Marine Corps SGT Duane Oliver Cole, killed in World War II, has finally been returned to his family and, on October 3, 2020, laid to rest - in American soil - with full military honors.
Born March 8, 1920, in Spooner, Wisconsin, Duane Oliver Cole was blessed to the union of George Milton and Hattie Belle (nee Phelps) Cole.
A large and loving family already, Eva Mae, Mary Magdalene, Ruth Naomi, Agnes Viola, Esther Edith, Harley Joseph and Kenneth James were there with their parents to welcome Duane into the world. Soon after, twins Emma Jo and Emily Belle arrived and finally little David Jonathan. They would ensure theirs was a warm home, both in Wisconsin and later when the family moved to Niles, Michigan. Like many of his siblings, Duane would graduate from Niles High School.
During the early Fall of ’41, the 21-year-old took a roadtrip to Comstock, Wisconsin and then to Duluth, Minnesota, enjoying some quality time with his three oldest sisters and their families and sharing with them his plans for the future. On September 4, 1941, while still in Minnesota, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. From there, Duane took a long train ride to San Diego for basic training. That’s where he was a little over three months later, when the Japanese attacked our fleet at Pearl Harbor.
Soon after, Private First Class Cole was shipped out into the Pacific Theater. His unit’s first stop was Samoa before heading to the Solomon Islands, where Duane would get his first taste of combat and he proved himself against the Japanese many times over. Following the Battle of Guadalcanal, PFC Cole’s next stop was Wellington, New Zealand for some R&R and to await orders on the next battle.
For his leadership on Guadalcanal, Cole was promoted to Sergeant. That wasn’t the only news worth writing home about though! Duane’s “Love and Luck” so often sent to his family soon included a new flare - and a name - he had met a special girl and my how their relationship was blossoming. Of course, Muriel’s parents thought the world of Duane - Everyone did. His country needed him though, so Duane would bid the Ritchie family farewell, promising to write often and return as soon as he could. Such is life in times of war.
Sergeant Cole was with his brothers in Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion of the 8th Marines (K-3/8) when they landed on Betio as part of Operation: GALVANIC. The mission of the 2nd Marine Division was to secure the island in order to control the Japanese airstrip in the Tarawa Atoll; thereby preventing the Imperial Japanese forces from getting closer to the United States, and enabling US forces to get closer to mainland Japan. It would become one of the bloodiest battles in the Corps history.
It was November 20th (D-Day of the "Battle of Tarawa") when young Duane - just 23 years old - perished. He was reportedly buried in either Division Cemetery 5 or Central Division Cemetery, later renamed Cemetery 26, on Betio Island - a temporary location chosen by his fellow Marines, the survivors of the battle, until the Fallen could be recovered and returned to their families.
Not hearing from Duane at Thanksgiving was upsetting enough, but there was nothing that could’ve prepared Mr and Mrs Cole for the telegram that arrived at 515 North Fourth Street on Christmas Eve. No details were given as to how or where Duane lost his life - “Loose Lips Sink Ships” - we were still at war. Mrs Cole had been writing to Muriel already, and now had to break the tragic news to her. The December 27th issue of the Benton Harbor News-Palladium, though, shared the family’s heartache with the community who adored their son as well – “Sgt. Duane Cole, Niles, Killed In Action In Pacific.”
The following February, one of Duane’s buddies from the 3rd Platoon wrote to the family to offer his sympathies and share some of his thoughts on their dear son. He and Duane had been in Company K from San Diego on through Tarawa. He spoke of their “rough life” on Samoa and their first taste of combat at Guadalcanal, where - in spite being such a very trying time - Duane “had the faith, courage and dogginess to stick on the job”. As a leader, PFC Voorhees, wrote, Duane “gave his best for his buddies at anytime, anywhere.” To all who loved Duane, Bob hoped to offer the comfort of knowing that “he will be there when the roll call is called yonder”.
Two months later, Bob wrote again to offer the family the location of Duane’s final resting place – “Division Cemetery, 5 Row A, Grave number nine on the island of Betio, Tarawa.”
In 1946, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company (604th GRC) centralized all of the American remains found on Tarawa to Lone Palm Cemetery for later repatriation; however, almost half of the known casualties were never found. No recovered remains could be associated with SGT Cole, and on October 14, 1949, a Board of Review declared Duane “non-recoverable.”
Left to mourn his passing were Duane’s parents, his New Zealand sweetheart, and siblings; Eva Molberg of Duluth MN, Mary Molberg and Agnes Nelson of Comstock WI, Esther Middlestadt of Marcellus MI, Harley Cole and Kenneth Cole of Niles MI, Emma “Toots” Cole and Emily "Dollie" Jergenson of Minneapolis MN and David Cole serving with the Navy in New Orleans LA. He'd been preceded in death by siblings; Milton Noah, Ruth Naomi, Raymond, Paul, Baby Girl and Rebecca Cole.
On August 12, 2013, Jennifer Morrison, an independent volunteer forensic genealogist, located the family of SGT Cole and put them in contact with the Marine Corps POW/MIA Section. This (re)established lines of communication with Duane’s family regarding the ongoing recovery and repatriation efforts, and offered Craig Nelson the opportunity to provide the Family Reference DNA Sample ultimately necessary for his Uncle Duane's identification.
In 2014, History Flight located Cemetery 26. Excavations uncovered multiple sets of remains, which were turned over to Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency for analysis.
On September 3, 2019, the DPAA identified the remains of SGT Duane Oliver Cole, and the family received “The Call” from the Marines.
On February 24, 2020, the DPAA officially announced to the world that SGT Cole was coming home. To identify Cole’s remains, scientists from DPAA used anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial and material evidence. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis, matching his nephew's.
Duane has finally been returned to his family and, on October 3, 2020, laid to rest at Northern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery, in Spooner, Wisconsin, with full military honors.
Marine Corps Sergeant Duane Oliver Cole is memorialized among the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific's Honolulu Memorial. Although he has now been found and identified, SGT Cole's name shall remain permanently inscribed on Court 2 of the "Courts of the Missing". A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate that Duane has finally been found (56118068, a cenotaph).
The Family of Duane Oliver Cole
Marine Corps POW/MIA Section
DPAA Release No: 20-020 (March 11, 2020)
American Battle Monuments Commission
Jennifer Morrison, independent volunteer forensic genealogist
Note from the memorial maintainer:
I am grateful to Chuck Williams & Hattie Johnson (USMC POW/MIA Section), History Flight and the DPAA for their efforts in bringing my Marine home. “It takes a village!”
DUANE O / COLE /
SGT / US MARINE CORPS / WORLD WAR II /
MAR 8 1920 / NOV 20 1943 /
PURPLE HEART / FALLEN ON / TARAWA ATOLL / SEMPER FI
Per FindAGrave guidelines, memorials 202890440 (final resting place) and 56118068 (cenotaph, Honolulu) should not be merged.