Early on the morning of Dec. 27, 1944, there was a knock on the door of the Cole residence in Conway. A cab driver handed Helen Cole a telegram. After reading it, Helen’s worst fears and premonitions were realized.
“Get up!” she screamed to her sleeping children. “Your daddy’s been killed.”
Merrill Cole had been a beloved teacher and school administrator. An ordained Baptist minister, he had dreamed of pastoring his own church after the war ended. Instead, those dreams died along with him on the frozen ground of Germany.
Jerry Merrill Cole was born on Oct. 28, 1908, in Boone County’s Gaither Township.
When Cole was only a few months old, his mother, Ida, died of typhoid fever, leaving his father, Orin, to raise four small children. His sister, Cassie, barely 10 years old herself, took on the role of mother, housekeeper, nurse and cook. A grief stricken Orin soon turned to alcohol and became addicted.
In 1919, Cassie married a young college professor and moved to Kansas City, taking with her nine-year-old Merrill. Three years later, Cassie’s husband abandoned the family, and she returned to Boone County with Merrill and her own two children. Cassie remarried and returned to Kansas City, but this time, Merrill stayed with his father.
Cole was forced to take care of himself. He got a job shining shoes to make a few cents. However, he often went to bed hungry.
“Often, after working all day at his shoe stand, then playing late in the neighborhood, he would slip into the dark house, remove his overalls and go to bed,” wrote Cole’s son, Bill. “Many nights he had nothing to eat at all.”
Cole managed to graduate from Valley Springs High School.
Determined to further his education, Cole enrolled at Ouachita Baptist University. Helped by the school’s president, Dr. J.R. Grant, Cole paid for his education by working in the cafeteria, as a night watchman and at several other jobs. On Sundays, he preached in one of the many Baptist churches in the area.
Learning that the ROTC would help provide tuition costs, Cole enrolled in the program and found out he loved it. He would be commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves, and be awarded a scholarship to Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
With the advent of the Great Depression, Cole found that many churches could not support a pastor full time. With a growing family to support, Cole turned to the only job available – teaching school.
In 1934, Cole got a teaching position in Omaha. Cole did whatever it took to survive. Bill Cole told of the time his father walked a cow 20 miles to the Harrison stock auction. The few dollars he got for the cow helped get his family through the summer.
In 1936, Cole’s fortunes took a dramatic upturn. He was hired as principal at Valley Springs. He also taught English and coached the basketball team. His wife, Helen, taught piano. The Coles also bought a house near the school. Monthly payments were $12.50. Cole’s monthly salary was $75.
In 1941, with war looming, Cole received notification about a plan to step up the expansion of the army. Being an ordained minister, he knew he could request a transfer to the Chaplain’s Corps and avoid combat duty. Bill Cole recalled the many hours of prayer and consideration on the part of his parents.
Cole was sure that within two years, the economy would improve to the point that churches would be able to support a pastor full-time, and he would at long last realize his dream.
“In the end, Merrill’s character and strong sense of fairness would not allow him to shirk what he considered his duty. He volunteered for active duty. I can vividly recall the anguish he displayed as he made his decision. I’m certain that he never envisioned the intensity and horrors of the great war to come.”
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Cole was assigned to Umnak, Alaska, where his unit would defend the Aleutian Islands. He spent 20 months in Alaska.
Cole was then informed that he would be sent overseas to Europe.
Bill Cole poignantly remembered his father shipping out. He seemed to have a premonition of what would happen.
As he embraced his wife at the train station, Cole said, “Sweetheart, if I don’t come back – remember that I want you to remarry. You are too young to go through life as a widow. Just think of me occasionally and remember how much I love you. I don’t want you to take the first guy who comes along – but I do want you to find someone who will take good care of you and love you as I loved you.”
Cole was assigned to the 90th Infantry, which played a major role in Gen. George Patton’s drive into Germany. Many people agreed that crossing the Saar River into Germany was almost a suicide mission for the 90th.
In addition to providing military leadership, Cole provided spiritual guidance to his men. On Nov. 23, 1944, the men of the 90th enjoyed a traditional Thanksgiving feast with turkey. Later that night, unable to sleep, Cole took his harmonica and played some traditional Ozark ballads and some old hymns that he loved. As he was putting his harmonica away, he heard a whispered request, “Sir, play ‘Amazing Grace’ one more time, please.’”
At the village of Dillingen, the Americans were met with fierce resistance by the Germans. Near-zero weather, combined with German tanks, artillery and machine gun fire took its toll.
Shortly after dawn on Nov. 29, with German artillery crashing around him, Cole signaled for his men to follow him. Crossing a road, Cole felt “a tremendous blow to his abdomen which spun him halfway around and slammed him into the frozen road. The pain was excruciating and he felt the warm blood gushing from his wound. As he writhed and screamed in agony, someone reached his position and dragged him back to cover.”
The raging battle prevented Cole from being evacuated, and his platoon remained at his side until he died a few hours later.
Merrill Cole left behind a wife and five children. He was buried in the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France. Helen Cole died in 1998.
This is article is part of a series about Boone County history and provided by the Boone County Heritage Museum. The museum is located at 124 South Cherry in Harrison. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday. Closed on Sunday and Wednesday. For more information on the museum, call 741-3312 or email email@example.com.