On 11 March 2020, the DPAA announced that Sergeant Duane Oliver Cole, of Niles, Michigan has been accounted for as of 9 September 2019. Read their press release here.
Duane was born on 8 March 1920 – the fifth of eight children raised by George and Hattie Cole of Spooner, Wisconsin. He spent the first seventeen years of his life in Spooner before moving to Niles, Michigan, with his family. Duane entered Niles High School as a sophomore; his flair for theatrics led to a role in the school play and a few years in the school’s Dramatics Club. He graduated with the class of 1939.
With diploma in hand, Duane went out to find employment. He was hired by the Garden City Fan Company shortly after graduation and worked as a spray painter up until his enlistment in the Marine Corps on 4 September 1941. He trained at the San Diego recruit depot and was posted to Company K, Third Battalion, 8th Marines just before Pearl Harbor. The regiment was placed on high alert as soon as news of the attack reached the continental United States, and Private Cole’s first duty was likely standing guard over the California coast. Soon, the 8th Marines were packing seabags and stowing their gear in preparation for an overseas deployment. There was no time for a furlough or a final visit home: on 5 January 1942, Private Cole boarded the USAT Monterey, a converted luxury liner pressed into service as a troop carrier. The Monterey sailed from San Diego the following day, and on 20 January deposited the 8th Marines at Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa.
Private Cole was still learning the ropes of Marine Corps life; he was neglectful of his duties during the voyage and spent two days in the ship’s brig. He was far from the only one who ran afoul of military justice – strictness was deemed necessary to prepare the new men for the rigors they would face in the field. At the time, Samoa was thought to be a high priority target for Japanese invasion. The 8th Marines built beach defenses, stood guard, and spent every spare moment in training. Private Cole showed proficiency with the Browning Automatic Rifle; this talent led to his designation as a specialist with the weapon and a promotion to Private First Class in April, 1942.
News of the fall of Bataan, followed by the surrender of the 4th Marines at Corregidor, darkened spirits on Samoa. Many in the 8th Marines believed they were next to be swallowed by the advancing Japanese tide, and plans were made to fight a guerilla war if necessary. However, the stunning victory at Midway kept the Japanese at bay, and as more troops arrived to garrison the islands, the imminent threat of invasion faded away. By the late summer of 1942, the 8th Marines were wondering when they would have a chance to take the fight to the enemy – a wonder that only increased when they heard of the invasion of Guadalcanal. Only in October would they receive their orders; on 4 November 1942, PFC Cole and his comrades finally landed in the combat zone.
Cole carried his BAR throughout the Guadalcanal campaign, and survived countless patrols, direct attacks, and sleepless nights on the front line. While he escaped enemy-inflicted injury during those three months, he likely contracted malaria or some other tropical disease; his subsequent time in New Zealand was marked by spells in the regimental sick bay. Despite this recurring ailment, Cole impressed his superiors enough to warrant a promotion to corporal in the spring of 1943. Leadership suited him, and on 1 October 1943 he attained the rank of sergeant. The next day, he was back in the field hospital – almost certainly sweating out the effects of his Guadalcanal sickness.
As Christmas of 1943 approached, George and Hattie worried about their sons in the service. David, they knew, was in New Orleans with the Navy, but they had not heard from Duane in months. His last letters home mentioned Guadalcanal, and they thought he might still be there. On Christmas Eve, they received the worst possible news: Duane was dead, killed in action at an unspecified location somewhere overseas.
Sergeant Duane Cole lost his life in action on the island of Betio in the Tarawa atoll, 20 November 1943. While no eyewitness accounts of his last moments are currently known, his battalion’s landing is graphically described by Col. Joseph H. Alexander in Across The Reef: The Marine Landing at Tarawa.
Japanese antiboat guns zeroed in on the landing craft with frightful accuracy, often hitting just as the bow ramp dropped. Survivors reported the distinctive “clang” as a shell impacted, a split second before the explosion. “It happened a dozen times,” recalled Staff Sergeant Hatch, watching from the beach, “the boat blown completely out of the water and smashed and bodies all over the place.” Robert Sherrod reported from a different vantage point, “I watched a Jap shell hit directly on a [landing craft] that was bringing many Marines ashore. The explosion was terrific and parts of the boat flew in all directions.” Some Navy coxswains, seeing the slaughter just ahead, stopped their boats seaward of the reef and ordered the troops off. The Marines, many loaded with radios or wire or extra ammunition, sank immediately in deep water; most drowned. The reward for those troops whose boats made it intact to the reef was hardly less sanguinary: a 600-yard wade through withering crossfire, heavier by far than that endured by the first assault waves at H-Hour. The slaughter among the first wave of Companies K and L was terrible. Seventy percent fell attempting to reach the beach.
Sergeant Cole’s body was recovered from the vicinity of Beach Red 3, identified, and initially reported as buried in “Division Cemetery #5, Row A, Grave #9.” This notation was later changed to “Central Division Cemetery, Row B, Grave #76,” and in the consolidation of the cemeteries, a memorial marker was erected in the Navy-designated “Cemetery 26.” This area was excavated by the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company in 1946, but no remains matching the description of Sergeant Cole were found. In 1949, he was declared non-recoverable.
A 2014 expedition by the non-profit group History Flight rediscovered the site of Cemetery 26, and excavations turned up numerous skeletal remains which were handed over to the DPAA. At long last, in 2019, Duane Oliver Cole was formally identified and accounted for. He will be buried in Spooner, Wisconsin in June of 2020.
Welcome home, Sergeant Cole. Semper Fi.
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