Tom Cole rarely talks about his service in World War II.
“I still get a little shook remembering all of this,” said Cole, as he held a cup of coffee in his Centralia home and sat next to his wife, Juanita Cole, at their kitchen table. “That was three long years and the bulk of the time was out at sea.”
Cole served in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard from October 1942 until December 1945 during World War II, protecting Merchant Marine ships as they transported cargo. He was 17 when he enlisted.
Veterans Memorial Museum Director Chip Duncan described the U.S. Navy Armed Guard as “unsung heroes,” noting that the Merchant Marines that carried supplies to troops and allies had a higher casualty rate than the Navy during World War II.
“It was one of the most dangerous jobs out there during World War I and World War II,” Duncan said. “... In a total war — of which World War I and World War II was — the enemy knows the best thing to do is to destroy supply lines.”
Cole grew up in Lewis County. He was born in Centralia and attended Fords Prairie Elementary School and his parents owned a grocery store in Morton.
During Cole’s service, he was on seven different ships — four T2 tankers and three Liberty ships.
“When a ship would come in that you were on, if it wasn’t immediately going back out to sea, they would pull you off and put you on another one,” Cole said. “That’s the reason I was on seven different ships. We hauled nasty cargoes to some nasty places. I never knew that they made that much TNT and also dynamite.”
During his service, Cole remembered seeing General George Patton — an outspoken military leader with an incredible career in both World Wars. Cole delivered a load of supplies to Patton in Sicily.
“We got there just about the same time he did,” Cole said. “... Patton was trying to get his wounded onto a hospital ship. When I saw him, he was riding in the back end of a jeep with a siren going up to the head of the line. The line wasn’t moving and he had a huge line of vehicles loaded with wounded. He was trying to get up to the hospital ship. I don’t know what he had to say when he got there, but it wasn’t too awful long after we saw him that the line started moving. He probably had some choice words.”
Cole finally made it home at 4 a.m. on Dec. 24, 1945, just in time for Christmas — “I was desperate to get home for Christmas,” he added. A few months later, he met his future wife, Juanita Cole. The two said they met in either late February or early March and were married on June 2, 1946.
“It was a blind date,” Juanita Cole said. “I worked at the phone company and his niece worked at the phone company.”
When Cole returned to the U.S., however, he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I suggested that we get married — never did get an answer,” said Cole, pausing. “I take that back, she did answer me a year ago. The crux of it was, she didn’t know what she was getting into. The PTSD, sleepless nights, nightmares. She would hug me until I calmed down, but eventually I quit having those. At the time I got discharged, you did not mention any mental problems. You were a crybaby or any other number of names. So it wasn’t anything that you talked about.”
When asked if he wanted to add anything to his story, Cole said of Juanita, “It’s a good thing that we met.”
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here,” Cole said. “When I met here, all I knew was she was real pleasant to be around. She didn’t like drinking — that was one of my major problems when I got out. In the state of Washington, you couldn’t buy whiskey at a bar. You had to get it at a liquor store by the bottle, or what have you. And I didn’t dare bring a bottle home.”
Tom and Juanita Cole celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary in June of this year.
“The best thing I ever did was marry her,” Cole said. “I would have nightmares and she would hug me until she got me calmed down. … I still, when I go to sleep at night, my clothes have to be in a certain spot. My shoes and socks — my shoes have to be right and left. You didn’t know when a torpedo might hit you and you would have to get the heck off that ship in a hurry. So you wanted to know where your life vest and your clothes were.”