Thank you for your service
BY CINDY JONES
Although 95-year-old former Marine Corps Rifleman John Cole didn’t speak about the Korean War for over 50 years, it’s an experience neither his mind nor his body will allow him to forget.
John joined the Marine Corps at age 17, received special weapons training, and served during WWII at the Naval Station in Bremerton, Washington. He worked as a prison guard at a prison known as “Naval Brig” and later worked under several Navy captains as a captain’s aide. During this time, John called his sweetheart, Donna, to join him, and the two were married at the chapel on the Naval base.
Toward the end of his WWII service, John joined the Marine Corps Reserve, which allowed him to leave his station two months early, in time to celebrate the holiday season with his family.
After North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, United States military Reserves were called upon to help. John was called to Camp Pendleton for a brief training and arrived in Korea with the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines in November, 1950.
Upon arrival in North Korea, near the Chosin Reservoir, John was assigned to guide three other Marines as a fire team leader. John and his team, armed with automatic and semi-automatic weapons, had to survive for 17 days in foxholes they dug themselves, in high winds and below-zero temperatures. To keep his men from freezing to death, he made a rule that no one in his group was allowed to sleep more than two hours at a time.
John’s team was sent deep beyond enemy lines to gather information. On the trek through a rice paddy, hundreds of footprints on the dirt road left John feeling uneasy. He said he could “feel eyes on him” and sent one of his men to alert his platoon sergeant. It was soon apparent the entire division was outnumbered.
Chinese soldiers, who were aiding the North Koreans, outnumbered U.N. troops nearly 15 to 1, encircled and attacked the division. In the violent blur of the same battle, the force of a grenade hit him from behind, tearing into his hip and back. A Chinese soldier attacked him with a knife, and another attacked him with a bayonet. Just as John knocked the bayonet to the side, the soldier fired his gun, hitting John in the right forearm.
After being injured, John was treated in a Japanese facility and spent over a year in a hospital in Vallejo, California. He had suffered extreme frostbite on both feet, both knees, both hands, and parts of his face. The damage from the frostbite, as well as the horrific battle he experienced, still haunts him today.
After the battle at Chosin, the remaining U.N. troops made their way up the Eastern coast to the sea to escape. They were followed by over 100,000 North Korean refugees. The Navy called two extra cargo ships to evacuate them to an island off of South Korea. Many refugees, their children, and grandchildren still live there today.
After his service in the Korean War, John left the military on a medical discharge and returned home to begin a life with his family again. He has enjoyed a 40-year career as a government employee. John and Donna had four sons and have been married for 76 years.
Since 2013, John has been working with the Utah Department of Veteran’s Affairs to ensure that all Utah veterans of the Korean War who fought in combat receive the Republic of South Korea’s Ambassador for Peace Medal.
We’re honored that John was willing to share his story with us. Thank you, John Cole, for your service, sacrifice, and continuing efforts to recognize Veterans of the Korean War.