“The history of a nation is nothing more than a history of the individuals comprising it, and as they are characterized by loftier or lower ideals, actuated by the spirit of ambition or indifference, so it is with a state, county or town.” — Robert S. Douglas, 1912
How important a part does one’s hometown play in helping to shape the depth and character of a person?
Ask retired Central High School teacher Willa Hassell that question and she’ll be quick to say that a person’s childhood — the school and church they attend, the friends they make and the neighbors they live around — make more of a difference in developing the person one will someday become than anyone could ever imagine.
Hassell’s recently self-published book, “The Character of the Ground,” tells the story of World War II hero Sgt. Darrell S. Cole who was born and raised in the town of Esther. It was in that close-knit community that he attended church, hung out with friends, helped out neighbors and eventually graduated high school before later losing his life while in the act of saving the lives of his fellow Marines on the island of Iwo Jima in 1945.
The long-time English teacher remembers the first time she heard of Cole.
“When I was in high school at Esther, we were going down to change clothes for a volleyball game or for gym or something and there was a plaque on the wall that said something about Darrell Cole,” Hassell said. “I asked our volleyball coach Margie Powell who he was and her response was, ‘Oh, ‘Coley’ — he was a big hero in World War II.’
“I didn’t think much about it after that until I started teaching at Central High School. I had two different Coles — they were probably like great nieces and nephews of Darrell. Each of them did a speech on him. They brought in his diary that he kept and made copies of it for me.
“I was thinking in the back of my mind the whole time, ‘I need to write that … I need to write that. Wouldn’t that be a good book?’ Five or six years ago after I retired I started to think through and began interviewing people. There were gobs of people who were still alive that knew Darrell Cole and so, I got to interview some of those people — did a little research here and there.”
For those not familiar with the story, Darrell Samuel Cole was born July 20, 1920, and graduated from Esther School in 1938. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1941 and, although originally assigned to play the bugle, Cole repeatedly requested that his rating be changed from field musician to machine-gunner. Despite his bugler rating, he fought as a machine-gunner in several major campaigns of World War II, including Guadalcanal, Tinian and Saipan.
After asking a fourth time, Cole’s request to change his rating to machine-gunner was approved just four months before he was sent into combat again on Iwo Jima. During the battle, Cole made a successful one-man attack against two gun emplacements impeding the advance of his company. Upon returning to his squad, he was killed by an enemy grenade.
Cole posthumously received the United States’ highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, for his “conspicuous gallantry” at the Battle of Iwo Jima. In 1996 the United States Navy named the USS Cole, a destroyer, in his honor. This destroyer was damaged in a suicide attack in Yemen but subsequently repaired and is currently in service.
And how is Cole remembered by those who knew him as a teenager?
“From the different stories that people told me, he was a little hot-headed, impulsive, and I tried to portray that in the book,” Hassell said. “Jumping forward to Iwo Jima, he was one of the people pinned down. He got grenades and ran and threw the grenades. Then he went back for more and threw those to get through the battle. That’s what ended his life. Just the fact that he was so brave. His impulsiveness back in school was what gave him the bravery to go out and do what he did — break through the lines.
Hassell said that those who attended Esther School tend to remember the time warmly.
“They just loved it,” she said. “I’ve talked to people and they all have the same story no matter when they were there. They all say, ‘we were like family, the teachers were strict but they were good to us and everybody was equal.’
“The focus of my book is on how important Esther School and Esther Baptist Church was in making Darrell the person he later became,” said Hassell. “Character of the ground is a mining term. When the miners would go out and do the core drilling, they would assess the character of the ground, or mineral, as to how deep it was, how much mass it had and how good it was. I’m hoping that people will get the idea that the character in those people is what made them heroes and made all the good people who were in Esther.”
Hassell said that researching the book turned into a six-year process.
“I got some books on World War II and Iwo Jima and looked up a lot on the Internet,” she said. “Most of his personality, though, I learned from people around who were still alive — especially a lady named Barb Shearer. Her late husband was an airplane turret gunner in World War II.”
Another person she contacted was a World War II vet who also fought at Iwo Jima.
“I wrote to a man named Elmer Dapron,” she said. “I randomly found him on the Internet. He wrote me back and sent me something so precious — sand from Iwo Jima.”
“The book is based on everything people told me historically. We don’t know what they actually said. I had to make up dialogue, but it’s based on what people have told me and different things that I found out — how I thought they would maybe react.”
Hassell said Cole wasn’t the only Esther School graduate who lost his life while serving his nation in World War II.
“Darrell Cole graduated in 1938,” she said. “Another boy, Paul Crepps, graduated in 1944. They were six years apart. Both of them ended up just randomly being on the same ship that went into Iwo Jima. Darrell was killed one day. Nine days later Paul Crepps was killed.”
Sgt. Cole was initially buried in the 4th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima, but at the request of his father, his remains were returned to the United States and are now buried in Farmington’s Parkview Cemetery.
“The Character of the Ground” can be purchased by contacting Hassell at 573-756-7384. The author will also have copies available to buy from 8-9:30 a.m. Wednesdays at the Hardee’s in Leadington.
Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or firstname.lastname@example.org