Would you disregard your own safety and health in exchange for the relief and comfort of your comrades, as Captain Cook did?
Donald Gilbert Cook was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 9, 1934. He went to Xavier High School in Manhattan and was a football lineman known as the “Bay Ridge Bomber.” He attended St. Michael’s College in Vermont, where he would meet his future wife, and then enlisted in the US Marine Corps in 1956 as a private. But this was short-lived as Cook was quickly sent for officer training at the Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. The Brooklyn native was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1957, subsequently attending the Army Language School in California to study several languages, which would become handy as he worked in intelligence and interrogation. By 1962, Cook had achieved the rank of Captain and served a series of Marine Corps assignments before volunteering for deployment in South Vietnam in late 1964. There, he would serve as an advisor to the Vietnamese Marine Division until he was unfortunately captured several weeks later.
The Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Vietnam launched a coordinated attack on Binh Gia, Phouc Tuy Province, from December 28, 1964, to January 1, 1965. Cook was in Vietnam for exactly eighteen days when he was in the vicinity of Binh Gia to check for survivors of a helicopter crash when the Viet Cong suddenly surrounded his unit.
The Marine officer was shot in the leg and passed out from blood loss, and when Cook regained consciousness, he found himself among the prisoners of war. He and several other POWs moved from one primitive camp to another for the next three years in harsh captivity. Despite his deteriorating health, Cook would take on the responsibility to care for the men around him, often leading to more brutal treatment and punishments.
He established himself as a senior prisoner, and when interrogated, he never indulged information besides his name, service number, and date of birth. His captors didn’t even know Cook was a Marine. They just assumed he was an Army officer.
According to POW survivors, despite struggling, Cook would share his food and his small ration of medicines with his fellow prisoners. He was tempted by his captors multiple times, but he remained loyal and steadfast, refusing to cooperate every time even though his life was on the line. Cook held the US Military Code of Conduct close to his heart, stuck to his gun no matter what. Because of this, he was highly respected by the POW around him, and even his captors found themselves astounded by his level of fighting spirit.
Cook went above and beyond what was expected of him even though no eyes were looking at him nor orders, and that alone gave strength to his fellow POW, inspiring them to endure and eventually survive. But unfortunately, Cook died of malaria in early December 1967 at age 33, buried by his fellow prisoners in the jungle.
Three years later, on May 16, 1980, Cook was promoted to Colonel posthumously and was awarded the highest and most prestigious recognition: the Medal of Honor. Below is Colonel Cook’s official citation:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while interned as a Prisoner of War by the Viet Cong in the Republic of Vietnam during the period from December 31 1964 to December 8 1967. Despite the fact that by so doing he would bring about harsher treatment for himself, Col. (then Capt.) Cook established himself as the senior prisoner, even though in actuality he was not. Repeatedly assuming more than his share of the manual labor in order that the other Prisoners of War could improve the state of their health, Col. Cook willingly and unselfishly put the interests of his comrades before that of his own well-being and, eventually, his life. Giving more needy men his medicine and drug allowance while constantly nursing them, he risked infection from contagious diseases while in a rapidly deteriorating state of health. This unselfish and exemplary conduct, coupled with his refusal to stray even the slightest from the Code of Conduct, earned him the deepest respect from not only his fellow prisoners, but his captors as well. Rather than negotiate for his own release or better treatment, he steadfastly frustrated attempts by the Viet Cong to break his indomitable spirit, and passed this same resolve on to the men with whose well-being he so closely associated himself. Knowing his refusals would prevent his release prior to the end of the war, and also knowing his chances for prolonged survival would be small in the event of continued refusal, he chose nevertheless to adhere to a Code of Conduct far above that which could be expected. His personal valor and exceptional spirit of loyalty in the face of almost certain death reflected the highest credit upon Col. Cook, the Marine Corps, and the United States Naval Service.”
Since his body was never recovered, a memorial stone was erected in remembrance of Cook, located in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.
USS Donald Cook alongside in Portland having arrived earlier today. A long time since there were two American vessels in Portland Harbour pic.twitter.com/8Ycxru8Zwd
— Peter Froud (@FroudPeter) March 2, 2022
Years after his death, several things were honored to his name, including the US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75); and the Cook Hall at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California; to name a few.