Grateful American Kids

The Life & Legacy of Kenneth Cole

Written by Elijah Norton and Illustrated by Aaliyah Naff
For the series A BOOK by ME - True Stories Written by Kids for Kids

Meeting Ken Cole and hearing him talk about the Korean War was a great honor. We have names and addresses for Ken and other amazing veterans on the Write to a Hero page. on our website. During the conversation with Ken and young artist Aaliyah Naff, he mentioned the Korean War was the “forgotten war”. When Aaliyah drew the cover art we began talking about the possibility of having people color that art and send it to Ken. That’s how we created Pancake Kenny and hope that Ken doesn’t feel forgotten when his mailbox is filled with letters from across the nation. You can download the image and find the addresses at the link where Pancake Kenny is described in full. This Memorial Day, make it special for veterans by writing them a letter of thanks. They deserve appreciation for their service and their sacrifice serving our country.

Deb Bowen, A BOOK by ME

A farm boy named Ken Cole was sent to fight in the Korean War. It was a challenging and life-changing experience. Despite the hardships, Ken and the other soldiers showed courage and resilience. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, but the Allies kept the South Koreans free from communism. Thanks to two talented teenagers, you can learn more about this war by reading Ken’s story.

Elijah Norton, Author

Aaliyah Naff, Illustrator

“Ken was an eyewitness to the Korean War. Hearing about his firsthand experience helped us better understand this part of history. Honoring a veteran can serve as an inspiration to future generations when students read this book in classrooms. By recognizing the bravery of our veterans, we can instill a sense of patriotism and maybe encourage someone to serve in the military. We know Ken hopes that is the case with his story.”

With Gratitude,
Elijah Norton, Author
Aaliyah Naff, Illustrator

Thanks to the Illinois Humanities Grant, Chicago, Illinois for sponsoring this new book title. The Life & Legacy of Kenneth Cole is available from Amazon. >

Kenneth “Ken” Cole
Korean War – National Guard – Field Artillery 1952 – 1953

Kenneth Cole was born December 6, 1929, in Macomb, Illinois to Don and Ethel Cole. When Ken grew up he attended first through seventh grade at Western Illinois State Teachers College. It was an elementary school for practice teachers. During those years on campus, Ken had the awesome experience of listening to a famous person named Amelia Earhart. Amelia was an American aviation pioneer and a writer. She was the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Ken remembers when the elementary school kids were taken to the rotunda in Sherman Hall and were seated in a semicircle around Amelia. She told them about her plans to fly around the world and that she had been given a new two-engine airplane for the flight.

As a kid Ken loved to play hide and seek. Since Ken lived on a farm, he helped care for the cattle, goats and chickens. In eighth grade he began to handle harder work and more outdoor chores. By then he attended a country school, and his high school years were at Macomb Senior High. Ironically, he attended Western Illinois University in the same building where he went to elementary school. Ken has always lived in Macomb, except for his time serving in the military.

Ken with an artillery round

He joined the Illinois reserve militia during his junior and senior years in high school. The reserve militia was disbanded in 1947, and the Illinois National Guard was activated. Ken joined the National Guard unit in Macomb. He married his sweetheart Joan on June 4, 1950, and they had their first child in 1951. His National Guard unit was called into active duty in February of 1952. When he was ordered to report to training, like most married men, he drove with his wife and child to California and lived near Camp Cooke. Ken and Joan found an apartment and lived there with another couple. He and his fellow soldiers drove to camp each day, and the women had cars to drive, too. It was great that Ken and other men had their families with them just before being shipped off to fight in the Korean War.

Ken in Korea

Ken was standing in the chow line for breakfast when the Tehachapi Earthquake hit in California on July 21, 1952. It was the biggest earthquake to hit California since 1906 and it affected all of Southern California. Twelve people were killed and hundreds were injured. Ken said that where he was “the roads rolled and the electricity poles leaned.”

Scenery in Korea was beautiful

Soon, Ken’s orders came to go to war, and his wife and child returned home to Illinois. Ken took a ship to Japan and then to Korea. Although it had only been a few years since WWII, there was progress with military equipment, such as jet aircraft and helicopters, adding new dynamics to warfare. Ken was in field artillery, which was engaged in a series of battles, offenses and counter offensives. Both sides had victories and setbacks. Ken witnessed human suffering and loss of life.

Ken learned the only thing different from the National Guard and someone being in the Army were serial numbers. His number started with NG (National Guard), while those in the Army started with RA (Regular Army). During training, the National Guard units trained on a part-time basis, in comparison to a Regular Army unit which underwent more extensive training. During the Korean War, both units were integrated into the larger United Nations fighting forces. All worked together to achieve their mission.

Ken in the camp

Ken fought in the Korean War during the latter half of the war (1952-1953). The field artillery used eight-inch Howitzer shells, which meant they were using some big firepower. The men who fought constantly feared the incoming shells and artillery fire. His unit was trained to stay way back behind the front lines. Ken estimates they were about five miles from the front lines.

Being in the field artillery, Ken had some crazy experiences. “Walking up the mountain to our observation post duty, artillery fire hit in our area. I hid behind a large rock only to find South Korean soldiers carrying two dead U.S. soldiers down the mountain hiding behind the same rock. Everyone was in fear for their lives. While on night duty, I watched the Navy drop napalm on the side of the mountain.”

Napalm is highly flammable and used as a weapon in warfare. It’s a mixture of a thickening agent, a substance like gasoline or petroleum jelly, and a gelling agent such as aluminum salts or soap. The combination creates a sticky, gel-like substance that adheres to surfaces and burns at a high temperature. It’s used to create firebombs, which engulfs the victims. When ignited, it sticks to targets and releases a thick cloud of burning gel that can cause severe burns. It was also used by the U.S. military in Vietnam, mostly in aerial bombings. It causes physical and emotional scars for survivors.

Eventually, the Air Force took military personnel from Korea to Japan for a much needed three-to-five-day R&R (Rest and Relaxation) leave. Ken was given that experience once, and he found some interesting things when he went shopping. He bought several souvenirs and had them shipped home to Illinois. He still owns a jacket he bought there. It’s amazing to think the United States had been an enemy of Japan in WWII less than ten years before. The peace treaty with Japan was signed on September 2, 1945, and the U.S. Korean War soldiers used Japan as a safe place to rest just a few years later.

While in Korea, Ken was assigned to the Eighth Army in the Ninth Corp, which was situated in the center of Korea. They had a mess hall in the rear position, so Ken and his unit had hot meals. Their sleeping arrangements were in a tent. In April, 1953 the field artillery moved over to the west coast to support the Marines. Base camp and the observation post had to be reestablished. During his entire time in Korea, Ken either slept at the base camp on an Army cot in a tent, or in the bunker at the Observation Post (OP) where his bed had ropes tied across a wooden frame. Charcoal heaters were used for heat. Hot lunches were served once a day and the remaining meals were C rations (military rations consisting of prepared, canned wet foods). When at the OP, on top of the Mountain, he would rotate watch with two other field artillery soldiers, as someone was always on duty. It was exhausting. But, finally, it was over and Ken returned home in 1953.

Farm life is where Ken started and where he returned. Joan and Ken were blessed with three children, Brenda, Randy and Gina. Today, Joan has passed away and so has his son Randy. He celebrates the next generation: his six grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. His exciting adventures have included meeting Amelia Earhart and country music star Johnny Cash. He has taken mission trips to Panama and Brazil with his wife Joan, and traveled to many states and to foreign countries. Today, Ken urges young people to join the service and see the world.

Aaliyah & Ken

Instructions for Pancake Kenny Project

The advantage of being flat as a pancake is you can be mailed. The purpose of this project is to fill hero Ken Cole’s mailbox with fun mail to encourage him.
Follow these steps:

  • Download and print the Pancake Kenny image here.
  • Color and decorate any way you wish. Have someone take your picture or take a selfie with Pancake Kenny. Print a copy to send to Ken with a note.
  • You can get creative and take him on vacation or even something simple as taking him out to do chores on the farm.
  • Write Ken a letter thanking him for his service and mail to the address on the website. He’d appreciate a joke too if you have one.
  • Please write letters to all the heroes listed on the website. All of them are over 90 years old and they need to get mail just like Ken.


A BOOK by ME, a book series developed by Deb Bowen, empowers students to preserve history by telling the story of unsung heroes in our communities. For the young participants, it’s a guided cross-curricular project that gathers stories of people who do amazing things but have received little or no recognition. Students learn how to publish a picture book that is a primary source document with photographs and a biography.

Since 2003, Deb Bowen has been arranging meetings between students and individuals from the WWII generation. This intergenerational storytelling results in unique storybooks written and illustrated by kids for kids in the A BOOK by ME series. More about Deb Bowen >


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