BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Sydney L. Cole, whose wartime actions read like a “Hollywood script,” died Friday at the age of 107.
Cole, a former prisoner of war and Purple Heart recipient, was born in New York City on September 1, 1914.
His father’s work restoring older homes eventually brought the family to Western New York, where Cole attended Buffalo Public School #32 and high school at Fosdick-Masten Park, today known as City Honors.
Cole served as Captain of the swim team and led the team to become champions from 1932 to 1933.
When World War II broke out in Europe, Cole sought to join the Allied Forces, but his application was initially declined. Instead, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force prior to the United States entering the war.
Later, he sought and received a discharge from service in Canada and signed up for the U.S. Army.
Cole flew an artillery observation plane for the 776th Field Artillery Battalion and was involved in the Battle of the Rhineland and the Ardennes Campaign, known as the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last major offensive against the western front.
“You’d sleep three hours. Fly three hours, 24 hours a day. And we wiped them out. Battle of the Bulge. And I was in it, right in the middle of it,” Cole recounted during an August 1989 interview with the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo.
On January 2, 1945, his plane was shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Belgium. His prior experience as a glider pilot helped him stabilize the plane until he and his co-pilot could exit the aircraft.
Cole recalls his co-pilot struggling after getting stuck in radio wires.
“And he was leaning out. He couldn’t budge at all. I took my foot and shoved him out. I saw his parachute open,” Cole said. “By the three or four minutes that happened between by the time he got out and by the time I bailed out, he landed on the American side. I landed on the enemy side.”
As Cole parachuted behind enemy lines he was wounded, hit in the arm and leg by gunfire.
“And I was being hit coming down, I could see the bullet holes going through the parachute,” he said.
Once on the ground, Cole remembered bleeding profusely. He quickly thought to wrap himself in the parachute before losing consciousness, but not before he remembered his dog tags.
“Before he passes out, he takes his dog tags, which have an “H” on them for Hebrew, threw them as far as he could, and then passed out,” said his son Richard Cole of Buffalo. “He knew the enemy wasn’t fond of the Jewish people.”
“When the Germans did find him, had they seen that dog tag, they would have shot him on the spot.”
Captured by the enemy
Sydney Cole was captured by the enemy. He would be moved around to different locations until he ended up at German Stalag IVF.
He was one of three officers at the POW camp.
During one interrogation, Cole told his captors that he was Protestant.
He remembered Jewish prisoners taken out on work details.
“Never saw them come back. Whether they were killed, whether they were transferred to another Stalag, I don’t know. I presume they were dead. They were executed,” Cole said.
He said the conditions at the POW camp were “horrible.”
There was no hot water or medication.
And the food, he recalled, was barely sufficient.
He said prisoners were fed maybe two meals a day that consisted of potato soup and grass.
During his incarceration, his weight dropped from 145 to 95 pounds.
As a ranking officer, Cole was assigned to lead some of the prisoners in the camp. Despite his ill-treated wounds and dramatic weight loss, he knew that it was important to keep up their morale and offer hope, rather than despair.
A citation for Cole’s Prisoner of War Medal states the following:
Cpt. Cole was instrumental in maintaining high levels of discipline and morale among the enlisted men and served as an inspiration and an example of American military conduct while in enemy custody. Cpt. Cole’s heroism at the risk of his own life, his dedication to the principles of freedom and his exemplary devotion to his duty as an American fighting man are in keeping with the highest traditions of the American military and reflect great credit on him, his unit and the United States Army.
By the spring of 1945, the camp was liberated by the Russians. Cole and the other enlisted men received proper medical treatment and food. Later, there was a prisoner exchange. Cole was a free man once again.
But nothing would prepare him for what he would encounter next – further evidence of the Holocaust.
He recalled coming upon a satellite of Auschwitz abandoned by the Germans. Cole saw mass open graves of Jewish victims and others frail and weak, including a woman who died in his arms.
“Emotionally I was just gone with seeing something like that. And knowing these were all Jewish people. I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Cole recounted during the 1989 interview.
“Myself being a POW didn’t affect me as much as going into these concentration camps. That’s what really set me off. That I couldn’t take. I couldn’t believe this was happening.”
Life back in Buffalo
Captain Sydney Cole was discharged from the Army on December 27, 1945.
He returned to Buffalo.
He married the love of his life, Sybil Richard.
They had one child, Richard.
Cole was determined to move forward in civilian life after the war.
He ran successful businesses, including Cole Motors on Main Street in Buffalo. He was also big into health and served as the manager of the Buffalo Athletic Club.
But occasionally, the ugliness of war, and the atrocities he saw, would give him nightmares.
“One morning he called me to come over and said ‘Rich, you got to come over. I don’t feel very good.’ I went upstairs to his bedroom. He had a black lip. His tongue was black. He had thrashed through the night. Knocked over his nightstand. Knocked over the lamp,” his son recalled during an interview with News 4.
Purple Heart and other medals
Over the years, Captain Cole has been recognized for his distinguished military service, including a ceremony in March 2017 in which he was presented with his medals by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, who played an important role in securing the medals.
“His story, his biography, it read like a Hollywood script,” said Higgins during an interview with News 4. “I mean, he was Capt. Sydney Cole, handsome, charismatic. He was like an action hero.”
“And the circumstances within which he earned both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star and a POW medal were just extraordinary. Just right out of a movie script,” Higgins said.
“It’s a great American story.”
And his old Buffalo high school, now City Honors, awarded him his high school diploma in a special ceremony.
He was also inducted into the New York State Senate Veterans Hall of Fame.
Just this past September, Sydney Cole celebrated his 107th birthday at the Batavia VA Medical Center, where he had been a resident most recently.
Family, friends, and those inspired by his remarkable story turned out to wish him well.
“It’s a great American story. It’s a great story if you’re of Jewish heritage and how he was able to survive. And some of the things that he witnessed,” sad Terry McGuire, public information officer for the VA Western NY Healthcare System.
“No doubt a national treasure.”
Bravery and sacrifice are synonymous with Captain Sydney Cole, who was determined to make a difference on the battlefield and in life following the war.
“They fought a horrible war, but it was the greatest military victory in human history,” said Higgins. “But they were very, very humble about it. And I think that speaks to that generation.”
Medals presented to Capt. Sydney Cole from the United States
- American Defense Service Medal,
- American Campaign Medal,
- European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 2 bronze service stars,
- World War II Victory Medal,
- Honorable Service Lapel Button WWII,
- Air Medal,
- Purple Heart Medal – for injuries sustained in action while serving in World War II,
- Bronze Star Medal – awarded to members of the military distinguishing themselves by heroic service while engaged in an action against an armed enemy. It is one of the highest awards presented to the military for acts of merit,
- POW Medal – awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces taken prisoner during armed conflict.