Riverside Public Library
Interview with Charles E. Cole
Charles E. Cole
Private First Class, United States Marines
Machinists Mate First Class, United States Navy
Served in China before World War II and in the South Pacific
Interviewed on 6 August 2003 in Mr. Cole’s home, Sun City, California
My name is Ozell Barksdale, and today is August 6, 2003. This interview is taking place at the home of Mr. Cole, as part of the Riverside Veterans History Project, a Riverside Public Library partnership with the Library of Congress.
Barksdale: Mr. Cole, please give me your full name.
Cole: Charles Edgar Cole, Jr.
Barksdale: Where were you born?
Cole: I was born in Caldwell, Idaho, September 10, 1918.
Barksdale: Did you come from a large family?
Cole: No. I had two sisters.
Barksdale: When you went into service, had you gone to college or work, or just going out of school?
Cole: No. Just out of school.
Barksdale: What type of work did your dad do in Idaho?
Cole: He was an automobile mechanic.
Barksdale: So you grew up in Idaho and you went to school in Idaho. Do you remember which school you attended?
Cole: Oh, I went to a country school until 1928 when we moved to California. Then I went to school here in California, the old Belmont High School. Then I finished high school in North Hollywood.
Barksdale: Did your parents move out here for work?
Cole: I don’t really know why we came to California. We just came to California.
Barksdale: And then when you decided to go in the service, were you actually drafted?
Cole: No. In 1936 I had a whim so a friend and I joined the Marines.
Barksdale: You had gone to school with him in Belmont, then.
Cole: Yes. In North Hollywood.
Barksdale: You went into the Marines. Where did you go for basic training?
Cole: San Diego.
Barksdale: Then basic training was still the typical eight weeks or what?
Cole: No. It wasn’t eight weeks because I went in on November 10th, which is the Marine Corps birthday, and in the latter part of December, shortly after Christmas, I left San Diego and went to Shanghai, China. I was in Shanghai for approximately three years attached to the 4th Regiment, better known as “The China Marines.”
Barksdale: O.K. Do we have a base in China?
Cole: At that time we had a base in China. Shanghai was divided like a pie. It was a kind of an international settlement. Each portion of the settlement belonged to a different country. The United States had a portion of that international settlement. We just basically were there for protection, I guess.
Barksdale: So they were peacekeeping back then, too?
Cole: I don’t know that you’d call it peacekeeping because we didn’t really do that much. I think it was more of a public relations-type thing with foreign countries.
Barksdale: Sort of like what happened in the Philippines. We still had a base there, but it wasn’t really peacekeeping. O.K. So you were in China then for three years . . . just regular military duty. No conflicts or anything.
Cole: No conflicts except that in 1937 the Japanese marched down from Mongolia into northern China, as we knew it, with the intention of taking over China. They got down to Shanghai and the city bordered on the Wang Pu River. Our particular piece of pie, as we called it, was a portion of the Wang Pu River. At that time we set up emplacements, sandbags and military emplacements, on the various roads crossing the Wang Pu River to prohibit the Japanese from entering the city of Shanghai proper.
Barksdale: So then was part of China split with Russia controlling parts of it? (Cole: That I do not know.) You just knew it was split into the pie shape and the United States was one piece of the pie.
Cole: It was only the city of Shanghai, not the entire country. It was only the city of Shanghai. The Italians had a piece of it. The French had a piece of it. The Russians had a piece of it. I don’t know what other . . . the English, I know they had a piece of it.
Barksdale: I was thinking that it was the whole country.
(Cole: No. Just the city of Shanghai itself.) O.K. The way you’re describing what you did, was your job classification that of an engineer?
Cole: No. I was just a regular private in the Marines. I did various things. I was chauffer for the commanding officer for some time. I drove a truck quite a bit, which supplied our outpost, as we called them, with food, mainly, and other living things. We were not involved in a fight as far as gun fire or anything like that, although we were shot at . . . basically not at us . . . the Japanese fired across the bridge, firing at the Chinese, but we were in the line of fire. But none of us were actually hit, that I can recall.
Barksdale: Back in ’36, ’37, did the Marines train you to be a rifleman; you know, a sharpshooter?
Cole: Oh, sure. Sure. They’ve done that ever since the Marine Corps was established, way, way back. We had basic training. We had to learn how to shoot. We had a various amount of training that we had to go through.
Barksdale: And after three years, you came back to the states?
Cole: Yeah. I came back to the states, back to San Diego at which time I was in the first tank battalion which was formed on the west coast. As part of that procedure, we built what was then known as Camp Holcomb which was La Jolla, where our rifle range was. We used our tanks for practice. We used to tear down the sagebrush until Camp Holcomb was built, which eventually in future years developed into Camp Pendleton.
Barksdale: A giant place today.
Cole: Oh, yes. A very big place today. We never got up that far. We didn’t much more than get out of the area around La Jolla. It has grown. I got discharged in December of 1940.
Barksdale: And then after your discharge, you go home and just pick up. Just get a job. What did you end up doing?
Cole: I went to work in a machine shop in North Hollywood; eventually I learned the machinist trade. I was working for Bendix Aviation at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Shortly after that attack I joined the Navy.
Barksdale: O.K. So they didn’t have to beg you to come.
Cole: No. They didn’t draft me. I just volunteered. I knew I had to do it. I went into the Navy as a second class machinist mate and again went through basic training in San Diego. About the first of the year, in fact it was the first of January when I left San Francisco . . . and this was immediately after the war broke out . . . I headed for the South Pacific. I went to New Caledonia. While there, I was waiting for my transportation to my ship which was the U.S.S. Vestal, a fleet repair ship. Then I went to Esperito Santos Island . . . and that was one of the basic naval bases there. We had a fleet in there. We had hospital ships and a big airfield there. The Army Air Force had a big base there. Our primary purpose was to repair the ships as far as equipment, that needed the expertise of machine shop work. Then when the war accelerated and the battle started moving from island to island, our ship followed the fleet as it was progressing through the different islands. I never got off of the ship on to any of the other islands. Esperito was the only one that I ever got to land on and walk about.
Barksdale: So, when the war escalated, your ship is following the others. Are you there more or less for support or for supplies?
Cole: Well, basically we’re there to take care of the damage that was being done to the other ships. We fixed them up so they could proceed with what they were doing or get out of there and go back for major repairs. (Barksdale: Depending on how bad the damage was.) Right.
Barksdale: So you’re actually repairing ships in the middle of the ocean.
Cole: Oh, yeah. We had to make a lot of parts; a lot of gears had to be cut for different purposes. You had a lot of water valves, steam valves on the ship that needed repairs. We had our own foundry. We cast up our own billets; then we’d take them into the machine shop and machine them down to a workable piece of equipment.
Barksdale: Who would have thought of a ship as being like a foundry on land?
Cole: Oh, we had everything. We had a foundry where we made our own casting. We had our own carpenter shop and our own engraving shop. It was a complete machine facility.
Barksdale: O.K. now. When World War II broke out and you were actually following in the fleet, were there any . . . like the Philippines, did you guys go actually closer to the Philippines when it was going on? (Cole: No. We didn’t.) You basically stayed out in the Pacific.
Cole: Right. Our ship just stayed in the Pacific. Incidentally, the ship I was on, like I say, was the U.S.S. Vestal, it was tied up next to the Arizona at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. It’s my understanding . . . I was told by guys that were on the ship during the Pearl Harbor attack . . . they immediately cut loose from the Arizona and our ship took a Japanese bomb that went into the hull of the ship and we were taking on water. The officer of the deck at that time grounded the ship by running it aground and kept it afloat. Eventually it was repaired and went back into service.
Barksdale: That’s an interesting history for that ship.
Cole: Oh, it’s got a big history. It’s since been decommissioned and is no longer in service.
Barksdale: You told me about the different units you were in. I was going to ask you, was it when you were first class, but when you . . . (Cole: That’s machinist mate, first class.) Right. Because you did serve during World War II, do you have any particular medals or awards for that period of time for your ship, or for duty served?
Cole: No. I have two or three medals. I don’t really know what they are. I have an Asiatic-Pacific medal. Fortunately I got a Good Conduct medal. I don’t know how I did that. (Laughing) I did. (Barksdale: Volunteering the second time probably did it.) But nothing outstanding.
Barksdale: O.K. Since you’ve been out of the service, have you been in contact with any of the guys . . . especially like the Navy guys . . . are there any friends that you’ve kept in contact with? (Cole: No.) So you’re not involved with any of the Navy organizations where they have those conferences and meetings?
Cole: No. I don’t go to them. I have always belonged to the American Legion but I don’t attend the meetings.
Barksdale: So, after you got out of the Navy (now, this was World War II), you came home this time and you were brought back to San Diego again, correct?
Cole: No. When I came back I came back to San Francisco where I was stationed on a repair barge, we called it. It was tied up at the ferry building in San Francisco at the Embarcadero. Our job there was the same basic job we had out at sea repairing ships that would come into San Francisco Bay that might need a part made for some kind of equipment. We would make the part. If necessary, tugs would tow our barge out and tie us up alongside a ship that was anchored out there, because at that time there weren’t adequate docks for ships to pull into. Eventually, when the war was over, I was still stationed there; I then went to Marie Island and was discharged from the Navy back to civilian life.
Barksdale: Then what did you do after that?
Cole: I went back to work in the same machine shop. Graciously, they gave me back my old job for a matter of three weeks. Then they had the right to fire me because they could hire somebody cheaper than they’d pay us coming back on the job. Fortunately, I saw a sign that said: “Be a policeman.” So I joined the Los Angeles Police Department.
Barksdale: How old were you then? (Cole: Well, I was twenty-four years old.) It’s like the typical guy coming out of college.
Cole: I put twenty-five years in the Los Angeles Police Department until I retired in 1971.
Barksdale: Well rounded. (Laughing) What was your rank when you came out of the Police Department?
Cole: I was just a plain policeman. (Barksdale: You didn’t challenge the ranking . . . ) I didn’t challenge the ranking.
Barksdale: Some of my questions were to find out people that you served with, and you said you’re not in contact with anyone.
Cole: I can remember a few names, but they mean nothing to me. I never contacted anybody I was in the service with. Nobody’s ever contacted me.
Barksdale: And the other question I had when you related details of your military service, was . . . like when you were aboard ship and you were doing repairs, was there anything memorable about any particular event, even whether it was comical or if something that may have happened doing some repairs or something that didn’t go well, maybe. (Cole: Well, not too much.) O.K. So you were saying, when you were in Sidney you had a ten day furlough?
Cole: Yeah. We went to dry dock in Sidney. Every ship periodically must go into dry dock for underwater repairs and maintenance. So we went to Sidney and stayed ten days in dry dock; that was the only time that we had any so-called “R & R” during the whole war . . . the ten days we spent in Sidney.
Barksdale: So, you didn’t do like the rotation, every twelve months you’re relieved and someone else takes over your job.
Cole: Oh, no. We were there for the duration. (Barksdale: So, when you mention three years . . . ) We were there for three years. When I first went to China, it was for three years. It wasn’t for sixty days, or thirty days. It was for three years.
Barksdale: And then when you were in the war, there wasn’t a rotation out of the war area.
Cole: There was no rotation during the war. If the war had lasted ten more years, we would probably have all been out there for ten more years.
Barksdale: And the only way you were actually replaced was if you were injured? (Cole: That’s all. Yeah.) Such a difference from today’s war.
Cole: It’s entirely the opposite of today’s war, even today’s service. A normal service today is . . . these people think they’ve got to come home in thirty days, where even prior to World War II, during peace time, why, you may not get home for two or three years.
Barksdale: And that was peace time before the war. (Cole: Sure. That was peace time before the war.) And that’s whether you were stationed here or outside like when you were stationed in China, so it would be the same type of thing.
Cole: That’s right. I would assume that it would be the same anyplace else. During the time in China, I was very fortunate. In 1937 we did leave Shanghai . . . our whole battalion . . . left Shanghai and we took a ship to a place called Ch’ing wan tao, northern China where the Great Wall of China meets the ocean. We disembarked there and took a train to T’inn-Chin, which, at that time was an army training base. We went up there for maneuvers. While there, we were fortunate enough to take a train into Peking, which is now Beijing, and I got to see all of the temples in Peking. We spent . . . I don’t remember how long, probably four or five days at least, there in Peking, and I got to see all of that. I got to walk on the Great Wall of China. In fact, I have a piece of the Great Wall of China I brought back with me. I probably shouldn’t say that. The Chinese might not like that. Nevertheless, this was way back when. So I enjoyed my tour in China. I saw a lot. I learned a lot. Of course, it was a lot different in the war because you were in a war where China wasn’t in the war even though they had the conflict with the Japanese. It wasn’t with us, basically. It was with the Chinese. We were only protecting our particular little piece of the pie.
Barksdale: So, with that, we’re really ready to wrap up the interview, unless you have missed something, or if there was something you want to add at this point in time.
Cole: No. I think you’ve pretty well covered it, Ozell.
Barksdale: O.K. Mr. Cole. I want to thank you at this time for participating in this project. We talked briefly about your having possibly some newspaper articles and some pictures.
Cole: I have a scrapbook that I made when I was in China and this all pertains to China. (Barksdale: Pre-war.) I have nothing from the war time.
Barksdale: Well, if you have a chance to go over that, even pre-war, because it’s part of your service, if you wanted to share that with us, that would be part of the document. You can let me know; we can get copies of the pictures and copies of the newspaper articles.
Cole: I’ll give it to you right now. It won’t take me but a minute to dig that scrapbook out and go through it and see if there’s anything you want.
Barksdale: O.K. Thank you so much and thank you for participating in this important project and for sharing your military experiences. Your interview will be reviewed, and you will receive your own personal copy. Copies of today’s interview will be placed in the Riverside Public Library as well as the Library of Congress in the archives of the National Veterans History Project. This concludes the interview.