POW remembers love, war on 90th

Arthur Cole celebrated his 90th birthday last week by hosting a lunch for 19 new friends. They are all survivors of World War II who live in the San Luis Obispo area.

“I don’t mind talking about my war experiences,” Arthur said, “but I prefer sharing stories and time with others who lived through it. We’re having grilled cheese sandwiches and potato chips for lunch — food I can’t usually have.”

Cole doesn’t understand or support war, but he enjoys telling his wartime story about how he met Jody, the love of his life. He was training with the U.S. Army Air Corps at Marshall Field in Riverside before his deployment to Africa.

“A buddy talked me into a blind date,” Cole said. “I resisted, but when she opened the door, I saw the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. Then I left for three years. I didn’t contact her. I found out later she wrote to me. Her photo was with me.

“As soon as we landed in New York, I called her and asked if she had married. When she hadn’t, I headed towards California. I asked her to marry me on the dance floor. We were married for 62 years.”

With the GI Bill, Cole finished college at UCLA and enjoyed his career teaching speech. On a visit to the Central Coast in 1988, they found their idyllic retirement home overlooking the estuary.

Cole flew 13 missions in Africa before he was shot down and captured by the Italians. “We were amateurs up against professionals,” he said. “I didn’t want to go on the mission, but if I didn’t, someone else would have to go. The Italians treated us fine. We were never abused, but there wasn’t much food.”

Then the Germans took charge. Cole was transported on the train known as Von Ryan’s Express, made famous by David Westheimer, whose injuries prevented his attempted escape with his fellow captives toward freedom.

Cole recalled how when a grate was loosened, 12 men jumped off the moving train, down 12 feet to rocks and rails. They scattered. Cole was later caught and held captive until the Russians liberated them.

Mary Ann Shires Montgomery talked Cole into retelling his story for the book “King Cole.” He hopes copies are still available at the library.

“I guess I was lucky to be a POW,” Cole said. “I’ve had a wonderful life. Many of my buddies didn’t come home.”

Because the gathering on his birthday was a success, the group agreed to meet monthly at Cole’s bayside home. More are invited April 5. Call 528-1569 to get more details.

Reach Judy Salamacha at jsalamacha@yahoo.com or 801-1422.