We’ve been focusing on Memorial Day in the past week, writing about some of the heroes of past conflicts who despite all odds persevered and made it through the horrors of war and were awarded the Nation’s highest award. Today on Memorial Day, we remember a hero who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his incredible courage during the D-Day Normandy invasion and survived the battle but was tragically killed during the invasion of Holland a few months later.
Robert G. Cole was an airborne battalion commander in the 101st Airborne Division leading the 3rd Bn, of the 502nd Parachute Infantry into D-Day landing outside of Carentan. He led his battalion on an assault on German positions and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
Cole was born at Ft. Sam Houston, TX in March of 1915, his father was an Army doctor. He joined the Army on July 1, 1934, and a year later was granted a discharge so that he could attend the US Military Academy at West Point.
Cole graduated as a 2LT of Infantry in 1939 and joined the paratroopers in 1941, earning his wings in March 1941. As the airborne forces were being rapidly expanded, he quickly attained rank and just three years later, Cole was commanding a battalion in the 502nd.
Cole was a tall, muscular Texan with a booming voice that he seldom lowered, he reigned over a tough, wild battalion of paratroopers with an iron hand. And his men respected and feared him as much as they did the Germans. One trooper, Ralph Kelly remembered, “I was more afraid of Cole than I ever was of the Germans.”
On D-Day, the entire 101st Airborne was spread all over Normandy in their first combat jump. Units were separated and small groups with troops from several different commands would link up and conduct assigned missions. So by midday on June 6, Cole had only 75 men with him but he was still able to effect linkup with the 4th Infantry Division behind Utah Beach by capturing Exit 3 at Saint-Martin-de-Varreville.
The battalion had the assigned mission of being in reserve in the initial invasion. But by June 10, Cole’s battalion had reorganized into 400 men. And he would need every one of them during the next assault.
With the 101st assigned the mission of taking Carentan, the men of Cole’s battalion were assigned to taking the narrow causeway leading up to the town. The causeway was very narrow and totally exposed on either side where there were marshes with no cover. Cole’s troops would be in the sights of the German paratroopers who were guarding the town. The causeway was called Purple Heart Lane by the troops.
The German troops were dug in well on one side behind a hedgerow and at the far end of the causeway was a bridge over the Douve River that Cole’s troops were to take after moving down the causeway. Past the bridge was Carentan.
As Cole moved his troops up, they were hit with accurate devastating fire from German mortars, artillery, and machine-gun fire. The troops huddled against the side of the causeway bank after taking horrendous casualties. They decided to take up defensive positions for the night.
The darkness offered the 502nd little respite. The Germans continued to hit them with concentrated artillery and mortar fire, including strafing from German aircraft. This cause even more casualties and completely knocked out one of Cole’s companies right out of the fight.
By morning, Cole had 265 men left for an assault. Cole decided to call for smoke and would personally lead a bayonet charge into the German positions. His attack gained momentum and they finally advanced through the hedgerow and a farm behind it, driving the Germans out and killing and wounding a large amount of them in the fighting and then cutting the German paratroopers down as they attempted to flee.
The attack was costly, with 130 of his 265 becoming casualties. Both Cole’s 3rd Battalion and the 1st Battalion suffered high casualties and after taking the bridge, couldn’t advance inside the town of Carentan. The German paratroopers of the 6th Parachute Regiment (Fallschrimjaeger) counter-attacked and tried to drive the Americans back. During the night, the American artillery turned the tables on the Germans and pounded the Nazi paratroopers and broke up their attacks.
The Germans decided that they couldn’t hold Carentan as their ammunition was running out and pulled out, leaving just small, blocking forces inside the town. The 506th Parachute Infantry made famous in the “Band of Brothers” book and television series would be tasked with taking the town just after dawn on June 12th.
On the 7oth anniversary of the battle, the French citizens of Carentan erected a monument to the courage of “Cole’s Charge” as it had been called. The Stars and Stripes of the United States float on the monument beside the Tricolour,” said a French administrator.
Cole was recommended for the Medal of Honor but tragically would not live to see it. Just a few months later during the invasion of Holland in Operation Market-Garden, Cole’s battalion was contacted by American P-47s and was asked to place orange marker panels in front of his unit’s position. The Thunderbolts had been trying to strafe German positions and were hitting some American ones as well.
Cole, rather than task a subordinate to it, decided to do it himself. As soon as Cole laid down the panel, the P-47s began putting devastating fire on the German positions and the amount of fire being received from them slackened perceptibly. Cole, standing in the open and shielding his eyes against the sun, he raised his head to catch a glimpse of the plane. A German sniper about 100 yards away in a farmhouse saw this and shot Cole in the temple killing him instantly.
Later, the Americans saw a German try to hightail it from the farmhouse, a .30 caliber machine-gun cut him down before he got far. The word passed quickly through the battalion that the men had gotten the German that killed Cole and they all felt much better about it.
Just two weeks later, his Medal of Honor was awarded to his mother, wife, and son at Ft. Sam Houston. Cole was buried with his troops in the American military cemetery in Margraten, the Netherlands.
Medal of Honor Citation:
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 Lieutenant Colonel Cole reflect great credit upon himself and are worthy of the highest praise in the military service.
Photos: US Army of General Eisenhower talking to LTC Robert Coe just prior to the D-Day invasion.