August 2002

Sydney Cole -
War Hero/Fitness Enthusiast

by Joseph H. RADDER

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The citation presented to Sydney Cole with his Prisoner of War medal says, in part, “While serving as Chief Forward Observer for the 776th Field Artillery Battalion, Captain Sydney Cole’s aircraft was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire and disabled. Captain Cole’s aviation skill and prior experience as a glider pilot enabled him to place the aircraft in glide mode while he and his co-pilot struggled to exit the aircraft. Captain Cole went to the aid of his comrade and forced him to parachute safely behind friendly lines. In so doing, however, Captain Cole delayed his own departure from the crippled aircraft enough so that he descended behind German lines. During his descent, Captain Cole was fired upon by German troops and sustained multiple gunshot wounds.”

What the citation doesn’t tell us is perhaps the most dramatic part of the story:

As soon as he landed Cole knew he must get rid of his dog tags, As Army veterans will remember, dog tags carry an initial for the wearer’s religion...C for Catholic, P for Protestant, H for Hebrew. Sydney Cole’s dog tags carried an H, revealing that he was Jewish. Had he been captured with these dog tags around his neck he would have been sent to a concentration camp and probably would have been subjected to torture, starvation, and eventually a horrible death. “The smartest thing I ever did in my life was to throw those dog tags as far into the woods as I could,” Cole said.

Perhaps his experience as a prisoner wasn’t as painful as it would have been if he had been identified as Jewish, but it was anything but pleasant. The camp he was assigned to was run by the Hitler Youth. “The most cruel people I have ever known,” Cole said. He was kept for days in a cold cellar, was beaten, and finally taken to a Red Cross tent where his wounds were treated. Cole and many other prisoners were then sent in box cars for transfer to Stalag IVF. “Can you believe that? 4F?,” he laughed. A British medical officer who was also on this trip was very helpful to Captain Cole in treating his wounds. After many months the Germans deserted the camp and the Russians came in and liberated Stalag IVF. A Russian doctor then treated Cole’s wounds.

After about 60 days, the Russians and Americans arranged a prisoner exchange and Sydney Cole was finally able to take the first step on the long trip home. Meanwhile, however, they came across a satellite of Auschwitz. The Germans had abandoned it, but its Jewish prisoners, who had been awaiting execution, were still there. Cole and his friends fed them soup, but weren’t always successful. One woman was so frail she died in Sydney Cole’s arms while he was trying to feed her.

“Captain Cole’s heroism at the risk of his own life,” the citation says, “his dedication to the principles of freedom, and his exemplary dedication 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.”

Today, as if in gratitude for being spared from the holocaust, Sydney Cole keeps himself in prime physical condition. He works out seven days a week, thirty-five minutes on the treadmill daily, followed by another thirty-five minutes of vigorous swimming.

His wiry physique belies his 87 years. He could easily pass for a man of 60. Syd Cole’s whole life has been athletic. He played handball for 48 years at the downtown YMCA, and later at the BAC until death claimed all of his partners. In 1978 he took over management of the BAC, following a career in the automobile business from 1946 to 1972 as owner of Cole Motors.

Sydney Cole was born in New York City in 1914. He moved to Buffalo with his parents when he was still very young. His father was in the business of restoring houses architecturally. He had been called to Buffalo to do a Delaware Avenue mansion and found so much demand for his skills here that he moved his family to Buffalo. His father died at the very young age of 55, but his mother lived to be 92.

As a teenager in 1936, Syd Cole experienced one of the biggest disappointments of his life. He had qualified as a swimmer on the U.S. Olympic team, but the Olympics were to be held in Germany and were cancelled because of the increasing threat of war.

Coming home from that war after his imprisonment, Sydney Cole and Sybil Richard were married. Rather than take a job working for somebody else, he decided to take advantage of the pent-up demand for automobiles, and he opened Cole Motors on Main Street near Best. He obtained a franchise for English Ford cars and also did a brisk business in used cars. In 1972 he was forced out of business when the City of Buffalo exercised its right of eminent domain to buy his Main Street property for the Summer-Best Metro Rail station.

I wish we had several more pages to write about Sydney Cole. He certainly has had a full life. In addition to the Prisoner of War medal he was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, the Caterpillar Club medal, and the Air medal. His North Buffalo home is full of awards, plaques, and memorabilia of his interesting life. America owes much to heroes like Captain
Sydney Cole.

Joseph H. Radder is a freelance writer.


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