OGDEN — John Cole was in a hospital when he heard World War II had officially come to an end, and as strange as it may sound, the news brought him a tinge of uneasiness.
Sept. 2 marked 75 years since the Japanese delegation signed the instrument of surrender aboard the USS Missouri, formally bringing to an end the deadliest conflict in human history.
A few months prior to that monumental moment, Cole, a Marine, had just finished boot camp and was training at Camp Pendleton in California, preparing for an invasion of Japan. Cole was injured during the training and lying in a hospital bed when he heard that he wouldn’t be joining his outfit, which had since been shipped off to Guam.
“My first impulse, to be really honest about it, was disappointment,” the 93-year-old Roy resident said on Thursday. “I had an uncle who was a Marine and fought in the Banana Wars in Central America in the 20s and 30s. Well, he really impressed upon me what it meant to be a Marine and to fight for your country. So I really wanted to be a part of rewriting a page in history. But, it wasn’t to be.”
Cole eventually got his chance though. During the Korean War, he fought in the brutal Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. He was injured three times during his stint in Korea in 1950 with the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines. During a close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat situation, he killed three enemy troops with his combat knife and was shot in the arm. He received a Purple Heart for his wounds.
“If I had known what war was really like, maybe I wouldn’t have been so disappointed,” Cole laughs. “But really, looking back on it, I know that so many of my buddies were going to head over there and just get chewed up by invading Japan. So, I’m glad it came to an end when it did. A lot of lives were saved, that’s to be sure.”
According to the National World War II Museum, an estimated 85 million people died during World War II, a number that represented about 3% of the entire world’s population in 1940.
To commemorate the anniversary, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert issued a declaration honoring the Utahns who served during the war. According to the WWII Museum and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, only 389,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive today. Utah has just more than 3,000 such veterans.
“We pay tribute to the American servicemen and women of the Greatest Generation, as well as to our allies, and remember those who gave their lives in the defense of liberty,” Herbert said in a statement. “Utah will forever be grateful for the remarkable men and women and what they did on the front lines of war and the home front.”
Herbert said the war helped reshape Utah’s economy after being one of the hardest hit states during the Great Depression. About 40,000 jobs were created in the state during the war, many of them at Utah’s then 14 military installations.
Hill Air Force Base played a pivotal role in the war and in bringing it to an end.
According to documents from the base history office, Hill’s personnel total surpassed 20,000 during WWII. The workforce included 15,780 civilians and about 6,000 military, and Hill’s depot repaired aircraft like the B-17, B-24 and P-47, as well as several widely used engines. Base personnel also contributed to the war effort at the Wendover Range, the precursor to today’s Utah Test and Training Range. At the range, crews performed practice bombing runs for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions that helped end WWII.
During the final months of the war, the 509th Composite Group was activated at the Wendover Field in late 1944, according to the history office. The group was the first Army Air Force Group to be equipped and trained for atomic warfare.
The group trained in Wendover until April 26, 1945. In August of that year, one of the group’s B-29s, the “Enola Gay,” which was flown by Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr., dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later another B-29 from the group, known as “Bock’s Car” and flown by Maj. Charles W. Sweeney, dropped another atomic bomb, this time on Nagasaki, Japan.