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Oklahoma WWII veteran celebrates centennial birthday

By JEFF ELKINS | The Norman Transcript | Published: January 31, 2021

NORMAN, Okla. (Tribune News Service) — Over the last week, John Cole Jr. has received well over 100 cards from family, friends, former service members, local politicians and even Oklahoma Sooners football coach Lincoln Riley, all wishing him a happy centennial birthday.

The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel sat outside Saturday as Oklahomans rode by his house in a drive-by parade as part of the celebration his birthday.

Through church at First Baptist Church Norman, his time in the military, his early years in Arkansas and his time at the University of Oklahoma, Cole has built many relationships in his 100 years of life.

If asked about the kind of person Cole is, some of his loved ones would likely mention his sense of humor.

"He's just a funny guy who has a lot of good stories," said Mike Wilson, Cole's stepbrother. "He is also a person of high integrity, and you can tell he's very military and does it right, by the numbers and on time, 'sir' type of guy, but is also an extremely kind and gracious person."

After graduating high school in his hometown of Mulberry, Ark., in the early '40s, Cole moved to Wichita, Kansas to work for Boeing, with the intention of helping to pay for his sister's college.

At Boeing, Cole said he helped the company build B-17 bombers.

"Because he was helping the war effort, he did not have to join the armed services, but he felt it was his duty to enlist in the Air Force [then Army Air Corps]," Cole's wife, Barbara, said.

In the Air Force, Cole ended up flying the same planes he helped build, completing 29 missions before WWII ended.

On his first flight, Barbara Cole said his plane was hit by a German bullet which should have exploded, "blowing it to smithereens."

"The bullet went through the plane and exploded beyond the bomber," she said. "John immediately thanked God for protecting them."

On another of his missions, Cole was struck by a piece of an exploding anti-aircraft shell, which lodged under his skin on his lower back. In a separate mission, he was hit in the helmet with a piece of flak.

While stationed in England, Cole flew 29 missions over Germany. He was about to take off for his 30th mission when Germany surrendered.

"I guess they had enough of John and his crew," Barbara Cole said.

In addition to WWII, Cole served during the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War, serving for 33 years before retiring to Norman in 1975.

He attended the University of Oklahoma, where he obtained a bachelor and master's degree in accounting, setting up a career in the field.

"I got recalled to active duty after college and spent my last 25 years of service being assigned wherever the Air Force needed a finance comptroller," Cole said. "After they took my [ability to fly], I told them to go to hell and retired."

Cole said he has kept life interesting by staying true to his curious nature.

"I have always been inquisitive, and that's what keeps me going," he said. "I have looked problems right in the face to try and do what is right and that's how I raised my four boys. You stick your nose in your boys' business if you see them going bad. I guess I've been a nosy bastard and I got acquainted with a lot of people that way."

Tom Harrison, senior pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church in Tulsa, believes becoming a man with many relationships is one of the goals of life, and expressed this sentiment in his birthday letter to Cole.

"The best way to be wealthy is to have relationships that are rich in content," Harrison said in the letter. "From what I've heard about you, you could be the world's richest man. Wisdom without relationships isn't helpful. Relationships without wisdom leads to trouble. Thank you for a life well lived."

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