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History and Heritage

The Fighting Field Musician

Medal of Honor Recipient lives on in USS Cole

The guns roared, Feb. 19, 1945, as wave after wave of Marines assaulted the shores of a tiny, 8-square-mile island in the Pacific, a dot so small it was barely visible on a map.


The bloody battle that ensued was one for the history books, one that would go down in Marine Corps lore with the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli.

Sergeant Darrell S. Cole - "the fighting field musician" - of the 23rd Marines, 4th Marine Division was at the forefront of the attack. A bugler by trade, Cole had joined the Marine Corps in August 1941 after a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps as an assistant forestry clerk and assistant educational advisor. With experience playing the French horn, Cole soon found himself at the Field Music School, training as a field musician (a bugler).

Cole fought for years to actually fight on the line. He had filled in as a machine gunner in several major campaigns, including Guadalcanal (Aug. 7, 1942-Feb. 9, 1943), Kwajalein (Jan. 31-Feb. 3, 1944), Saipan (June 15-July 9, 1944) and Tinian (July 24-Aug. 4, 1944), but each time he asked to officially change his specialty, the Marine Corps refused, citing a bugler shortage.

The Corps finally relented in the fall of 1944, after Cole more than proved his mettle when his squad leader was killed during the battle for Saipan. Wounded himself, Cole assumed command of the squad, earning the Bronze Star Medal for "resolute leadership, indomitable fighting spirit and tenacious determination in the face of terrific opposition." He then led his squad ashore on the beaches of nearby Tinian. Both Saipan and Tinian are part of the Marianas Islands.

Americans stationed on Saipan, which Cole had worked so tirelessly to help secure, were quickly subjected to fierce assaults from Japanese bombers that took off from two airstrips on Iwo Jima. The Japanese were building a third runway, and fighters also used the island to attack American heavy bombers, which otherwise had "nothing worth fighting for," according to a Marine Corps history of the battle. Allied war planners knew that if they took the island, they could not only stop the attacks, but use the airfield as a base from which to attack Japan itself.

Months of relentless bombing failed to displace many of the 642 blockhouses, pillboxes and other gun positions with which the Japanese commander, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had ringed the island. A series of tunnels would also provide the defenders with a way to attack the Marines with near-impunity.

D-Day for what was to be the first assault landing against Japanese territory was scheduled for Feb. 19. As amphibian tractors hit the beaches and Marines of the 4th and 5th Divisions, including Cole, poured ashore, it was eerily silent at first. Then, the Japanese, hidden in strategically placed bunkers, opened up on the congested beach.

Cole and his squad were halted by a "tremendous volume of small arms, mortar and artillery fire" from two enemy emplacements, according to his Medal of Honor citation. Cole personally destroyed the two emplacements with hand grenades and continued to advance until halted by another "merciless barrage of fire emanating from three Japanese pillboxes."

Using his one working machine gun, Cole "delivered a shattering fusillade," silencing the closest emplacement. Then, his weapon jammed. A volley of knee mortars and grenades pinned the squad down a third time.

"Shrewdly gauging the tactical situation and evolving a daring plan of counterattack," his citation continues, "Sergeant Cole, armed solely with a pistol and one grenade, coolly advanced alone to the hostile pillboxes. Hurling his one grenade at the enemy in sudden, swift attack, he quickly withdrew, returned to his own lines for additional grenades and again advanced, attacked, withdrew."

After a third trip through "the gauntlet of slashing fire," Cole finally destroyed the Japanese position. He was killed by an enemy grenade as he returned to friendly lines, one of 2,400 casualties to fall that first day.

Americans eventually took Iwo Jima after 36 days of heavy, often hand-to-hand combat and danger-close bombing raids. With some 26,000 American casualties, it was the bloodiest Marine Corps operation of World War II.

"Among the men who fought on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue," Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, then commander of the Pacific fleet, famously said. Twenty-two Marines, four corpsmen and one naval line officer received the Medal of Honor during the battle; half, like Cole's, were posthumous.

Another honor for Cole came in June 1996, when the Navy commissioned a new Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in his name, DDG 67. The new USS Cole's coat of arms reflected his legacy, with three hand grenades that commemorate Cole's three grenade attacks, as well as the traits courage, valor and honor. A broken chevron alludes to Cole's breaking the enemy's hold. A blue reversed star highlights his posthumous Medal of Honor, and a French horn combined with swords reflects his nickname, "the fighting field musician."

The Cole herself displayed her namesake's indomitable fighting spirit after terrorists attacked it, Oct. 12, 2000. Today, she is once again sailing the world, protecting America and freedom.

"Until that ship is decommissioned, it has a life of its own," said retired Master Chief Sonar Technician Paul Abney, who was aboard the Cole when it was attacked. "There's never a time that there's not a Sailor on that ship. It is in essence a living entity ... because it has the essence of all of those Sailors and crew members that are on board. ... I think you feel that when you're on board a ship. You feel a piece of that, as the spirit and the pride of the people that are on board as they continue to carry it forward.

"The spirit of the Cole goes back to its namesake, Sgt. Darrell Cole. ... He put out his life for fellow Marines. ... Part of that spirit is infused in the Sailors on board."