Wise men have frequently said that “time heals all wounds. It could be that none of those wise men ever lost a husband when they were twenty four years old and with a four year old child at home. It has been nearly four dozen years since the life of Sgt. James E. Cook was instantly snuffed out in a Vietnamese jungle. For his widow, Pam Clay Cook, the void is still there.
James Edward Cook was born on September 4. 1936 in the low country hamlet of Hardeville, South Carolina. His parents, Horace and Jeanelle, divorced before the beginning of World War II.
The life of Private James Cook began to change in the summer of 1955 in a way that he could never imagine. Far away from his duty station, two teenage girls were spending the summer together as they had done for years.
“She was going to write her cousin a letter and she encouraged me to write him letter. I didn’t think he was going to answer me because he was five years older than me. With me being a teenager and he thought he was grown, I thought he would not write back.” Pam recalled.
Pam Clay got out her pen and a piece of paper and wrote a letter to Pvt. James Cook. That one message changed her life forever. Cook responded to the letter of the 9th grade girl.
Letters were exchanged from time to time. Eventually the letters were exchanged more frequently.
It was a cold, cold February day in Germany in 1959 when James Cook became embroiled in hot political controversy of the Cold War. Cook and a squad of men had been assigned to a transport convoy through the Russian Sector of East Berlin. Stopped and detained for several hours , Cook and his fellow men unwittingly became somewhat of a international incident.
The confrontation was chronicled in a television movie, Thunder Over Berlin. The movie starred CBS News correspondent Douglas Edwards, comedian Jerry Stiller, and actor John Karlan, who portrayed Private James Cook. You may not know the name of John Karlan, but if you watched television in the late afternoons from 1967 to 1968, you would know his character, the insane Willie Loomis, the henchman of the vampire Barnabus Collins in the soap opera, Dark Shadows.
James Cook does bear a strong resemblance to another actor, Frank Sutton, who portrayed Sgt. Vince Carter in Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.. “I tell my son Jimmy, that if he wants to know what his father looked and sounded like, that was him,” Pam chuckled.
“We corresponded for about four years until I met him on September 10, 1960 and we married on September 22. my 19th birthday.” Mrs. Cook fondly remembered. At the end of his 30-day leave from Germany, Cook was off to the army again, this time landing at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, some two hours from his birthplace.
The Cooks lived at Fort Jackson, where James served in the Military Police until July 1962, when once again he was shipped off to an infantry unit in Korea for a long thirteen months. For the first time, James, Pam and little Jimmy were separated. Pam was all alone with a 2-month old baby.
“I wanted to come home with my baby, so I did. I put Jimmy on a pillow on the front seat of our ’62 Ford Fairlane. It didn’t have seat belts and there was no such thing as a baby carrier,” Pam recalled.
“I put my single silver dime in my purse and got in the car and I drove us back home to Laurens County,” Mrs. Cook chuckled.
“When I pulled into my parents’s driveway, Mama and Daddy had a fit. Here I drove all the way from Fort Jackson to Laurens County with a sleeping baby on a pillow on the front seat, a dime in my purse and no driver’s license,” Pam said as she laughed.
Then came another tour of infantry duty for James at Fort Carson, Colorado.
James Cook came to one of those proverbial “forks in the road” when his commanding officers offered him the choice of going to Officer Candidate School or going to Jump School at Fort Benning, back in Georgia on Thanksgiving Day, 1964.
“I love working with the troops,” Pam said her husband told his captain. So it was off to Benning, where Cook would become a member of the famed 82nd Airborne Division, where he trained from April 1965 to until Christmas 1965.
During a short leave, James, Pam and three-year-old Jimmy moved to Dublin where they celebrated what would become their last Christmas together.
On New Year’s Day, Sgt. James Cook, then a member of the 101st Airborne Division, shipped off to Oakland, California and then across the Pacific Ocean to Vietnam.
On April 23, 1966, the 101st dropped into a landing zone near Tuy Hoa, Vietnam.
“They were there to overtake the town, but when they dropped in, they were overrun by the Viet Cong,” the Army told Mrs. Cook. In his position as a platoon sergeant, Cook ordered his men to take cover. When he saw that his men were covered, he turned to take cover.
“That’s when he turned and a soldier hit him in his back and blew him away, he never knew what hit him,” Pam recalled.
“Don Attaway and another fellow came over to the house to tell me about Jimmy being killed. My daddy told them to come back because I was working. Two other men came back Sunday morning about 7:00 o’clock. I knew why they were there when I saw them,” Cook looked back.
James’ body was brought home and buried with military honors in his hometown in Hardeeville. Pam and her family placed a cenotaph marker in the Brewton Cemetery to honor his service, a meritorious one which resulted in the awarding of many medals including the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
“We didn’t have the support like the families have today, when soldiers die or are even wounded, we had to rely on our intimate friends and your family,” Cook said of the days after she received the news.
As the 48th anniversary of James death in Vietnam approaches, Pam sees the void of not having him has filled some, but not completely.
“They say time heals all wounds. But, I still wonder what would have happened had he not been killed and he returned home to be an attorney, which he always wanted to be once he got out of the service after a 20-year hitch,” Pam pondered.
As her voice crackled just a bit, Pam concluded. “I still miss him.”
@ Gil Gillis, 2014 Cook's family at Moving Wall Ceremony - Far Left Pam Cook, Center, Jimmy Cook