From Omaha Beach to Longwood ...
Dennis Sercombe Editor
December 7, 1941 started out just like any other Sunday in America. John Cook and his family attended the Crewe Methodist Church and then returned home to enjoy a Sunday dinner together. It was only after dinner, when the family gathered around the radio, that they heard the news about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
John’s father looked at him and said, “John, you will be going off to war. If you believe in this country and you think it’s worth fighting for, you might as well join up.” So he did.
On March 16, 1942, John joined the U.S. Army and did his basic training at Camp Lee in Petersburg. He is thankful for learning shorthand and typing at St. Joseph’s Academy, a business school in St. Augustine, Fla, from which he graduated. He “volunteered” to be the stenographer to a captain, then a colonel, and then a general, picking up promotions along the way. He was then one of 30 selected from over 90,000 troops to join a special team that traveled around Virginia interviewing a wide variety of inductees: farmers, bricklayers, bankers, teachers, and others. On a normal day, they would interview, examine, and classify between 500 to 600 inductees. As the director of interviewing, John recalls, “It was very interesting to see this cross-section of Americans volunteering for the war effort – people from all walks of life.”
After that special assignment, John was allowed to choose his specialty and he selected the medical corps and was assigned
to the First U.S. Army General Hospital. “I didn’t want to be an infantryman, and I didn’t want to be in tanks, so I went for the medical corps.”
In December 1943, John and his unit shipped out from Boston arriving safely in England where they were posted to North Mimms, northwest of London where they built and managed a 3,000-bed hospital. “The city of London was still being bombed daily by the Luftwaffe,” John said, “and we could see the searchlights, anti-aircraft fire, and explosions from our base.”
John was assigned as secretary to the adjutant and eventually worked for Commanding Officer Colonel Albright, a real regular army spit-and-polish officer. One of his job duties was to write thank-you notes for the colonel for special events and dinners he attended. “He liked my letters so much, I became a ghost writer for him – sending weekly notes to his wife, Eunice, back home,” John said. “I’ve never met Eunice, but I like to think I kept that marriage together.”
The build-up for the Normandy invasion was gaining momentum for D-Day on 6 June 1944. John recalled, “We were supposed to go over with the first wave, but due to some logistical problems, we actually arrived at Omaha Beach 12 hours into D-Day. We bivouacked in Ste Mère Eglise, the first French village to be liberated on D-Day. It was so wet and muddy, we had to cut sticks from the hedgerows to make a mat for our sleeping bags.”
Once the allies broke out from Normandy it was on to liberate Paris, which had been occupied by the Germans for over four years. “It was quite a time – the French girls threw flowers and poured champagne all over us.”
By now, John had been promoted to staff sergeant and the First General Hospital set up a new 3,000 bed facility in Villejuif, just outside Paris. During this time, he managed a French staff of 1,500 who helped to run the hospital by providing food service, groundskeeping, storekeeping, and other duties. Thanks to his interpreter, Eilene deRevoire, there was no language barrier.
According to records, the hospital treated over 36,000 troops and had only 23 deaths, a remarkable record considering the casualty rate. For his exemplary service in serving the French people, John was awarded the Croix de Guerre (French Cross of War) by the French government.
As the winter of 1944 approached, the Germans continued retreating eastward and many troops thought they might be home for Christmas. But in December the Germans mounted a massive counteroffensive in the Ardennes area that would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. “They caught everyone by surprise,” John said. “The war was winding down and we didn’t think they had it in them. We took in 7,000 casualties in 24 hours.” But this last major German offensive was a last gasp for the Third Reich as the war in Europe ended in May 1945.
After the war, John came home to Crewe where he worked for the Norfolk &Western Railroad (N&W) as an administrative assistant. Later, he visited his grandmother in St. Augustine, Fla. who had promised him a new car if he would be careful and return from the war. She kept good on her promise and John was the happy owner of a new 1946 Plymouth.
It was around that time that he met “Betty” who would be a close and lifelong friend for over 60 years. Betty attended Catholic University and she convinced John to take advantage of the GI Bill and come to Washington, D.C. for college. John enrolled in Georgetown University where he planned to earn his degree and join the Foreign Service as a diplomat, but that was not to be. John did not feel like he could break into the cliquish Diplomatic Corps, so after two years, he returned to his job with N&W in Crewe.
As luck would have it, he attended a concert at Jarman Hall where he met Dean William Woodrow Savage, the first dean of the college, who convinced him that he should continue his education and earn his degree at Longwood. John remembers fondly, “I went to Longwood and loved every minute of it.” What was not to like? At this time, Longwood was a girls’ school. “There were 40 of us men, mostly veterans, and 600 women. We were very pleased with our reception. I actually dated three women in one day: breakfast, afternoon, and an evening date.”
John remembers that the administration was very helpful to these pioneers. “The faculty had that ‘Longwood Spirit’ that encouraged us to succeed – we all worked very hard to get good grades.” He recalls, “We were very motivated – 95 percent of us went on to have very successful careers in education, business, and other professions.” In 1952, John received a B.S. in English and later earned a M.Ed. from Longwood, which paved the way for an exemplary career in guidance and counseling. In 1979, he was named the Outstanding Counselor in America by the American Counseling Association.
We would expect nothing less from a member of the Greatest Generation.