James William Cole was born on October 18, 1893 in Red Oak, Ohio to Alfred and Louella (Hook) Cole, the oldest of three children. On September 21, 1917, at the age of 23, J.W. enlisted in the 126th Company of the Army National Guard, leaving behind a wife and child at home to serve in the First World War. By December, he had been diagnosed with acute bronchitis and was admitted to a military hospital for observation, and in January of 1918, J.W. was released from active duty to be treated for measles and vaccinia. What’s interesting about his story, though, is that he chose to re-enlist for overseas service on May 17, 1918 with the Machine Gun Company of the 120th Infantry Regiment. A poem he wrote years later gives clues as to why:
Admittedly, I expected J.W. to return home to Kentucky at the end of the war, especially after reading through his military files and learning about the extent of his illnesses. In the years that followed, J.W. was sent to the hospital again for gas poisoning, was found temporarily unfit for field service due to tachycardia, earned the Purple Heart for a wound received in action and was ultimately entitled to compensation due to “neurasthenia” (an ill-defined medical condition characterized by fatigue, headache and irritability and associated with “emotional disturbance”). He married again–twice–and had half a dozen more children, but his poetry returned to his first wife for decades after the war.
I don’t know her name or the name of their child together, and I have yet to find any clues that would lead me to his first wife. It’s heartbreaking, though, the way J.W.’s thoughts seem to return to her again and again, to the life that they could have built together. I often think of disease and physical destruction as the after-effects of the First World War, but war also affects an individual’s relationships with others–and deeply. It’s in the ways we expect–manifested in the pain and grief of losing a loved one, or in the difficulty of helping someone adjust to life after the war–but it’s in unexpected ways, too. For J.W., the war’s most-lasting effect seems to have been a relationship that did not remain in-tact until the fighting’s end; this isn’t an indictment of his first wife–I don’t have her side of the story–but it is tremendously sad.
I don’t know too much else about J.W. at this time: I know that he remained in Ohio and Kentucky for the rest of his life, and that he eventually opened his own shoe store somewhere in Mason County, Kentucky. He passed away on November 11, 1973 at the age of 80, and he seems to have been a complicated man with a complicated life. I just had to share this poem here, though; it’s a short love story that deserves to be remembered. Maybe someone who knows the rest of the story will reach out with more information one day; until then, I’ll keep searching for more clues. All the best to you and yours this Memorial Day–