Born June 3, 1922, in Alleghany County, Virg., Arnold Cook’s life has been an incredible journey.
“I couldn’t ask for or dream anything better,” he said. “Life is fun! I love to have fun and my life has been fun!”
Cook is one of the few remaining WWII veterans who is still enjoying life to its fullest. At 91, he just renewed his driver’s license and is busy planning a 6,000-mile motoring vacation for himself and his co-pilot and wife of 63 years, Billie.
At 18, he knew he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in Virginia and with his parents’ blessing and his mom’s admonition not to leave the country, Cook enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He showed an aptitude for training people and was assigned the task of teaching the ‘awkward squad,’ a group of enlistees who needed the entire scope of training, from marching to military protocol. Cook moved from that position to running a regimental field communication team and then on to becoming a photographer for the National Defense Research Committee. Cook was then assigned to a mine-planting vessel, the Schofield, which placed defensive mines in American ports.
In March 1942, Cook went to sign up to become a paratrooper, but that was not to be. He elected to go to flight school instead.
“I decided I would rather fly the plane than jump out of it.”
1943 was spent on various bases in southeast U.S. in pilot training and on Nov. 3, Cook graduated from pilot training, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and married Kathryn Shaw. For the following five months, Cook received additional training to become a C-47 pilot and in March 1944, received orders to be stationed at Cottesmore Air Force Base 100 miles north of London. This was three months prior to D-Day and the training and practice drills, especially at night, led Cook to believe that something big was about to happen, and, yes, something big was about to happen: the pivotal battle of WWII in the European Theater. And Cook had a front row seat. When they were finally briefed about D-Day, they were told that a 50 percent loss of aircraft was anticipated.
“I had a calm feeling,” Cook said. “I knew I was going to come back. I had a lot of living to do.”
The mission, which had been planned for June 5, had been scrapped until June 6 because of bad weather and was now shifting into high gear. Loaded with 28 paratroopers and all their equipment, Cook was one of 1,275 C-47s headed for the beaches at Normandy. Cook was the lead plane in group B, a group being a formation of four squadrons of 18 planes for a total of 72 aircraft. To add to the complexity of this maneuver, three wings (five groups of 72 planes each) were in the air. Around 10 p.m. on the eve of D-Day this massive formation of Allied air power was headed for the beaches of France. For Cook, specifically, this meant Utah Beach.
The formations had to be perfect as they flew to their destination. One miscalculation by one single pilot could have catastrophic repercussions. It was precision flying in the dark of night, which had never been seen before. But Cook’s wings from Cottesmore were not the only aircraft in the sky that night; from southern England came the 101st airborne and British fliers departed from bases all over Great Britain. The navigational plan that had been created called on all the flight crew’s skills, especially those of the navigator who had to comply with a time line, leaving no room for error. Each plane was to cross over specific checkpoints at a precise time. Some of these calculations were based on the waves and water movements of the English Channel.
“To ensure the proper guidance of the C-47, we had to be rigid on maintaining altitude and air speed.”
With approximately 10,000 paratroopers stowed in the bellies of these planes, it was important to ensure that they were released from the aircraft over the proper drop zone, and there were five of those. The weather was fine as Cook departed from the UK about two hours before darkness, but became cloudy as they reached Cherbourg. The navigational plan that had been developed for the portion of the mission they were flying over France was also extremely complicated. Two hours before the aircraft formation left England, a small group of planes called pathfinders were set out, two to each zone, to set up communication systems that would enable each pilot to locate his drop zone. In Cook’s case, the pathfinder had set the target incorrectly which meant that their group’s paratroopers missed the zone.
“Can you imagine hitting the ground at night looking for all the landmarks you had been told would be there and they just aren’t and people are shooting at you?”
As it turned out, missing the target worked to their advantage as it further confused the Germans.
At about 2:30 in the morning, Cook dropped his paratroopers, whose objective it was to capture four causeways (roads built across water) crossing the Cherbourg peninsula.
“The anti-aircraft fire was like hundreds of fireworks flashing around you,” he said. “If you can visualize all these explosions going on everywhere and you are hoping not to get hit.”
Cook crossed the beach in about 10 minutes and then headed for home.
Crossing the English Channel on his return trip was amazing, he said. He could still see squadrons of aircraft headed for Normandy.
“As far as you could see there was still a long stream of planes loaded with men and equipment sent out to do what we had just accomplished. This was a huge mission! But in the channel beneath you, you could not believe what you were seeing either. Coming up from the water, were hundreds of ships. As you looked down, it was like you could jump from one to the other. In every direction you looked there were ships, everything except aircraft carriers, as far as you could see. What were you seeing? Where did they come from? How did they hide all that?”
Interestingly enough, an intelligence coup had also led to the secrecy and success of this mission. It was rumored that General Patton was creating a 10th army division outside Dover, England, set to attack Calais. From the air, tanks, planes, vehicles and weapons were visible indicating a strong military presence there. This staging ground was purely a hoax. The equipment was simply rubber balloons painted to appear as an authentic army division.
The day after D-Day Cook was back in the air transporting supplies. The C-47s were loaded with more than 6,000 pounds of equipment and flying with the same intensity as had been experienced on D-Day. In addition to delivering supplies, the aircraft also flew injured servicemen back to Great Britain.
In September 1944, General Montgomery led the market garden project into Germany to shorten the war. Once again, Cook was called on to participate in this mission which, according to Cook, could have succeeded in doing that if the British had not changed their target at the last minute and created a fiasco that doomed the entire plan. Cook was awarded an air medal for his participation in that project. For the remainder of the war, he resupplied troops and continued to fly troops out of field hospitals.
On May 8, VE Day, Cook left England and left the military service. In April 1949, Cook’s wife died of peritonitis, leaving him a widower with a small daughter. A year later, Cook married Billie Braswell, an RN to whom he has been married for 63 years. They had a daughter in 1960, a sister to Cook’s first daughter whom Billie legally adopted.
Cook’s military career was not over, however. He became an administrative master sergeant in Korea where he received a battlefield commission and a bronze star for an aircraft safety system he designed that cut down on sortie damage to the airplanes.
After retiring from the air force in 1960, Cook held a variety of flying positions including a special air missions pilot carrying Washington, D.C., executives to various destinations; an oil supply club pilot out of Houston and, in 1963, an instructor for the NASA APOLLO program.
Cook ended his career with the FAA. In 1977, Cook’s hearing disability grounded him, but by no means grounded his energy and exuberance. He and Billie created an air consulting business and three small airlines.
Still bitten with the traveling bug, he and Billie bought a motor home and traveled throughout North America. After selling that vehicle in 2005, they moved to Killeen to enjoy their five grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They continue to make at least two major motor trips each year.
This year they are traveling to visit the five presidential libraries on a six-week trip.
“It has always been our dream to visit every presidential library,” Cook said. “But as much as I love to have fun, the thing I am the most proud of is the 63 years we have spent together.”
And thank goodness Cook never adhered to his mother’s advice not to leave this country.