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Silent memorial: Stories put to names of fallen Vietnam vets

Written by Jim Hook, Public Opinion Online | Apr 22, 2015 3:00 PM
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Photo by Submitted to Public Opinion Online

Dolores Cook keeps a memorial in her Mont Alto home to her son, Thomas Cook Jr., who was killed in 1968 in Vietnam.

(Mont Alto) -- Her grief rolls from one memory to the next when Dolores Cook talks about her son, Cookie, who was killed 45 years ago in the Vietnam War.

A refrain punctuates her remembrance: "You have to live this experience to know. He is with me every day."

Cook keeps a silent memorial to her son in a corner of her Mont Alto home.

Famous at high school dances for playing the drums with The Routines, Private First Class Thomas R. Cook Jr. gave his life on July 26, 1968, in the Hua Nghia Province of South Vietnam. It was 12 days after Cookie's 20th birthday.

Thomas Cook Jr. is among 32 local men whose names appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He also is among 14 locals whom memorial organizers had little biographical information.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is building an Education Center and wants a wall of Faces Never Forgotten to connect a face and biography to each name on The Wall.

Robert Harris, retired director of the Franklin County Veterans Affairs Department, said George DeCastro, coordinator of the program, recently contacted him to get the stories of the eight service members from Franklin County.

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Photo by Jim Hook, Public Opinion

Robert Harris, retired director of the Franklin County Veterans Affairs Department, is looking for the stories of service members killed in action during the Vietnam War.

He immediately knew about one of the names on the list. Thomas Cook Jr.'s family had been Harris's close neighbor for years. Harris also quickly found information about a friend, Robert R. White of Chambersburg.

The others are: Roger A. Barnhart of Chambersburg; Joseph R. Beck Jr. of Greencastle; Robert W. Bowman of Greencastle; Charles E. Brennan of Waynesboro; Harry L. Eccard of Waynesboro; Kenneth E. Hornbaker of Mercersburg; Randy T. Kendle of Greencastle; Stephen B. Pugh of Waynesboro; Fred B. Rosenberry of Chambersburg; Pierre L. Sullivan of Chambersburg; Omar D. Witmer Jr. of Greencastle; and Neil S. Kendall of McConnellsburg, in Fulton County.

Harris has a personal connection to the Vietnam era. One of his high school friends was killed on the day that Harris graduated high school in Reading. Eight months later, Harris was drafted.

"To me each name has a face," he said. "They grew up in a community. Whether they grew up in a city or rural America, they deserve to be remembered."

Dolores Cook has been to The Wall twice.

"Heartbreaking," she said. "We never ever did expect to see our child's name erected on a memorial. I'm certainly proud of what he was asked to do. It's just heartbreaking."

Especially so, because Tom Sr. took his children to Washington every summer to see the memorials and museums.

When she asked her son, Robert, to place a set of Cookie's drumsticks at The Wall, he declined. They were Cookie's last set. The other set had been buried with the soldier's remains along with a small wooden cross that his girlfriend had given him.

"He loved music," Cook said. "He was such a good drummer."

His greeting on leave wasn't "hi, mom." Or "hi, dad." It was: "Are my drums ready?"

She remembers letters from her son:

  • He wrote to her about a rare day off when he saw a drum set in a service club. "Everybody stopped and listened to me. That has been the happiest day of my life here."
  • On his birthday he wrote from the field hospital. His mother said, "Reading between the lines, the killing was getting to him. He needed a break."
  • In his last letter, he told his mother that he finally got his "other stripe." The letter arrived the same day she learned of his death.

A Greencastle High School graduate, Thomas Jr. worked at Grove Worldwide as a mail carrier. He tried evening classes in mechanical drawing, but by midsummer 1967 he gave it up. He told his mom, "I just got a feeling my time is getting short. I'm going to have some fun."

Cookie was drafted in September.

"Our son did not want to go to that war," Cook said. "I think any time to be in a war is a bad time. I just don't understand why there can't be peace in the world. Why is everybody so nasty? Are there any winners in a war? I don't think so."

She tells her great-granddaughter that the most horrible word in the dictionary is "war."

Those who returned from war have consoled her.

A veteran still battling his time in southeast Asia snapped to attention, saluted and bowed his head at her private memorial. He carved her a pair of praying hands inscribed with "All gave some. Some gave all."

In August 2002, Dolores Cook reluctantly agreed to go with Harris to the annual parachute jump commemorating those who served and died in her son's unit, the 506th Infantry regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. The jump was held at Chambersburg Airport.

She met Larry Clark, who had become her son's close friend in Vietnam, Harris said. Clark also fought in the 18-hour firefight, Cook said.

"From the bottom of my heart, your son did not suffer one second," Clark told her.

Clark also said that Cookie was one of the first six men off the chopper, according to Harris. Her son died protecting several of their friends who were severely wounded in the first minutes of the battle.

Clark later wrote her that her son did not suffer.

"I would give his medals back," Cook said. "I will never part with that letter. Never ever."

It also means something that Cookie and others killed in action will have their pictures and stories among the Faces Never Forgotten at the Education Center.

"It fills my heart with pride they're doing that," she said.

Jim Hook can be reached at 717-262-4759.


This article comes to us through a partnership between Public Opinion Online and WITF. 

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