Wineka column: A veteran’s memories

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

When Otie Cook returned to the States after World War II had ended in Europe, he was a shell of the young tank commander who landed on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy.
He couldn’t stop shaking. His stomach went through violent spasms, and his nerves were so out of whack they sometimes caused paralysis in his legs.
One day, just to stop his car, he had to jump a curb because his foot wouldn’t move to the brake pedal.
He eventually gained admittance to the VA hospital in Richmond, where for 18 days he ate strained baby food for his stomach ailment.
A psychiatrist told him the hospital could treat some of his post-war symptoms but a “cure” was probably going to be up to him. Cook accepted the frank diagnosis and went back to work.
“It was four to five years before most of the shaking ceased,” Cook recalls.
When Cook, now 89, visited me this week at the newspaper, he held out his hand to show that he still shook a bit, but nothing like those days when he couldn’t hold a coffee cup to his mouth without having a saucer underneath to capture all the spillover.
For decades after the war, Cook jotted down notes about his war experiences. This past year, he decided to collect those notes and thoughts and put them in a narrative form ó a small memoir that he hopes can be a legacy for his children and grandchildren.
He titled the finished product, which is only about 20 typewritten pages, “Sunrise Tomorrow.”
“So many times, I have said how wonderful it would be for all this madness to end tomorrow morning at sunrise,” Cook said, recalling those nights of sleeping under his tank, wondering what the next day rumbling through France and Germany might bring.
Cook sometimes has a different take on World War II than other veterans. He questions the leadership, training and equipment U.S. soldiers received before being tossed into fighting. He says officers who often received medals didn’t deserve them.
He also acknowledges the Germans had superior tanks ó better guns and armor ó and solid tactics. He took mental notes on how Germans hid their equipment, guarded crossroads and controlled the high ground ó strategies they tended to repeat. By paying attention, he survived.
But to read his pages and hear him reminisce, it’s not so much complaint from Cook as it is observation.
He remains a fierce patriot who just happens to despise war.
Cook grew up in Danville, Va., and a year or so before Pearl Harbor became a member of the 29th Tank Co. of the Virginia National Guard. He “stretched the truth” about his age and was the Guard’s youngest member, he says.
Before leaving the States for the European theater, Cook’s Army training would take him to Louisiana, South Carolina, Maryland, Texas and New York.
Cook said tank maneuvers in Louisiana and South Carolina were sometimes laughable. In the Louisiana swamps, tanks had to dodge wild pigs. Large bags of flour dropped from a plane were meant to simulate bombs.
“If that didn’t end your maneuver, perhaps a log with a sign on it saying, ‘This is an anti-tank gun’ would get you,” Cook says.
At Fort Meade, Md., the men were given dump trucks to train in as if they were light tanks.
After Pearl Harbor, Cook became part of the 191st Tank Battalion and, when he moved to Camp Bowie, Texas, the 745th Tank Battalion. From Camp Shanks in New York, Cook set sail for Scotland on the Queen Elizabeth.
“I never saw such a ship,” he says. “I can’t even begin to try to describe it. I will only say that when it was ready to sail, there were 15,000 of us on board.”
Cook’s battalion attached to the 1st Infantry for the pending invasion of Normandy. As a tank commander, Sgt. Cook was in charge of four other guys. He stood on a stool so that his head stuck out the top of the turret.
Failure to be in that vulnerable position was grounds for court martial.
On D-Day, his Company C of the 745th Tank Battalion landed on what was called the “Easy Red” section of the mined Omaha Beach. There was nothing easy about it.
This beach section was a bit different in that planes had not bombed the coast where the tank battalion was supposed to land, meaning the German defenses were particularly strong.
It took three waves of men and shelling from the offshore battleships to secure the beach and run over the Germans.
“What made things even worse for us,” Cook writes, “was the long, open space from the ocean to the tall cliffs, where the Germans were in concrete bunkers or gun emplacements looking down on us.
“It has been said that three out of every five would not reach the top of those cliffs. I only remember some men shouting on the radio, ‘Keep moving! If you stop here, you will die here. Keep pushing!'”
Cook’s 32-ton Sherman tank and others used their bulldozer blades to cover up the doors of German bunkers and bury Germans in their spider holes.
In the operations to come, the tank battalion enlarged the beachhead by making three attacks a day, going toward hedgerow country where Germans waited with hidden tanks and guns.
Cook recounts taking the village of St. Anne. His tank was one of five leading the infantry, and they first aimed their guns at attics and church steeples to get rid of German snipers.
“In this action,” he writes, “a group of Germans tried to throw a hand grenade into the turret of the tank. I tried to drop to the floor of the tank from the little stool I had to stand on to get my head above the turret.
“I was part of the way down when the grenade hit the 2-inch lip around the turret and exploded. I now have a hole in my eardrum because of this.”
One image of war will always stay with Cook.
“There were times when our kitchen would come up close enough for us to have a hot meal,” Cook says. “It was not unusual to see our people take more food than they wanted or could eat, and this would be divided with the German children standing nearby holding their little pots or cans.
“To me, that is quite a picture ó these big tough men that were living a life of kill or be killed dividing what food they had with these little children.”
When the war in Europe ended, Cook was in Czechoslovakia where the troops had “liberated” about 100 bottles of champagne, he recalls. It was a good day.
Cook returned to New York Harbor and his Navy escort passed the Statue of Liberty on his birthday, Sept. 18, 1945. At his debriefing, he rejected the Army’s enticements of steak, ice cream and a higher rank to re-enlist and eventually married a girl from Spencer.
He and Polly had two children, Charles and Carol.
Cook worked six years for Southern Railway, took schooling in Louisville, Ky., to become an electronics technician and retired after 24 years with Long Engineering in Winston-Salem.
Reunions of the 745th Tank Battalion have ended because so many of the members have died.
A well-worn history book Cook has of the battalion devotes two pages to the men who died in the war.
Cook put an asterisk beside 27 names of the guys he saw killed in action.
He now lives with his son’s family in the Miller Chase subdivision.
He has a box in the attic full of medals, one each from the five major campaigns in Europe. Cook says, however, that he doesn’t put much stock in medals because they don’t always reflect what wars leave behind.
“It’s not all on the outside,” he says.