June 8, 1996. And Sgt. Darrell Cole’s Medal of Honor is proudly displayed in her enlisted mess.
The USS Cole was attacked by al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2000. She was badly crippled in the attack and lost 17 of her crew but was repaired and returned to sea just three days after the 9/11 attacks.
The Cole is still in use today.
The small-town boy from eastern Missouri became a national hero the day he stormed Iwo Jima with only a pistol and a grenade. His legacy, however, continues on in every mission the USS Cole participates in. There is no doubt that Sgt. Cole would both smile and be humbled to know he had been honored in such a way.
“I used to write most of my letters, or postcards mostly, when I heard that an air attack was on its way. I laid the letters about 50 feet away, so if I got killed, maybe they still wouldn’t be damaged any, and someone would send them on.”
“I came back and found my girl almost married to another guy in the army, as most of the boys did. She did at least wait until I got back. Most didn’t. So endeth this chronicle,” Cole concluded.
Darrell Cole lived more fully in his short 24 years than many do in a lifetime. He showed uncommon valor even while surrounded by men of uncommon valor.
Cole is buried in the Parkview Cemetery in Farmington, Missouri.
This article was originally published in April 2021. It has been edited for republication.