Gene Cook, WW II vet, dies at 88

by W. Winston Skinner


World War II veteran Gene Cook, described as “a patriot” by a friend, channeled his experiences into written and spoken words that conveyed the horror and sacrifice of war. 

Gene Cook, who parachuted into Normandy during World War II and liberated a German concentration camp, has died.

Cook moved to Coweta County in retirement and he shared the story of his World War II experiences many times with local audiences — particularly with students. He also was a gifted poet who published a book of poems, “Remembrance.”

“He was just everything,” local veteran Dick Stender said. “Not only was he a veteran, he was a patriot. His writing, in particular, conveyed the horror of war with such poignancy.”

Eugene Anderson Cook Jr. died March 1, 2014, at his home at Wesley Woods of Newnan-Peachtree City. He had been ill for about three months.

Cook’s funeral was Tuesday at Cornerstone United Methodist Church. His family has asked that memorial contributions go to the American Cancer Society.

Cook was born in Ashtabula, Ohio, on Dec. 12, 1925. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at 17. His mother, Norma, had to sign a waiver for him to enlist because he was not yet 18.

Cook volunteered for Airborne training and was sent to Ft. Benning. He completed training of “parachute packing, ground training and jumping from an airplane in flight,” and received his wings on Nov. 27, 1943.

"The first two jumps were scary," he recalled. "After that it was exhilarating. Except for the night jumps. Those were scary because you couldn't see if you were coming down in trees, pastures or a river. But we got through it."

Cook boarded a troop ship for England in March 1944 where he joined “A” Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division — the “Screaming Eagles.” On June 6, 1944, he was part of the invasion of Normandy as members of the 101st parachuted into France.

At 10 p.m. on June 5, Cook’s unit boarded their planes and headed for battle. Cook jumped at 1:15 a.m. on June 6, but he was eight miles from his target. Hours later, he finally came across an officer and 20 other men. Just after sunrise, they entered the small village of Ravenoville, France, not realizing it was occupied by 200 Germans. After a two-hour firefight, 18 Germans were killed and 75 were captured. These 22 American soldiers had liberated the town.

Firefights were constant across the dense hedgerow country as Americans encountered German troops retreating from the beaches. One particularly brutal battle ended in a hand-to-hand bayonet fight.

"After that one you couldn't even walk across that field without stepping on a dead body," Cook remembered.

Cook broke his ankle during those days. Finally sent to the rear to have the injury treated, he stayed in the hospital only two days before doctors released him and told him to "limp around."

Cook later remembered those who were part of the D-Day invasion who gave their lives. “They suffered and gave all that was demanded to bring peace to the world at that time,” he reflected.

In June 2012, Cook went back to the town of Ravenoville for the dedication of a memorial park to the Allied soldiers who had freed the town from German occupation 68 years earlier. Cook spoke and laid a wreath at the memorial.

“I’ve always loved going back there,” Cook said. “It reminds me of what great sacrifices so many made to keep this country great and free.”

Cook and his unit jumped into Holland for Operation Market Garden. A highlight of that time was the capture of a jam factory.

"That's all we ate," Cook said. "We didn't have any bread, but we didn't care. It sure beat the oxtail soup."

Cook also fought in the Battle of the Bulge. His unit was sent to Bastogne to hold back the German advance. They were surrounded for eight days and then fought north toward Germany. He recalled one battle — in the deep woods near Bastogne — where his unit suffered 30 percent casualties. "It was so cold you couldn't even climb out of a ditch without sliding back down because the ground was frozen solid," Cook said.

Cook later fought in Alsace-Lorraine and ended the war by liberating a concentration camp and participating in the taking of Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s personal retreat in the Alps.

Remembering the concentration camp assignment, Cook told of seeing a procession of men carrying what seemed to be a door with a purple cloth covering something. Cook learned the object beneath the cloth was soap made from the bodies of dead prisoners.

"That was a bad day," Cook said. "I never want to see anything like that again."

Gene Cook received two Purple Hearts for wounds received in battle.

When his military service was over, Cook earned a mechanical engineering degree from Case Institute of Technology. He had a 51-year career in the steel industry, retiring as director of technology at Selas Corporation in Dresher, Penn., in 2001.

Cook designed and oversaw the production of large steel production furnaces in the United States and foreign countries. After moving to Coweta County, Cook often spoke to students about his wartime experience. “He cared deeply about the fact that our young people need to know the sacrifice that had taken place in World War II,” Stender said.

Cook and three other World War II veterans — Ed Bean, Aubrey Burnette and Roy Pitts — were grand marshals for the July 4 parade in Newnan in 2012. He spoke at a 71st anniversary commemoration of the Pearl Harbor attack at the Newnan Veterans Administration Clinic in December of that year.

He published "Remembrance," a collection of poems and essays written over a 15-year period. Many focused on his wartime memories and lessons from his military service and business career.

"I'm always thinking about these things and it seemed like a good way to get a lot of that stuff off my mind," Cook said prior to a book-signing event at the former Scott’s Bookstore in downtown Newnan. The volume also included “some philosophical stuff I think many people might enjoy," he said.

Stender said Cook’s writings were powerful. “You would read them and cry. He could say things and reach some emotional wellspring,” he said.

An essay Cook wrote about a Christmas Eve experience during World War II was published in The Times-Herald during the holiday season in 2011.

Cook was active in Kiwanis for many years.

Survivors include his wife, Marion Forsythe Cook; his son, Newnan physician Mark Steven Cook; and a daughter, Carol Anderson of Lowell, Mass. — as well as six grandchildren.

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