At the 10-10-15 meeting, Black Hills Scale Modelers presented a 1:48 (14”) model of the A-20 to Ellsworth and the South Dakota Air and Space Museum in honor of SD native and WWII pilot Hilary Cole, who was present.
By one measure, Hilary Cole is modestly one of 16 million, the number of Americans in uniform during World War II. By another, and at age 94, he represents a Black Hills area treasure, one of the diminishing number of WW II war veterans who remains active in his southwest Rapid City neighborhood, taking frequent walks along Enchanted Pines Drive.
Neighbors who receive his flashy smile and “good morning” greetings might not know that Cole, a Tyndall, SD native, piloted an A-20 bomber over Normandy Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. That mission was one of his 65 combat flights over Europe, the start of a military career that concluded with Lt. Col. Cole retiring from the military in 1978. Along the way he tallied 4,000 flying hours, starting in the cloth covered Gypsy Moth, a bi-wing, open-cockpit trainer, followed by the A-20, A-26, B-25, P-40, P-43, P-51, C-47 and the British MK5. By the time his Air Force career concluded, Cole added the F-89 Scorpion jet fighter to his pilot’s log book. He then converted to helicopters and flew for the Army National Guard when he first moved to Rapid City. In his career he piloted 26 different military aircraft.
His wartime military exploits have been documented in the book “Attack Bomber - We Need You.” Author Ralph Conte mentions Cole frequently with stories like this:
"D-Day, June 6, 1944, 1300 hours (1 p.m.) England.
"Fifty-six A-20 attack airplanes lined up for take-off, the third flight of six planes was led by Lieutenant Hilery P. Cole. The weather was lousy for flying, low cloud banks thousands of feet thick, a day they usually would not even consider flying. But not today! They were going up, this was D-Day. The formation flew over the English Channel under a cloud bank 2,000 feet off the surface, making the awesome sight of the thousands of boat, battleships, destroyers, Landing ship tanks, CSTs visible to Cole and his fellow pilots.
"Crossing the beachhead was another awesome sight, with men and equipment strewn all over Normandy Beach. They were flying so low that a fighter escort could not have covered them, so they had no escort. The A-20s took small arms fire with tracers but encountered no problem. The big gunners were not ready to send up flak, evidently they didn't feel there would be any fools flying in this weather.”
History comes alive when Cole talks about the A-20 and his squadron mates from the 416th Bomb Group. He reminds us that the A-20 is less known against the legends that surround the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator or the B-29s that carried atomic bombs over Japan.
Proudly, Cole has high regard for the sturdy but agile A-20, a twin-engine engine bomber that traveled nearly as fast as a fighter. He says, “The crew was so much smaller. I never even had a co-pilot, and we were so much more maneuverable than the bigger bombers. I always felt the A-20 was much safer and consider myself lucky to have the A-20 assignment. George McGovern, who flew 35 successful missions with B-24’s during WW II, had asked to be assigned to A-20’s when asked his choice after graduating from flight school, he stated that “the A-20 was a fast bomber, very maneuverable and handled more like a fighter than a bomber”.
Luck... skilled airmanship... probably a combination always brought Cole and his three crew mates safely back to airfields across Europe. When asked is there were any close calls, Cole replied, “Several times my planes were hit by flack or small arms fire. Only once was I hit real hard, and that time I lost my instruments; but, surprisingly, we made it back to base without any casualties or serious difficulty.”
It has been over seven decades since the beginning of World War II. It is increasingly abstract for young Americans to understand the impact that war had on the nation. Everyone went to war, one way or another. Fighting men were supported by a home front war effort that produced jeeps, trucks, tanks, and aircraft, including 7,000 copies of the A-20 like one flown by Cole.
War veterans like Cole help to keep the memory of that time from becoming just a fading echo of the 20th century. He is one of those reluctant heroes who answered the nation’s call to duty and served well in a job that was demanding, very dangerous and critically important to keeping our way of life secure through this century and beyond.
(above story written by Duke Doering)
Photo by Duke Doering (9-12-15) shows Brad, RAF Spitfire pilot John Wilkenson, and A-20 attack bomber pilot Hilary Cole.