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Benjamin Gaston Cole Papers

"Hello, Remember? Cole is the name, Ben Cole. Some call me Big Ben, or Ol' King, or Shorty, or Slim—perhaps some few call me other names unmentionable—Well, two years ago I met a girl, two years last night—but with the present War situation, I've been unable to follow the dictates of my own wishes in seeing the miss. Despite the passing time and the changing scene, I continue to anticipate reunion. Should you meet the girl, convey to her my thoughts, my hopes and wishes for days ahead. Her name?—Howard, Lee Howard, the only one on Buncombe Rd."

Thus wrote Candler, N.C., native Benjamin Gaston Cole in a V-mail letter dated 13 February 1945. Cole's whimsical greeting is but one item among a collection of three hundred ninety-one World War II letters, V-mail messages, and photographs, 2 March 1943 - 30 January 1946, sent by the U.S. Army Air Corps lieutenant, later captain, to a young Greenvillian whom he had met while stationed at Donaldson Air Base.

In addition to letters written from England, France, and Germany, the collection includes correspondence originating from Walterboro and Warner-Robins, Ga., as the American soldier awaited deployment to the European theater. Typical of his long, newsy letters is one of 16 March 1943 describing a road trip from Greenville to Walterboro, and another, 26 April 1943, recounting his trip from Savannah to Robins Field—"I enjoyed seeing the activity of the folk along the way. My imagination sweeps the countryside as I travel cross-country because I am always wondering about the inhabitants of a house, or the habits of the farmers, or the niggers plowing, or the lads of ten who are driving a team of mules. The Army indeed offers an opportunity to see the countryside, for there is always a new place. The cur[i]osity of some of the towns and villages as we passed by reminded me of days of my youth when I gazed wide-eyed at a passing carnival or medicine-show or similar rarity. Too, I wonder about the mental reactions of those I saw....In normal times, I could pass over the same roads without a flicker from the farmers or the clerks or school- children, but now, three or four men in uniform and an olive drab car center many curious eyes."

"My hum-drum life here continues," Ben reported from Warner-Robins on 21 May 1943, "rise at 5:15 am, walk a mile to the squadron, do calesthentics from 6 to 6:30, eat breakfast, read the morning paper, lid to lid, drill a platoon of men for half an hour, report to the hangar for my day of supposed work....Monotonous as it seems, yet I do find numerous diversions to attract my attention. For example, the sun rising over the horizon has been a neglected beauty of nature insofar as I am concerned as long as I could sleep, but, having to arise for reveille, I can enjoy the color of the new day. Also, there is something unusual to the scene of some 800 men bending through the contortions of calesthentics at the break of morning, the rays of light casting impressions of unusual creatures moving at daybreak....Then, there are the actions of my men, the stories they relate, the chatter they heed, all these trivial incidents adding the touch of human nature, a fond source of speculation for me." Yet, he was quick to express frustration with what he perceived to be the inefficiencies of the war effort. In a letter of 24 March 1943, he confided—"We are assigned planes to repair, but each day brings interruptions to introduce a new type of training or other work. Consequently, the repairs are neglected, we are unable to judge the abilities of our crews, they dislike the sense of suspense, and days are marked off as providing training. I'm afraid that I look at the possibilities from a civilian point of view, but I am interested in seeing the War carried on quickly with a semblance of efficiency, evidently a forgotten term."

Ben's last letter from the United States is dated 7 July 1943. Prior to departure, he mused about his uncertain future. "You know, Lee," Cole wrote 5 July 1943, "at present I am living under an element prior unknown to me. Always it seems, there has been a time limit for future reference, for in school and college there was always the anticipation of vacation at the end of a certain period. In work, there were the week- ends, pay-day, and the completion of certain tasks, all marked by the calendar. In basic training in the Army, there was the time to begin cadet training, and in cadet training, graduation, and then assignment and training. Now, however, comes the period where there is no definite time limit, so over a period, I vaguely think ahead to some day when the task will be complete....This blank space of time will bring many new experiences, but my hope is that the conclusion will bring a realization of fleeting dreams of each day."

A detailed multi-page letter written on 21 May 1945, once censorship restrictions had been lifted, reveals that Cole was sent to Camp Kilmer, N.J., preparatory to sailing on 8 July 1943 aboard the Aquatania. After arriving in England, he was stationed first at Warton, but later was attached to military depots at Charmy Downs, Cottesmore, Crookham Commons, North Witham, Saltby, Bishops Stortsford, and Folkingham. He served at various times with tactical and service squadrons.

"At Sea," July 1943, Ben described life aboard the military transport ship—"Our meals have been very good, though typically English, mutton and lamb, fish and tea. Many of the dishes have been tasty, others not quite so pleasing....My duties have been rather limited, a six hour tour of duty...every other evening. The remainder of the time has been spent on deck, or lounging, or talking, or sleeping. Just a little bit of card playing to be sociable, a hand of poker, or black-jack, or rummy, or, the chaplain's innovation, hearts....There have been programs of entertainment in the evening, and the feminine touch has not been completely lacking for there are auxiliaries aboard, though my impression of former days is further substantiated by what I have seen of the damsels."

His first letter from England, 19 July 1943, comments on the "beauty of the English countryside" and portrays the people as "a source of interest" whose "customs present a problem of adjustment." "I am afraid the reaction of my thoughts and memories of this War will be a rebellion against the waste of men and materials rather than the blood and strife that mark Wars," the letter continues. "We are not near the combat zone, though I've been told this sector received a few bombs at the first of the war a couple of years ago....The B17 is the plane most commonly seen, along with a few fighter planes. I have seen but few of the English planes, a Spitfire or two, a bomber and a few trainers. I have not seen a B25 since I left the States."

By August 1943, Cole was in charge of inspecting parts from wrecked and unserviceable airplanes for repairability. "Perhaps our closest realization of the warfare," he wrote on 23 August 1943, "was evidenced in some salvage clothing received today from some advanced flying station. Some of the flying togs were stained with a dark red, indicating some boy had seen a bit of the War while flying on a mission. Makes one wonder who it might have been, and if they were not also trained for a civilian occupation far from this realm, and it gives a sense of inadequate proportion to our comparatively safe pursuit of Army activity. Then, always the realization, such is War." At other times Ben worked as a censor. "The censorship task," a 16 October 1943 letter explains, "although monotonous and time taking, discloses many amusing incidents and personalities. If all the perfect romances and blissful lives materialize after this War, our land will be indeed a Shangri-La....Frankly, I am of[t]times disgusted by the fact that I have so much time to read while theoretically over here participating in a War."

Cole's letters often comment on movies, music, dances, and cultural events. At other times they reveal an inner struggle with the realization that men were dying in combat while others enjoyed lives of relative safety. One such letter, 24 August 1944, editorializes—"we who watch the war from the sidelines are unable to realize the intensity of each hour as so many of our comrades must know. For months we have looked ahead, wondering how long the War will continue, little realizing the feelings of the boys who have been looking ahead wondering how long they would have to worry about ducking at the right time. Extremes are ever-present in this venture, even more pronounced than the social metering of peace-time standards....Ironically I reflect on our rough fight in this War, movies so often, daily papers, ice cream twice a week, choice of Scotch, rum, gin, port and sherry (I seldom touch the stuff—no reason to), gin rummy or billiards in the club, radio, arise sometime before 7:30, listen to 8:00 news, work until 5:15, and think of the boys in the front lines, or watch the planes on their way."

Preparations for the Normandy invasion, though alluded to in letters from June 1944, are most vividly retold in Cole's 21 May 1945 dispatch. "Toward the last of May," he recalled, "a batch of paratroopers moved on our base, went directly behind wire, and we were restricted. We'd been restricted before, but this time carried a different air—the troopers ate separately and were not allowed to mix with other personnel. After a week, we began to anticipate each day—we painted markings, prepared equipment and wondered....Saturday seemed the day but weather faltered....Sunday offered no better weather—Monday carried a tense air, the crews were briefed again. Rumor had it that weather would be the deciding factor. After chow we attended a USO show—then went up to flying control. The crews carried their guns, flak equipment and such. The troopers were painted and ready to load. We stood by, realizing the momentum the news would carry, history in the making....We watched them load, the troopers helping each other up under the weight of their equipment. Just after eleven we saw the pathfinder planes taking off in the hazy light of twighlight—some 10 miles away. Our planes began to hum as the pilots checked final details—and at 11:30 the colonel shoved the throttle forward to start our group's take-off. The western sky carried a rosy glow—overhead a big moon indicated a lovely night. We watched our planes take formation, watched the red and green lights of other groups from neighboring fields, and knew that D-day was at hand....At dawn the planes began to return—some in formation, others straggling. The lads buzzed the field in jubilant mood—but a couple did not return—others landed off base at emergancy fields. We were busy night and day with repair work. That night they took off with supplies of food and ammunition for the troopers. Some returned because of weather, the others continued on to the DZ. Again we sweated their return—most of them got back, but we had plenty of work for a couple of weeks."

As opportunities for travel increased during the spring of 1945, Ben made several flying trips throughout England and France. Then, in early March, he was relocated to France. On 1 May 1945, he wrote from France assessing the peace prospects—"the rumored reports of surrender continue prevalent—but of course the tactical situation substantiates a reason why such could be expected. There must have been a very evident celebration of the supposed surrender of a few days ago when the news was flashed throughout the States. Am rather curious to note the actual reaction here when VE day is declared—but doubt there will be the celebration anticipated months ago." An account of the American's conversation with a survivor of the Nazi occupation is found in a 1 May 1945 letter. The French woman had sheltered an American flier after his plane crashed in April 1944 and told of her efforts to return him to England via the underground.

Rumors of the German surrender are first mentioned in Cole's letter dated 7 May 1945. "For a week we have been listening for the report that this phase of the War is over—and now we await the simultaneous announcement of the surrender of the German forces," Cole wrote, "but I doubt very seriously that the few words will be cause for celebration as compared to the outlook six months ago....Down at the control tower, the lads are shooting all types of flares—but there seems little cause for celebration as we look at the picture—the Pacific looms vividly, the occupational army draws comment, and the affair is not ended." Two days later, a V-mail declares—"Rumors run rampant now that la guerre est finis....Went to town last night to observe the reactions of the people—and all seemed to be in a gay and rejoicing mood. General reaction of the GI personnel has been rather quiet—a thankful relief that the battling is finished here, but a speculative anticipation of days ahead." Another V-mail, 12 May 1945, muses—"Still wondering what VE Day will produce for us. Work is plentiful as usual—the birds still fly and we must keep them hauling."

Three months later, victory over Japan sparked the celebratory spirit lacking on VE Day. Ben remained in France, from where he wrote, 15 August 1945—"Last night I was awakened about 1:30, roused from a sound sleep by the flash of flares, the wail of sirens, and the sound of gunfire—and I knew that the radio vigil was ended, the answer had been given, and the turmoil of war was ended. Since Friday our attention had been devoted to the hourly newscasts that characterize our radio programs—always the expectancy that one hour would bring the reply. After a few minutes of wakefulness, impressions confirmed by a brief session with the radio, I settled to slumber only to undergo the wakefulness of thought—anticipation of the future—and ever interspersing, the sound of celebration of victory."

After the surrender of Japan, Cole, like other military personnel lacking discharge points, faced transfer before returning to the United States. By October 1945 he was assigned to a tactical photo reconnaissance group near Nuremberg. Writing from Germany on 11 November 1945, the anniversary of the World War I armistice, Ben philosophized on the seeming futility of world peace—"Today is Armistice Day—a day that has been twice out-moded. Even based on the earlier premise of the occasion, the World picture denies the meaning of the word—the Chinese battle among themselves, the Arabs and Jews fight in Palestine, the Dutch and British colonies fight against internal forces, the various factions in untold countries battle for causes of their own. In our country, the battle is predominantly of words—strikes, stoppages and political quarrels. Doubtless the scene is typical of other years, when my interest was turned to other subjects, but the irony of our celebration touches my rambling thoughts." Another letter from Germany, 16 December 1945, details a visit to the war crimes trial. Ben's final letter from Germany is dated 20 January 1946, and the last letter in the collection, written ten days later from Antwerp, Belgium, advises that he expected to sail for the United States shortly and to be home by late February.

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