CARENTAN, France (Army News Service, Feb. 5, 2014) -- Municipality leaders, veterans and residents gathered to remember a local legend on the occasion of the June 5 unveiling here of a new site and monument dedicated to a D-Day hero of the 101st Airborne Division.
At a palm-centered roundabout, a black stele, or stone pillar, now stands as a reminder of Lt. Col. Robert G. Cole's valorous actions during the battle for the town's liberation.
An artisan's etching at the bottom of the pillar depicts Cole and his troops during the famed bayonet charge against a German defensive position, on June 11, 1944.
Jean-Pierre L'honneur, the mayor of Carentan, was joined in the unveiling by Raymond Defer, a former medic who parachuted into Normandy near Sainte Marie du Mont, during the night of June 5.
"Of course I didn't know Col. Cole personally, he was my commander, after all," Defer said. "But I served his men as a medic and I can tell you there are a lot of memories in this place. It was a very tough time."
Cole personally led his battalion to capture four remaining bridges on the road to Carentan, when his entire unit was suddenly pinned to the ground by intense and withering enemy fire from German rifles, machine guns, mortars, and artillery from heavily fortified positions.
The unrelenting fire caused numerous casualties, keeping medics like Defer busy, and kept troops in place for over an hour. Cole made a desperate and courageous call to order an assault on the enemy position with fixed bayonets, a dangerous tactic that had become unconventional since the end of World War I.
Ignoring the danger, Cole rose to his feet and charged against enemy fire with drawn pistol. Picking up a fallen man's rifle and bayonet, he charged on and led the remnants of his unit in clearing the defensive position.
The story quickly spread through the unit and is said to have motivated the successful gain of a bridgehead across the Douve River.
Cole was posthumously decorated with the highest American military medal, the Medal of Honor, for his bayonet charge on Carentan.
"From today on, the Stars and Stripes of the United States float on the monument beside the Tricolour," said Louis Regnault, a local administrator responsible for the commemorations.
L'honneur summarized the events around Carentan's liberation, thanked the visiting veterans in his native French, and said their sacrifices will be remembered for generations to come.
"It's up to us to keep the memory for the generations of today, to whom liberty comes so naturally," he said.
In a symbol for the lasting legacy of those who sacrificed for the freedom of Europe, school children presented the veterans with a white dove and star cutouts as representations of peace and liberty.
"It's an honor to stand alongside these veterans today," said Maj. Gen. James McConville, the commander of 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), who joined Defer an other veterans in the ceremony. "They led the way and the legacy of the 101st Airborne Division, and their example still inspires Soldiers today."