Good morning, it's Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, the day of the week when I reprise an instructive or inspirational quotation. Today's quote comes from a battlefield in the Netherlands on this date in 1944, and from U.S. Army lieutenant named Ralph A. Watson.
Lt. Watson's communication, sent by messenger, was to another 101st Airborne division officer, Maj. John P. Stopka. It was brief and to the point: "You are in command of the Battalion."
Starting today, Sept. 18, 2020, the public is finally able to visit the long-overdue Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. Last night's opening ceremonies were a perfect metaphor for 2020: The small, socially distance crowd wore masks at an event marred by lousy weather.
Not that "Ike" would have worried about the remnants of Hurricane Sally soaking the participants. In 1954, while serving as president, Eisenhower was invited to give the commencement address at Penn State, where his brother Milton was university president. When inclement weather threatened to force the ceremonies indoors, Ike calmly smoked while his younger brother fretted. Putting things in perspective, Dwight Eisenhower told his sibling, "Milton, since June 6, 1944, I've never worried about the rain."
Outwardly, Ike exuded decisiveness and composure even in the face of the terrible English Channel weather that nearly derailed the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Like a 20th century Henry V, he walked among the troops on the eve of battle. Iconic photographs of these visits circulated at the time, and still do today. Frank Gehry, the memorial architect, used them as inspirations for his statue.
In one of those photographs, Eisenhower is talking to Lt. Col. Robert G. Cole of San Antonio. Bob Cole, the son of a colonel and a member of the West Point class of 1939, was previously acquainted with Eisenhower, not that Ike would have recognized him: On this day, Cole wore camouflage paint on his face. The commander of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, Cole was getting ready to parachute into Normandy behind enemy lines with his fellow "Screaming Eagles." Once there, he would command from the front. Late on the afternoon of June 10, Cole led a bold and victorious bayonet charge across a causeway being defended by German machine gunners.
Cole's bravery under fire would be later cited in an Army study of the psychological makeup of successful airborne officers. "A complex personality, he was physically fit but besought by inner fears that he might someday fail his men as a leader," said the report. Military historian S.L.A. Marshall described Cole as a demanding officer who sometimes gave his men a "hard ride," but who earned their loyalty because of both his bravery and his fierce desire to protect them even while waging war aggressively.
Before storming the enemy stronghold on June 10, for instance, Cole demanded artillery support before advancing. Told that it hadn't been authorized, he barked, "God damn it! We need artillery and we can't wait for any general!" The artillery barrage began in less than 15 minutes.
Only then did Bob Cole, joined by John Stopka, lead the Screaming Eagles -- who literally lived up to their name by yelling as they rushed forward.
Lt. Col. Cole, only 29 years old, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his feats that day. Twenty-eight-year-old John Stopka, who hailed from Sheridan, Wyo., earned a Silver Star. Cole didn't live long enough to receive his medal, or to meet his 18-month-old son, Robert Bruce Cole. He was killed on this date in 1944 by a sniper in a field in Holland. Once again, Cole had insisted on artillery support to protect his troops, this time from the air. The first P-47 fighters to arrive had strafed Cole's position. So he radioed that they would mark their position with orange parachute covers, which he went out in the field to place himself. He was felled by a bullet as he shielded his eyes from the sun while looking into the sky.
His death was such a shock to his men that they could barely process what had happened. S.L.A. Marshall wrote that Lt. Ralph Watson, who saw Cole fall, couldn't even say the words "Cole is dead." By messenger he conveyed the news to Maj. Stopka this way, "You are in command of the Battalion."
And that's our quote of the week, although it comes with a postscript, and brief observation.
The postscript is that four months later, John Stopka, by then a lieutenant colonel, was killed by friendly fire in Belgium -- from a P-47. My observation is that, yes, we erect a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower, as we should. He was a great man. But Ike's success in World War II, and the success of all generals and commanders-in-chief, depends on men like Bob Cole and John Stopka and those willing, in the words of another wartime president, to give the last full measure of their devotion.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.