in the Pacific during the Second World War.
By JOAN McCOY
Leader staff writer
Virgle Cook was understandably angry when he heard the World War II monument had been barricaded just days before he was supposed to be flown to the nation’s capital to see it for the first — and likely — only time last Saturday.
Friends reported that his intent was to “tear down a fence.”
As it turned out, the barricade that went up when the government shut down was moved aside to allow another group of World War II veterans through three days before Cook arrived in Washington, courtesy of Honor Flight, which transports veterans to see the monuments erected in their honor.
All Cook had to say this week about the closing was that it made no sense to him.
“It’s to honor the W.W. II veterans and they go and fence us out so we can’t see it,” he said.
But he had a lot to share about life, war and the human condition – things he’s learned about in his 94 years. Cook was 22 and working construction on the ordnance plant in Jacksonville when he heard on a co-worker’s radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.
“It was a cold morning here,” he recalled. “We had built a fire and were standing around it when we heard.”
Cook had been dating Marlene Chamblee, “a pretty little red-headed girl” and his thoughts turned immediately to her when he heard the news because he knew he would soon be called to serve.
“I didn’t want to leave any loose ends. We were going to make it permanent or call it off,” he said.
He said they were married on Friday, March 13, 1942, and by October he was a soldier.
“I had plenty of reason to fight for my county,” Cook said.
Not only did he have his new wife — he said, “On Jan. 3, 1943, she had a pretty little baby girl.”
There was a popular song at the time with lyrics about being back home in a year. No one believed that, Cook said. But Marlene sent him pictures of herself with his daughter and that helped his morale tremendously, he said.
And when the war was over and he came back home, Marlene was there waiting for him. “I knew three different guys who came back home and their wives were someplace else,” Cook said, directing his statement to the 30-something male photographer who was sitting in his living room trying to get a good shot of him.
The problem, he said, was the age and hormones of the soldiers and their wives. They were separated at a time when they needed to be together.
“You know how that is,” he said.
Cook was assigned to the 96th Infantry and fought in the Philippines and Okinawa, but, as he put it, he was “lucky enough to be in the field artillery part” because his odds of surviving were better.
The infantry went in first and cleared a path for artillery, but then the artillery also took care of the infantry.
On Okinawa, an infantry regiment got cut off and Cook said his artillery unit stayed up all night protecting them. When he thinks about that, he is reminded of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” song.
“We stayed up all night keeping a ring of fire around them,” he said.
The weapon he used the most was a 50-caliber machine gun capable of taking out tanks and aircraft.
It was also on Okinawa that he watched suicide pilots in action.
He and a friend from Detroit were standing on the upper deck of a landing craft. Their weapons were below.
“Here came those Kamikaze suicide bombers,” Cook said. “Thank God for the Navy. They got one of the planes and one of them veered off and got a bigger ship.”
Cook seems to recall the war in great detail and is willing to talk about most of it: The grids that were used to keep track of the troops, the little Feist dog his friend from Detroit sneaked onto the landing craft, his friend from Mississippi who survived the battles in the Philippines but somehow knew he would die at Okinawa.
Cook’s son, Dwight, served in Vietnam but won’t talk about that war at all, he said.
“That Vietnam was vicious,” Cook said. “They didn’t know who their enemy was. And those guys over there in the East, they’ll be walking down the street and not know if the guy coming toward them is the enemy.”
Back at home after the war ended, Cook said life wasn’t quite the way it was when he left. He and his wife had both matured, which was natural, he said. He sometimes had nightmares. And he could be violent if someone slipped in quietly while he was sleeping.
Veteran’s benefits paid for four years of agricultural school, but farming didn’t pay off for him, Cook said.
So he worked at several other jobs, including building trailers in North Little Rock, ginning cotton in Arizona, building Chevrolets in St. Louis and finally working for almost 30 years as a nursing assistant taking care of mostly World War II veterans at Fort Roots mental hospital in North Little Rock.
He didn’t like the job at Fort Roots at first, but he said he became accustomed to it and stayed because at least he was back in Arkansas and living in the little house he built immediately following the war.
Cook’s reminisces about the war and his various jobs are interwoven with reflections about his life with Marlene.
“I was extremely lucky when I met my wife,” he said.
Marlene was his sister’s friend. But she visited his family’s home more frequently than seemed appropriate for a friendship, he said. Eventually, Cook realized she might be there to see him.
Then one night, his sister went to her bedroom, “probably a made-up deal,” his parents were in the kitchen and Marlene was alone in the living room. He wondered, Cook said, what she would do if he tried to kiss her.
“I came up behind her and she whirled around and grabbed me and hung on for 60 years,” he said.
Marlene became ill with Alzheimer’s disease and died in 2002. Cook was her caregiver during her illness.
In addition to Sue Ellerbe, the daughter born during the war, and Dwight, the son who served in Vietnam, Cook and Marlene had one more son, Larry, and two more daughters, Sharon Carmical and Gail Cook.
Larry is a former Lonoke County prosecutor and Gail, a retired school teacher, has moved into his home in Ward to look after him. “I’ve had a good life,” Cook said. “I don’t gripe about the hard parts. I have never done anything outstanding, and I don’t worry too much about the things I could have done differently.”