If you have never been to the Vietnam Memorial in our nation’s capitol, I highly recommend you go. If at all possible, go in the spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming. The contrast of black granite against soft white and pink is worth seeing.
The Wall, as it is commonly referred, is overwhelming. The names of 58,000 men and women who served and died in an unpopular and confusing war are etched into the polished surface. If you stand in the center, the names of the dead loom over your head and descend to your feet. From there, the names seem to stretch to the Lincoln Memorial on your left and toward the Washington Monument on your right.
There have been more deaths in other American Wars. World War I claimed twice as many and World War II resulted in over 400,000 dead. However, no other memorial depicts the losses in such a way. For me the Vietnam Memorial feels like a black scar on our national consciousness.
I set out this week to be as inclusive as possible with the stories of America’s heroes. I wanted to represent all branches from as many conflicts as possible with an emphasis on Maine whenever possible. When I started thinking about Southeast Asia I felt like I was back in the center of The Wall again. 58,000 names. Where do I start?
I have taken rubbings of about 40 names from The Wall. I know all of their stories and probably another 60. That’s 100 names, only 1/580th of the total.
As I weighed the familiar stories in my head, one name kept coming up over and over. Captain Donald Cook was a Marine from New York. He went to Vietnam as an advisor in the early days of 1964. The South Vietnamese troops he was training were overrun by the Viet Cong and he was captured.
Captain Cook never made it to the Hanoi Hilton up north. Instead he was kept in small camps in the mountainous jungles of the south. He was tortured and contracted malaria, dysentery, and beriberi. Through all that his spirit never faltered.
He put the safety and comfort of his fellow prisoners above his own, giving them his ration of food and medicine to help keep them alive. He even declared himself the senior ranking officer when he was not, thus distracting his captors from focusing on another man who was ill.
Captain Cook was committed to the Code of Conduct, which is meant to guide American service members who become prisoners of war. The Code states that when questioned an American is only required to give the enemy “name, rank, and service number” and must avoid providing further information to the best of their ability.
Cook adhered so closely to the Code of Conduct that his refusal to cooperate with the enemy’s pursuit of propaganda earned him the begrudging respect of his captors. When debriefed one of Cook’s fellow prisoners believed the Viet Cong didn’t even know the Captain was a United States Marine.
Let that sink in for a minute… Cook was so uncooperative that he wouldn’t even tell his enemy he was a Marine because that wasn’t one of the three things he was expressly permitted to reveal.
Captain Donald Cook died in captivity from complications of malaria while on a forced march between camps. He was officially listed as missing, was promoted to Colonel, and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
A more poetic man can draw parallels between Cook’s experience and the nation’s struggle with the war. They are there if you look.
But I can’t get past his devotion. Other men in his situation cooperated with the enemy and got to come home early. One of those men was from Maine and I will never speak his name. Cook didn’t get to come home at all. His body has never been recovered.
At The Wall, Donald Gilbert Cook’s name can be found on Panel 1E, Row 80. If you get to Washington DC please look at his name and remember his story. And then remember that there are 58,000 more stories about men and women who also sacrificed all they had.
If you can’t make it to Washington, the Knox Museum in Thomaston will be hosting The Moving Wall this Memorial Day Weekend. Even though it is only half the size of the original, I promise it will still speak to you.