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Editor’s note: Following the publication of this article, officials at Cole Middle and High School learned that Robert G. Cole’s son was alive and in possession of his father’s Purple Heart. Read an update to this story here.
Thanks to the generosity of a New Yorker, the Purple Heart awarded to Robert G. Cole, a distinguished World War II officer and native Texan, will occupy a place of honor at the San Antonio school named for him.
At a Veteran’s Day ceremony at Robert G. Cole Middle and High School on Friday, JROTC instructor Col. William LaChance surprised students and teachers by announcing the donation of the medal to the school. The ceremony honored Cole’s legacy and the many veterans in attendance at the school located at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.
The story of how the medal found its way to the school is full of mistakes, surprises, and unexpected generosity. It was donated by Lisa Ludwig of Long Island, New York, but how the Purple Heart ended up in that part of the country is anyone’s guess, said LaChance.
“We have no idea how it ended up in Long Island,” he said. “If this medal could talk …”
Cole, who was born at Fort Sam and graduated from Jefferson High School, received a Medal of Honor for his actions following the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy, leading a battalion against dug-in German troops. The lieutenant colonel received that honor and the Purple Heart posthumously, having been killed in the Netherlands by a German sniper some three months later.
Ludwig was unable to attend the ceremony because of work, but told the Rivard Report in a phone interview that she felt wonderful about giving the school such a meaningful gift.
“It’s a beautiful story,” Ludwig said. “I felt very warm-hearted and full-hearted and very American. That really made me feel like such a good American, and I’m so happy that it’s where it should be.”
With a military father and a great uncle who received a Purple Heart, Ludwig said she has always admired military medals.
“When I was a kid, I used to take the Purple Heart into show and tell because I thought it was the coolest thing,” she said. “I was always drawn to them for some reason.”
She bought what turned out to be Cole’s Purple Heart at a Long Island gun show in September from a man who buys military medals from estate sales and resells them. Ludwig said she initially told him she couldn’t afford to pay the $120 he was asking for the medal, but at the end of the show, he surprised her by agreeing to sell it to her for $60.
Ludwig was more surprised the next day when she unwrapped the medal and saw it had a name inscribed on the back.
“I literally gasped, like ‘Oh my God, there’s a name,’” she said. “It blew my mind, because I really was expecting it not to have a name on it.”
Medals with inscribed names are worth more, and Ludwig thought she had purchased one without a name on it. When the seller realized his mistake, he asked for the medal back, saying it was worth as much as $2,500.
But by then Ludwig had already researched Cole, contacted the school named for him, and promised to donate the medal, so she told the seller her plans. Although he seemed shocked she would give away something so valuable, Ludwig said, he approved of her plan and even gave her the $60 she paid for it back.
“And then my friend shipped it for me,” Ludwig said. “So I didn’t even spend a dime on any of this and it just went where it was supposed to go.”
In researching Cole’s life, Ludwig began to feel a deep connection to and respect for the man whose medal she held.
“He was a very humble man and very strong,” she said. “I felt in my heart watching his videos how American he was and how strong he was and the strengths he brought to his men. And for that to be lost is just incredibly insane.”
Cole’s widow, a son whom he never met, and his mother received the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart on his behalf at a ceremony on Oct. 30, 1944, at Fort Sam Houston.
LaChance said the school has been unable to locate living relatives of Cole’s to return the medal to, which is why the school has decided to hold onto it for now.
“What a huge piece of history,” LaChance said. “… Even though Robert G. Cole never had it pinned on his chest, I feel like now we have a piece of him. And that’s important for the kids.”
The school hopes to have the medal put in a glass display case next to a mosaic of Cole in the school’s main entryway, LaChance said. There will also be room in the case for Cole’s Medal of Honor, he said, in the hopes that it, too, will find its way to the school one day.
As for Ludwig, she plans to keep looking for Cole’s Medal of Honor. The seller who gave her the Purple Heart said he doesn’t have Cole’s other medals, but she’s now more passionate than ever about restoring military medals to their rightful owners.
“I believe in karma, she said, laughing. “I hope Robert G. Cole watches over me. I really do feel that the legacy of the Purple Heart needs to be celebrated in each and every family because if that gets lost, it’s a shame.”