SHERIDAN — It was April 1, 1945. Robert Cole, along with hundreds of soldiers and marines, loaded on landing crafts at 3 a.m. making their way toward a small island south of Japan. Behind him, the deafening guns of the battleships were firing at the seawall through which Cole and his fellow troops would eventually make their way.
It took four hours to reach the shores when the first wave of Allied forces made their way to the beaches of Okinawa. The three-month battle would eventually claim the lives of more than 14,000 Allied troops and nearly 80,000 Japanese soldiers.
Cole spent the next few weeks fighting his way across the island — laying in foxholes, going on patrols, dodging artillery shells.
On the inaugural day of the battle of Okinawa, as his boots hit the sand of the beach where thousands would die, Cole had just turned 20 years old.
“(Fighting in World War II), it helped you to grow up,” said Cole, the now 90-year-old who lives in Story.
Before he was a veteran of two of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific, and before he gave up the only life he ever knew, Cole was just like any other young man in Wyoming.
He spent most of his time in Gillette, a town that before the coal boom had just slightly more than 2,000 residents. Growing up, he delivered the Billings Gazette newspaper and pumped gas for area residents.
News of Pearl Harbor bombings did not affect 15-year-old Cole at the time. But after listening to the broadcasts of the bombings, there was a small part of him that knew it wouldn’t be long until he made his way into service.
Just months away from graduating, Cole enlisted in the Army in 1943.
“It was just something that a lot of people were doing at that time,” Cole said about why he chose to join the Army instead of completing high school.
Cole took a troop train from Gillette to Fort McClellan, Alabama, where he took his basic training. He was assigned to the infantry, which meant Cole went through some of the toughest 14 weeks of training the Army had to offer.
After boot camp, Cole was stationed in California then transferred to Hawaii. Cole then shipped out to the Japanese-occupied Philippines to fight in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Cole, who was 19 years old at the time, was a part of the second wave of troops to reach the Leyte Island. He and his division landed in the town of Dulag, a town that had been totally bombed out by the time Cole got there.
“(Leyte Island) was pretty strenuous at the time,” Cole said. “There were a lot of Japanese there of course. The Japanese had occupied it for a long time.”
During his six-month campaign, Cole went out on patrols, often in the middle of night, looking to fight off the Japanese. During the day, he and his fellow soldiers would advance deeper into the thick jungle of Leyte Island.
He was constantly dirty — laying in foxholes for hours every day keeping an eye out for the enemy.
“There was a lot of rain and of course we had ponchos, but that didn’t help a lot,” Cole said.
Cole was on Leyte Island until March 1945. From there he headed north to Okinawa.
The island of Okinawa is only six miles wide, but Cole and allied troops fought for every inch.
Cole vividly remembers the constant artillery fire; years of occupation allowed Japanese forces to build up their military defenses in the caves and sheltered areas littering the island. Because of this, air cover and naval protection was near impossible.
As a young man in a foreign land, with bullets and artillery flying around him, a war zone is a frightening place. But even then, Cole said he relied on his training.
“(Fighting in Okinawa) was very similar to Leyte Island,” he said. “But we had good training and we kind of knew what to expect.”
The Battle of Okinawa came to a close in June 1945, and months of being in the jungle left Cole with a tropical ulcer, and he was removed from the field and sent to a hospital in Saipan.
Two atomic bombs later, the Japanese surrendered. This was a relief for Cole, who was likely headed to mainland Japan for the invasion if there was no surrender. Cole eventually made his way out of the hospital and back to Gillette.
In the years after the war, he worked at Amoco Production Company in Casper for 35.5 years, where he worked in gas plants and production.
Cole gave up an education and his youth, went halfway across the world, fought through some of the most brutal environments imaginable — all in the name of service to his country. Today Cole resides in Story and is a frequent patron of the Sheridan Senior Center.