Arles Cole

World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor



Arles Cole holds his autobiography, "Showing Our Colors at Pearl Harbor," in his apartment at University Village.

As a 17-year-old sailor stationed on the USS West Virginia in Pearl Harbor, Arles Cole expected a normal, quiet Sunday morning on Dec. 7, 1941.

He had spent the previous evening purchasing Christmas gifts in Honolulu to send to relatives back home in Porum, Okla., a small town south of Muskogee.

Little did he realize that his world, and nearly everyone else’s in America, would soon be turned upside down.
Cole was at his assigned station on the bridge of the West Virginia at 7:55 a.m. (Hawaii time) on that serene Sunday morning. 

The first wave of Japanese bombers buzzed quickly over the horizon, releasing their destruction on the defenseless battleships lined up on “Battleship Row.”

“I remember somebody yelled, ‘We’re being bombed by the Japanese,’” Cole says. “We recognized them immediately as Japanese planes because we could see the red ball on their wings as they flew over.”

A total of 186 Japanese planes were involved in the first wave of the attack, Cole later learned.

With the attack ongoing and the orders to “assume battle stations” issued, Cole attempted to rush to his pre-assigned battle station, which was located four decks below the main deck.

He never made it.

Three decks down on his route, he found himself suddenly trapped by an incoming mixture of water and oil resulting from several torpedoes that had hit the West Virginia. Unable to open the hatch to escape, as the ship had been locked down, thoughts of death raced through Cole’s mind.

Standing alone in the darkness, he was swept off his feet. Then, he heard muffled voices and tried to make his way to them.

As fate would have it, Cole escaped death only by crawling through a hole in the deck created by a Japanese bomb that miraculously had turned out to be a dud.

After advancing to the second deck, Cole immediately turned his efforts to assisting his fellow sailors wounded from the bombing. He rescued and carried a fellow sailor, who turned out to be the ship’s top prizefighter, Doris “Dorie” Miller, weighing 235 pounds, up a flight of stairs to the main deck and eventual safety. Miller was later portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2001 film “Pearl Harbor.”

“To this day, I do not know how I had the strength to carry him up,” Cole says.

Cole not only survived the Japanese attack, but he also played an interesting role in the history of the West Virginia.
Once much of the smoke had cleared and after the Japanese bombers had finally departed, Cole realized that the United States flag had not been hoisted that day because of the bombing.

Cole explains that as a young and patriotic Oklahoman, he could not tolerate his ship lacking a flag flying from its mast. He scurried back below deck to the ship’s bunting locker, where he grabbed the largest flag he could find.

Returning topside, as he approached the ship’s stern, he saw that the halyard on the flagstaff had burned, but some line was remaining at the top of the pole. Cole shinnied up the flagstaff, which angled out over the oily water, and tied the flag to the staff.

Cole admits that the sight of the  flag waving in the breeze above the West Virginia seemed to inspire other sailors as they began efforts to recover from the deadly attack.

Sharing his thoughts

“People have been telling me for years that I should write a book about my experiences,” Cole says.

Cole finally took the plunge last spring. He says that actually working on the book turned into a form of therapy.

“It was a little rough at first, but I got settled in my mind that I could do it,” he says.

When he decided to go forward with the book, he approached the task with a passion. 

Not much slows down the active veteran. Because of declining eyesight, though, Cole dictated his notes into a tape recorder. Then his granddaughter, Rachel Tafoya, transcribed them into a manuscript and did some editing. 

“The toughest thing was just trying to remember everything I wanted to include in the book and then trying to get it in some order,” Cole says.

The resulting product, “Showing Our Colors at Pearl Harbor: A Firsthand Account Through the Eyes of a 17-Year-Old Survivor,” was published this year.

While Cole’s harrowing experience at Pearl Harbor and his account of how he survived the Japanese attack is a focal point, the book is actually an autobiography, chronicling Cole’s life from the time he was born in 1923 in the hills of eastern Oklahoma to today.

“The Lord helped me put the book together,” he says. “I got it done like the Lord directed me. It’s a book about Christian living with the basic foundation being my training in the church.”

Today, at age 87, Cole remains active in veterans’ programs and events, spreading the word about patriotism. He also makes a point to aid his fellow veterans in navigating the intricacies of veterans’ governmental programs, providing assistance and guidance and serving as their advocate whenever possible.

He traveled to Washington, D.C., on the Oklahoma Honor Flights in October. He and his daughter, Sandra, who is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, plan to travel to Pearl Harbor in December, where he will participate in the 69th anniversary observance of the bombing. Cole is a frequent representative for the West Virginia at such functions.

He has been a popular figure in Tulsa as well through appearances at recent local sporting events.

He threw out the ceremonial first pitches for The Summit League Baseball Championship at Oral Roberts University last May and for the Tulsa Drillers on the Fourth of July.

At a Tulsa Talons arena football game, he participated in the pre-game coin toss and presented the game ball to officials prior to a Tulsa Shock WNBA game. 

Four years ago, he first spoke at the Jenks Middle School Veterans Day assembly at the invitation of the school. He also speaks often at other area schools. But he has “adopted” Jenks Middle School as “his school,” he says.

Since speaking at Jenks, Cole has had to decide between being honored in the annual Veterans Day parade downtown or participating in the Jenks assembly and talking to the middle-schoolers each year.

For the past four years, Cole has chosen the latter — as an opportunity to pass on his sense of patriotism and love of country.

Often, after participating in the assembly, Cole ventures into classrooms and lets 12- and 13-year-olds fire questions at him in a no-holds-barred Q&A session.

Teachers say that even the students who may be disruptive at times suddenly grow reverential, with Cole drawing their respect merely by his presence.

“Were you scared?” a quiet 13-year-old boy asked him during one of the assemblies.

Cole paused and then chuckled with a gleam in his eye.

“I guess I’ve never been asked that question,” Cole told him.

“Yes, of course, I was scared,” he continued. “We were all scared. But we all had jobs to do and we concentrated on doing those jobs to defend our ships and to fight for our country the best we knew how.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Real history from a walking history book.

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