The United States has never lost a war. During the Second World War, millions of lives were lost. Before America entered the war, most Americans were isolationists, meaning they wanted to avoid involvement with foreign fighting. But, in December 1941, Americans became part of the Allies of World War Two. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States government decided that it was the correct move to join the war with the Allies (Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union). They were going to be entering a war that would result in excruciating fighting and a result of about 60 million deaths.
Out of the many dreams that Ralph N. Cole had, one of them was to join the United States Navy. This dream almost became possible when he attended a meeting at his college in 1942. There were representatives from all of the different branches of American services. Each representative gave a short statement of why they should join that branch. At the end of the meeting, a representative from the United States Army stood up and said, “Does anybody here have a girlfriend? Do you intend on marrying your girlfriend? Well, if you join the army, you can get married at any time. If you join any of these other branches, you have to wait until you have been commissioned.” So, since Ralph N. Cole had a girlfriend and intended on marrying her, he changed his mind about joining the Navy and enlisted in the United States Army.
When Cole entered the army, he was put into specialized engineering training where he trained to be an engineering officer. This class was one of the more challenging courses. On one regular class day, Cole got a message that the whole school had to close down because they needed everybody to go straight into combat. This was an overwhelming message to Cole.
From there, Cole was assigned as a Fire Control Instrument Operator and Forward Observer, also known as a “shell hole reporter” in the combat infantry division. According to Cole, the highest casualties in World War Two were shell hole reporters. As a shell hole reporter, you had to have the skill of being able to anticipate well. First, when you were in your foxhole, you waited until a shell exploded near you. Then, you jumped to where the shell exploded and prayed that the opponent did not “fire for effect,” meaning that they did not fire three or four shells in a row aimed at the same spot. After the explosion, you determined what type of weapon the opponent used to fire the shell. At that point, the reporter used a leveler and an aiming circle to measure what angle the shell came from, and the direction from which it came, in order to know the firing location of the enemy.
As soon as Cole stepped foot at Le Havre in France he knew that he was in war. He had been well trained and was ready to fight. Cole was in the 89th Infantry Division, (a part General Patton’s Third U.S. Army). The 89th Infantry Division, also known as the “Rolling W”, was formed in 1917 shortly after the United States entered World War One. In World War Two, the “Rolling W” was fighting in major battles. They fought across France, into Belgium, Luxembourg, and finally into Germany.
The 89th landed in France in January 1945 and then quickly advanced to the German front. Three months later, they had heavy fighting crossing the Moselle and Rhine Rivers. After they crossed the Rhine River, they fought east and captured the town of Eisenach. Cole recalls one close call in particular while fighting in Germany. It was March 1945 and the 89th Infantry were located in a forest area in a ravine. Cole had just returned from his duties as a forward observer and shell hole reporter, and was with some associates. They had dug foxholes, and were inside of them, when heavy shelling occurred over their heads. According to Cole, it is standard policy not to leave the security of one’s foxhole during a shelling, and especially not to dash across an open area at such a time.
Cole claimed, a “strong impulse and thought hit me – we simply had to get out of our holes and had to run to another location.” During a brief lull in the firing at the men, Cole told his crew to get out of their foxholes and to follow him across the open area and up the side of a protective ridge. Needless to say, “there was some grumbling by the men and comments about how stupid it was to leave the security of [the] holes for another location”, noted Cole. However, the group did as Cole ordered, dashed across the ravine, climbed the protective hill, and again dug in. “Firing continued through the night”, claimed Cole. The next morning, as the firing ceased, Cole and the men went back to the former location. To their amazement, the area in which they had been located was totally obliterated. According to Cole, “someone was watching over us”. Cole feels that he shall be ever thankful for the spirit that guided him and the other men to safety and saved their lives.
On April 4, 1945, the Fourth Armored Division and the 355th Infantry Regiment of the 89th Infantry Division, liberated the first death camp, Ohrdruf or North Stalag III, near Weimer, Germany. Ohrdruf was the first Nazi concentration camp discovered by American Troops and considered a sub camp of Buchenwald. The camp was established in November 1944 and forced labor on the prisoners for railway construction. Ohrdruf had a prisoner population of 11,700. In early April, before American Troops arrived, the SS evacuated most of the prisoners to Buchenwald. In addition, the SS guards murdered the remaining prisoners who were too weak to walk to the railcars.
According to Cole, “one of the first sights to greet our troops were the bodies of approximately twenty emaciated persons who had just been shot prior to the flight of their Nazi captors.” Cole further explained, “the crematorium was filled with the partially consumed bodies of many people, some still smoldering and smoking.” In addition, the Germans had placed iron railroad tracks, interlaced with ties, and had stacked countless corpses on this funeral pyre. Nearby in a warehouse were piles of bodies covered with lye, awaiting cremation. In one locale, “a body was still on a roasting type campfire, treated as you might roast a pig,” noted Cole. There were almost no survivors, as the Nazis had killed as many prisoners as possible to prevent anyone from telling what had happened.
Ohrdruf was subsequently visited by Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton. General Eisenhower stated, “I have never been able to describe my emotional reaction when I came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard to every shred of decency. I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about the things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda. I want every American unit not actually in the front line to see this place. We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now at least he will know what he is fighting against.”
General Patton described Ohrdruf as “one of the most appalling sights I have ever seen. Honestly, words are inadequate to express the horror of these institutions. The scenes witnessed here are beyond the normal mind to believe. No race except a people dominated by an ideology of sadism could have committed such gruesome crimes. Inmates, all in a bad state of starvation, even those who live, in my opinion, will never recover mentally.” General Bradley commented, “The smell of death overwhelmed us even before we passed through the stockade. More than 3,000 naked emaciated bodies had been flung into shallow graves. Others lay in the streets where they had fallen. Lice crawled over the yellow skin of their sharp, bony frames. A guard showed us how the blood had congealed in course black scabs where the starving prisoners had torn out the entrails of the dead for food. I was too revolted to speak, for here death had been so fouled by degradation that it both stunned and numbed us.”
After inspecting Ohrdruf, the generals flew on to inspect captured artwork and bullion which had been looted by the Nazis. Although their visit had been recorded by the press, that night, April 12, 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just died. With that significant news event, Ohrdruf received no coverage. From the liberation of Ohrdruf, Cole and the 89th Infantry moved on to Eastern Germany and captured the city of Zwickau on April 18, 1945.
Cole distinctly recalled his time in Europe on May 8, 1945, the day that World War II ended in Europe. According to Cole, they had been fighting in France and Luxembourg. The 89th had lost many men crossing the Mosel and the Rhine, both tourist stops today, but hell spots during the fighting. After continuing severe fighting eastward through Germany, they finally arrived north of Czechoslovakia, outside the city of Zwickau. There, the 89th were ordered to wait. Rumors abounded that the war might soon come to a close.
Cole further stated, “We knew that just across the ravine, Germans were digging in and fortifying their positions. Although we traded shells, it was not nearly so bad as our earlier fighting.” Tensions built up, and word spread that we would be attacking again. On the evening of May 7, 1945, Cole recalled their orders were: Prepare to attack on 0600 8 May. “Weapons were cleaned to perfection, farewell letters written, and poker debts paid”, claimed Cole. “We knew that the fortifications we were to seize were heavy and entrenched, and that there would be enormous loss of human life.”
At 2200, or 10 p.m., Cole noted that orders came to continue full preparation for the attack. “Odd, for that was exactly what we were doing – preparing for another battle”, exclaimed Cole. At 0200 on May 8 came orders: “Continue attack preparations, but attack may be canceled.” At 0400, orders arrived: “Stand down. Maintain full readiness. Do not attack.” At 0600, on May 8,1945, the most exciting orders of the war arrived: “Cancel attack. Nazis have surrendered. The war is over.”
Cole distinctly remembered seeing that from the heavily fortified pillboxes and trenches the German troops were marching toward the 89th. With the heavily armed German troops were tanks, half- tracked vehicles, weapon carriers, motorcycle personnel. Cole was in disbelief and could not believe what he saw nor his orders, “Do not shoot!” Cole and the 89th stood with their rifles loaded, but held at port arms while these heavily armed troops strode not only into our lines, but through them. “We glared at the Germans; they glared back at us. Not a shot was fired from either side”, noted Cole.
The German troops were going to our rear area, surrendering to us in preference to surrendering to the Russians, who were behind them. According to Cole, it is a memory he will always keep, “Our enemy, those who wanted to kill us, eye to eye, but not a single bullet or grenade or Howitzer fired”. Shortly thereafter, a group of us went over to the area from which the Germans had come. Unbelievable to us was the professionalism of the construction of those fortifications they had vacated. Concrete bunkers, trenches, heavy weapons positions. And, those fortifications were just waiting for us, had we attacked on the morning of May 8. “One day made the difference”, claimed Cole. Had the war ended on May 9, many of the 89th would have perished. Although Cole was a young soldier serving as a forward observer and shell hole reporter, he had been assigned as a machine gunner at the time. Cole recalls the end of the war with much thanks. How well he knew what a perfect target he would have been for the enemy.
When I asked Cole what was his most vivid memories about the war, he stated, “Fighting is horrible, but it is a matter of luck too.” In addition, Cole talked about his memory of liberating the first death camp, Ohrdruf. When the 89th Infantry Division finished fighting off the Germans, Cole looked around and saw hundreds of stacks of naked bodies all around him. There were some bodies that were still warm from being shot by the Germans just hours before. The horror was beyond anything he had ever seen. According to Cole, “Ohrdruf remains ever imbedded in the minds of the men of the 4th Armored Division and the 89th Infantry Division. Let us hope that others will learn and remember….”
Most of Ralph Cole’s heavy fighting was fought when he crossed the Moselle and Rhine Rivers. They were fighting to push the Germans back to Germany. One of Ralph Cole’s proudest moments was when he and his army crossed the Moselle River.
After the heavy fighting over the Moselle and Rhine Rivers and east to just north of Czechoslovakia, Cole was scheduled to be sent over to Japan to help fight. But, when they were about to leave, Cole and his men received a message that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. They postponed their departure to Japan to the following week.
“We owe our success to the atomic bomb.” Ralph Cole stated. Early on Monday, August 6, 1945, a B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, took off from a North Pacific island named Tinian. In its belly, it was carrying a bomb the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT. It was nicknamed, “Little Boy.” The Enola Gay was part of the 509th Composite Group. For it to carry a heavy load (like an atomic bomb), it was equipped with new propellers, stronger engines, and faster bomb bay doors. The Manhattan Project was the secret project that developed the atomic bomb. Little Boy was created by using uranium-235. It was a 2 billion dollar project. When the bomb was dropped, 70,000 people died immediately from the explosion. Another 70,000 people died from radiation within five years.
Three days after the initial bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Cole and his unit got a message that said another atomic bomb had been dropped oin Nagasaki, Japan. As the Japanese were still horrified at what happened in Hiroshima, America was preparing for another bombing mission, but this time on Nagasaki. On another early morning, August 9, 1945, a B-29 took off from Tinian once again. This time, “Fat Man,” lay in the bottom of the plane. Fat Man destroyed approximately forty percent of Nagasaki. When Cole and his fellow servicemen heard the news, they celebrated. Everybody cheered with joy because they were now able to return to their families and did not have to fight anymore. By the end of the war in Europe, the total number of casualties in the 89th Infantry Division was 1,354.
Devotion, what Ralph N. Cole had, was the main feeling that I felt during my interview with him. His dedication to his country was outstanding. He knew how to do his job in the war and he fought vigorously to contribute to winning the war.
Ralph Cole’s devotion followed him after his service was over. He spent thirty years in the Reserve. This type of devotion could only mean one thing: he loved the Army and wanted to be involved with it after his active duty service was completed.
Different than most war veterans, World War Two had a positive effect on Ralph Cole. He can still talk about all of the gory and tragic details about his heavy fighting without holding back. He wants to make sure that every teenager knows the true story about what it was like to fight in World War Two. I think it is miraculous what those soldiers did for our country.
During my interview, Cole showed me his fork and spoon that he used to eat with during the war. I was amazed he had the presence of mind to save something as simple as a fork and spoon. He also had twelve of his medals (including the Legion of Merit). He was very proud of himself because he earned those medals. He devoted a huge part of his life to war, and he received gratitude and appreciation.
My final question to Ralph Cole was, “What did the war teach you?” His reply, “The war taught me that our nation must be strong at all times, and that all citizens should be ready to defend our country. I am proud of the United States, and I look to your generation to protect our country in the years ahead.” World War Two has changed Cole’s perspective on the world, as he has seen what people can do to each other. He depends on the younger generation of the United States to keep our victory in conquering the enemies of mankind.
Interview by Natasha Rosenbach in June 2011.
St. Mark’s School 8th World War II Veteran Oral History Project
St. Mark’s Faculty Advisor: Mike Fargo
Supplemented by Nicholas Elsbree on October 28, 2011