Assistant Third Engineer John Edward Cole, Service Number Z-97086
John Edward Cole was born in DeRidder, Imperial Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, along with his twin sister Julia Evelyn on 11 November 1909. DeRidder now sets as the parish seat of Beauregard Parish, it was established from a part of Calcasieu on 1 January 1913. John moved around a bit, but he and his wife Florence called Johnson City, Washington County, Tennessee home before he set out on his final sea voyage during World War II.
John’s love for the sea finally came about when he enlisted in the United States Navy. After completing basic training, he served as a Fireman aboard the USS Roper (DD-147) a Wickes-class Destroyer before being discharged on Halloween, 31 October 1930. After a while, he settled down in New Orleans, Louisiana and did work at the sea port and harbor. John applied to the United States Merchant Marine and received his Seaman Certificate / Credentials on 12 September 1938 at New Orleans with service number Z-97086. He was an unlicensed Qualified Member of the Engineering Department (QMED) and rated as a Fireman, Water tender and Oiler by the United States Coast Guard.
John was promoted to Third Assistant Engineer aboard the SS James Oglethorpe for his tenth and final cruise. Prior to this, he served aboard six other Merchant Marine ships: SS Wacosta; SS Arizpa; SS Seatrain Texas; SS Robin Locksley; SS Bellingham and the SS Ponce de Leon completing nine full cruises in the positions of Water tender, Oiler or Fireman and at times in two if not all three positions. Three of these cruises were Coastwise; ones that went from different coastal ports in the United States and seven were Foreign cruises to ports in England, Russia and South America.
On John’s eighth cruise he survived the sinking of the SS Bellingham (Convoy QP-14) on 22 September 1942 that was returning from Archangel, Russia in the Greenland Sea by German Submarine U-435. The Bellingham was also hit by a dud torpedo dropped by a German aircraft on the way in with Convoy PQ-17 on 7 July 1942. She had to stay in Archangel for nearly two months to make repairs. Another fellow lad from Johnson City was not as lucky in this convoy and Jones Caldwell Hine went down on the SS William Hopper on the 4th of July.
John’s tenth and last cruise was also the SS James Oglethorpe’s maiden voyage after she did her “slid down the ways” into the Atlantic Ocean at Southeastern Shipbuilding in Savannah, Georgia on 20 November 1942. She was also the first Liberty Ship to be built in Savannah. During what is now known as the Battle of St. Patrick’s Day (Convoy HX-229) was steaming for Liverpool, England, from New York Harbor, New York on 8 March 1943 with 50 ships loaded with lend lease war supplies. They did a stopover at St. John’s, Newfoundland to pick up five armed escort ships for the crossing. John was one of many who lost their lives when the convoy was attacked by three German Wolf Packs consisting of 41 German Submarines (U-Boats) on the evening of 16 March. The Oglethorpe was making 12 knots when she was struck by a torpedo on the starboard (right) side at the forward section of Hold #2 by U-758. After putting off some of the crew, she was last seen trying to make steam back to St. John’s, Newfoundland. She was never seen again and is said to have come under the guns of U-91 in the Mid-North Atlantic, 440 miles south south east of Cape Farvel (Farewell), Greenland on 17 March 1943. John was lost at sea this day, as well and declared missing in action. He was 33 years old and has a memorial marker in Section MA, Site 55, Mountain Home National Cemetery, Mountain Home, Tennessee.
John’s the son of Reverend Lewis Madison “Matt” Cole and Nancy Louisa “Lula” Gandy. He was married to Florence Elizabeth Rennie in Johnson City on 21 November 1942. Florence enlisted in the United States Army with the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) on 15 January 1945 from Johnson City.
Note 1: Just to show how in harm’s way these convoys were in and around the time frame of 16-19 March 1943. Convoys HX-229 lost 13 ships and SC-122 lost 9 for a total of 22 ships during those four days and the Germans only one submarine.
Note 2: After nearly 72 years, John finally has a memorial marker placed to honor his sacrifice to us and our nation. The marker rests at Mountain Home National Cemetery, Tennessee in the Memorial Circle. Mountain Home is a Veterans Administration Hospital and Cemetery that’s located inside the city of Johnson City. John’s memorial service was conducted on Saturday, 14 March 2015 at 11am at the cemetery and in attendance was John’s twin sister’s two sons: Ben and Cole.
Note 3: On 15 June 2021, we finally found Florence and she’s just over 100 meters from John in Section L, Row 14, Site 42. She’s under her second husband’s name. On Saint Patrick’s Day we lay a red rose at each site for them and to the love they have for one another.
— Submitted by: Allen D. Jackson, USAF (Ret)
John Edward Cole served on Merchant Ship James Oglethorpe and died on 17 March 1943.
Between 00.23 and 00.25 hours on 17 March 1943, U-758 fired two FAT and two G7e torpedoes at the convoy HX-229 and reported three ships sunk and another damaged. In fact, the Zaanland and James Oglethorpe were sunk and the Dutch motor tanker Magdala (8248 tons) missed.
The James Oglethorpe (Master Albert W. Long) on her maiden voyage in station #93 was struck by one torpedo on the starboard side at the forward section of the #2 hold. The ship began settling by the head with her rudder stuck and a starboard list. A fire in the #1 hold was extinguished within 15 minutes by the crew. 43 men of the eight officers, 36 crewmen, 26 armed guards (the ship was armed with one 4in, one 3in and eight 20mm guns) and four passengers (US Navy personnel) abandoned ship without orders in two lifeboats, while the vessel made large circles to port at 8 knots. The fall of one boat was cut prematurely and threw its occupants into the sea, drowning 13 men. Another man died when he fell into the water while trying to get into the second boat. The three officers, 10 crewmen, two passengers and 15 armed guards in the second boat were picked up by the HMS Pennyworth (K 111) and landed at Londonderry on 22 March.
The James Oglethorpe tried to reach St. Johns, but was never seen again.
The memorial stone shown in the photo is at Mountain Home Cemetery/Johnson City, TN.
- Rank: Third Assistant Engineer
- Date of birth: 11 November 1909
- Date of death: 17 March 1943
- County: Washington
- Hometown: Johnson City
- Service Branch: Merchant Marines
- Division/Assignment: S.S. James Oglethorpe
- Theater: Europe
- Conflict: World War II
- Location In Memorial: Pillar XIX, Bottom Panel
- Contact us to sponsor John E. Cole
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