Robert Cole is living history in Fresno County.
The 96-year-old served in World War II on USS Hornet while it was bombed and had to abandon ship in 1942. He went on to work in Fresno County as a teacher and sports referee for decades.
Cole, a Navy veteran, is an example of perseverance, resiliency and kindness. He was open and happy to discuss his experience in World War II − an experience one would likely want to forget.
While on the plane on the way to Washington D.C. while aboard the 18th Central Valley Honor Flight, while next to his grandson and trip guardian, Dutch Mahan, he recalled the story of holding up his left eye that fell from its socket during the bombing of USS Hornet.
He started his career in North Fork, Virginia aboard the naval ship. “We had to go to the west coast, Alameda County, to pick up Doolittle and his bombers.”
After that, Cole says they traveled back to Hawaii and then we were sent out to the South Pacific near the Guadalcanal Islands, then operated by the Japanese.
“There, we got bombed and got sunk,” Cole explained. “We had to abandoned ship, and I lost my left eye. It was just hanging down, I had to push it back up with a towel and get up on the hanger deck. The bomb came down the elevator, and exploded.”
They waited for a ship to rescue the crew after jumping about 60 feet below. That’s when they took off for New Guinea, but Cole was able to stay on a ship to be treated for his injuries.
And finally, a reprieve from it all, a cargo ship heading to San Diego had some spots for the men to board. Cole says straws were drawn, randomly deciding who reserved a spot.
“I was single at the time. I (picked) the straw to go back and the married guy wanted to go back because he was married. And he said ‘I’ll give you a thousand dollars,'” Cole recalled, saying he didn’t know where the man was going to get the money because he said the ship sunk and they lost everything. He laughed at that particular memory.
It took them about a week or so to get to San Diego where he stayed at the naval hospital for a year.
He said his parents were sending him letters, thinking he was missing in action. In the hospital, he says he wasn’t able to use the phone for some time.
“When I was able to use the telephone, I called my mom. She was shocked. Believe it or not, they had a funeral for me because they hadn’t heard from me,” Cole says.
When the family learned of the good news, Cole was alive and well, his aunt began visiting him once a month. She lived in Burbank, about two hours from each other.
For every year Cole served, he was promised a year of free college through the GI Bill. At this point, he had served one out of four years.
He says they wanted to honorably discharge him, but he refused. He wanted to serve those four years to get the four years back in education.
He was sent to St. Louis, Missouri to recruit aviation cadet students out of high school. He was sent to several other locations for recruitment until he finished his four years in Florida.
That’s when he moved back to Iowa, his native state, and graduated from the University of Iowa. He could not get a teaching job because they needed experienced teachers.
However, he did gain something special, his wife. He met her before he moved to Colorado for a position teaching middle schoolers.
Her sister lived in Fresno, they visited her on Easter break. That’s when he applied for a teaching job and was offered a position in Firebaugh.
“I had 48 hours to make my mind up. I called them back and said ‘I’ll be there,'” he says.
He was a teacher for 35 years and refereed high school and college basketball for 30 years.
And now, from April 9 to 11, he was able to visit Washington D.C. on board the honor flight with his grandson.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this if it wasn’t for my grandson, and he’s very faithful to me,” Cole says.
His wife passed away in 2008. The 10 years before she passed, she taught at Fresno State. His grandson now lives with him, taking care of him.
He says after the interview, “What a wonderful day.”